The Common Language of Pop References

Supernatural-supernatural-30545991-1680-1050
Yesterday a friend of mine off-handedly mentioned the phenomenon in which someone will make a pop culture reference and use their audience’s reaction to judge the people who are listening. You got my obscure Firefly reference? You’re awesome and a good human being. You didn’t? Well…you might not be worth my time.
I suspect that we’re all guilty of doing this sometimes, and I know I’ve felt that burst of connection when someone else knows my favorite book, so I couldn’t stop thinking about whether this was pointless judging or whether it might serve some purpose. And then I read this absolutely lovely article about a pair of sisters who found a way to communicate through Supernatural. The show gave them templates and referents through which to talk about their relationship. It seemed that sometimes coming at the problem head on was too scary or direction, but the shared media gave them a common foundation on which to build their emotional understandings of each other.
Suddenly it all came into place: we all do this. When we reference things, we’re using a different language that holds much more content because it assumes the shared experiences of the media we love. Instead of trying to explain a complex, semi-abusive relationship, you can just say “it’s like Spike and Buffy”, and someone will have a full emotional picture of what’s going on.
So when we make references to some pop culture thing we love and someone responds positively, we suddenly have an entirely new shared language of referents and emotions and relationships to draw from. It can be incredibly liberating to find that you don’t have to explain yourself but can use a reference to immediately instill a certain emotion or understanding in your listener. There’s a certain safety in having those shared understandings of the world, in knowing that no matter how differently you perceive the world, you have this touchstone with which to communciate and connect. These kinds of shorthands aren’t simply an easy, quick way of communicating, but they’re also a way to signal that you understand and care about the person you’re interacting with. If I respond positively to a reference, it means I want to engage with the person who has made it. I am interested in understanding what is going on in their brain and I’m willing to search my memory for a reference in order to do so. If the reference comes easily, it means that we don’t have to struggle to understand each other as much as we might have otherwise.
Of course there are in-group elements to references, and of course the references we make and the ways we value references have a great deal to do with the way we assign value as consumers, but somewhere in the practice of making references we find that pop culture names, quotes, and places become symbols for feelings or plot arcs or ideas that are far more complex. Just as Biblical scholars have an entire lexicon of symbols that hold a different kind of meaning than they would to anyone else, so fangirls of Supernatural have a shared lexicon. Carry On My Wayward Son isn’t just a song, it’s an anthem of family, heartache, long journeys, impossible tasks, and endlessly broken hearts. Where you come down on the Spuffy/Bangel split will tell me immediately whether we’ll get along (protip: Bangel sucks). The reason I get excited when I see someone making a reference that I understand is that I suddenly have an entirely new window into this person, a new lens through which to view them, an entire set of experiences that we had together about which I can get their reaction. It’s not quite the same as the trust you gain from firsthand seeing how someone reacts to new situations, but it is a helpful simulation.
Especially for a reference that is uncommon or that few people would recognize, it’s like a special shared moment you get with another person. It’s as if you’ve found another kilt-wearing unicycle enthusiast: you thought you were the only one, but now you can find someone who resonates with those feelings and reactions you had. Now nothing about this implies that making judgments about others based on their pop culture references is a brilliant and ethically sound decision. In all likelihood you’ll be misjudging a fair number of people. But there are useful things about making references, and the better we understand those uses the more effective we can be in our communication.  It’s being able to say that you’re the Marshmallow to my Lilypad and not having to explain any further, and that’s a kind of connection that is kind of beautiful.

Dieting: A Gateway Drug to Eating Disorders

Diet

I probably read too much about eating disorders. Whenever an article related to them pops across my Facebook feed or shows up on Twitter, I click. And there’s a frustrating element of these articles that has begun to grate on me more and more. Every single time someone writes about eating disorders, they have to bring up those “terrifying statistics” about dieting and body dissatisfaction in girls and women. In one article I read last night, the author even went so far as to suggest that “dieting is a gateway drug to eating disorders”.

Now these are of course important concerns. Dieting isn’t a particularly healthy practice most of the time. Women thinking that they should or must be thin is not exactly an ideal state. But where I run into problems is this: a diet is not an eating disorder. Dieting does not lead to developing an eating disorder because an eating disorder is not just an extreme version of a diet or a choice or a lifestyle change. It is a disease. You can’t catch the eating disorders from a diet.

So what is the relationship between diets and eating disorders? Why do people keep throwing into the same sentences as if everyone knows the clear link between them? I can’t help but come from my own perspective and my first thought is that diets and eating disorders belong nowhere near each other. I have never in my life been on a diet. Up until my eating disorder came bearing down full force I had never even imagined restricting my food intake. And when my eating disorder happened, it was never anything like a diet. There may have been a couple of weeks during which I wasn’t aware that I was making destructive choices, but it became quite clear quite quickly.

I get the feeling that I’m not the typical case and that many people experiment with dieting before they fall into a full blown eating disorder. But it is the case that there are many, many people who diet and never develop and eating disorder, and I am evidence that the opposite can be true as well. The deep link that most people seem to assume between the two can be questioned.

And then there’s the evidence. Do we have any evidence that dieting leads to eating disorders, or even that dieting can predict eating disorders? There is evidence that those who diet are about six times more likely to develop eating disorders. We don’t however know whether those who are already predisposed to having an eating disorder are more likely to diet, or whether diets lead to eating disorders. The vast majority of dieters never develop an eating disorder, so there is no certain way to determine whether an increase in dieting will lead to an increase in eating disorders.

“Recent research indicates that 50-80% of the risk of developing AN is genetic (Kaye, 2007).  Patients with AN typically demonstrate high levels of anxiety, harm avoidance, and behavioral inhibition (Shaw et al. 1997) – all traits which are heavily influenced by genetics (Cloninger, 1986, 1987, 1988).  Perfectionism, obsessionality, and cognitive rigidity, which are also highly heritable, have been identified as risk factors for AN (Kaye et al., 2009).  Most patients with AN have exhibited one or more of these traits since early childhood, long before the development of an eating disorder.  These traits tend to be exacerbated during bouts of malnutrition and persist long after recovery, albeit to a lesser degree (Kaye, 2007).” Source

There are chemical changes in the brain when we deprive ourselves of food and for those who have the predisposition for an eating disorder, a diet can be the moment that flips the switch as it were. So while there is a relationship between diets and eating disorders, an increase in dieting does not necessarily imply that there will be an increase in eating disorders (unless there were a whole lot of predisposed people running around who never hit any level of nutrition deprivation or stressful circumstances that would have precipitated the illness). It is possible that an increase in dieting would trigger an illness in those with a smaller predisposition, but that’s all speculation.

So we have evidence that dieting does correlate with eating disorders. We have no evidence that it causes eating disorders. There are however many problems with talking about dieting as if it caused eating disorders (beyond the fact that it’s probably not accurate). Especially when the connection is drawn in a sloppy fashion, it implies that eating disorders are on a spectrum with diets and that one can slip from one into the other with ease. The further implication is that eating disorders are a choice, obscuring the reality of the genetic components of eating disorders, as well as the psychosocial aspects (which tend to be less about diet culture and more about individual stresses in someone’s life).

But perhaps worse is that it gives the picture that everyone who has an eating disorder is a chronic dieter, the kind of person who is always belittling themselves, or obsessed with their looks. This leads to the distinct possibility that people won’t get proper diagnosis, treatment, or support. It continues the love/hate relationship with eating disorders that our culture has in which the anorexic does what everyone else does but just does it better, so if you aren’t a model/fashionista/weight obsessed salad eater, you don’t have an eating disorder. And that’s a problem.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t recognize that diets can predict eating disorders, but it’s not as if that’s not already in common parlance. Let’s spend some time focusing on the things no one thinks of, like a rape, or a bad breakup, or a bad family situation, or any other form of trauma that can easily precipitate a mental illness. Let’s get over the idea that an eating disorder is a part of diet culture, because it’s something else altogether and we know that.

deal with it animated GIF