Top 10 Things I'm Tired of Discussing:
Number 3-- What foods are healthy. (updated*--see comments)
In almost every discussion I participate in about fat liberation, the question of food comes up and more specifically, the question of "healthy or unhealthy" food or "healthy or unhealthy" eating.
Of course, this is because the reigning cultural belief is that fat people eat too much and/or eat too much of the wrong kinds of food. The flip side of this, of course, is that thin people obviously eat "healthy" or they would be fat. Asserting that fat people eat "healthy" and thin people eat "unhealthy" sometimes is an attempt to prove that the stereotypes are wrongheaded. The problem is that by dividing the world up into "good eaters" and "bad eaters" we have simply traded one stereotype and victimization for another.
If foods were clearly in one category or another, this might not be such a problem. But anyone who watches CNN for a month will see that a single kind of food can be moved from the "good" category to the "bad" category and back to the "good category" in record time.
Lewis Black told an audience on his HBO special that the reason that no one knows what is good for us to eat is that each and every one of us is unique in our needs. He said it a lot funnier than I’m saying it now and, of course, he’s a comedian, not an “expert.” But I think his point is a good one. One person's junk is another person's treasure when it comes to food and I'm not sure that is a bad thing.
I’m deathly allergic to seafood. This is something that has developed over the years. I ate seafood when I was younger. Then in my early 20s, I started getting sick from it. By the time I was 30, I was getting deathly ill when I accidentally came in contact with it. About 5 weeks ago I ate in a restaurant where they serve clam sauce and steamed clams and even though I had the meatball and spaghetti special, I ended up with severe hives and severe diarrhea the next morning. My lips swelled up to twice their size and I was covered with a rash from head to toe. I’ve never itched so bad in my life. And this was not the severest reaction I’ve had. No asthma was involved. I’ve had severe asthma attacks from one bite of shrimp in an egg roll that nearly sent me into shock. Its not pretty or fun. I have to be vigilant when I eat out because simply grilling my chicken on the same surface as salmon or shrimp was grilled might cause me to have a severe reaction.
My understanding of why my body does this is that a particular kind of protein can be found in seafood and fish that doesn’t exist in other sources of food. My body regards that protein as poison and my immune systems does everything it can to get rid of the poison when I’m exposed to the protein. My experience, however, would never be construed as a blueprint for anyone not allergic to seafood and, really, for most people who are. I bring it up, however, because it is a great example of how understanding foods can be useful, but turning that knowledge into a catch-all, overarching guide for others is not useful.
Food science is tainted (sorry for the pun) right now by two beliefs – weight is a measure of health and the perfect diet will prevent illness. So much of what passes for nutritional advice is tainted as well. We do know a lot about the chemistry of food. We know how macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) are processed by the body. We know how a lot of micronutrients are used in the body as well. But how these chemical reactions affect health and well-being is a lot muddier. There are just so many other factors.
For example, some sources have reported positive effects that omega-3 oils from fish have on the digestive and muscular-skeleto systems. However, there are now suggestions that environmental pollutants (specifically mercury levels) are leading some to suggest that eating a lot of fish would be bad, especially from certain parts of the world. (Both of these assertions are controversial. Like most things related to food, the assertions that omega-3 oils in fish are good for us and that high levels of mercury are found in fish are high enough to do us harm have been made by the sources that have funded the "research" that makes these assertions--thus, they have been biased from the start.)
Fish might be bad for pregnant mothers and children because of mercury. Fish might be good for people with arthritis because of the benefits afforded joints and nerves from the oils in most fish. Fish is always bad for me because of allergies. Fish is not be available to some people because of costs and their distance from bodies of water. Fish is a staple for some people because of their proximity to bodies of water. Eating fish is a complex phenomenon that has physical, individual, collective, economic, geographic, social and cultural contexts. So even if you accept assertions about omega-3 oils and mercury, uncritically, reducing these all factors down to a statement that “eating fish is good” or “eating fish is bad’ is ridiculous given these complexities. Yet every sound byte we hear in the media wants to do just that.
For the sake of fat liberation, however, I have to question why we are spending a lot of time discussing food at all. If our contention is that fatness is not a result of bad habits, but rather a result of good genes and is simply a natural variation of human bodies, then defending our eating is the last thing we should be doing.
Of course, I think I know why the topic comes up. Most fat people have been or are chronic dieters who have lost touch with their feelings of hunger, fullness, satisfaction and joy that should come from nourishing our bodies. One of the results of fat oppression is that we are taught and we often internalize the belief that our bodies are out of control and need to be reigned in. When we first come to fat acceptance or fat liberation circles, we are often left with a lifetime of habitually questioning our bodies, our health and our habits. What do we do if we are not in control of these things?
Since food is something that we can control (few of us are force fed and most of us have some measure of choice in what we eat) more than most other things, it is a logical place to work on changes. Since food is something "they" say fat people can't control, why not prove to "them" that we are not the stereotype -- we are in control and look, in spite of that control, we are fat.
Of course, there will be many who will say that they are not trying to control their eating when they adhere to specific regimens or avoid specific foods. They do this because they enjoy some foods and they have negative experiences with other foods. They are celebrating the fact that they can enjoy food without it being connected to weight loss goals. They want to be healthy and now they can pursue that health without having to restrict calories or count anything.
It is logical. It is emotionally satisfying. It provides a way to heal from past restrictive caloric intake. We are practicing a "lifestyle" now, not going on a diet. (I will write more about "lifestyle" in a future installment.)
Please understand, my complaint is not that some people care about particular ways of eating as a means to feel better and be more comfortable in their bodies. My complaint is about how they talk about these changes, because their words, no matter what their intentions, have political and cultural implications.
"I enjoy broccoli" says something quite different from "people should eat broccoli."
"Broccoli has calcium and antioxidents" says something quite different from "broccoli is healthy."
Using the terms "good or bad," "healthy or unhealthy," and "nutritious or junk" sets up false dichotomies surrounding foods and creates prescriptive language that suggests we all know what these dichotomies are supposed to be and should be following. Food is always ingested in context. That context cannot be accounted for when we when try to reduce our judgement of the situation down to dichotomous categories. Even a cold beer or an icy coke on a 115 degree Phoenix summer day might be the best thing a particular body can have at a particular moment in time.
By way of a concrete example of someone who talks about food and fat liberation in the same breath and does so without resorting to false dichotomies, I point to the blog Fatshadow. I love Tish's descriptions of meals she prepares. She concentrates on the sensuality of the meal, not the moral implications of it. She likes what she likes and doesn't apologize for it. She calls herself a "food snob," but in truth, she doesn't seem to judge anyone else's choices. She is aware of many of the political issues around food, but that doesn't get in the way of her enjoying a good meal. I like that about her.
Food is something we should enjoy as human beings. It is irrelevant to fat. It is irrelevant to "cures" or "preventions." It is relevant to well-being, but in a myriad of ways including the emotional and social satisfaction of preparing and/or sharing a meal with others.
Using moral language around food also supports the system that feeds fat stigma and the diet industry. One of the things I find most annoying is the lack of recognition on the part of many that the industries that profit off the hatred of fat and the hatred of our bodies cannot be divided neatly into "Big Food" and "Big Diet." The same food producers and distributors, the same restaurants, the same fast food places produce, distribute and serve pretty much all categories of "good" and "bad" foods, including organic and natural food. Many of the companies that produce "diet foods" also produce "food supplements" designed for weight loss. All of these industries are trying to sell us something and therefore we should be leery of any information they provide regarding food, health or nutrition. Yet most of our information about food, health and nutrition comes from these industries.
I am reminded at this point of the Dragnet movie with Dan Acroyd and Tom Hanks where the villain controlled both the moralists and the pagans. The more the two groups were seen as being at war with each other, the more money the villain made. It serves big industry for us to worry so much about what we eat. We eat "bad" food and then feel guilty so we "make up for it" by eating "good" food and that is called "balanced" eating.
I'd like to hear less about food and more about liberation. I'd like to no longer have to justify what I eat to anyone's standards. I'd like to be able to talk about liberation without listening to others justify what they eat according to someone else's standards. I'd like to be able to talk about liberation without listening to others put themselves down because of what they eat. In other words, as a movement, I'd like to move on from the debate over food and whether fat people eat well or not. It divides us into sheep and goats. It reinforces the very messages that contribute to our oppression, including our internalized oppression. It does little to question stereotypes because it moves the stereotype from "fat is bad" to "fat people who eat bad are bad." It creates the same drain on our time and resources as dieting once did.
Eating and drinking holds body and soul together. -- Mennonite proverb