A Critique of Health Consciousness

Photo Luck Jones, Flickr @befuddledsenses

Due to post-anorexia side effects and some sort of not-yet-diagnosed genetic inflammatory condition, I think about food choices all the time—at least as often as I did when I was under the influence of what we call “anorexia.” In terms of names, I generally prefer the simpler, more accurate term: “ascetic disorder.”

Now that I no longer have an ascetic disorder, or now that I merely have a regular, run-of-the-mill “over-controlled personality,” I find myself asking different questions as I survey my food options; my questions are practical now, no longer ideological or goal-driven. I tend to think things like, “Will this cause me pain? How much pain? Will it cause me so much pain that I have to cancel my plans today?” I usually don’t know the answers to those questions. There is, quite unfortunately, no clear pattern, but there are a few safe foods, and significantly, all of them are deemed poor choices by every expert, blog post, and diet plan.

I was going to say that I am less concerned now with whether the foods I eat are good and pure and acceptable to others than I was before, but that’s not true. It is a strange and admittedly difficult transition: going from being a model of virtue—or maybe a parody of our culture’s obsession with conflating eating with virtue—to the person who will only eat white bread, white rice, meat, potatoes, and various treats.

I have a hard time eating in community, in part because I worry there won’t be easy-to-digest foods but mostly because I am afraid of being judged—and perhaps a little afraid of how I will react to that judgment. I understand my anorexia as a rite of passage, and as such, it should be impossible to go back; I am a new creation. Still, I think I will always be afraid of relapsing.

Part of recovery from anorexia is deconstructing the message that certain foods and eating habits are more virtuous than others, and I have been laboring internally to come to terms with the idea that it’s okay if the foods I eat are impure, unclean, not healthy. But it is nearly impossible to do this successfully in community—especially, I have found, in thoughtful, spiritual communities.

I have a hard time eating in community, in part because I worry there won’t be easy-to-digest foods but mostly because I am afraid of being judged.

Dhere is a weekly common meal at my seminary which I rarely attend for fear that there won’t be safe options, fear of judgment, and fear of self-judgment. They do a great job of practicing inclusion by providing vegan and gluten-free options, but you can’t really expect anyone to offer a dairy-free, fiber-free, high-caloric option, and I have learned that neither can you really expect people not to stare as you fill your plate with the plainest, least nutritious choices available. To be clear, I do not have any bad experiences to speak of within my seminary community; I have yet to really risk this particular kind of vulnerability with them.

From an outsider’s perspective, my choices probably seem thoughtless, instinctual, or uneducated. I assume this because of the sheer number of times people have reminded me of the rules—as if I didn’t already know them, as if I hadn’t been indoctrinated with them my whole life.

I remember meeting with a thoughtful Friend at a coffee shop, and mid-conversation, she critiqued my beverage choice. I am certain that she didn’t mean any harm by it, but it was harmful. She knew vaguely of my health issues—mostly just that I had them—and she effectively blamed those issues on my choices, like the beverage before me, a bottle of watermelon-flavored lemonade. How could I expect to feel good when I had chosen to consume something so clearly unhealthy, she wondered aloud.

I could have explained, I suppose. I could have told her that I didn’t even like lemonade, that I had woken up feeling so awful inside that I couldn’t eat anything, that I was weak and shaky as a result, and that I had intentionally chosen “empty calories” instead of coffee because I knew that was the only way I would survive our meeting.

I didn’t say any of that to her first and foremost because I shouldn’t have to, but I also knew that explaining would have resulted in some level of tension. People love to inform me that eating more greens will cure all of my problems—along with cutting out sugar and processed carbs and maybe meat and also trying acupuncture. Again, I suppose I could explain to each person individually that anytime I eat a salad, for example, I am inflamed for days—literally, days. But should I have to?

People love to inform me that eating more greens will cure all of my problems—along with cutting out sugar and processed carbs and maybe meat and also trying acupuncture.

Ultimately, I am writing about invisible disabilities and the ways that the necessary discourses surrounding the politics of food harm people who cannot adhere to those values for any number of reasons, whether or not they hold those values in their hearts. I am not suggesting that ethics and food never coincide, that they have nothing to do with each other, but I am suggesting that morality and food choices should have nothing to do with each other. Or, food choices should never reflect individual virtue.

When we eat together, it is important that we remember the possible ill effects of worrying too much and talking too much about our food choices. Several researchers have noted a connection between eating disorders and what Simona Giordano calls “ordinary morality.” Giordano notes also that there is a “moral logic” to anorexia, and suggests that both the existence and the increasing prevalence of eating disorders “force us to accept that ‘morality,’ ‘rightness,’ and ‘goodness’—if taken seriously—may cause great psychological harm.”

What we should talk about when we talk about food choices are the larger, systemic issues at play. I don’t think it is our concern what individuals are eating. I have heard numerous people—Quakers, quite often—complain that the underprivileged people they’re trying to help just don’t want to cook and eat fresh fruits and vegetables. I suspect that if they truly stopped to consider the others’ context, they would see that it’s not only a matter of learning how to cook or acquiring fresh foods. Where would they find the time—much less the energy—when they are being crushed in body and spirit by capitalism?

Most of our food ideals are, for most people, impossible to live up to within our current system. I am not suggesting we shouldn’t try, especially if that is what we feel led to do, but we also need to make space for others to not be where we are: to not be as privileged as we are, whether that privilege is socioeconomic or more along the lines of what I like to refer to as “digestion privilege.”

As we work to line up the whole of our lives with our values, as we pursue integrity and simplicity and care for the earth, I ask that we consider rethinking and rearticulating our focus on individual food choices.

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