I was twenty-eight the first time I ate a zucchini. Vegetables didn’t figure highly in my menus for most of my life. As a kid they tended to be canned with the occasional salad thrown in for good measure. I ate plenty of fresh fruit, but vegetables? No thanks! Mushy vegetables didn’t have much appeal but they were cheap. Growing up poor often meant cheap food such as white pasta with government cheese. Sometimes we didn’t have food. We tended to live by the feast or famine mentality meaning when the food stamps came we ate well and by the end of the month it was scraps. Over time my relationship with food grew more complicated as I fell under the sway of diet culture. Being mocked for my weight in Junior High began a spiral of dieting and weight loss that lead to a couple of eating disorders. By the time I ate my first zucchini in my new husband’s parent’s house, I felt vulnerable around food.
Eating for health never even occurred to me. I either ate to assuage emotional pain or I ate certain foods to lose weight. But living in Mexico, I discovered that people could eat for health and that this didn’t have to be tied into weight loss or body shame. For the next sixteen years, I began to explore this tie between food and health. Over time it broadened into thinking about food and politics. And eventually it led to where I am today where my food choices come with a wide range of critical engagement but a lot less emotional baggage. So how does one think about food when engaged in a movement towards body positivity? Here’s my take.
1.Eat for pleasure not for therapy.
In Health At Any Size, Linda Bacon writes “Food is a wonderful source of pleasure—but it will get you into trouble if it’s the only source of pleasure you have in your life.” I spent a lot of years eating away a lot of emotions. And even after I started to shift how I saw food, eating away depression, sadness, anger, and joy still came to me like second nature. I ate my way through bags of cheap chocolate instead of cutting or smoking or drinking. Food remained my primary and my favorite addiction. I used to think I enjoyed eating and that’s why I ate so much. But when I lived in Mexico I discovered real eating pleasure. I remember vividly the first time I ate Mexican street food. A tiny middle-aged woman in a colorful dress with a red apron made food outside the local market. Her specialties were these blue corn cakes stuffed with refried beans. She’d fry them in olive oil before sprinkling crumbly white fresco cheese on them then drenching them in spicy green salsa. The first bite was like heaven. Meals in Mexico took at least an hour to eat even though there wasn’t an over load of food. But each dish was savored between conversation.
I started to learn to cook when we returned to the States because nothing beat homemade food. I bought recipe books as well as began to read Dr. Andrew Weil to learn more about eating for health. I began to see how pleasure and health could totally complement each other and it didn’t need to be about weight loss. Eating vegetables well prepared not only provided the sensual pleasure in the act of eating but it made me feel better too. I didn’t suddenly discover a cure to cancer but I did have more energy. I had less swelling in my joints and less frequent colds. In addition, I found pleasure in the act of cooking as well. I’d never liked to cook but as I changed my diet and my reasons for eating, I found a pleasure in making complicated dishes. Food became less about therapy and more about real enjoyment.
More Radical Reads: When I Broke Up With My Diet
2. Food doesn’t have morality.
For years I had a list both mental and physical that listed good and bad foods. The bad foods included things like chocolate or soda but also full fat cheese and rich sauces. Basically if a food had calorie content it was a “bad” food. As I evolved my thinking about food, I changed that list but I still applied the moral attributes to the food itself. Now organic was good and nonorganic was bad. Local was better even if it cost twice as much to buy it. Chocolate was only good if it was dark and purchased from the health food store.
I basically switched different definitions to the same words and with really same the ideas. Essentially I made eating a moral battleground where good fought evil. And every time I failed. Every time I put something not “clean” in my body I beat myself up. I obsessed over what was “good” for me just as much as I’d obsessed over diet food. I switched from thinking about thinness to health, but I still used my body as a punching bag for every failing. The thing was that by giving food morality I made eating an act of right or wrong.
I had to stop thinking about food as having inherent value in and of itself, leading me to point three.
3. Realizing the political implications of food.
One thing I’d forgotten in my quest for “clean’ eating is that access is not the same for all. Food comes at a price and that price is often too high for those living in poverty. Poverty does more than just make healthy foods unattainable, it also creates a culture in which knowing how to cook those foods is not necessarily possible. Growing up the way I did, I didn’t really have the knowledge of nutrition. And even when I did have that, I didn’t know how to cook it. Sometimes I didn’t even have the means to do so. Health food and health culture is a big business and it was pricey enough to keep many people from purchasing it. It’s rapidly becoming a specialized middle class cultural expression which alone prevented a lot of people from accessing it.
I’ve also started to realize how much food choices had to with the environment. I became a vegetarian again after realizing that I could no longer eat animals especially in the face of horrific abuses in factory farming. Coupled with the knowledge that factory farming was contributing to the destruction of our environment, I gave up meat for good. Shopping local meant not so much eating “good” food (although the taste is better) it means supporting local farmers. I live in a town fortunate enough to have two farmer’s markets. One I make a point of supporting more often as the food comes from a community garden grown in a poorer area of town. Becoming part of a local food movement has meant contributing to my community as well as my body.
Labeling food as a political act transcends the kind of morality that gives food simple values based on rather arbitrary things like calories or if it was purchased in a fancy health food store. We can’t pretend in a global world where our environment is being destroyed that our choices of how to eat don’t matter. They do. But because I am in a movement that emphasizes radical self love, I have to be aware of the way food choices exclude some bodies while including other. Understanding that my eating habits are privileged in many ways is just as important as understanding how I’m privileged while driving a car as white. It’s made me conscious that the movement to change how we eat has to be separated from turning such things into a business and more into a community movement that opens up new food possibilities for all.
More Radical Reads: We Are What We Eat: Food Justice As An Act of Radical Self Love
4. Avoid being sanctimonious.
No one likes a self–righteous eater. It’s intolerable whether it be about dieting or about eating healthier. Changing my diet at this stage of my life is my choice. I made it so that I could feel better politically as well as physically, but it was a choice I made for my life. When I engage in fights to bring local food to the community I don’t do it as a way to push my diet on everyone around me. I do it as a way to provide access. Access doesn’t mean dictating what everyone else around me eats . It’s all too easy to go from suggesting nutritional changes to body shaming. And that’s not something I’m willing to engage with any longer. I don’t intend to shame my body or anyone else’s. I am not perfect. I made what many would consider horrendous food choices all the time. During this past Easter season, I ate a Cadbury egg every day. And you know what? It was damn good.
Interested in learning new ways to cultivate self love and body positivity? Join us for our next workshop 10 Tools to Radical Self Love or our online course.
(Feature Image: A photograph of a brown dish with Vietnamese spring rolls and a white bowl of sauce on it. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/58847482@N03/5480868682/in/photolist-9mjTiU-fekDT6-5zEjpq-kFfPZ8-7bzvZj-oCf7Ap-9bQASG-avBAUj-6Pbb53-ayHiqa-e3nPiq-dc5W8r-cYLvtf-6kpFmB-6GJ8cf-6Sqb2Z-9bGKrg-e6yLix-FTZUh-7ugfXm-3QLna-7FB5br-jKnhtk-7bzvVE-7jr7v2-ra7nfa-cqDCWU-e5XCCk-m4rSQT-o7giTc-m4rT8r-auo3je-auqtxW-9bQxsL-jKpcKS-nEpiZL-quB5ar-cH8vdG-qhDBCo-m4rjJv-shmqG2-bMMPi6-q1i3sg-GttCF1-aE9SBx-nX1Fb1-dJqU9o-m4sExf-6Z4mw5-7zH9U5)