Monday, February 25, 2013

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.”

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