Food Taboos: Fat & The Rhetoric of "Clean"
Last week I read an article about colon cleansing. It was mixed in with lots of glossy pictures of winter trends, and the article was asking three people - a mixture of experts and medical professionals - about their opinion on colon cleansing. The doctor among them - who looked a little (ok, a lot) like Scrooge - firmly stated that colon cleansing was a thumbs down because your colon isn't dirty! His exasperation was evident in his words (and the exclamation point). It was one of those moments where I felt like Dr. Scrooge had reached out of the pages and slapped me in the face with the obvious old-school truth about our assholes. And it made me start to think about the idea of cleanliness and dirtiness as they relate to lots of things - especially food.
"Clean" has a very special meaning in the United States, where there is a uniquely high rate of germophobia or fear of contamination. When running a search for the word "clean" I got hits for brooms and mops (and a crawling infant in a sponge onesie), but a lot of hits were for things like clean living, clean eating, clean food, and this stuff called "clean cuisine." The word clean is used to describe a lot of unlikely things. In personal ads it's used to convey someone's STD/HIV-free status. In drug rehab parlance it's used to describe how long someone has gone without using. And when talking about food and diet, clean is used to describe what we culturally associate with low-calorie/low-fat consumption.
I have heard people (including myself!) describe the feeling after eating, say, a 7-11 hot dog smothered in plasticy cheese as "feeling dirty." And it's not just the nitrates. It's the guilt and shame of eating things like a ho-ho or a ding-dong (may they rest in peace) or anything from McDonald's. And make no mistake: the shame is not just about the fat content, it's about the class implications of eating foods that have been deemed unclean. Eating cheap food - which urban poor and working class people are perceived as eating regularly - is the moral equivalent of being dirty (more on this in a second). I don't know about you, but all of this clean unclean food talk reminds me of the days when I was a Sunday School teacher. What purpose do these classifications serve today in our culture, anyway?
Fear of poor people (especially poor people of color) and their potential to contaminate other non-poor/non-racialized people is a cultural staple in capitalist society like ours where there are very limited safety nets/government-provided benefits for US citizens and white supremacy is an essential part of the function of institutions. In the current age, fatness is associated with poverty. The fat body becomes a symbol of the perceived laziness of poor/working class people, who - if they were "better" citizens, as the myth dictates - would be able to work their way out of poverty and into the glorious halls of respectability. For non-poor and wealthy people the fat body becomes a corporeal reminder that represents what could happen to you if you become poor. The food that is seen as causing fatness is therefore seen as unclean - taboo. Make no mistake that race is part of this as well. People with dark skin are taught that they/we are dirty, and this permanent "dirt" (our pigment) is irredeemable. All of these things - the anxiety about racialized people and poverty - are projected onto food. Food becomes a fetish - a stand-in - for all the nuanced things we can't entirely articulate but that are unmistakably there.
Ok, one more level of analysis and then we'll stop! Our culture values the pursuit of ever-increasing germ-free levels of cleanliness - as a way to ensure long-life and disease-free living, which ensure productivity. This is connected to Western medicine, science and technology and these things are part of the prevailing white-supremacist/androcentric concept of human progress. I believe that consuming and buying into the idea of "clean" foods become a way we signal to ourselves, our networks and our culture that we are part of/on board with this project of progress. And, yeah, poor, fat, non-white people are just not signalling that - at all - and so we become, like, enemies of the state and subject to public acts of policing. I bet you didn't know your fat was doing all that, huh?
In conclusion, you don't have to agree with all of my contentions nor do you have to feel bad for maybe sometimes buying into the "clean" food thing. And I don't mean to imbue a double decker taco or a salad with incredible ramifications for global citizenship and heteropatriarchy. But I do want to encourage you to critically interrogate your feelings around food and where they come from.
Getting Hot & Heavy in SF
Last Friday night was an unusual evening for me. It was raining. A baby was born. I hadn't had carbs in over three hours and I was wearing a bow tie.
It was the fourth day in an unusual string of rainy days. Because no one in San Francisco has any sensible shoes (myself included) those kinds of weather anomalies make us grumpy. But it didn't seem to stop the dedicated friends of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion from filling up Modern Times. In fact, it was standing room only. Genne (co-author of the chapter, "Fat Histories, Fat Futures") had texted me earlier in the day telling me that she wasn't sure she'd be able to make it because her friend was having a baby. Somehow she managed to book it over to 24th and Alabama just in time to be the final reader and she looked damn good in a black and blue faux lace pencil skirt.
After the reading we signed books and I still desperately needed some damn carbs. So I went to dinner with my old friend Caya (we used to be health educators together when I first moved to San Francisco and bonded over our teenager-induced experiences of temporary insanity and also vulva puppets) and another friend from out-of-town, John (we dated very briefly while I was in college; the first time we met I thought he was pompous and I told him so and then he moved to England) at this hipster spot on 24th that serves milk shakes and Reubens at 10pm with a healthy side of ironically mustachioed attitude. Oddly, I found myself rushing through my chocolate shake as a fast-paced punk song played overhead - the only recognizable lyric being the word "FASTER" repeated again and again. John and Caya had to go home, but my night wasn't over...
I headed over to AsiaSF for the Full Figure Entertainment Hot & Heavy after-party, complete with signature cocktail, Fierce Diva, which was kind of like a naughty grown-up caramel apple made of alcohol. I danced my booty off. And then I headed home for a decent 4 hours worth of sleep before heading to Pac Heights for an afternoon of wine tasting.
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.