Monday, April 29, 2013

State of the Field

I enrolled in this course because I’m interested in how people think about food and how this translates into how and what they eat. This is in part because I’m interested in eating disorders, the types of cultural environments that may trigger their onset, how people in recovery or working towards recovery from an eating disorder re-conceptualize and interact with food and eating, and what it even means to classify a person’s eating “disordered” in the first place. It was also because I find enjoyment in cooking, growing and cultivating food, and because although I want to eat delicious food that is produced locally, sustainably, and ethically. And because I feel an aversion towards (and am maybe even a little bit suspicious of) the image, culture, and aesthetic that often surround farmers’ markets, organic food, local food, veganism and vegetarianism, and food activism. It’s not that I think that there’s something inherently bad about farmers’ markets, organic food, local food, veganism or vegetarianism, or food activism. Not in the least. But I don’t like how these things or behaviors have been branded. There is an uncomfortable sense of elitism and superficiality. It feels like a fad that a person has to be educated and wealthy and even look a certain way in order to participate in. I didn’t really want to be a part of that. And I don’t think I fit in with that image very well anyway. And yet I’m not ready to give up on food activism because I’m still interested in eating healthier food that was produced ethically and sustainably and was more profitable to the actual farmers than to giant corporations.  

So with these thoughts in mind, I attended our first class. I thought that my beliefs surrounding food would set me apart from most of my classmates. I for some reason expected that most of the people in the class who were serious about food activism bought into or didn’t see the problems with the aspects of food activism and local/sustainable/organic/ethical food movements that bothered me. I was a little bit apprehensive about being the odd one out, the one who had all of these problems with or conflicting feelings about a set of beliefs and consumer behaviors that everyone else would be completely enthusiastic about and devoted to.

It turns out I was pretty wrong.

In actuality, many of my classmates expressed some of the same conflicting feelings and uneasiness about food activism and different food movements that I was experiencing. I was fascinated as I listened to classmates talk about the different ways in which they negotiated their personal consumption (both economic and physical) of food. I listened to one classmate talk about how she felt that eating meat was “more honest” than maintaining a vegan or vegetarian diet, but that in spite of this belief she has a hard time eating meat because of how familiar she is with the reality of what its like to slaughter an animal. The same classmate wants to be a farmer, but is disillusioned by the image that small/local/sustainable farming has and doesn’t want to enable it or become a part of it. I listened to another classmate talk about how she maintains a mostly vegan diet because it makes her feel healthier and because she isn’t comfortable with the way that the animals that are used for meat, eggs, dairy, etc. are treated, but that she’s willing to make circumstance-specific exceptions. And I listened to this same classmate point out that although she believes that eating a plant-based diet is more ethical than one that involves meat or other animal products, there are plenty of human rights- and environmental-related conundrums tied up in the cultivation and distribution of plant foods as well. And that even though her solution to this situation may be imperfect, it’s the one that works best for her right now. Another classmate talked about how she had recently cut out bananas from her diet because she concluded that it’s impossible for someone living in New England to acquire one ethically or sustainably. What all of this means to me is that we don’t all have the same way of negotiating food choices, and doing so doesn’t hold the same degree of importance to all of us. But I think that it became clear over the course of the semester that the decisions of what and how to eat are complex for everyone. And sometimes very different reasons can lead to the same decision, and similar reasons can lead to different decisions. You don’t really know why a person eats the way they do or what it means to them until he or she explains themselves.

I didn’t have all of this figured out when I started this blog—I’ve been learning and re-thinking along the way. I think someone reading my blog posts from the first to the last would be able to detect the way in which my perspective developed as I continued to learn from class discussions, readings, my classmates’ blogs, and the documentaries I watched. But I did know then I started Eating Their Words that I wanted to investigate the image(s) and the branding of food activism and food movements. So I set out to make Eating Their Words a blog about media representations of food activism in food activism-related documentaries. Although not all of my posts ended up being strictly about this topic—I also discussed online articles, other blog posts, my own (possibly) food activist endeavors, and a field trip to Haymarket and the soon-to-be Boson Public Market, for example—I’ve ended up watching and writing about eight documentaries over the course of keeping this blog. Some documentaries I liked, others I didn’t. Most I had mixed feelings about. The same goes for the non-documentary topics I discussed. But everything I wrote about helped me think in different ways about food activism and how it and the people involved in it are portrayed.

Based on the documentaries and other topics that I wrote about, I’ve come to a few conclusions—or if not quite conclusions, at least something closer to conclusions than I had at the beginning of the semester. I touched on some of these a bit in my blog post from April 1st, in which I discuss the documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. These are some of the main problems that I see in food activism’s image, or how it’s represented:

·      “Fat Shaming” – People who are considered overweight or obese don’t need to be made to feel guilty or embarrassed about it. It doesn’t help them or anyone else. And it also doesn’t necessarily indicate health problems. Food activism needs to get over the idea that part of being a food activist, or even just a healthy person and/or a healthy eater requires or results in a particular physique.

·      Food Guilt – Eating is intimate and personal. It just is. It’s putting something from outside your body inside your body, and there are a lot of things to consider when determining what is and is not allowed to cross that boundary—health, ethics, personal taste, values, comfort, cost, etc. And it’s not as though you can just opt out of deciding what and how to eat in the way that you can a lot of other decisions, at least not for very long. But that being said, sometimes circumstances are such that the choice you want isn’t an option, or you don’t know how you feel about any of your options. Or it’s exhausting to put this much thought into he decision of what to eat every time you need or want to eat. That’s ok. It’s the reality of being a complicated, multi-dimensional, dynamic person with lots of other concerns outside of eating. I think that within food activism, we should be better about taking this into account. That no one’s eating or buying habits are perfect, and that’s fine. Perfection is not only unrealistic, but also maybe not even desirable. Because how is someone going to be happy and productive and fulfilled in all the other important areas of his or her life if every bit of energy and time and mental space is focused on food choice? So I wish we wouldn’t feel guilty about making so-called “bad” food choices every once in a while or leading an imperfectly sustainably life. It’s fine. One meal, or even one lifetime of meals, won’t make or break the universe. That doesn't meant that we should stop caring about the food choices we make, but just that we should put things into perspective and realize that being a food activist doesn't mean freaking out over every food choice we ever make.

·      Sexism – I don’t appreciate being told that my sex (or gender, for that matter) positions me in a specific way to nature and thus food activism. And don’t expect me to be any more or less concerned with food activism or an aspect of food activism because of my sex either. I think that there are definitely certain trends in the sex and/or gender of the people involved in food activism and it’s different aspects, but instead of pinning it down as evidence of sexual determinism, it’s more useful to consider what kinds of power structures are creating these trends, what they mean, and whether or not they are helpful.

·      Elitism – Everyone wants to have access to good food. But let’s not forget that what constitutes “good” food is often culturally, temporarily, geographically, and class-situated. And it’s obnoxious (not to mention usually unhelpful) when a more privileged socioeconomic group tells a less privileged socioeconomic what they should be doing so that they can be “better.” I think that consumers should be able to make their own choices. If healthier, sustainably produced foods are made accessible and appealing, people will want them. So let’s focus on making that happen.

·      Image/Superficiality – Farmers shouldn’t need to appeal to a certain ideal personal image in order to sell their products. A person who raises chickens doesn’t also have to wear overalls or knit or play the banjo. As consumers, we shouldn’t expect farmers—who are complex, multi-faceted people just like anyone else—to fit our preconceived, idealized image of a local farmer. Just as a consumer of sustainably produced, local, and/or organic food shouldn’t have to fit any sort of image in order to be considered “legitimate.”

And one last thing: instead of distancing themselves from food activism or related activities and topics, perhaps people who are uneasy about the food activism image or “brand” should consider becoming more involved. In doing so, food activism can be re-framed or re-directed as less of a trend or a style or an image and more of a set of actively-supported common values or ideas with a very practical goals. Like pushing for more sustainable growing and distribution practices that won’t push the environment towards un-inhabitability. And making sure that everyone has access to sufficient food, and that that food is nutritious and safe and enjoyable. And that the economic structure behind the food that we eat is fair and balanced. In short, I think that food activism should be about people making their relationship with food healthier— nutritionally, economically, psychologically, socially, politically, and environmentally. And I wish that food activism documentaries were better at conveying that. 

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