Credit: Jimmy Dean via Unsplash

Are you really what you eat?

By Meg Russell

Meg Russell explores the way that morality, politics and judgement is mixed together and served up with food choices.

CW: Eating disorders

Relationships with food are really complex. I obsessed over it for years: only ate certain things, didn’t eat, over ate, and hated myself and my body throughout. As I disentangled myself from the reasons I was focusing on food (and because food is an essential part of, well, living, and you can’t just ignore it), I became less interested in its nutritional content and more focused on its place in society. 

I used to designate foods as good or bad, and internalise the morals associated with these, but now I realise that we do this to each other – our consumption habits are intertwined with value judgements. What we consume forms part of our identities; what – and where – we eat and drink has come to define part of who we are. 

“What – and where – we eat and drink has come to define part of who we are.”

Our relationships with different foods are formed through interactions of our upbringing, politics, culture, and market forces, and it fluctuates with time. Yet we attribute moral virtues to others based on their consumption habits. While the tendency to deep-fry everything in sight pervades Glasgow, it seems to be served with irony. In the jokes about it, there’s a simultaneous recognition of the love for golden batter and a distancing from it. It’s the joke of the beige dinner plate that for some isn’t a joke, but an ideal. 

It’s in these small divides that unrecognised moral judgements about class and living standards hide. Why do we deride a struggling family for getting what they can on the table, but playfully laugh at a student diet of beans and pot noodles? Honestly, probably because it makes us feel better about ourselves; a nod to the temporary nature of student life. 

“Why do we deride a struggling family for getting what they can on the table, but playfully laugh at a student diet of beans and pot noodles?”

But food has always been more than just its basic function of sustenance. In our current era of fatphobia and moral panics about obesity, we forget that it used to be a sign of wealth to have access to enough food that gaining weight was even achievable. This is still the case in different places across the world. Today, in a moment of abundance, we revere the self-control required to look a particular way and we forget that norms shift.

It’s also necessary to remember that many food trends and fads today are born from severe inequity across the world, cultural appropriation, and colonisation. Lobster wasn’t always a delicacy, açaí has been linked to child labour, crops of grains that the West suddenly finds an obsession with create fluctuations beyond our supermarket shelves. 

Of course, there’s some resistance to this – the slow food movement, for example, champions local and seasonal produce. Other forms of food movements, such as veganism or “clean eating” also drive the moralising of consumption. Although some of these will have benefits, they often involve a higher financial barrier to involvement, too, while those that vouch for them often do so with a sense of moral superiority. 

“Health” seems to be an increasingly pervasive ideal. Just like with “fitspo” and “clean eating”, we tie a sense of moral superiority to knowing what’s best, what’s “healthiest”. We have normalised the chips and curry sauce after a night out, but not the chippy dinner more than a night or two a week. It’s morphed over time, but the moral hurdles are still there. 

We mark social occasions with special meals out, and maybe we idolise those that seem to have those nights out more often than our student purse strings allow. We critique others on the foods they deem celebratory, on the meals that make it to their Instagram grid. Perhaps we try not to – maybe our histories have forced us to recognise there’s no need to act as arbiter – but on some level, we all do. Sometimes more painfully still, we’re the ones that feel judged, and have unwelcome suggestions or comments made. To exist in a body that lies outside the societal ideal only increases these moralistic adjudications. 

Food is political and our consumption of it is policed by each other. The crescendo of this is disciplining ourselves; of eating disorders and disordered eating habits. In viewing food in binary terms – good and bad, tacky and trendy, healthy and unhealthy – we’re reinforcing divisions that often break along moral and class boundaries. 

“Food is political and our consumption of it is policed by each other.”

We need to find ways of disrupting reductive thinking about food because we literally can’t live without it, and the irony of so many of our relationships with food is that they’re not healthy nor sustainable. Tying someone’s morality to their diet does nothing but sustain division. If we can begin to recognise that food is more than its physical manifestations, that it’s deeply social and contextual, maybe we can at least recognise the danger in defining our own or others morality on their consumption. Food shouldn’t be good or bad, we should be able to enjoy it for enjoyment’s sake.


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