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If all food choices are valid, that means ‘all’ food choices

FoodchoicesWe need to stop judging and pathologizing people who may be making food choices we don’t understand. Body autonomy means every body is autonomous, writes blogger and fat acceptance activist Marianne Kirby.

15 May 2011

One of the difficult things, for a lot of people, when it comes to the concept of body autonomy is the idea that we have no more right to comment on other people’s food choices than they have to comment on our food choices. Just as we get to make our own decisions and nourish ourselves in the manner we prefer (and can afford and can access and so on), they get to do the same.

I’ve been troubled lately by a problematic backlash against people who follow certain food lifestyles. I’m extra troubled when “you have to be crazy to eat that way” gets trotted out – because as much as I use “crazy” to identify myself, the ways in which my crazy impacts my food choices are actually a pretty big deal and that kind of negative judgement isn’t doing anything but undermining my coping mechanisms.

I will often, especially if left to my own devices, eat the exact same meal over and over and over again. The routine removes the need for me to make any kind of food choice. Removing that choice removes a huge load of anxiety and pressure, which lets me focus on other things instead of a meal becoming this terrible event that’s going to take up three hours of my mental time.

I have a lot of problems with breakfast; I’ve been really bad about eating it this year because I can’t find a satisfactory routine. Last year, I ate a chicken biscuit. Every single morning. For a year. The only reason I stopped is because I’m trying to stop spending money eating out. My solution has been to just not eat, and that’s no kind of solution.

Not having to make food choices contributes to my sense of stability. But people have judged and do judge me: they judge me for my inability to make food choices on the fly and for my short fuse when it comes to food frustration. Not eating is often far simpler than pushing through the wall of irrational rage that I often run headlong into when trying to adjust if something goes off plan. People think I just don’t care enough to take care of myself.

And, let me tell you, it isn’t like that makes actually taking care of myself any easier.

It’s not okay for other people to judge my food choices – not simply because I’m fat or because I have a mental illness, but because it’s none of their damn business and they lack sufficient data to draw any sort of meaningful (much less correct) conclusion. Similarly, no matter what the lifestyle of a random person, I don’t get to judge their food choices; I don’t know them and I’m not going to run around coming to half-baked conclusions.

The important thing to remember about this is that it really doesn’t matter what the food choice in question is. No one gets to judge the fat person at the grocery store with TV dinners and Cheetoes in the buggy and no one gets to judge the very thin person at the grocery store with organic veg and nothing else. You don’t know that person’s story. Period.

Even when we know people, we don’t know everything going on with them. Most of the people who give me a hard time about my food habits are friends I’ve had for years and years. But I have, in the past, lacked words to talk about it, and they lack perspective enough to understand it unprompted. They know me – but they don’t know what the hell is going on in my head or my body.

There are, of course, situations in which someone has an eating disorder and that is driving their eating habits. Let me tell you, judging them in the “privacy” of your own social circle (be it online or in person) does absolutely nothing to help that person. In fact, it might actively harm them. Genuine concern is not demonstrated by calling people crazy and disapproving of their choices as if shame works.

Shame doesn’t work as a motivator.

And, frankly, neither does amateur diagnosis. Stop pathologizing people who may be making choices you don’t understand. A vegan who trains for marathons may indeed be orthorexic. But that person may also just be a vegan who really enjoys the marathon lifestyle. You don’t know. You can’t know. And when you judge them, you are no better than someone in the grocery store judging the contents of a fat person’s shopping cart.

This is particularly troubling when people apply it to religious food restrictions. I didn’t drink caffeine or alcohol for most of my life because of religious guidelines. I don’t pretend to understand what motivates other people to commit to religious dietary guidelines but it’s incredibly disrespectful of that person’s agency as well as patronizing as all hell to make weight-related assumptions based solely on observation.

Body autonomy means every body is autonomous. I make my own choices; other people make their own choices. I don’t want to be judged for my choices, so I don’t judge other people for theirs. It’s not a difficult idea; it’s got a lot of balance to it. But I think it’s easy to get caught up in a feeling of enlightened superiority when we practice HAES and/or Intuitive Eating.

There are no good foods and bad foods – and that means rice cakes are just as valid a food choice as potato chips, apple slices are just as valid a food choice as apple dumplings, and so on. People who eat “healthful” food to the exclusion of all other kinds of food have a right to make those choices without people heaping scorn on their heads, no matter what their body type.

If what we, as a fat acceptance community, really want to say is that all food choices are valid, we have to back that up with our own words and choices.

Marianne Kirby blogs on body politics and fat acceptance at The Rotund where this article first appeared. Her book Screw Inner Beauty (co-written with Kate Harding) is available in store and online now.


0 #1 smoo 2011-05-29 08:10
There are no invalid food choices? Cultural relativism applied to diet?

Okay, fair enough, but what about the fact that people with unhealthy diets are far more likely to end up costing the health system big bucks? Heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer, have all been linked to a diet high in saturated fat and refined sugar. Is there a moral responsibility to eat healthily?

I would prefer to argue the fact that there are no food choices, or at least, very few. That is, the notion of 'freedom of choice' needs to be questioned

How much choice do people actually have over their diets? Most people eat the way they were brought up to eat. I was lucky and was brought up with a healthy diet, so I mostly eat healthy food. I'm extremely busy and tired yet it still seems do-able to me to eat these kinds of foods, because the habits of cooking them are ingrained in my routine. Other people I know were not brought up on healthy food and eat mostly frozen food and fast food. Then you have to think about what kinds of foods are widely available in society and how easy it is to get alternatives (think refined wheat flour, meat, vegetables in supermarket cold storage - and its not easy to get alternatives - health food and organic shops are scarce and expensive, markets ditto). So how much 'personal choice' do we have about our diet?

Maybe that will help with your feelings of guilt next time you hoe into a plate of mac cheese. I know it helps with mine!

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