Is 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.