Food is a Feminist Issue – The Feminist Wire

Food is a Feminist Issue

Recently the United States Department of Agriculture announced that new public health campaigns would abandon the food pyramid. The USDA food guide pyramid was originally introduced as a public health initiative in 1992. The “Bread, Cereal, Rice, Pasta Group” formed the base with 6-11 servings recommended daily, while “Fats, Oils, and Sweets” formed the apex. Printed next to the latter category were the instructions “Use Sparingly.” Given the subsequent popularity of low carbohydrate diets from Atkins (circa 1999) to Paleolithic (circa 2011) and some research supporting the healthiness of low-carb eating, the endorsement of pasta rather than avocados seems both obsolete and, nutritionally speaking, a bit misguided.

The USDA food guide pyramid was certainly confusing as a real set of guidelines for healthy eating. Are the prescribed servings the minimum or maximum one should consume in a day? And what makes olive oil and cotton candy nutritionally equivalent? But the food pyramid was also built to protect corporate interests, most notably the dairy industry. It is worth noting that no other substance besides milk gets its own “food group.” It is rather dubious that an entire portion of our diets would be focused on consuming non-human breast milk.

The new initiative detailed on the website ChooseMyPlate.Gov aims to provide U.S. citizens with a comparatively simple framework for making food choices. Rather than ranking food groups, the plate imagery works on the premise that Americans will assemble healthy meals by mimicking the proportions designated suitable by the USDA. The effort reeks of rugged individualism with its emphasis on choices. Perhaps unintentionally, it also evokes images of political paternalism. Replace that trusty period with a comma, and you’ve got: “Choose my plate, Government.” This is, perhaps, just what the USDA has in mind. In response to a steady stream of media accounts suggesting that the “obesity epidemic” portends a public health apocalypse, the U.S. government may be more vested than ever in shaping Americans’ consumption habits. It’s worth noting that first lady Michelle Obama has taken up children’s eating and exercise habits as her priority initiative.

Food is problematic for many women, particularly ones who have spent much of our lives on this diet or that one. It speaks to how pervasive dieting culture is that self-help gurus like Geneen Roth (author of Women, Food, and God) and celebrities like Portia DeRossi (actress and self-identified recovering anorexic) can sell books featuring the same, apparently earth shattering, revelation—Eat whatever you want, and stop when you are full. And yet, the idea that there are no “bad foods” and no “rules” is radical because dieting is the method through which so many of us have navigated our nutritional lives.

In a certain way, USDA guidelines, be they pyramids or plates, reek of anti-feminism. In dieting culture, isn’t any kind of regulation of food decidedly un-feminist? To be sure, encouraging women to eat whatever we want, as much as we want, and whenever we want can be empowering. It has been for me.

I grew up eating a macrobiotic diet in South Louisiana in the 1980s. Macrobiotics was not yet hip. Madonna was still married to Sean Penn not professing the incredible effects of eating kombu. And the diet was culturally inconsistent with Creole culture. Consider the foods of New Orleans—etouffe, muffalettas, beignets, snowballs. Not one of these things is macrobiotic. Neither is birthday cake, which meant that my little brother and I nursed Sesame Street thermoses (filled with water) and fidgeted with apple slices beside kids fervently scooping ice cream out of single serve cups with tiny wooden spoon paddles. Of course, we snuck cake and candy and anything, really, that tasted like salt or sugar or fat. And therein was the problem. From the second I was chewing solids, I was immersed in dieting culture. It is no surprise that my own relationship with food is complicated.

After spending lots of years dieting (which I sometimes obscured behind “training” for my job as a fitness instructor or later as a neophyte marathon runner), I gradually gave up my mental lists of “off limit foods.” I stopped being a vegetarian. I ate grapes, which are not allowed in some low-carb diets. I snacked late at night, and I cleaned my plate if I wanted to. I consumed feminism and through it, I learned to politicize eating. I transitioned from food-phobic to foodaphile. It’s true that my body size has varied over these years, but it’s also true that I’ve never been as miserable as I was when I was my thinnest. It is hard living to be afraid of something we need to survive. But that’s what dieting culture, specifically, and nutrition culture, more generally, does. Our approach to eating becomes infused with the kind of fear inspired by sentiments like “Use Sparingly!!!!!”

It makes sense then that I would reject USDA’s guidelines in whatever graphic representation they come, and I do. The new guidelines still contain a nod to the dairy industry. I love cheese. I put milk in my coffee, but dairy is not an essential nutrient. One serving of spinach contains more calcium than a glass of milk, but notice that we do not have a leafy green food group. (Get on that, Spinach Lobby!). But as critical as I am of the USDA, I am reluctant to reject the underlying premise of food guidelines—that what we eat is inexplicably linked to our health. In a socio-historical moment in which books about food like The Omnivore’s Dilemma are on bestseller’s lists and farmer’s markets are exploding in communities throughout the United States, feminism is startlingly quiet about the question of food.

So what of a feminist food politic? The converse of dieting culture with its emphasis on surveillance and self-denial seems to be pleasure-seeking mayhem, a veritable corporeal holiday filled with all things indulgent. But should this be how feminism responds to the USDA or institutionalized dieting culture writ large? Is there something feminist about retaining some notion of health as a mobilizing goal and utilizing food consumption as a technique for getting there? My sense is that a feminist food politic should be skeptical of guidelines and rules and regulation while simultaneously deciphering an approach to eating… healthily.

This is a controversial claim, and one that should be approached with deep skepticism. Talking about nutrition in a feminist context seems dangerous because devaluing women’s bodies is continually perpetrated under the guise of “health.” For example, feminist body positive activism and fat studies are often critiqued on the grounds that celebrating bodies of all shapes, sizes and abilities “endorses” unhealthiness. The assumption, of course, is that the bodies in question are irrefutably unhealthy.

Nutrition may be a “health science,” but it is also a trope that employs scientific neutrality to disguise body fascism—an ideology that exalts dominant beauty culture as the standard bearer for body size. For example within health care settings, weight and body size are often understood as effects of eating and exercise habits. Period. The assumption is that all 5’4” women would weigh the same if they consumed identical diets and completed indistinguishable exercise plans. Of course, this is not how things work in embodied reality. Metabolic rates vary from person to person and change over a lifetime. And our bodies vary morphologically in terms of muscle composition and bone density.

These facts don’t stop health care providers from extrapolating all sorts of things about health based on body size. I once had a general practitioner suggest that I integrate some exercise into my schedule. Since I declined to be weighed in my intake (as part of my own emotional wellbeing regiment), my medical chart listed no weight. Her suggestion was solely based on looking at my body. Ironically, I had recently completed my first marathon and was training for a second. Fitting exercise into my schedule was not a problem. Finding a doctor who wasn’t a body fascist was.

Sometimes, being labeled unhealthy has more to do with an appearance that diverges from the body size norms rather than the presence of illness or disease. But it is also true that what we chew on can be harmful rather than healthful for our bodies.

Feminism is all about “healthy” living. As we sort through the cultural and legislative battles surrounding reproductive politics, we raise questions about women’s reproductive “health.” When feminist practitioners describe the signs of domestic abuse, they outline what a “healthy” partnership does and does not entail. Health is a vibrant concept within feminism because the effects of interpersonal misogyny and institutionalized sexism make themselves known on women’s bodies. Rape is an embodied experience. So is the poverty that is a result of the devaluation of women’s work.

Food is a feminist issue because our health is a result, in part, of what we eat. Given our overarching concerns about health, feminism cannot shy away from taking up food. All food provides the body with calories. Some food contains nutrients—vitamins, fiber, essential fatty acids. Twinkies do not. We must challenge nutrition claims steeped in body fascism, but we also have to confront the idea that feminist eating resembles a kind of Bacchanalian backlash to diet culture. Such living is reactionary not revolutionary.

So what would a feminist approach to eating look like? Perhaps, it has very little to do with Nutrition Science and much more to do with crafting practices aimed at nourishing women’s bodies. It’s probably in line with some of the guiding principles of the ChooseMyPlate Campaign and fundamentally counter to others. The emphasis on fruits and vegetables seems promising and not just because these foods are nutrient packed. Eating whole foods (not via Whole Foods necessarily) is good for our bodies but it also undermines the ascendancy of industrial food. Whole foods live on the periphery of the grocery store. Nestle and General Mills reign supreme in the aisles. You tell me who gets more shelf space and in store advertising—apples or sugar pops? Eating on the periphery is part of a feminist food politic because it puts our money where our mouth is… literally. It is an economic challenge to global corporate interests who undermine women’s wellbeing. For example, Nestle has long been accused of violating the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes.

On the other hand, the ChooseMyPlate campaign leaves little room for food pleasures. Food delights—chocolate or Cheetos—seem like an important facet of feminist eating insofar as they undermine dieting culture’s insidious binary—“good” food vs. “bad” food. Relinquishing eating protocols that are fear based confronts the dominance of beauty culture and nutrition science. Treats also taste good, and supporting women’s pleasure seeking is certainly a worthwhile feminist goal. I’ve just rediscovered how fantastic Cheetos are—the satisfying crunch and, of course, the fake-o orangey residue that coats your fingertips. I am not sure if they are bio-chemically addictive, but I am well aware that I could eat the entire bag over the course of the hour. I could. But I don’t and not because they’re “bad” for me. I enjoy a handful (or three) as a festive snack. Cheetos feel like kid food, and it’s summer after all. But I want to save room for dinner, a healthy one made with some vegetables my feminist friend is growing and freely distributing on her street to economically disenfranchised women so that her neighborhood can eat well and presumably flourish as a result. Eating her vegetables and other locally produced whole foods is a feminist act. Such foods nourish my body, but more importantly, eating this way supports the wellbeing of women in my community.

In response to Michelle Obama’s efforts at promoting healthy eating, commentators like Rush Limbaugh have slandered the first lady calling her a “hypocrite” after she ordered short ribs while on vacation in Colorado. “News” outlet published photographs of the President eating chili dogs before touring a Chrysler plant in Ohio with the sarcastic caption: “Do as my wife says, not as I do…” The constant back and forth that has played out in response to Michelle Obama’s campaign and the Obama family’s eating habits displays the kind of policing that surrounds eating in this socio-historical moment. In this case, pundits and online blogs place the Obama’s eating under surveillance. Food policing is also facilitated by diets and nutritional guidelines. Women (including feminist ones) monitor other women’s food choices. But the feminist response to this overabundance of regulation (disproportionately aimed at women) is not to reject notions of “healthy eating” altogether. Instead, a feminist food politic takes the adage “we are what we eat” seriously. Yet rather than questioning if the ingredients listed on a product label are “good” for us, feminist eating assesses the social relations subsumed within food. Who grew, produced, and distributed this food? What costs did these processes have for the communities and environments involved? Who economically benefits from the sale of this food, and how does this organization promote or undermine women’s wellbeing? Does this food produce health consequences that facilitate women’s reliance on medical expertise? Nutrition fact labels do not include such information, but this information is no less important than what a serving size entails. A feminist food politic might approach eating not as an individual choice driven by concerns about body shape or personal health but rather as a political strategy for confronting corporate food interests and transforming local communities. It is this kind of eating that facilitates a world that nourishes women.