The right to eat

The ongoing war against fat people–oh, excuse me, “obesity”–has been recently engaged in a big battle: NYC’s push to ban soft drinks exceeding 16 oz. While I won’t argue that chemical-laden convenience foods are necessarily healthy, I’m getting really tired of the classism inherent in so much of the demonization of said stuff.

Most of the (good) arguments against food classism come down to things like poor folks not having easy access to affordable, fresh food, but there are some other factors that don’t get mentioned enough. In particular, I want to call out one big thing: the idea that it’s somehow shameful to get any pleasure or comfort from what you eat.

American culture is still riddled with Puritanism, and though the biggest manifestation of that is the war on Lust, the wars on Sloth and Gluttony also continue apace. People who would never dream of harping on someone for seeking sexual pleasure nonetheless consider it their right–even their duty–to shame others for wanting more downtime, or for using high-fat, high-salt or high-sugar foods as a cheap, quick source of pleasure and comfort. That so much of this shame is aimed at the working poor–those who have so few other means of making themselves feel better–is appalling.

The people doing this shaming are those who are used to having plenty of free time and regular access to other sources of entertainment and comfort. They are singles or couples with no kids, or two-parent families who make enough money for one to stay home, or to hire nannies, housekeepers, yard maintenance or other domestic workers. They are people who have jobs that give them plenty of break and vacation time. They are people whose homes are well-appointed and comfortable, who have access to easy transportation, who think nothing of dropping plenty of cash on wine, facials and weekends on the coast to revive and recharge after a long day. They are people who can afford an evening at the theater or the symphony, rather than being stuck seeing what’s on TV.

They are, in short, people who, by telling the poor that they should be spending 2-3 hours/day preparing healthier food (not to mention exercising–now that’s a luxury!) are blithely Marie Antoinetting the entire problem.

Working class people–especially parents–don’t have that kind of time/energy bandwidth in the first place, but they also don’t have other inexpensive means of making themselves feel better after a long, exhausting day of hoping that maybe this week they’ve worked enough overtime to pay for the kid’s visit to the urgent care clinic. Even something as simple as having the time to grocery shop for fresh produce more than once a week is beyond people who are spending 12 hours/day just earning a paycheck (work time plus commute) and who don’t have a stay-at-home partner to do all the domestic stuff.

I find it incredibly offensive that the same people who see nothing wrong with unwinding after work with a glass or two of expensive wine or Scotch are tearing into working-class folks who use food for that purpose. Having a bacon burger isn’t exactly healthy, no, but it’s healthier than drinking, and significantly cheaper, too. All things considered, french fries are considerably better to stuff in your mouth than a cigarette, and when you’re poor and don’t have access to anything healthier to improve your mood? Yeah. Let’s go for the greasy potato sticks.

I won’t deny that we do have a crisis in this country related to how folks eat and move. Mere body size alone isn’t a proper scapegoat (for reasons it would take too long to explain) but yes, we can chalk some disease and other ill health up to poor eating and exercise habits.

But there’s one other factor in health that never gets any media play, and that’s stress. The single greatest contributor to every major illness, and yet we never talk about how critical it is to reduce stress because doing so would put the spotlight squarely on where our underlying problem really is: class stratification, and the fact that we’re quite literally working people to death.

The worst part is that in haranguing people for reducing their stress via comfort foods, we’re actually making them sicker. Want to know why the French Paradox exists? It’s not because of wine. It’s because French people allow themselves to enjoy eating (and get 5 weeks of vacation every year, and work less than 40 hours/week, and have free health care, and … you get the picture.) Meanwhile over here in Puritanland, we have billion-dollar diet and “fitness” industries, and people are still dropping like flies because they’re not only stressed out about everything else in their lives, but about not being properly skinny.

Food is a quick, easy scapegoat that helps the comfortable middle class ignore the true underlying issues behind ill health. It absolves us of responsibility to improve the overall conditions for the working class so that they actually can live longer. If we can blame those poor slobs for getting sick–heaping scorn on them for having the gall to enjoy that dish of ice cream–then we don’t have to think about how the way we vote is actually killing other people.

Will cutting the size of soft drinks actually save lives? Not really, no. Not until we address the root causes of illness and early death among lower-income people will we see a dropoff. And until we stop blaming food for our own disregard for the lives of other people, that won’t ever happen.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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