I got an e-mail from a reader asking me “I have a really hard time eating in public because I feel that I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes about fat people and eating but I also don’t want to choose foods that make me feel, or give others the impression that I’m on a diet. What are your thoughts?”
I think it’s an absolute shame that our culture around food is based on fear, shame, and attempting to assign moral value to food (sinful dessert, guilt free chips etc.). The weight loss culture has also given rise to the belief that we cannot trust our bodies in making food decisions. I’m told to believe that Jenny Craig knows better than me how much food I need and what type.
These things can combine to make choosing foods for ourselves incredibly stressful but when you add a public element it can send you right over the edge. In addition to all of the pressures of choosing foods for ourselves, public eating introduces other people and their issues. It can be super stressful to eat with someone who is constantly talking about “being good,” or their diet restrictions, or who has to comment about how every plate that arrives is “SO MUCH FOOD!” or that nobody could possibly finish it, or how nobody could want dessert after all that food, especially if you cleaned your plate and are eyeing that cherry cobbler. It can start to feel like your dining companion is in charge of food morality and that you have to go to cherry cobbler confession.
I don’t know about you but that can be really frustrating for me to deal with. It helps me to remember that I don’t know why they are behaving this way. There are certainly always people who try to make themselves feel good by being The Best Healthy Eater Ever (TM) or believing that it’s their job to be your food conscience and that behavior is some bullshit. But we don’t know if that’s where this comes from and I think it’s worth it to remember that these people are also the product of a culture that is seriously, seriously messed up around food. To me this is one of those boundary setting situations. So I might say something like “I’m really dedicated to eating in a way that opts out of diet culture and food shame. There are so many things for us to talk about, would you mind if we didn’t talk about food or food choices when we have lunch?” Or you could use it as a springboard to start a discussion about the ways that our culture screws us up around food. Or you could choose to just model eating without talking about your food choices. Or you could just ignore it.
There’s also the issue of food becoming almost a political statement or revolutionary act for fat people. Do I choose the salad so that my food choices aren’t judged? Or because I want to show something outside the stereotype? Do I choose the bacon cheese fries with ranch as an act of rebellion? I personally try not to choose foods either to avoid judgment or to rebel – rather I try to eat the thing that I want, taking into what is available, how it will taste, how my body will probably feel after I eat it, and what I’m doing for the rest of the day (do I have to fuel my body through a six hour dance rehearsal or am I going to sit and write for the rest of the day). That’s most of the time but sometimes I choose food because it looks delicious or it’s a rare opportunity or it just sounds amazing or because I kind of can’t turn down candy corn. And I’m ok with that and that makes it ok because this is my body and these are my food choices. But that’s just me and my choices – you get to choose for yourself.
The bottom line is that you get to choose whatever food you want in whatever amount you want for whatever reason you want every time you eat. Your food choices are for you alone and there is no morality to them – there is no choice that is inherently more or less virtuous and you don’t owe anybody anything when it comes to your food choices. And you are allowed to make different choices from meal to meal or day to day and it’s absolutely positively without a doubt never anybody else’s business. [Edit for clarification: One of the choices that you can absolutely make is to choose to moralize food for yourself, but please be clear that your food morality does not apply to anyone else. From my perspective there is no inherent morality in food or food choices. Thanks to the commenters who pointed out that this wasn't clear in the original post.]
I think that, rather than trying to make a citizen’s arrest as a self-appointed member of the food police, people might consider focusing their energy on making sure that everyone has access to the foods that they would choose to eat and that everyone has access to good information about food so that they can do whatever research they choose and then make whatever choices suit them.
If you want support when it comes to specific food and eating choices you are out of my realm of expertise but I have been really impressed by Golda at Body Love Wellness and Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist.
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I do size acceptance activism full time. A lot what I do, like answering over 5,000 e-mails from readers each month, giving talks to groups who can’t afford to pay, and running projects like the Georgia Billboard Campaign etc. is unpaid, so I created a membership program so that people who read the blog and feel they get value out of it and/or want to support the work I do can become members for ten bucks a month To make that even cooler, I’ve now added a component called “DancesWithFat Deals” which are special deals to my members from size positive merchants. Once you are a member I send out an e-mail once a month with the various deals and how to redeem them – your contact info always stays completely private.
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