Cooking and Covid: Diet Culture Is an Unjust System for Everyone

Covid-19 has had to make room in our attention for the demands for a more just society. Not that the pandemic is over, far from it. I, and most people I know, wear masks and calculate risk every day, but my heart is pulled to the uprisings I so hope will bring real change.

As I turn the pages of my (yes, paper) calendar, and see the birthdays that won’t be parties, the summer concerts I won’t be attending, I want to consider food from another perspective, one related to justice.

A few months back, when we were all told to shelter in place, many of us filled grocery carts to the brim, motivated by fears of scarcity, and brought home foods our “good” selves would never buy. Then we ate the food. Then we felt awful. Yet another diet effort down the drain.

It might feel petty or self-centered to talk about diets amid a pandemic, when millions of people have lost their jobs and more. But bear with me.

Unless you have been utterly removed from media, social or otherwise, for the last 90 days, you have likely seen jokes about how much we’re eating and the weight we’re gaining.

I cannot help connect the disdain with which larger people are often held with the racism that our nation may finally be willing to face.

Is it funny that in response to boredom and distress, some of us eat more than we’d like? Is it just another way to cope by making fun of gaining the “Covid 19”? Or “social distancing” from the fridge? Or posting a drawing of a Barbie who looks like she’s been inflated or a Mona Lisa with enormous jowls?

The jokes may be clever, but are they also mean and damaging? We surely need a sense of humor to make it through a pandemic. And laughing at ourselves can help us cope. Being laughed at is not the same.

Perhaps one person’s coping is another person’s pain. For those with eating disorders (an estimated 30 million Americans), those who have felt the sting of being called “fatty,” the jokes can arouse the complicated response of running for the Swiss Almond Vanilla Haagen Daz in the freezer.

As a person who has probably gained and lost and gained an elephant over my lifetime, I look at a cartoon of a bunch of women who got fat while in quarantine, and I feel heartache.

Food relates to everything. We live in a diet culture, and fighting that is important. Please understand that I am not equating the effects of diet culture with those of racism. But both of them waste the energy of those who are oppressed, and both must be faced if we want a just society.

“Diet culture aligns really closely with white culture and power,” says Jana Schmiedling, a comedian and writer who as a Native American woman has given much thought to the subject.

The roots of diet culture are misogynistic and racist, says Elyse Resch, the author with Evelyn Tribole of books including Intuitive Eating, a way of building a healthy relationship with food and without diets.

Diet culture gets so many people to put their lives on hold, Tribole says. “Life is going to be amazing when I lose the weight” — and then I’ll start my business or whatever the goal.

I am in awe of the people who can feel great about how they look, no matter their size. I appreciate their strength and grace; take a look at #curvycon on Instagram.

We often don’t see ourselves as we are. I took a walk with a friend last week, and she said she’d been sorting through family photos. She was shocked to notice that she actually looked great. Can you relate? I can.

As the baby boomer daughter of a woman who drank Metrecal at lunch and Tab as her pre-dinner cocktail, despite her thin figure, I learned at a young age that there’s just one body standard. And the multibillion-dollar diet industry is betting that very few of us will get there for good. And of course we won’t — because diets don’t work.

Christy Harrison, a writer and dietitian, argues this in her book “Anti-Diet,” and directly draws the connection between body and size and other attributes: “Body liberation is inextricable from social justice. It encompasses people of all sizes, races, ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, gender identities, sexual orientation, ages and all the rest.”

For those of us who don’t fit the mold, our otherness takes up so much space in our brains and our imaginations. (The other end of the continuum, those who do not have enough to eat, steals at least as much from our potential.)

What might I have done if I hadn’t done this: I’d sometimes tell my elementary school teacher I was walking home for lunch. Instead, I’d walk to the candy store, stock up on Butterfingers and O’Henrys and chow down on my way back to school. I can’t recall where I got the cash. I never got caught, succeeding at one of disordered eating’s rules of the road: Sneak it and lie about it.

So many children, especially girls, have food secrets, snacks hidden in closets or under beds, a set-up for the diets that we will invest with all our hopes and dreams of beauty and happiness.

In high school, I was the first one up in the morning, so I’d put a little cereal and milk in a bowl and put it in the sink to trick my parents into thinking I’d had breakfast — because by now I was skipping meals to lose weight. It worked, or at least I thought so. I got to be a cheerleader — which of course led to living with the mortal fear of getting fat.

What’s your story? Because far too many of us could tell our own stories about diets and weight and shame and lying and hiding. Dieting is a tyrannical mistress who cares not if you are fit or smart if you are not thin. I have hope that just as a younger generation has stood up and called for change and insisted that #BlackLivesMatter, this generation will refuse to live on a diet.

I hate that I can tell you my lowest weight as an adult, my weight on my wedding day and what I weighed when I ran the Los Angeles Marathon. But I don’t remember my 20-something sons’ birth weights.

Millions of us live always on some version of a diet, except when we “cheat,” take a break, drink a little too much Chardonnay, or when we feel depressed or bored or scared or alone, or when we want to celebrate, or when we’re confronted with a brownie or a bag of kettle chips. It’s so easy to feel like all of those things make us bad people. If only we had willpower, if only we could stay on whatever diet forever. If only …

The behavior is baked in: I watch my friends put aside the croutons or eat half the burger bun at lunch. Dressing on the side is a gateway drug. One friend never eats bread at night. Others ask me, a longtime food journalist, which diet “really” works because, Good Lord, one of them must. These are brilliant, accomplished, fun and loyal friends who could run the world.

Are you being “good” today? (If you ate a donut, the answer is no). “We shouldn’t moralize food,” Schmiedling says. “Diets are cruel,” she adds. “I want to feel like I’m joyfully living.”

Diets live on desire, dissatisfaction, low self-esteem. And that’s not much to fill up on.

But what can you do? Work on being skeptical of any and all diets. Practice nonjudgment of yourself and others based on size. Think about diet culture in the context of other forms of oppression. Read, get educated. Talk to people who have succeeded or who are trying.

I love cooking, and sometimes that means cakes, sometimes it means vegetables. And with all that’s available in the summer, here’s a salad I made that was terrific and unusual. So good we made it two nights in a row. The green is purslane, which grows like a weed if you have a garden. It’s used in Mexican and Middle Eastern foods and can be eaten raw or cooked. You can find it at farmers markets or specialty produce shops. (You can make the salad with other greens, of course, if you can’t find purslane.)

This salad is from the cookbook writer Paula Wolfert; she’s wonderful, and perhaps you noticed I quoted her once before. If you don’t like an ingredient — or you don’t have it — you can leave it out or substitute it with something you like.

Wash and pat dry about 2 cups of purslane tips (not including the larger stems).

Combine it with 2 cups of roughly chopped tomatoes, ½ cup of sliced scallions, and 1 cup of chopped cucumber. Toss to combine. Add 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and the mint from one sprig, chopped. Add a pinch of ground Aleppo pepper (or whatever you have, not hot). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Toss it all, cover the bowl and refrigerate to cool before serving.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your stories about food and justice.

Longtime food writer, now food grower. Journalist, reader, traveler

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