The Good, the Bad & the Morality Language Assigned to Food

Friday, 26 May 2017

“I’m going to be naughty and have a donut, YOLO.”


“I’m being bad today, I’ll have a biscuit.”


“Oh, you’re being good having a salad for lunch!”

You may have seen other bloggers and even myself in a previous post mention the problem with ‘morality’ language surrounding food and dieting, and the above are only a few examples of what we mean.  They’re seemingly harmless, inoffensive comments that people make around us on the daily, but this kind of talk about food does far more damage than a lot folks might realise.

Most of us don’t even think twice about saying we’re ‘being bad’ by treating ourselves to a food we enjoy, but the reality is that this one of the many symptoms of a society that values thinness and weightloss goals, and shames those who aren’t thin or at the very least aspiring to ‘health’ or a smaller, more toned body.

When we hear this kind of stuff, it’s almost always light-hearted and never really serious, of course, but this type of language is code that (when you add it together with everything else in our world that elevates thin bodies, dieting and pursuit of so-called wellness or fitness) eats its way into our subconscious, to the point where we can no longer even talk about eating certain foods in some settings without having to either justify it, or to admit to ourselves and those around us that we’re somehow less principled for eating them.

I know what some of you might be thinking – but some foods are bad for you, that’s just a fact! And you’d be absolutely right! Some foods are bad for our bodies (although usually just when consumed in large quantities), or are generally unhealthy, but how often do you hear the people around the office say it’s the digestive biscuit they’re snacking on that’s bad? Or the donut that’s a little bit naughty? Or the low fat yoghurt that’s good and well-behaved? You don’t… because they’re almost always referring to the people eating them, and deciding that they’re behaving either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on the item of food they’re consuming. If it’s a healthy food, congratulations – you’re good! If it’s an unhealthy food, you’re living dangerously at best, naughty if you fancy a cringe or you’re down right bad at worst.

The problem with this way of talking about food is that you’re assigning moral language to yourself and to other people based on what they’re eating. The same can be said for ‘cheat days’ in the fitness world – if you have a day where you treat yourself and eat something you enjoy that might be a little less healthy, you’re likening yourself to a cheater, i.e. immoral, bad, untrustworthy. In a certain well-known diet group (you know the one), foods you’re supposed to avoid are even called ‘syns’, as in, you know, some of the most immoral acts you can apparently do according to some religions…

As innocuous as this language can seem when you’re chuckling about it with friends or family or co-workers, it’s closely interwoven with a culture that doesn’t just fear but loathes fat, and upholds the dangerous ideas and stereotypes that ‘we are what we eat’ and that what we choose to put into our bodies somehow dictates whether or not we’re deserving of respect.

Implying that someone is ‘being bad’ for eating a cupcake might seem like nothing, but it’s actually one of thousands of tiny little ripples that feed the tidal wave associating fat bodies with being gluttonous, sinful and shameful. When pieced together these comments create a clear and harmful picture of thin bodies (i.e. those who are good and consume good, healthy foods) as an ideal we are all constantly expected to aspire to, while fat bodies (i.e. those who are bad and consume bad, unhealthy foods) are seen as unsightly and indicative of laziness and a lack of self-respect.  If you’re fat then you’re likely to be automatically branded ‘bad’ at first glance, but if you’re seen as trying your hardest to be ‘good’ and to have set weight-loss goals and be eating ‘good’ foods, then you can be redeemed.  Those who make a point of trying to be thin are elevated somewhat above those who don’t actively advertise to the world that they’re attempting to fit into the very small, lean mould we expect them to.

Regardless of whether or not a particular food or a person is healthy, we need to stop assigning praise to some foods and guilt to others – we should never be made to feel guilty for eating or inferior because we wanted to eat something we actually enjoy instead of something we’re supposed to feel like we ‘should’. That guilt is what can develop into calorie tracking, working out so that you feel deserving of food, low self-esteem, body comparison or in some cases, even eating disorders.  How often have you felt like you ‘need’ to hit the gym because you had a couple of these naughty foods and need to work off the extra calories to feel better about your decision to eat them?  I’ve lost count of how many times this has crossed my mind over the years, and it’s a product of this form of diet talk!

Eating healthy or unhealthy, being thin or fat, or fit or unfit doesn’t define your character. At the end of the day, whatever you choose to eat, your food is just fuel. If you choose to fuel your body with healthy things like salads and quinoa and roasted veggies then that’s cool, but contrary to what this coded language we use to talk about food implies, it doesn’t make you better than someone who chooses to fuel their body with chips, beans and pizza. Further to that, sometimes these so-called ‘bad’ foods are exactly what we need at the time – I don’t know about you, but the occasional donut or burger can be great self-care and make me feel happy!

Eating unhealthy foods doesn’t make you any less deserving of respect and you most certainly don’t have to earn the right to indulge. Next time you think about calling yourself bad or your friend good because of what you’re eating, stop yourself. Remember that saying things like that can feed your own and others’ insecurities, and that food is just energy and not a test of character.

 You’re not cheating for ordering what you want when you’re out to eat with friends; you’re just treating yourself. You’re not bad for eating a cookie because you fancied a cookie with your cup of tea. You’re not naughty for eating a bag of Asda jam donuts all to yourself; you’re just living your best life and eating what you love. You deserve to eat nice things, and you should never have to justify it to other people or to yourself.

You do you boo, treat yo’ self.

13 comments

  1. It's like the whole concept of cleaning eating, that worries me greatly. Because saying that is referring other foods as 'dirty' and implying they are impure and there's just this whole idea of superiority that comes with it. I totally agree about 'cheat' days as well and how damaging the discourse and use of language can be to others.

    Marbl☾☽Moon

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    1. Yes! Exactly. The whole 'clean eating' fad is part of what's driven the rise of orthorexia and people becoming obsessed with healthy foods, nutritional content etc. Food isn't clean or dirty, not only does it suck the joy out of certain foods but it makes you feel like you're making a 'wrong' decision even though eating is never wrong.

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  2. I took a class on linguistic anthropology and the levelling of perceived morality and what people eat is a very real thing! It's amazing how our minds and our culture turn words like "I'm being so bad" in reference to something as simple as eating a cupcake into a mental understanding of that person as an inherently immoral person. A think so much of fat phobia is wrapped up in this concept that healthy eating and fit bodies align with goodness and virtue, while anything outside of that doesn't.

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    1. Ooh jealous, that must have been such an interesting class! Very well said, and the sad thing is that people don't even realise what's happening, which makes it all the more difficult to combat.

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  3. Thanks for writing this! I find this sort of talk to be endemic in workplaces & I always challenge it these days. One of my favourite books is Things No-one Will Tell Fat Girls by Jes Baker, and I LOVE the guest essay about diet culture by Virgie Tovar: "...even though we pay our bills, own cars, hold jobs, have children, and manage relationships, every day we allow diet culture to treat us like we’re five-year-olds who can’t make decisions about when or how much to eat."

    There's a full excerpt on Jes Baker's site: http://www.themilitantbaker.com/2016/07/living-dream-at-250-pounds-or-why-diet.html

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    1. You're very welcome! It's the same with mine, my last job was particularly bad with this type of thing and I had to just try and brush it off and twist things in the right direction without seeming antagonistic or a buzz kill all the time. :/ Thank you for the quote and link, I love what I've read from both Jes and Virgie in the past! You always recommend the best reading when you comment. ♥

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  4. This post is SPOT ON mate. I know Vick (SirVickalot) will love reading this too, she's been making this point A LOT.

    Rebecca, libfemblog.com xo

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  5. I'm terrible for this. I always say I'm going to be naughty if I have a chocolate or cake and to a certain extent I actually feel naughty when I eat one too, as it's not healthy food. I really need to stop it and start thinking about food differently.

    Kayleigh x
    http://hazelnutmusings.blogspot.co.uk/

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    1. I think we all do it, even I'm acutely aware of it but have to bite my tongue and stop myself on occasion. It's a hard habit to unlearn when everyone around you has been doing it for your entire life!

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  6. Oh my days this post is everything! I know we talk about this topic at length anyway so I was always going to agree with you but you articulated this so well.
    And you're so right about people thinking it's inoffensive and harmless and if it existed on its own it possibly would be but unfortunately diet culture has infiltrated every area of our lives.

    V <3
    http://sirvikalot.wordpress.com

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  7. My god, I can't express all of the many ways that I loved this post. I always try and remind people that all food has some value and that assigning 'bad' and 'good' kinds of words to those things is just an unhealthy way of thinking about it all and it's extremely unhelpful to those who have had issues with food in the past and are trying to rebuilt their relationship with it.

    Julia // The Sunday Mode

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