On “Health”

Content warning: fatphobia & disordered eating.

The first time I saw the word “fat” used as a descriptor without a whiff of judgement was when the showTwo Fat Ladies was playing on Food Network. It was a BBC show from the late ’90s, and the cartoon of them driving around in a motorcycle with a sidecar is burned in my brain. These were two broads who knew how to live, the introduction implied, and Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright did indeed do some living. Their knowing, confident banter around travel and ingredients suggested extensive experience in the world; they would never use yogurt where cream would do. There is just so much humor and pleasure demonstrated on this show. It was and is absolutely delightful.

Eating has always been central to my happiness. My grandma fed me lobster and lamb chops, goes the story I’ve told or typed a million times; we watched Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet. Food was my first love, and it’s my most sustaining love—literally, emotionally, intellectually. When I was a kid, my appetite was considered impressive. And because I’ve remained more or less thin throughout my life, it has never (or rarely) been viewed as a problem. If anyone ever made note of how much I was eating, I have always been feminist enough to make a mental note that they should go fuck themselves.

Why are weight and appetite feminist issues? They shouldn’t be, of course, but they are feminized, and women bear the brunt of fatphobia and also struggle disproportionately with disordered eating. When at Bloodroot, a feminist vegetarian restaurant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I was taken with their sign about not mentioning the richness of food or dieting while in the space, “out of respect for women of size.”

Just like in drinks writing, where talking about drunkenness is verboten, in food writing, we don’t talk about weight or our struggles to maintain balance in life—especially in a career in which indulgence is not just expected but almost enforced. Discussions of nutrition are difficult when there’s a big audience, because these are so specific to each individual’s body, geography, culture, genetics, and class. Talking about weight can be understood as inherently triggering or fatphobic. So rarely are these things addressed that it can be jarring to see it done. Personal experience is key to ensuring nothing is read as advice, as in Rebecca Firkser’s Food52 essay “Finding My Way Back to Food in the Face of an Eating Disorder.” 

We women are supposed to be thin without visible effort. We’re supposed to be thin, as well as sensual enough to eat and drink with verve. In Emily Ratajkowski’s essay about being consumed by men, visually and otherwise, the line that made me most sad was that when pictures of herself she didn’t like were taken, she had “enjoyed food more.” I want an essay about that, because for whom is that not true, or at least a little ring in the back of the brain? Maybe just the two fat ladies, joyfully cooking their fresh-caught fish.

When I did have a bout of orthorexia, defined as an obsession with “healthy” eating, I was indeed the skinniest I’ve ever been, back to a preteen size in my mid-twenties. My thighs that had always touched were suddenly standing at a polite distance. I was going to hot yoga classes twice per day and eating a very restrictive vegan, mainly gluten-free diet. The behaviors I most closely associate with this time were measuring out a tablespoon of olive oil into the pan to sauté vegetables that I’d eat over a measured serving of brown rice and drinking green smoothies for breakfast. (I can’t drink them anymore.) There were stretches of time when I ate kale at every meal, every day. And I was euphoric for a while there, all the time, until I wasn’t. A muscle in my back pulled and wouldn’t heal, and a friend told me maybe I wasn’t eating enough. How could I not be eating enough, though, if I could contort myself so extensively, if I could touch my toes to my head in a handstand? If I were so thin and eating according to serving sizes? But my back, and my friend, told the truth—one well articulated recently by writer Reina Sultan:

Hunger isn't weakness. It is your body telling you to nourish it. We're taught to ignore this feeling because of the white supremacist, fatphobic, colonial notion that thinness is healthy and better. but it's not. and it's imperative to our liberation to unmarry these things.

So I started eating more, going to yoga a bit less, and accidentally started a vegan bakery. I put on a bit of weight, but since then, more or less, I’ve returned to my intuitive way of eating. I feel best in my body and mind when I’m 100% vegan, but I also know I need a little leeway to live my happiest life with other people in many places. If I’ve been stuffing myself to the gills, as I was in the beginning of the pandemic, I know how to deal with it without beating myself up. I know that I’ll feel good in my body and mind if I exercise, and so I try to do so every day. (Tellingly, though, I never feel too concerned when I forget to eat lunch or suddenly drop pounds during stressful times.) 

Healthy-ish, from Bon Appétit, has published personal essays on the realities of fatphobia, too. These essays sort of live alongside all other food coverage, though, packaged in a wellness-like, feminized package. They tick an inclusivity box, without having too much of an impact on greater coverage, as though only people who are fat are affected by fatphobia when it’s something that, like misogyny, can also do damage when internalized even if not outwardly practiced. And only covering fatphobia and weight through a personal lens reinforces the idea that they’re not systemic or cultural problems, just a matter of personal discipline or perspective. It’s the fat person who’s expected to become body positive, not the rest of the culture that’s expected to stop being fatphobic.

Personal experience was a key part of a recent piece by Kevin Pang, published at Medium and re-published by Heated, called “Fat Chance,” about Pang’s struggle with what looks like but isn’t named as binging, his taking on of a $1500-per-month trainer, and dedicating himself to an intensely restrictive diet to lose weight. But here, weight and nutrition are addressed haphazardly; the intensely personal nature of the writing doesn’t make room for the ways in which an obsession with these things can manifest in mental health issues. Fatphobia is not mentioned but is enacted by before and after photos. This isn’t a piece about someone finding equilibrium and a happy place in their body and relationship to food; it’s a piece about someone obtaining a culturally acceptable thin body via hyper-restrictive eating. To me, this piece is extremely dangerous in its message, which is “health and thinness are the same, and they are achieved through great feats of willpower.” How many of us have had to wrestle with the falsity of just that mentality, only to see it glorified and endorsed?

The fact that food media so rarely addresses these issues made the fanfare around this piece upsetting and puzzling, but predictable all the same. “You’re only allowed to talk about your eating disorder in public if it’s been ‘successful,’” says writer Naomi Tomky, meaning it’s resulted in weight loss. “No one wants to hear from the fat person on this, which I think goes to show how ingrained it is.”

Despite the big pronouncements food writers and editors make about keeping words like “diet” or “health” or “guilt” out of what they publish, so as not to be judgmental or fatphobic, here they were endorsing a piece that supported all of those notions. Is there a way to talk about these things, to make them part of the conversation around food, I’ve been wondering?

Firkser, author of that essay on orthorexia, thinks that first we’ll have to stop thinking of weight loss as an achievement, something to always congratulate without understanding the circumstances. That impulse fuels the type of positive reaction Pang’s essay received.

She also points to the exaltation of recipes that are “not nutritionally dense but are delicious” without acknowledgment of that fact. (There are, of course, recipes noted as "healthy," low-calorie, nutrient dense, virtuous but not necessarily delicious—but the overlap is rare.) There’s a cognitive dissonance in the food media promotion of those “not nutritionally dense” recipes that are rarely if ever tempered out with factual information on nutrition or a rejection of pervasive ideas about what constitutes a “healthy” body. Rob Petrone, the former host of Restaurant Hunter (on which I briefly filled in as a producer in 2018) who now has a podcast called “Hot Takes on a Plate,” spent years on camera eating decadent foods, making jokes that “you shouldn’t eat this every day” while he was, in fact, eating like that every day. Early this year, he had a heart attack and completely adjusted what he calls his “lifestyle,” not diet. 

“I had some form of what people consider PTSD for a while,” he tells me. “There was a part of me that was literally afraid to eat certain things. I was mentally in a place where I was like, ‘If I eat this, I could die.” 

Petrone recognizes that his genetics played a major role, as he is prone to high cholesterol and his doctors weren’t keeping as close an eye on it because he was young. While he’s lost weight with his new habits (no red meat, much less cheese, still eating carbs), that was never his goal: His goal was to stave off another heart attack. But the complicated factor of how different “health” is defined from person to person, he says, makes it impossible to discuss well in the media. Regardless, he no longer would feel comfortable doing the job he used to do. “I don't really have an appetite for it, to be honest with you,” he says. 

“I really think food media has a problem with employing a lot of thin people,” Firkser says. That means in popular food videos and on Instagram, it’s rare to see a fat person doing the cooking, teaching, eating, and enjoying. “I think we all already know that food media has a problem with employing a lot of white people, a lot of white women. But I think another thing that we need to address is that there are a lot of thin people in food media. We need to be more willing to discuss fatphobia. It can't just be on lifestyle websites, because it is so wrapped up in food and eating.”

I don’t have any answers for how food media should incorporate nutritional science or discussions of fatphobia into coverage, but doesn’t it seem necessary? Understanding science and de-stigmatizing size go hand in hand; both allow us to understand that health and thinness are not synonymous, that what matters is how a person feels in their body that is being provided with the nutrients it needs and the satisfaction it desires. This could help more people be able to experience more pleasure in their food—and isn’t that our whole deal?

Wednesday’s paid-subscriber discussion will be about how food media could better address nutrition and fatphobia, without losing its essential focus on pleasure.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Jesse David Fox, senior editor at Vulture and host of the podcast “Good One,” which is about comedy. We talked about the relationship between comedy and food, as well as why people from Long Island are so obsessed with pizza.

Note: Annual subscriptions will continue to be $30 through the end of 2020. In 2021, they will go up to $50 per year. If you would like a free subscription, let me know.

For World Literature Today, I wrote about three Puerto Rican books available in English that I love. One fiction, one food, one art.

Still on How to Do Nothing, which, along with The Unreality of Memory and Fracture are helping me with how to approach my book, which is also about how much people can really change when confronted with catastrophe—and how much capitalism depends on people not changing!

Pictured above is some avocado toast, as I’ve been gifted a bunch of local avocados. I made Tejal Rao’s tomato kofta curry again, by request! One tablespoon of arrowroot for the egg makes it vegan. I’m excited to soon dig into Romy Gill’s Zaika, but I’ve been so focused on writing that I have not even been fluffing my hair up. I look like a cartoon villain.