eating · feminism · food

Dumping the Sugar Dump: critical follow up

chocolate-cakeIs it disordered eating? Is it unfeminist? Is it rationalization? Does it run contrary to the ideals of the blog? Is it dieting in disguise? Does it demonize sugar? Is it unscientific? Is it pleasure denying? Obsession-promoting? Am I a traitor? Troubled? A hypocrite?

These are all questions raised in the comments on my Tuesday post about “Dumping Sugar: this is not a detox.” First thing to say is that this is one of the reasons I love this blog. Readers don’t hold back. I understand why it generated a strong reaction. As the author of “Why food is beyond good and evil,” a committed anti-dieter, and practising intuitive eater, the idea of ditching sugar for good, as if it were a food group in itself and as if it had no redeeming value every one of these comments makes some sense to me. I’ve considered many similar questions myself right here on this blog. I’m the one who rejects tracking because of the panopticon.

But what I hadn’t prepared myself for was the level of snark and self-righteousness. So okay. I get it. The idea of trying to dump sugar strikes you as ill-advised. That’s fine and to those who expressed concern, thank you. Whatever else, it’s a flash point.

In the past, this sort of response (which at times felt harsh, like an attack, but I can handle that, being over 50 and a feminist this is not new to me–in fact, the last time I took this kind of heat was on this very blog, when my post about why putting “ladies” on the locker room door does a disservice to women fell into the hands of 4chan and some woman-hating subreddits) might make me dig in my heels.

But the sugar thing was meant to be a journey (possibly a short one). And part of the purpose of this week is to reflect on my motives and reasons and whether I even want to do this. And though it hurts when other feminists attack me, even more so when they call my feminism into question, I am positively disposed to taking other feminists seriously. So instead of writing a “back the fuck off, bitches, I’ve had  a rough year, month, week, day…” post (which is what I might have done when younger), I’m trying as hard as I can to keep an open mind. My plan here is to consider each challenge on its own merits, doing my best to set aside the snark and self-righteousness because in the end I don’t think that’s any way to get someone on your side if you have a legitimate point to make. Apologies in advance if some sarcasm and snark of my own seeps in.

Is it disordered eating? This is a tough one. I’m no stranger to disordered eating and I know first hand how it can shrink and ravage lives. Is dumping sugar (or any food) necessarily a sign of disordered eating? Not sure but I can see why it might be a red flag for some since it’s clearly something that lots of people with eating disorders do. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t about to get all fanatical about it. I’ve engaged in disordered eating in the past. But cutting out desserts doesn’t strike me as necessarily disordered. If it involved obsession and hyper-vigilance I’d be worried. But I was not planning to be hyper-vigilant.

Nevertheless, I can see how the idea of restricting a food group (not that sugar is in fact a food group) might trigger those with a history of eating disorders. I can also see how it could have some appeal to those with a history of eating disorders, which is why I needed to take this week of “planning” to try to get clear on my motives, which could easily be out of whack (a point I’m willing to consider and take seriously, though I must admit it’s easier to do that without shaming fingers wagging in my face).

I’ll get to the point about obsession in a minute.

Is it unscientific? Probably. I wasn’t proposing a research paper or study on it. I was engaging in some self-reflection about the role of sugar in my life and whether that itself was unhealthy. But in came the questions about what counts as sugar. Do I only mean refined sugar? What about maple syrup? Don’t we need glucose to get through the day? Don’t I realize that it’s impossible to get rid of sugar because it’s naturally occurring all over the place? All good questions that challenge the very basis of the idea that anyone can actually give up sugar. I find the charge that the a personal narrative post is unscientific to be kind of odd. But hey, if that’s your worry, mea culpa.

Is it pleasure-denying? I said:

There is just no really solid reason why these need to be in my life. If life would be sad without them, then that in itself says something kind of sad about the rest of my life.

This, among other things, offended people because of the implicit suggestion that if enjoying dessert is an important source of pleasure, I must be experiencing deficits in other areas of my life. Instead of seeing it that way, people suggested a different way of looking at it: dessert is an enjoyable thing that no one, especially feminists, should choose to live without. I can see wigging out over that if you’ve fought for the right not to have your food choices policed by friends, families and strangers. I have fought for that right myself, and other than what happened yesterday, have not experienced much policing of my food choices in recent years. And I don’t police the food choices of others despite that I’m an ethical vegan and have all sorts of views about carbon footprints, agribusiness, and unnecessary animal suffering and exploitation.

Is it unfeminist and contrary to the goals of this blog? I’ve blogged before about whether trying to lose weight is an unfeminist goal. I’ve blogged about why I will never, ever talk to anyone about weight loss again. I’ve thought a lot about the way it’s possible for individual women to betray women more generally by their choices. We can do this in all sorts of ways and feminists disagree about where to draw the line.

Some would reject make-up. Others might say we shouldn’t go in for marriage. Some will take issue with choosing to be a stay-at-home mother. Others will deny that sex workers can have any agency at all. Still others will stand on their heads to defend women’s right to choose to be sex workers. I do hope that for anyone who thinks choosing sex work is bad for women, your way of expressing that is not to lash out with verbal attacks on sex workers. Then there are those who will say that any explicit attempt to restrict women’s choices (as perhaps the suggestion that someone might choose not to eat sugar) is anti-feminist because … here I think the argument is complicated and has not been articulated well by any of the commenters on the original post.

I’m going to be charitable and say that these readers have a strong view, as do I, that dieting is part of an oppressive set of social practices that keeps women preoccupied with shallow goals and chasing after normative standards of femininity that ought to be rejected.

They ought to be rejected not only because they are impossible for many to attain (as if, if it were possible, that’s where we should be putting our attention), but also because guess what? There is a huge range of bodies and diversity matters and restricting that range has a negative impact on the value of equality. Compromising equality is definitely not consistent with feminist ideals. Therefore, the thought that anyone should restrict sugar must be contrary to feminism because there is no other reason to do it except dieting.

I’m not sure that’s true. I am not and do not intend to be on a diet any time soon. But I can see how people might link any kind of food restriction to dieting. And what if I were? Does that justify aggressive (yes, I do feel that some of the comments were unduly aggressive) policing of my choices? I’m going to go out on a limb here: no.

It’s even had the negative affect of “confirming” (to some of my friends who are perhaps more quiet, less public and less activist about their feminism) that feminists are scary people poised to lash out. As one friend said, only partially tongue in cheek, “Hugs. Don’t sweat it. Those damn feminists get offended about just about anything.” Great. That’s all we need.

I also don’t feel as if I should need to pull out my feminist resumé to prove myself here, on this blog, the blog that I co-founded, that has provided a feminist space for discussion and disagreement that we hope on our most optimistic days will be kind and constructive, not rife with personal attack.

Don’t even get me started on the stealth judgment contained in “you do you.” Seriously? It’s just passive aggressive bullshit that is code for “you do you, but before you do, let me make it really clear why I hate what you do when you do you. Carry on.” Does “you do you” really make up for the strong staring down of feminist disapproval? For the people who are “disappointed” and “surprised” and see their “red flags waving”? I’m 51 fucking years old. I don’t need anyone’s permission to “do me.” [again, thank you to those who reached out with concern instead, it felt much more helpful and genuine]

[stage direction: regain composure then continue]

Here’s my partial diagnosis of what happened (not complete, because I’m sure it was more complicated than this, but this is a start): After reading and re-reading the comments on the blog and the FB page, the overwhelming feeling I get is that at least some readers feel as if the post (and the project) was a betrayal of sorts (perhaps even evidence of my hypocrisy).

What I have to say about that is…maybe you’re right (though I won’t say I’m a hypocrite, I will say I’m not always perfectly consistent. Crucify me now. Oh, I almost forgot, you already did that on Tuesday.). It’s not at all consistent with my general approach to eating to even consider restricting foods for anything other than ethical reasons (as noted, I’m an ethical vegan). I do not demonize foods, do not believe that some foods are evil, and certainly do not go in for fads.  I spend a lot of time publicly rejecting diets, cleanses, weight loss talk (and programs), and have strongly feminist reasons for doing so. I promote body positivity and an inclusive approach to fitness.

And though some of the comments did sting (like the one that said what a waste of time to be spending energy journalling about sugar. For one thing, I feel that posting those journal entries was kind of exposing even if you think it’s a waste of time, and for another thing, it only took me 20 minutes and, as I said defensively in the comments after the onslaught had been under way for most of the day, I’d already spent several hours before and after writing about climate change and collective responsibility, so I think I’m actually making more valuable contributions in other spheres thank you very much), in the end I take the point while also still feeling fairly confident that food is a feminist issue.

To the person who said to Sam’s post that this whole thing is a “first world problem.” Yes. That’s true. In fact, the whole topic of dieting as a form of oppression is a first world problem. If you think about it in the context of global food systems and issues of real food insecurity, food sovereignty, and food justice, the choice to diet or eat whatever the heck you want, the choice to eat or not eat sugar or anything, oozes privilege. I have a paper on that coming out in the yet to be released Oxford Handbook on Food Ethics. Abstract here. But first world problems are still problems. Just because there may be worse problems in the world doesn’t mean we can’t talk about things that aren’t as horrible.

Before I concede entirely, I do want to address the one point several people made about restriction breeding obsession. I’ve had mixed experiences with this and I’m not the only one. As someone who has completely stopped consuming alcohol, I can attest that when I was moderating alcohol I was obsessed. After I quit, I no longer have to think about it anymore. It doesn’t even enter my mind because it’s basically off the table. I don’t read wine lists with a sense of longing and deprivation, or feel I’m missing out on anything when I toast with club soda instead of champagne. And more importantly for me, I don’t seek comfort in mind-altering substances anymore. Sure, continuing to use them would be exercising a freedom of choice that no one has the right to police, but that doesn’t mean it would be a good life strategy for me.

I have also engaged in seriously disordered and restricted eating in the past, and that did generate food obsession. But it seems to me that it is also possible that removing something completely can get it out of your head altogether (another case in point: I do not think about eating meat or dairy anymore — these are not on the menu for me and I do not obsess about them in their absence). So I guess I thought that perhaps sugar might go that way. The thought that it could go that way is not a totally ridiculous thought.

But I can see how it was a mistake to voice that here. People expect more, or perhaps, expect different, from this blog, from me. Even though sharing my plan and my journal made me vulnerable to criticism (and in other ways, but  it’s a blog and I often make myself vulnerable here), it also opened me up to input (let’s be charitable) from a feminist community that I generally respect and that I realize doesn’t have a whole lot of spaces that welcome their comments as much as we usually do here.

And it made me aware that I can still get caught up in what I call “old ideas” even if I try to dress them up in new ways. Don’t tell me you’ve never grasped after something in the hopes of making you “feel better” and found all sorts of good “reasons” for why doing that might “work.” Again, if you ever have, I hope that those who were concerned you might be making a mistake could find gentler ways of nudging you in a different direction.

When I decided I wanted to stop hearing about people’s weight loss, I said:

So I’m just going to put this out there and be totally frank. I really can’t stand it when people talk about their weight loss. I don’t care what the reasons. I don’t care if you’re trying or not trying. I don’t care if it’s for performance or for looks or just because that’s what friends, family, and strangers like to talk about.

You know, you can dress it up any way you like. But to me it’s such a personal thing that our social world has made into a public thing. And I’m always stumped about what we’re supposed to say. “Good for you!” even when someone is trying just goes against everything that feels right to me. It’s like encouraging something that I see ruin the lives of perfectly excellent people who think that weight loss will afford them something they need in order to feel good about themselves (or better about themselves). I just can’t have the conversation anymore, with anyone.

You know what? This week’s sugar dump response made me realize lots of people feel the same way about food and food restriction. It just reeks of “diet” to them. They just don’t want to hear it. And I agree. From here on out, I don’t either.

How about we eat what we eat and get on with our day? No need to write about it or talk about it or make big pronouncements about it.

Thanks for the feedback. Even though I don’t think it’s simply a choice between patriarchy or cupcakes, I’m dumping the sugar dump.



29 thoughts on “Dumping the Sugar Dump: critical follow up

  1. I’m just puzzled…people have to understand that there are whole cultural traditional diets that hardly have any sugar. For several hundred years. Imagine a whole culture without any cakes, pies, cupcakes or cookies in their repetoire. Just sugared bean soups..probably started in the 1700’s or whenever sugar was refined.

    I grew up with very little sugar in our food…that’s what REAL, traditional Chinese cuisine is when it’s cooked at home! My whole upbringing for lst 19 years had very little sugar before I left home. It was not obsession just a natural for my mother to cook like this. Yea, sure parents were very careful not to keep much pop, candy etc. at home.

    Yes, sure I put in 1 tablespoon of sugar for a tomato sauce batch that we made at home but the batch fed 8 people.

    Yea, I know I shouldn’t eat much sugar now.. so for health reasons as one gets older it is something to watch since one metabolism slows down after 50.

    I’m not even sure where feminism overrules all of this. To me, sugar consumption: is CULTURAL, is societal influence. That includes fast foods with sugar, salt. I’m a living example in diet changes because of this.

    1. It seems to me that the reason people were concerned on the previous post is exactly for this reason—that Tracy was saying exactly that the only way for her to cut down on sugar was to cut it out entirely, which would mean that batch of tomato sauce would be rendered inedible to her by that one tablespoon of sugar. Commenters felt that this (which is more extreme the viewpoint you’re espousing, in which sugar-dense foods are all but nonexistent but sugar is a valid ingredient) was an obsessive viewpoint.

    2. My reaction yesterday was very much…..”the negative affect of “confirming … that feminists are scary people poised to lash out.” Thanks for counter acting that effect with your wise and measured response to folks some of whom I thought were both harsh and wrong. Sugar may not be a food group, but like all foods it is ultimately a chemical. I, myself, am currently struggling with a plan to give up smoking cigarettes. Thus, I am planning to restrict my consumption of a chemical. I don’t think anyone, feminist or otherwise, would suggest in my case that I am undertaking a “tobacco diet”.

      1. Given that all foods are chemicals, though, how do we differentiate disordered restriction from healthy choices? And to your comment above, it’s actually almost exactly what Tracey wrote. She wrote about giving up condiments that have sugar as an ingredient: “Condiments — trying to imagine fries, homefries, and sweet potato fries without ketchup (sad face), veggie dogs without ketchup or relish (extra sad face). Maybe this means that fries will no longer be attractive. (Strategy: Homefries I’m willing to experiment with Frank’s hot sauce. Veggie dogs — maybe just go for the yellow mustard (read the label today and discovered: no sugar).” There is no “if below [x] amount” provision there. It’s a cold-turkey avoidance, like your tobacco analogy. That kind of avoidance makes sense when it’s tobacco not only because tobacco is physiologically addictive but also because you can avoid it without scrutinizing every other thing you consume. But it’s an entirely different proposition when it entails the time and energy and radical dietary change that going completely cold turkey on sugar entails without the same kind of payoff in terms of risk avoidance that quitting smoking gives. That tends to style sugar as an addictive substance, and its potential risks (which prominently include a concern with weight gain) as akin to the risks of smoking. They’re not, factually speaking, and I can understand why an informed feminist readership would take issue both with the unsupported conflation of those two things and on the implicit representation of weight gain as the same kind of risk as the risks of smoking.

  2. I too have been struggling to account for the strength of the reaction. I don’t think feminists actually are more judgmental than others, or worst behaved. It’s just that our standards are different than the norm and so get noticed. I think it’s more that women are on a really short fuse about diets, food restriction, body image, spring, and bathing suit season nonsense. It’s evidence of how bad the situation is, I think. I’m ready to snap at the next person who recommends a diet to me or who raves about how much weight they’ve lost since giving up a, b, or c. Lots and lots of our readers are recovering from eating disorders and find in us a voice of calm and body acceptance while at the same time enthusiastically promoting women’s athletics, sports, physical fitness etc. It’s tough. I’m writing this while getting my hair cut and the place is packed with women’s magazines and chatter about various restrictive diets. It’s not my thing and yet I can’t not hear it. I know you well enough to know that’s not what you’re about. I always learn a lot from your reflections. But clearly this struck a nerve! Let’s all take a deep breath and trust one another a little bit more.

    1. It’s made me want to hold off on personal topics in my blogging. I will stick to news items that have some feminist interest for the next little while.

    2. My reaction yesterday was very much…..”the negative affect of “confirming … that feminists are scary people poised to lash out.” Thanks for counter acting that effect with your wise and measured response to folks some of whom I thought were both harsh and wrong. Sugar may not be a food group, but like all foods it is ultimately a chemical. I, myself, am currently struggling with a plan to give up smoking cigarettes. Thus, I am planning to restrict my consumption of a chemical. I don’t think anyone, feminist or otherwise, would suggest in my case that I am undertaking a “tobacco diet”.

      1. I am so triggered right now given all of the negative experiences I endured in Graduate school at U of T. Yesterday, Tracy reaction given the responses, took me back to the days at U of T, when there were only 3 women faculty and you had to pick a side… a feminist z philosopher…or you are out…in our opinion. Women supposedly embracing women doing philosophy crucified those of us who did Ethics, or Logic….just Ethics or Logic….not “Feminist Ethics” or “Feminist Logic”. It is ridiculous. I found myself, a prominent Woman member of my department….getting funding for Women only spaces, and talks and support at U of T, in my time….being crucified because Abailard’s Intentionist Ethics….did not fit the Feminist perspective…so naturally, none of the so called Feminists in the department supported my intellectual pursuits.

        For my part, I thought….Abelard was, in fact, castrasted and part of what I work on is Heloise, and her philosophical imput. But o.k. I don’t count as a feminist philosopher. Any you know what? That’s o.k. with me. I am a feminist, I am a philosopher. But I’m not a Feminist philosopher…because this group is a bunch of exclusionary bitches that is not better than the ole boys club. T

  3. Tracy- on a different topic. Thank you for this excellent writing example.

  4. Tracy, on a separate topic..thank you for this excellent writing sample.

  5. Imagine coming from a totally different cultural my parents (I don’t count since I was born and raised in Canada): they came from rural China in the 1950’s. Their childhood food up to immigrating to Canada : had very little sugar.

    That’s not obsession in certain cultures. That’s very different culture without Western cuisine influences. Imagine a culture that doesn’t have cakes, pies, cookies and dessert squares in its original cultural culinary past!

    My mother DIDN’T even know how to bake anything when she lived in Canada…until she learned from her Canadianized teenage children. I distinctly remember when I was around 13-14 yrs. old showing my mother how to make a simple pie by using a premade pie shell.. This was living in Ontario.

    1. I like this different perspective on such a hot button issue, Jean. It makes it clear how culturally specific food tastes are. Thanks.

      1. “It makes it clear how culturally specific food tastes are.”
        Yes, sweetened foods is culturally specific. I have….5 different female friends, who don’t know each other, they live in different provinces AND born and lived in Canada their whole 50+ years. They are like me, also raised by immigrant Asian parents:

        raised for lst 19-20 yrs. on primarily home-cooked Chinese meals. It’s not like the restaurant food… Chinese home-cooked is less oil, less deep frying, less salt, and no/very little sugar. So when I go out with any of these friends for dinner, they’re similar to me: not keen on sugared sweets. It’s just how their palate evolved from childhood. It has nothing to do with obsessed parenting or anything like that. Their mothers, like my mother, only cooked what they were most familiar from their ancestral homeland. They sorta thought about healthy meals, veggies, clear consomme soups, rice and fresh fruit. But sure pop, cake during special times of year.

        It’s actually me that eats more desserts: that’s an influence of my German partner whose mother was a fantastic gourmet baker..puff pastry, multi-layered tortes, etc.

  6. Thanks, Tracy, for once again making yourself vulnerable through thoughtful and personal writing on this topic. Who knew sugar was such a volatile substance? But seriously, and as someone reading and witnessing (rather than experiencing the effects of) these interchanges, it’s been really important to read and think deeply about. I say this as a food studies and public health researcher, philosopher and a woman who struggles like hell with the siren song of dieting (even though I KNOW BETTER), the shame associated with having the body I have, and the pure rage about all the relentless diet/beauty/judgy crap that’s always there.

    You’ve made me think more about my own resistance to rules, restrictions, principles about food– even the ones that come from deeply held principles, my own health goals, and even preferences. I’ll be thinking and writing some about it in the days to come. Thank you for that.

  7. I had a really negative reaction to the idea, but that made me reflect on that reaction more than on your choice.

    It also made me think of Gretchen Rubin’s distinction between “moderators” and “abstainers:”

    The idea is that abstainers struggle to moderate something and are better off just not engaging at all, moderation causes obsession. Similarly, moderators struggle with abstinence, and it causes obsession.

    I have concerns with this distinction, because I suspect that there might skills to learning to moderate or abstain if one of those fits with one’s overarching goals that are being ignored here. But I do wonder if that partially explains the strength of reactions. Strict rules have led to disaster in my past.

  8. This is my first time commenting after having read the two posts and all the comments. The discussion really grabbed me. It is something I think about a lot. I totally see why you considered a black line rule. I have currently cut out 90% of meat for ethical reasons and the issue preoccupied me, and I wonder whether I would think about it less if I just cut it out entirely. But meat – THAT was easy.

    I love sweet things. I am Bengali and my people are known for making the best sweets in India. My parents thought I was depriving my daughter her natural-born right to sweet things when I didn’t introduce sugar until the second year. But I have gone through troubling patterns with sugar which can be simplified as binging –> total restriction –> binging –> total restriction, and so on.

    I’ve abandoned any formal approach to dealing with sugar. In my life, it’s restriction had a very negative impact on my relationship with food and my body. I used the idea of cutting out sugar as a way of losing weight, being Healthy and trying to head off the diabetes that is so common in my family. Now I am in passive reflection mode. I know there is something going on with sugar so I am taking a back seat and trying to observe my mental processes. And what’s really weird is that once I started down that road, I stopped binging or restricting. I enjoy sweet things, but it isn’t taking over my life.

    To see an intelligent woman reflect on this issue in writing – an issue I struggle
    with – in a measured way has been very helpful for me. So thanks.

  9. I’m struggling to understand the strength of the reaction to the previous post as well… I didn’t have a strong reaction to the post, and thought, “Reducing sugar has been an idea I’ve toyed with but never pursued; it’ll be interesting to read about someone else’s journey.” I was especially interested in your perspective since my impression of you is level-headed, critical, and introspective (all things I strive to be). I don’t have much of a point to this comment except to try to be encouraging. The whole thing definitely raises a lot of questions for me about policing each other’s choices, how talking about what we eat affects others, and how we view food and health.

  10. I was surprised by the backlash as someone who has also struggled with disordered eating and has identified as a feminist for as long as I can remember. I thought it was an insightful piece, as is this one, and it really got me thinking in a mindful, purposeful, and honest way. I hope that you will continue to provide thought provoking discussions based on your personal reflections and experiences. I too don’t “diet”, but I choose what to eat based on how I feel. If you feel that this is a journey you want to take and that you can do so with your own best interests in mind, then you have that right and we should all support your ability to choose!

  11. I’ve struggled with disordered eating (binge eating specifically) for a long time. I’ve been on a journey of self discovery and recovery for about a year now and I this blog has been monumental in helping me heal.
    I am glad you posted about this and I don’t think it’s a red flag that you wanted to give up sugar. I think you’ve mentioned in other posts that you struggle with addictions so when I read the post I trusted that you knew what you were doing given what you’ve gone through in your life.
    As part of my recovery I have accepted that it is OK for me to stay away from foods that are very triggering until I am able to fine tune my copying skills so that I can deal with turmoil properly instead of using food to fill the void. This comes from a place of self love and compassion and not from self loathing.
    I think you’ve considered very carefully what giving up sugar means to you and if you think you want to do it then go for it! Don’t let judgemental folks discourage you. You know yourself the best and only you know what you need.
    I am glad you and Sam started this blog!

    1. Thanks Lina. I appreciate your kind words and your perspective. I especially appreciate how you framed this in the context of what you knew about me from past posts. And also that you shared your own experience with abstinence when moderation didn’t seem as achievable. And I love your wise words about ale love and compassion. Thank you. 😊

  12. I’m coming to this late because I’ve been thinking about such issues getting ready for October Unprocessed. The line between constructively thinking about our food choices and giving moral standing to food is not easy to draw. I do talk to people about my way of eating because sometimes someone finds my approach to diabetes just what they need and I send them to What I stress is that different approaches work for different people. If we don’t talk about it, how do people find what might make them feel more energetic (what I appreciate most about my way of eating)?

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