Monday, February 25, 2013

Food Tattoos

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This is going to be a fairly short post since I already made a fairly lengthy post earlier today, but I wanted to quickly touch on a topic that I've been interested in for a few years now, and I can't decide if it's a completely bizarre hipster trend, or if it's a form of food activism: food tattoos.

You know what I'm talking about. A cartoonish image of a slice of pie tattooed on somebody's thigh. A full sleeve of brightly-colored fruits and vegetables and grains that seem reminiscent of a still-life painting. If you're interested, check up some examples of what I'm talking about (like those pictured on this Flickr account) and tell me what you think. And even better, if you have a food tattoo, tell me what it means to you!

A Response to "The Sexual Politics of Meat"

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The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams describes the ways in which the consumption of animal products is inextricably entangled with, and possibly even the cause of, patriarchal power structures (such as misogyny, militarism, violence, et cetera) and how feminism, consequently, should be recognized as being inextricably linked to veganism. A big part of her argument also involves the ways in which euphemistic language used to refer to the flesh of animals and other animal products that we consume (such as “meat,” “veal,” or “poultry,” as opposed to “flesh,” “anemic calf,” and “hen,” for example) as a way of creating an maintain an “absent referent” and distancing ourselves from the reality of what is being eaten. The latter argument is one with which I am familiar and agree. But the former argument, and the way in which it connects with the latter argument (in that the euphemistic language used effectively helps to disguise the anti-feminist nature of animal product consumption) challenges my self-identification: I consider myself a feminist, but currently my diet is neither vegan nor vegetarian. Does this mean that I’m glorifying violence and have internalized misogyny? That’s certainly not what my diet means to me.

I think about vegetarianism, veganism, and other types of self-imposed dietary restrictions (and especially the reasons that people have for employing them) quite a bit, often specifically in terms of the connections that can exist between these types of restrictions and disordered eating, and the ways in which ideas regarding disordered eating are almost always linked with ideas about gender. I say this with the understanding that voluntarily restricting one’s diet does not necessarily constitute an eating disorder, and that the very terms “eating disorder” and “disordered eating,” and the concepts they represent are culturally and temporally situated, not absolute. But while acknowledging the complexity and relativity of these terms and how they are understood, my research and observations do suggest that mental illnesses involving unhealthy relationships with and feelings about food and eating practices are very real, and that they can have devastating mental, emotional, and physical impacts on an individual. Because of this, I am convinced of the reality of eating disorders and (for lack of a better term) refer to them as such, while at the same time noting the imperfect nature of the terms and the problematic assumptions that are sometimes applied to them. And I also cannot help but notice that the overwhelming majority of people I know who have suffered from eating disorders (and I know quite a few) and are now in recovery have switched to vegan or vegetarian diets. Why is this so?
It was with these thoughts that I read The Sexual Politics of Meat, and it is perhaps for this reason that I couldn’t help but notice some overlaps between descriptions of veganism and descriptions of anorexia nervosa. For example, Adams describes loving the feeling of “a certain undefinable lightness” associated with veganism (p. 196), the way in which “food becomes the spoken language of dissent” through a vegan or vegetarian diet (p. 213), how a vegan or vegetarian diet can “release women not only from domestic oppression but also from the tyranny of the medical profession” (p. 207) and how adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet can function as “a form of female networking” (p. 207). These are all ideas that are also used to describe eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa. Interestingly, Adams also specifically refers to and quotes Caroline Bynum (who wrote Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, mentioned on p. 213) and Joan Jacobs Brumberg (mentioned on pp. 210-211, who wrote Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, Girl Culture, and The Body Project), scholars who study and write about eating disorders, women’s control of their bodies, and body image. But, perhaps in the interest of not conflating eating disorders with veganism, Adams never refers to eating disorders directly.

However, she does pose this question: “Could someone who has a psychological problem with food also have a legitimate objection to meat?” (p. 212). I want to say that the answer is yes, but I can’t figure out a good way of telling when someone’s objection to meat is “legitimate” or not, or even what that really means. And these questions, I think, are important for me to keep in mind in my research on eating disorders and in my study of nutrition. Even if I never get to any clear answers, keeping in mind the questions and thinking about why they are important is a good way of paying attention to a lot of the problematic issues wrapped up in the terms “eating disorder” and “disordered eating.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


It is so perfect that I watched Vegucated right around the same time that I started reading The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams! I won’t be covering why in this post, but when I do, it may be helpful to keep Vegucated in mind. Just so you know. (Cliffhanger!)

photo source:'s
online press kit
Anyway, a brief summary of Vegucated: the documentary was written, directed, narrated hosted/tour-guided by Marisa Miller Wolfson, who begins the documentary by describing how, after doing some research about the food industry and particularly the animal-based food industry, decided to “go vegan” and was pleased to find that she became healthier, lost weight, and felt good because she felt she was no longer contributing to the inhumane treatment and slaughter of animals. Because of the positive impact this had on her life, and because of her awareness of how many unthinkable/detestable/impossible/joyless many people think a vegan diet is, she decided to conduct a social experiment in which three meat-eating New Yorkers would go cold turkey (ha!) on all animal products in favor of a completely vegan diet to see if they like it.

Wolfson posted an ad on Craigslist to recruit volunteers for this experiment, and ended up choosing three participants: Tesla, a college student in her twenties who loves the traditional Peruvian, mostly meat-based meals her father cooks and was drawn to this project mostly for the challenge; Brian, a meat enthusiast who seems skeptical of veganism and vegans, and whose motivation for participating in this project is never really made clear; and Ellen, a psychiatrist, stand-up comedian, and single mom of two who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend on cooking but is interested in improving her health and that of her children. Under Wolfson’s guidance, Tesla, Brian, and Ellen (sometimes accompanied by her children) learn about animal exploitation by the animal-based food industry, the health benefits of a vegan diet, and how to buy and prepare vegan food. At the end of the documentary, it is revealed that after the six-week challenge, all of the participants made dramatic changes to their diets: Tesla adopted a vegetarian diet, Brian adopted a vegetarian/mostly vegan diet, and Ellen adopted a completely vegan diet. Even Ellen’s young daughter decided to adopt a vegetarian/mostly vegan diet.

There were a lot of different aspects of veganism and food practices in general covered in this documentary, an a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes things about the documentary itself (like that it’s release and some aspects of its production was funded through Kickstarter, for example). But I think one of the most interesting issues covered in Vegucated was that of the social discomfort of trying to maintain a vegan diet when the people around you (whether they’re the people you live with or the people you just sometimes socialize with or the new people you meet) are not. And then this gets even more complicated when the not-vegan food the people around you are eating embodies a culture or tradition or emotional significance with which you want to be connected, like a family recipe, or a meal prepared for you by someone you love and who loves you. It’s one thing to switch out cow’s mild for soy milk in your refrigerator, but it’s a totally different thing to go out to a restaurant with friends and discover that there’s nothing on the menu you can order, or to tell your grandma that you’ll never be eating her homemade lasagna again.

I think that this had a large impact on the extent to which each of the participants vegan-ified their diets. Tesla lived at home with her parents and sharing a meal with her family every night was an important part of their relationships with one another. And the food being cooked wasn’t just about taste or nutrition, but about maintaining a connection with her dad’s Peruvian heritage. Brian lived alone, on the opposite side of the country from his family. For him, there were definitely certain foods that he enjoyed at least partially because they represented the familiar or family tradition, or were part of certain social situations, but there seemed to be less social pressure or emotional significance connected with food in his life. And in the case of Ellen, although she did live with a family for whom mealtimes were important, she's the sole parent of the household, not a co-parent or a child. Therefore, she is the most influential in the family when it comes to determining what foods are purchased, what meals are prepared, how social/familial/emotional values surrounding those meals are constructed, etc. And because Ellen was the one in her family who was steering the family’s diets, her children (especially her daughter) ended up adopting and valuing this diet as well. And, not surprisingly, Ellen made the greatest dietary shift (from meat-eating to total veganism) of the participants, Tesla made the smallest dietary shift (from meat-eating to vegetarianism), and Brian was somewhere in between (from meat-eating to vegetarianism/mostly veganism).  The extent of their shifts seems to be inversely correlated to the extent that meat-containing food was significant in their social/cultural/emotional/familial lives. These factors were more important (and more difficult to overcome or control) than concerns about health, animal welfare, environmental concerns—pretty much everything. So does that mean that the food choices people make have a lot less to do with what people think or even sometimes what they want and more with how certain foods and eating practices make them feel, and make other people feel about them?

Monday, February 11, 2013

"Food Fight: Revolution Never Tasted So Good"

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I sat down to watch Food Fight, a 2008 documentary directed by Christopher Taylor, with some suspicions — after watching Farmageddon last week, I was ready to be extra attuned to and critical of the type of sensationalism and conspiracy theorizing that before had taken me by surprise. But I didn’t end up finding those things in Food Fight.

Instead what I found was a very thoughtful, detailed, critical analysis of the industrial food system in the U.S., a strong argument for why eating non-industrial, local food is important, an acknowledgement of the aura of elitism that many people feel surrounds the local food movement, and a concerted effort to figure out how that problem can be fixed. I also really appreciated the way in which the historical context of the discussion was given: the origins of the current industrial food situation in efforts to feed soldiers during World War II better food than would have otherwise been available to them, the changing economic and social structures that followed the war, federal food policy changes made by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in the 1970s, etc.

Something that also appealed to me about this documentary was the way in which the argument being made for eating local, organic, non-industrial food was presented not in terms of morality, but in terms of logic and tangible values, like the fact that local, fresh food tastes significantly better than industrial food (something that anyone who has tasted a home-grown tomato and compared it to a tomato from the grocery store knows for a fact) and that there was a time in American history when quantity and convenience seemed to make sense over quality. But since things have changed and we know better now, and eating better quality food is a matter of preventative healthcare that makes sense for the U.S. economically, the current industrial food system just isn’t going to cut it anymore.  

Those arguments make a lot more sense to me than arguments based on the moral value of “going back to the land” or making social connections with the person who harvested the things with which I fill my refrigerator. And this is not to say that those things can’t be useful or important, because I think that they can be, and I can understand their appeal. But they’re probably not going to change the way I eat. I don’t like having other people’s moral values pushed on me, and I don’t think it’s really feasible for me to buy my food exclusively from small sustainable farms or get to know everyone who has a hand in bringing the food I eat from the farm to my table. And I think that a lot of people whom food activism hasn’t reached or appealed to yet might be in the same boat as me. But I do care when my tomato from the grocery store doesn’t taste like a tomato, or when the most inexpensive foods at the grocery store are the most processed and nutritionally weak ones by virtue of a system over which people do have control and can change. And although it’s really unlikely that I’ll cut industrial food out of my diet completely or drive across state lines to procure raw milk, I can an will get some of my food from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), grow some vegetables and herbs in planters on my porch, avoid high fructose corn syrup, and be politically supportive of more responsible food and agricultural policies. I think that Food Fight was trying to appeal to people more like that, people more like me. And I think it did a good job. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"Farmageddon: The Unseen War on American Family Farms"

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          Farmageddon:The Unseen War on American Family Farms, a documentary written, narrated, directed, and produced by Kristin Canty, presents itself as an exposé of the tyranny of the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies concerned with the regulation of food production and sales. Canty identifies herself at the beginning of the documentary as a mother of four children who strongly believes in the health benefits of consuming organic food and (especially) raw milk. She tells the story of how one of her sons suffered from severe allergies and was effectively cured by drinking raw milk from grass-fed cows and eating organic food from small farms. After this experience, Canty and her children began consuming raw dairy products and other foods from small organic farms exclusively, and Canty became friends with many of the farmers who produce them. From these farmers, Canty learned about the overbearing government regulation of small, organic, sustainable farms, the horror stories of legally-questionable searches and seizures of small organic farms, and the restrictive regulations regarding organic foods, unpasteurized dairy products, and cooperative markets.
            Canty’s documentary does an excellent job of making the viewer (or at least, me) feel sympathetic towards the farmers she interviewed, and even morally outraged by the ways in which some of their cases were handled by government agencies. However, throughout the documentary I felt that the message of the health benefits and morality of raw milk and grass-fed meats was much more prominent than the criticism of the ways in which small organic farms are treated by state and federal governments, which was presented at the beginning as the primary purpose of this documentary and of Canty’s investigative work. The former message certainly supports the latter in this case, because part of Canty’s argument is that the strict regulation (and at times, blatant exploitation and bullying) of small organic farming initiatives and the near-criminalization of natural food is absurd. But the prominence of this first message sometimes muddied her argument, and at times made the tone of the documentary seemed more proselytizing than informative.  I was left wondering if the message that Canty was really trying to convey was something more along the lines of “These small organic farmers are being unfairly persecuted. P.S. The food they produce is better for you and for the environment.” or “Food from small organic farms is healthier and it makes you a better person, so it’s ok if small organic farmers and/or the people who purchase food from them kind of break the law here and there. P.S. GOVERNMENT CONPIRACY!!! P.P.S. DRINK RAW MILK!!!!!!!!!!” And it's ok to make those arguments—I think people should be able to eat the kinds of foods they want to eat, and if they want to encourage other people to eat those foods too, that’s ok. But I’m a little frustrated when that’s done under the guise of a different argument.  It’s kind of like being invited by a new friend to go out for coffee only to find out once you get there that his or her real intentions are to tell you about the saving power of Jesus. It’s ok to drink raw milk, and it’s ok to feel like you were saved by Jesus, but it’s not ok to sneakily lure someone in to try to force either of those things upon them. No one likes false pretenses.
            There were also some interesting messages in Farmageddon regarding privilege and femininity. For one thing, all of the “concerned parent” consumers interviewed in the documentary, not to mention Kristin Canty herself, were specifically concerned mothers. Both Canty and a prominently featured interviewee named Liz Reitzig (who was first identified as a “concerned mom” and only later as a raw foods activist and president of the Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association) say that they became interested in buying their food from small organic forms and consuming raw dairy products because they are moms, and they feel that they are doing what’s right for their children by raising them with a type of diet associated with food activism and small, sustainable, organic farming. Furthermore, both Canty and Reitzig are white and educated, and based on the appearance of their clothes and their homes and the fact that they have time and resources to do things like drive hours away each week to do their food shopping and participate in a cow-share program that involves milking the cow oneself, are also economically privileged. And in addition to the way in which both Canty and Reitzig self-identify primarily as mothers (as opposed to as activists or professionals), each one of these women has four children, which is about double the national average of children per family in the U.S.. This *might* suggest that within the organic food/raw milk/small farm movement(s) a relatively privileged status is often considered the norm, and a particular “brand” of femininity in which motherhood is idealized and the role of childbearing and childcare is expected to be a woman’s primary concern is being promoted.
            It is also worth noting that many of the farmers interviewed in this documentary were very well educated ex-professionals (such as NASA scientists, biology Ph.D.s, lawyers, etc.) who became disillusioned with their work and decided to “go back to the land.” And when these farmers talked about their customers, they specified that they too tended to be very “smart” people who held doctorate degrees and/or worked at post-secondary educational institutions. This suggests two things: (1.) that consuming foods (and especially raw foods) from small, organic, sustainable farms is something that (only?) more educated or smarter than average people do, and (2.) that these consumers are trying to use “natural food,” an “old-fashioned” way of living, and physical labor to morally purify themselves. Even the name of the documentary, Farmageddon, is a religious reference that suggests that the disagreements between food activism/small organic farms and government food regulations is a “final and conclusive battle” between good and evil (for the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of Armageddon, click here), and is meant to instill fear in those who haven’t yet “seen the light” of organic, raw, or “natural” food. And again, I think it’s ok to try to make that argument. And I’m even interested in the argument. But personally, I was a little put off by how it was made.