Not too long ago, I got lunch with a friend in her favorite vegan restaurant. “I’m sick of feeling like my identity depends on what I eat,” she told me, picking at her broccoli.
I laughed out loud. Kind of snorted, actually, in a pretty rude way – she goes to Oberlin, and this felt like the most Oberlin comment of all time. But after apologizing and hearing her out, I realized I totally understood – and agreed with – her sentiment. Far, far too often, people define themselves by what they eat, whether its adhering to the rules of a strict diet, sticking to a cultural identity, or feeling guilty for enjoying your favorite foods.
My friend isn’t technicall a vegan, and she sometimes kicks herself for it. Though she’s pretty damn close, a vegetarian who eats a bit of dairy. Once in a while, she’ll even enjoy some fish, though it always hits her with a healthy swell of guilt. She feels restricted by the constructs of being vegetarian, as if she owes it to herself and to the world to fit under an easy label.
It’s easy to feel guilty about what you do and don’t eat; it’s absurd how much of our food culture is built on guilt. We’re bombarded at all times, on all sides, by cultural stimuli that make us feel guilty and glorious about our bodies.
Eating disorders are rampant in America. Magazine covers with anorexic models, cooking shows about eating challenges, even our macho heroes and athletes tell us to love kale and let ourselves occasionally cheat with chocolate. Everywhere we turn, there’s another reminder of what we should or shouldn’t be eating. Fucking Trader Joe’s has a full line of reduced guilt products.
I’m the farthest thing from vegan (though I’m trying, slowly, to eat less meat) but I totally struggle with what I “should” eat. I think most of us do. Vegans feel guilty about taking a sip of some milk, vegetarians for a ham sandwich, paleo hardos for a bite of bread, far too many of us for a piece of pie or some ice cream.
At the end of senior week (and senior season, really) in May, I felt about as physically terrible as I ever have. Weeks of booze and bread and bacon had caught up to me – it felt like there was sludge running through my veins. I had a hard time thinking through my hangovers. I felt bloated and slow and I couldn’t sleep or go to the bathroom to save my life.
So when I graduated, I made it a priority to start taking better care of myself. I started running every day and sleeping more and drastically cleaning up my diet – fewer carbs, timing my meals better, drinking less – that sort of thing. And it worked – slowly but surely, I felt better and better, more clear-headed and lighter on my feet.
Any achievement changes our personal standards; every day I felt better, I also felt more proud of (and addicted to) my healthier lifestyle. This was excellent, until I found myself face-to-face with a chocolate chip cookie. Then, all of a sudden, I became either incapable of letting loose and enjoying myself or incapable of following my own rules. Exercise is similar – I’m proud of my routine but it brings up the same dichotomy. Either I’m the type of person that resorts to less healthy habits or the type of person who lets their routine dominate their life.
This is obviously not the case; we are more than one thing, more than a checklist of whether we exercise or eat right or speak kindly or work hard in any given day. This, of course, is the entire point. But it’s easier to say this aloud than it is to internalize it. Especially when it comes to food, people place far too many rules on themselves.
I’m facing new challenges now, too –if I’m gonna be eating some garbage for this blog (and believe me, I will), how do I do so in a balanced, mindful way? How do I review a donut shop without sampling everything behind the counter? How do I balance going out of my way to eat unhealthy for the blog with eating unhealthy for myself?
All of this feels absurdly at odds with millennial culture, too – our generation has a self-deprecating sense of pride for shameless, creature-like behavior. It’s cool to stay in bed all day and take ugly snapchats and watch Stranger Things in one sitting, as long as you make fun of yourself. Our generation is obsessed with Instagram, and photos of decadently unhealthy meals. But how much self-shaming and self-punishment goes on offline for every public photo of a big gooey pizza or a giant shake?
It strikes me that there are faults we tolerate in ourselves and faults we don’t. I consider myself a writer, first and foremost, but if weeks or months go by without my finishing a piece of writing, I find it easy to shrug off. So why does it feel like such a big deal when I eat a waffle or a plate of cookies?
I think it’s a cultural problem. I went to a talk, once, by a famous behavioral psychologist (I’m a huge nerd). He asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d texted while driving in the last six months; mostly everyone raised a hand, looked around, and laughed. Then he asked the audience to do the same if they’d gone to the bathroom without washing their hands. Not a single hand shot up.
“That’s bullshit,” he said. There are behaviors we tolerate as a society and behaviors that we don’t; texting and driving is infinitely more dangerous than not washing your hands from time to time, but also infinitely more acceptable. We can change these behaviors, he argues, by becoming, say, more accepting when someone doesn’t wash their hands. Because if you’re in a hurry and you don’t wash up, you might be a bit gross, but you aren’t the scum of the earth, and if you are, that’s not all you are.
I’ll go out on a limb and publicly admit that I’ve probably, on occasion, not washed my hands in the bathroom.
I’ll also go out on a limb and publicly say that sometimes when I eat something “unhealthy”, I feel guilty or unhealthy or insecure about my body. I feel a pressure to look a certain way and feel a certain way. I think we all do, and I think it’s bullshit, and I think we can stop it, but I’m not sure how.
It’s wrong for me to sit here and pretend I have an answer, a prescription for mindful eating, a way to fix cultural and personal attitudes towards food that have been building and building for decades.
I just wanted to share where I’m at, because I think defining our problematic attitudes towards food and the ways that I’m an emblem of that attitude is the first step in fixing it.
We are all so much more than one thing; we aren’t vegans or animal killers or unhealthy eaters; we’re full-fledged people with full-fledged lives that change, for the better and for the worse, every single day.
Our lives aren’t checklists; they are marathons. And there’s room along the route for an indulgent detour or two, a lazy day or a vacation or maybe just a dank slice of pizza.
When it comes to all the faults and imperfections that I can and can’t tolerate, I’m trying to remember that, and I think we all should, too.