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Food Shame

“Shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation.” -Silvan Tomkins

I raise my hand. Yes, belief in my own food choices has, at times, worked itself into a proselytizing fervor. I have made wild, dangerous assumptions. Imbued with information, hungry to share wisdom, I have been lawmaker, cop, arbiter. Self-nominated expert.

However. I circle close now to where I started, before unraveling mysteries behind prices and labels, pesticides and GMOs, gluten and sugar. Sustained examination and research into the food system has only increased my awareness of the complexities and contradictions.

The most critical insight I have arrived at is a humble one: the system and the individual are phenomenally different entities.

“The shame we feel surrounding food also has to do with our desire to protect our culture and our family traditions. Nearly all of these stories originate in the storyteller’s youth.” -Rebecca Orchant, “Food Shame: How Our Lunch Defines Who We Are, For Better Or Worse”

One day after school last year, my amazing six-year-old niece came home very hungry. Apparently some of her classmates had teased Frankie for bringing “weird” hummus and vegetables for lunch, so she didn’t eat. “But you love hummus!” my sister exclaimed, worried that Frankie might begin avoiding or refusing various foods. Thankfully, they were able to talk out the situation together and create proactive, confident ways to respond to potential lunch teasing in the future.

While a fairly common anecdote, this story felt loaded to me. Frankie is a thin, blonde white girl. Her connection to hummus is preferential, not influenced by her family’s ethnicity or long-standing traditions. It marked her, in first grade, as someone who “eats different.” She came home embarrassed and hungry.

“When we want to celebrate, or elevate, our own group, we usually praise its superior cuisine. And when we want to demean another, often we turn to eating habits” -Donna R. Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Foods and the Making of Americans

Surely the foods we eat can preserve or represent our traditions, whether across generations or within our own newly-created communities. They can tell stories of cultural exchange, curiosity, generosity. Simultaneously, the histories of the foods we eat are inextricably tied to immigration, capitalism, colonization. L.V. Anderson writes, “It’s practically a given that middle-class white people like making and eating Mexican food…the mainstreaming of Mexican cuisine happened because Mexican immigrants worked hard in the face of racism, not in the absence of racism. As Gustavo Arellano showed in last year’s Taco USA, the history of Mexican food in America isn’t as simple as many people might prefer to think—tacos have faced plenty of xenophobia and cultural appropriation on their way to the top.”

I have long wondered what the term “ethnic food” refers to, and who is responsible for defining it. For example, who considers hummus “ethnic”? Does it depend on the person eating it, or who prepared it, which recipe is used, how unavailable or ubiquitous it is? Does it matter where the hummus is being eaten, in what tongue the name of the food is spoken? I imagine “ethnic food” relies on othering, claiming, distancing, and/or assimilation in order for anyone to understand which meaning is being attempted or exchanged in any given circumstance. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Bruce Palling gives his interpretation: “Ultimately, it seems to me to mean food eaten by people poorer than we are.”

“Food is an important cultural signifier. We use it to communicate our values (see veganism and vegetarianism), to communicate our in-groups (through ethnic food or family traditions), to bond with each other (group meals), and to communicate how we fit into the world” -Olivia, “The Shame of Sweetness: Food as Code”

In “Stall Confessions: Life Lessons from my Lunch Box,” Devna Shukla describes her younger self as the only girl of color at a small private school. She tells a story of competing identities—at home she is Indian, and at school, American. Her mother decides to send a favorite snack for lunch one day. Shukla reflects that “this kachori, a small part of my Indian identity, was supposed to stay outside the playground boundaries—mostly out of fear for making me any more different than I already was. I saw the kachori and I panicked. I didn’t know what to do—or how to explain this ‘weird’food to my friends. But then again, I really wanted to eat it. So, as a second grader, I did the only rational thing I could think of doing to satisfy both my taste buds and my internal conflict: I ate it in the bathroom.”

Shukla’s story and my niece’s story share a common theme, one of children expecting or receiving judgment—or being labeled an outcast- when attempting to eat foods they enjoy. Both stories feature young girls, and neither involves being shamed for their body size. Their stories diverge from one another in a critical way, however. While Frankie may associate the food she eats with preferences and family habits, she moves through the world as a white child, herself and her lunches relatively disconnected from her family’s ethnic histories and traditions. In the story that Shukla tells, the prevalence of racism turns the food she enjoys (and by extension, its cultural significance) into a confirmation of her “otherness.” In contexts that overtly or covertly default to white supremacy and American assimilation, food inevitably becomes culturally coded and socially sanctioned. Depending on the situation or the whim, specific foods might be viewed as strange, gross, shameful or “exotic.” By extension, the person eating may be treated similarly: abnormal, an outsider.

“It’s not news that women are held to impossibly high standards, yet no one seems to be adjusting their expectations. If women are not thin and beautiful, they are expected to be working toward being thin and beautiful. If you embrace yourself the way you are, you are an outlier in the female community. . . losing weight isn’t something a woman does when she’s overweight or unhealthy, it’s something all women are doing always. If we keep dieting and trying to fit into the stereotypes, or if we keep apologizing for not fitting into the stereotypes, we’re doomed. No matter who you are, it’s almost impossible to be ‘pretty’ and ‘thin’ to everyone. You will always be ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ to someone.” -Sarah Beauchamp, “Women Can Be Fat and Ugly and Everything Is Going to Be OK”

I fast forward two or ten years, imagining future Frankie. Will she shame or judge the food choices of others? Will she have tools to filter gendered, racialized, “body-normative” messaging? According to an ongoing study by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, forty percent of 9 and 10 year old girls have tried to lose weight. By age 17, 78% of young women in the United States are “unhappy with their bodies,” reports the National Institute on Media and the Family. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that up to 24 million people of all ages and genders have disordered eating patterns in the U.S., and approximately 90% of those folks are women.

Thinking about friends and family members who are socialized as women, I conjure up the avalanche of humiliating, embarrassing, infuriating food stories we collectively carry. In her article “Public Food-Shaming Is The Insidious Type of Street Harassment Nobody Is Talking About,” Emma Gray begins with a personal anecdote. She is walking down the street, eating frozen yogurt, and getting yelled at by a man on the sidewalk: She shouldn’t be eating that! She’ll get fat!

How can eating be such a subversive thing for women to do? According to Emma Gray, “eating in public can be fraught with unwanted commentary, sexual innuendo, and judgment.” Julianne Ross writes, “We must be thin, yet relaxed around food. We need to fit a narrow ideal of beauty, but cannot show the work it takes to get there.” Certified health coach Isabel Foxen Duke articulates how public eating then becomes an act of social revolt: “As a way of performing their gender role, women are supposed to be trying to lose weight or maintain their figures at all times. . . So if you’re [eating in public], you’re basically saying, ‘Hey, I have a right not to diet,’ and you’re going to get backlash. At the end of the day, not trying to lose weight is counter-cultural for women.”

Isn’t it strange, then, how not eating also becomes fraught with similar unwanted commentary, sexual innuendo, and judgment? For example, a new, anonymous Instagram account, YouDidNotEatThat, is getting a bit of online attention. It reposts photos of thin, normatively-attractive people eating “unhealthy” foods, such as hamburgers, ice cream, and donuts. As Nell Frizell notes, “it accuses strangers, primarily women—who outnumber men on the feed by at least ten to one—of lying. . . the subtext, as so often with these things, is that food is bad, that thin people are shallow, and that it’s our inherent right to call them out on it.”

While fatness and thinness are not necessarily ridiculed in equal measure, it remains evident that social pressures and judgments attach stealthily onto the bodies of women. And to what end? “A person can eat ice cream and still be thin, and a person can not eat ice cream and still be fat,” says Duke. “People need to acknowledge the existence of body diversity outside of the context of eating specific foods.” Can we go beyond acknowledging? What would happen if we collectively encouraged, celebrated, and validated all shapes and sizes of bodies?

“Ways of seeing obesity have taken hold through the proliferation of ideas about personal responsibility, health care, and citizenship that are endemic to neoliberalism. . . Obesity seems to violate a set of norms of self-efficacy that some call healthism, norms that are strongly related to neoliberal notions of governance. These norms are not universally legible, much less universally shared. And yet, healthism seems to give cover for distaste for, if not outright revulsion against, fatness.” -Julie Guthman, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism

I understand that it is popular, even trendy, to “fight” the “epidemic” of obesity. What does such a battle do, for thin people? To fat people? What is the real purpose behind this supposed social investment, particularly for people who inhabit bigger bodies? I am concerned with the normalizing of one type of body, and the subsequent assumptions and judgments that such a narrow view proliferates.

The “obesity epidemic” has provoked multiple, ongoing critiques. I lean on Julie Guthman’s writings here; as a long-time food justice advocate and self-described “foodie,” she has systematically parsed out much of the prevailing ideology around obesity: “The term epidemic is far from neutral. For many, the term connotes contagion and disease that one gets from close contact, inhospitable living and working conditions, or filth, squalor, and decay… The disease is generally precipitated by a vector, whether bacterium, virus, or parasite. Yet, there is not even agreement that obesity is a disease, much less a vector-borne one… The epidemic language is somewhat cruel, simultaneously minimizing the violence of serious plagues and overstating the association of corpulence with death.”

As many people stand behind an argument that this “epidemic” demands an increased financial drain on a larger health care system, Guthman posits, “seeing care for certain groups as an excessive cost reflects an arguably perverse way of thinking about health care in terms of human need... care for the sick is an economic burden only in health care systems where profit is the bottom line and public services are underfunded and politically unsupported—that is, systems in which only market logic is considered legitimate.”

While there is general agreement that people in the US are becoming larger—wider and taller—there is much dispute about whether people arebecoming more “overweight” or “obese,” and what these terms even mean. In this particular capacity, the most common unit of measurement currently utilized is the body mass index (BMI). The BMI is simply a ratio of weight to height; “normal” BMI was a category created by a statistical average. While intended to tell us something about fat (and also currently evoked in this way), the BMI lacks a number of specific distinctions, such as evaluating muscle versus fat, or subcutaneous versus visceral adipose tissue. Its mathematical pattern also does not factor the ways in which female-bodied people have evolved to store more fat tissue (for pregnancy and nursing). And, strangely, in 1998, the National Institute of Health ratherarbitrarily shrank the categorically “normal” range of BMI. As Guthman put it, “several million Americans became overweight overnight.”

She writes, “the term obesity reflects a medicalization of fatness.” Yet medicalization has two sides. On one hand, it can create access to resources and treatments. On the other hand, Guthman argues, “medicalization can turn nonnormative conditions and behaviors into problems in need of biomedical solution, and subject people to medical scrutiny regardless of their desires… Linking diseases with deviance or places with diseases can legitimize marginalization of various ‘populations’ and in that way can actually further structural inequality.”

So who is really invested in the “obesity epidemic,” besides Michelle Obama? It turns out, a lot of people. The phrase conjures images of concerned faces and well-funded grant proposals. Yet minimally, these efforts overlook a number of assumptions about normativity that actually shame and harm people who do not have a specific kind of body. These frameworks also tend to describe the “problem” by already possessing a foregone “solution.” On this point, Guthman writes, “neoliberalism has thus contributed to the idea that health is a personal responsibility more than a social one, which has allowed intensified social scolding of the obese. Likewise, neoliberalism has circumscribed the politics of the possible to that which can be obtained by ‘voting with your dollars’. . . The limited menu of solutions to a deeply problematic food system reflects the cultural values and social power of those who have fared reasonably well under contemporary capitalism and thus are personally invested in particular ways of seeing the problem.”

The actual issues that surround food choices, embodiment, interpersonal judgment, and corporate/ governmental/ social responsibilities seem much more complicated. On the website, “Emily” elaborates one aspect of this: “The shame surrounding fast food in particular is so deep that if you even admit that you sometimes eat it outside of the office, people feel OK commenting about how disgusting it is and how they would never put that in their bodies. Same with ‘junk food’ like Doritos—I once got into a long argument with a (male) co-worker who insisted that the synthetic cheese chips were a revolting thing to consume, despite my cogent point that they have actually been engineered by science to be as delicious as possible.”

One effect of the widespread availability of fast food and junk food is a sense of familiarity. While such familiarity is not the only reason many people make the choices they do, it is certainly a compelling one. It might also be an economical one. “For the earlier part of my adulthood, my dollars were sparse and I could not afford to be wasteful,” Shay Stewart-Bouley explains. “The reality is for many folks at the lower end of the financial spectrum, dollars are tight and often it’s easier to eat what you know rather than stepping out and being adventurous.”

In the January 2014 issue of the Reader, I wrote about the challenge of finding food to eat that is affordable and healthy while also being convenient ( In that article, I drew attention to the judgments frequently put forth towards folks who use EBT/food stamps, and the subsequent shame that surrounds using them. Some folks will be judged for spending food stamps on unhealthy foods, others for choosing expensive/healthy foods. Understanding this stigmatization helped me understand how privilege, entitlement, and condescension all work together to create contexts of shame around buying, preparing, eating, and talking about food.

“The person who haunts us is the person who is having more pleasure than us.” -Adam Phillips, On Balance

While a broadly defined healthfulness remains one of the main organizing principles of the natural foods movement, is there a hidden shadow to such a palatable goal? Health priorities have shaped cooperative business growth, food justice activism, the organics industry, and the increasing popularity of nutrition-based health care modalities. According to Guthman, “health has come to have such a positive value that it is simply unthinkable not to choose it.” Yet what does this principle mean now, in a globalized, rapidly-changing world?

Although initial healthism movements in the 1970s “displayed a healthy skepticism of government for its intrusiveness in personal freedoms” and were also “significantly anti-corporate in their sensibilities and tended to applaud populist, grassroots, and cooperative efforts as models of alternative ways of providing goods and services,” Guthman notes that these efforts eventually became increasingly self-focused and less collective-oriented. Emily Martin argues that “new metaphors of immunity, which imagine bodies to be pure and functional until seriously compromised, seemed to become the dominant way to conceptualize human health at about the same time that flexibility was heralded as the new way to manage the dynamics of capitalism.” Could an insistence on healthism actually represent a hidden bias, or a reductionist approach to thinking critically about complex food- and body-related issues?

Yet. Where does sensual enjoyment fit in? I’d like to talk about and write about and experience... pleasure. It’s hot, now I want to eat coconut gelato. I want to eat without shame, as much or as little as I choose. “Eating can be seen as a form of ballast against wearing out,” Lauren Berlant writes in Cruel Optimism, “but also as a counter-dissipation, in that, like other small pleasures, it can produce an experience of self-abeyance, of floating sideways.” Tonight I want to swim out to the edge of pleasure, I want to relish and savor, I want to taste and remember. My enjoyment doesn’t need to be sexualized (because I identify as female), and it doesn’t need to be judged (because I have a particular body shape). My delight does not have to register on anyone else’s health code of conduct.

If I think about it self-consciously, or vulnerably, or judgmentally, maybe I would skip the gelato, the floating sideways. Maybe I would choose sit-ups or wheatgrass or pass the time scrutinizing myself in the mirror. And maybe such things could give me pleasure too. (But probably not.) The real question is: who would I be carving up my body for?
“Health itself can then be seen as a side effect of successful normativity, and people’s desires and fantasies are solicited to line up with that pleasant condition,” writes Lauren Berlant. So if health can be viewed (socially) as a side effect to being “normal,” and being normal is a criteria for social recognizance as judge/juror. . . frankly, normalcy (and healthfulness, as they are now conflated) seems rather boring and oppressive. What does being coded “abnormal” do, especially in efficient, capitalist systems of production?

These commonly held notions around normalcy and abnormality, imbued with shame and judgment, become carved lines dictating the bodies that belong and those that do not. From race and ethnicity to gender, to body size and beyond, the idea of “normal” itself is dictated by systems of oppressive (de-)valuation, organized around various identities and their historical, artificial divisions. Personally, I find it important to examine how valuing health (in our individually-definable, specifically subjective ways) can create an unquestionable hierarchy of beliefs about the choices and lives of others. And while “healthism is oddly conflated with longevity,” as Guthman articulates, “one fact on which there is very broad consensus is that no one lives forever and that death is most definitely ‘normal.’”

So whatdoes it mean to live? “Is it to have health? To love, to have been loved? To have felt sovereign? To achieve a state or a sense of worked-toward enjoyment?” asks Lauren Berlant. Does shame detract from our experiences of being alive? “Is ‘life’ as the scene of reliable pleasures located largely in those experiences of coasting, with all that’s implied in that phrase, the shifting, diffuse, sensual space between pleasure and numbness?”


  • Rebecca Orchant, “Food Shame: How Our Lunch Defines Who We Are, For Better Or Worse”

  • Sarah Beauchamp, “Women Can Be Fat and Ugly and Everything Is Going to Be OK”

  • Emma Gray, “Public Food-Shaming Is The Insidious Type of Street Harassment Nobody Is Talking About”

  • Julianne Ross, “There’s a Disturbing New Food-Shaming Trend Targeting Women on Instagram”

  • Nell Frizell, “Food Shaming Blogs are Invasive and Unhelpful”

  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, eds., Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader

  • Julie Guthman, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism

  • Emily,  “Food Shaming is the New Fat Shaming”

  • Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

  • friends and family for the good conversations: NYC/ HOB/Vandross/ Colin Gillis

  • Olivia, “The Shame of Sweetness: Food as Code”

  • Donna R. Acacia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Foods and the Making of Americans

  • L.V. Anderson “Oral History of Breakfast Tacos Recalls an Era When Tacos Were Shameful”

  • Bruce Palling, “Does ‘Ethnic’ Food Exist?”

  • Devna Shukla, “Stall Confessions: Life Lessons from my Lunch Box”

  • Shay Stewart-Bouley, “Food Judgment Is Not Cool”

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