Food and Self-Fashioning

I’m back! I’m now nicely settled in my new home and my life has been completely taken over by grad school (in a good way!), but I am determined to find some time to blog.
I kind of feel like writing about something that isn’t really all that connected to bisexuality. I suppose the only tenuous connection you can draw is that it has a lot to do with the body and the question of identity, which are issues that are also very tied to queerness, but that’s kind of the best I can do. Oh well! I promise there’s more queer stuff in the works after I blather for a while about vegetarianism.

This summer, on a trip to South Carolina, I ate some pulled pork, which isn’t terribly remarkable except that it was the first time I’d knowingly, purposefully eaten meat in about twelve years. I spent more than half of my life as a vegetarian, but I had gotten so uncomfortable with the idea of labeling my eating habits as an identity, I finally decided to just get it over with and eat the damn meat. And oh, I had forgotten just how much I love good barbecue. Delicious.

The funny thing is that aside from my occasional meat-eating, my eating habits have actually changed very little since I abandoned the vegetarian label. I still tend to think of vegetables as the center of my meals and genuinely prefer vegetarian food for my everyday cooking. I just don’t invest any identity in my eating habits anymore, because I don’t really think the ethics of food should really be attached to a public identity. Once you mix identity into the whole issue, it gets muddied. People like having clear-cut identities to form communities around, so you get easily defined rules (i.e. no meat) winning out over complicated and imperfect guidelines (well, that soy was industrially grown in clear-cut rainforest and those peppers were grown by a company that totally abuses their workers but that tomato is from a great biodynamic farm…), because it’s kind of hard to boil these complicated guidelines down into a single word you can call yourself.

And I don’t think food choices should necessarily be boiled down to a word you call yourself. I’m now really wigged out by the idea of an identity centered around what you absolutely do not put in your body. I am much more interested in changing the food economies of populations than the eating behaviors of one individual, and I am now suspicious of value placed on the absolute denial of one particular type of food. That reminds me too much of a morality of bodily purity, which I suspect comes from the same murky cognitive place as sexual purity moralities, and I ultimately have a sort of global ideological problem with the idea of purity and perfection.

I don’t think the ethics of food should ultimately be about individuals and their identities; it should be about communities. It should be about ensuring access to good, healthy food for everyone, not just those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. It should be about supporting ethical and environmentally responsible farms. And it should also be about getting rid of this culture’s bullshit, fatphobic shame surrounding food and pleasure. I would like to work towards these things without it being about my identity, and I would like to just let go of the idea that we can be perfectly ethical in our eating, because that’s totally impossible, and that impossibility is precisely the point- it means that we have to look beyond our own lives to actually make some change here.

And I really want to emphasize the whole idea of purity, which is why I can justify blogging about this here. I think much of what’s fucked up about sexuality in this culture has a lot to do with the illusion of bodily purity and a real disdain for the imperfect, fallible, human, mortal body. Sometimes I wonder if diets like vegetarianism are partially an attempt to make the body into a site of purification, an attempt to at least mitigate the imperfections of the world by expelling them from the body, because while the world can never be fully cleansed of whatever badness you’re trying to eliminate, one body can (according to this logic) at least be made fully pure of it.
And of course, I don’t think this is all that dietary restrictions are about. It’s just a pet theory I’m developing. Eat what you want and call yourself what you want; I’m not trying to stop anyone from doing that. But I do want to posit another way of thinking about what we put in our bodies and what that might mean to us. I think we will only be sane about things like sexuality and food and body image when we come to terms with the imperfection and humanness of our bodies, and start seeing them as flesh rather than symbols.

2 Responses to “Food and Self-Fashioning”

  1. 1 Aviva
    21 September 2008 at 5:50 pm

    And I don’t think food choices should necessarily be boiled down to a word you call yourself.

    For me the benefit of the label “vegetarian” is in communication, not identity. I don’t “identify” as a vegetarian, it doesn’t feel essential to and illuminative about my personhood the way, say, “queer” does. I use it to give people information they need in order to, say, prepare a meal I’ll be at or choose a restaurant with me, or even decide what we should get on a pizza we’re sharing (and even if I were willing to eat meat to make other people’s lives easier, which I’m not currently but could see becoming, it would still probably make me ill, which generally the people I share food with don’t want to do.) Even then I’ll often say “I don’t eat meat” rather than “I’m a vegetarian,” because for me it’s very much about what I do rather than who I am, but like most labels it has advantages and uses as well as drawbacks.

    As far as vegetarianism itself, what it comes down to for me is that I’ve gotten myself used to a particular way of eating. And even if I found the reasons more compelling at the time that I made the change than I do now, I still agree with most or all of those reasons, and still think that it’s a better choice. And while there are other ways I could better spend my energy if this were difficult for me, it’s not anymore. I don’t see any reason to change a habit I think is generally a good one, to put the effort into doing something I might enjoy and think is somewhat less optimal than the choices I make now.

    I definitely agree with you about changing the ways people and communities approach food, and about there being more complex ethical issues here than just whether one’s food is made of meat. And I also try to make distinction about whether food is produced in ways that treat the people, animals, and environment involved well. But it’s much easier to change what one does oneself than how a whole community does something. That has advantages and disadvantages – the disadvantages, obviously, including that it doesn’t change much on a global or systemic level, doesn’t necessarily accomplish all that much in the grand scheme of things. But an advantage is that it’s something one can do fairly easily, it’s about the changes one person can make that affect the world. Persuading others to change the system is terribly necessary, but not eating meat, eating fair trade and organic and local whenever I can, etc – controlling my own choices – are things I can do without struggling against people. I have a finite amount of energy for political struggles and I’ve chosen others to put it toward, but I can still make those choices as an individual. And by creating a demand for free trade, organic and local, I actually do accomplish something more systemic, in a small way.

  2. 22 September 2008 at 12:58 pm

    You’re definitely on to something here. Historically, vegetarianism has often been tied to sexual purity. This was very strongly the case with the Victorian health movements of which Sylvester Graham is the best-remembered American proponent. For an interesting summary of this connection in the UK a century ago, see: http://www.ivu.org/history/thesis/sexuality.html. To one degree or another, you can can see a connection between sexual and dietary purity in many times and places, from Hinduism to Hitler to Seventh Day Adventism.

    FWIW, I am with Aviva: after a dozen years, when people ask my why I’m vegetarian, I answer: inertia. Or, it’s just that meat no longer looks like food.

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