Eating and Identity
An acquaintance recently told me a joke: “How can you tell if a person is vegan?” “I don’t know,” I responded, “how can you tell?” “Don’t worry, they’ll let you know.”
The food we eat is a core component of culture; our customs, celebrations, and restrictions shape and are shaped by our shared values, beliefs, and our resources. It also helps shape our sense of self and identity by the groups that we belong to and who we are as individuals.
“Clean Eating” is a phrase that kept appearing in articles and blog posts about healthy food, and I found the inclusion of the word “clean” rather interesting. As Sally Raskoff recently blogged, naming is an important tool in the meaning creation process.
“Clean eating” generally refers to food that is mostly plant-based and minimally processed. It also often means limiting one’s sugar, salt, and saturated fat intake, but it can mean many things, from eating only organic food to eliminating all grains, dairy, or whatever other type of food that might be deemed “unclean.”
This is not a food or diet blog, so my intention is not to make arguments about what is healthy or unhealthy to eat. But instead the implications of the naming some types of eating “clean” itself bears examination. If some food—and some eaters—are clean, does it make the rest “dirty” and somehow worthy of pity, stigma or shame?
Whether intentional or not, using the word “clean” bears religious connotations, as several passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy explicitly refer to food that must not be eaten as “unclean” in the English translation. (But these foods, like pork and shellfish, are not necessarily considered “unclean” in the “clean eating” books and other guides I have seen.)
As religious scholar Alan Levinowitz details in his book, The Gluten Lie and Other Myths About What You Eat, eating trends and diet fads are peppered with religious language. Authors of diet books are often considered gurus, the book itself might be thought of as a food bible, and “converts” to the diet describe the personal transformation that they experience, often encouraging others to “repent” and join their way of eating.
Those who do not follow the path of eating enlightenment might be considered “sinners”—I once had a stranger tell me jokingly that I was “sinning” when I ordered a pastry at Starbucks—or people in need of “salvation.” I have to catch myself not to lecture friends and family about all the added sugar they are drinking in a can of soda or how much better I felt once I stopped snacking on sweets when I see someone in the office reach for the candy bowl early in the morning.
As The Guardian recently reported, “clean eating” taken to an extreme can be dangerous, particularly among people with eating disorders who strive to only eat “pure” foods and eliminate all but a few types of food from their diet. Internet-era stars become seen as deity-like figures, and when licensed dietitians and scientists challenge their often-unsupported claims about diet and health they are seen as blasphemers, shouted down by supporters whose commitment to a way of eating seems to transcend just personal choice.
While social media has given anyone with Internet access a platform to promote their particular way of eating, the connection between limiting one’s eating and transcendence is not new at all. Monks regularly go on spiritually driven fasts, and fasting is part of the most important Jewish holiday of the year. Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s book, Fasting Girls: A History of Anorexia Nervosa, details how young women who withheld food from themselves were seen as spiritually pure and even miraculous in the nineteenth century.
The old cliché “you are what you eat” does not just apply to our physical selves; in many ways it applies to our social selves. How else is eating linked with identity?