Susie Price: Cutting Through The Weird Food Codes

For something which everyone has to do in order to stay alive, eating is fraught with way too many social boundaries, judgements about weight and health, strange unspoken rules about what men and women are supposed to eat (or enjoy), and much more. It’s a mess, and everyone knows it, but nobody really talks about it like normal people. The obese get talked about a lot, as do those with eating disorders – not men, mind you, because nobody likes to acknowledge that men suffer from eating disorders as well – but everyone else ends up wandering the desert and speaking in strange codes. Time for some feminism, which seems to be alive and ready to do some kicking.

Dessert Is Not a Moral Issue

Of all the weird food codes, “guilty pleasure” is most insidious. If, like most people, we occasionally enjoy something kind of sweet and not really diet-squad approved, it’s okay to talk about it in public so long as we call it our guilty pleasure. Even yogurt which tastes like it once wandered past lemon cheesecake is marketed as something we ought to feel guilty about enjoying, so the idea of enjoying an actual slice of lemon cheesecake is only acceptable if we claim to feel a little naughty about even having a bite. Suddenly, food becomes a moral issue, something to feel guilty about even if it’s “part of a balanced breakfast”, or lunch, or dinner. It’s easy to say that it’s just a figure of speech, but when we’re talking feminism and the whole messed-up culture surrounding how women are allowed to eat, everything we say on a regular basis tends to run deep. Thankfully, a lot of feminists are now taking a stand against the idea of food-related guilt: “I don’t have guilty pleasures because I shouldn’t feel guilty about my food,” wrote a Guerilla Feminism contributor, which is about as no-nonsense as this kind of thing ought to be.

Our Eating Habits, Ourselves

Quick question: if you’re told about a lazy, self-indulgent, unemployed woman, what does she look like in your mind’s eye? Probably not thin, though maybe not obese – most likely somewhere in between, and definitely overweight. We’re subliminally told time and time again that fat people are slobs, thin people are vain and probably have eating disorders (but are definitely the right candidate for the job), and that there isn’t really a weight or way of eating that doesn’t come with supposed personality traits attached. People suffering from eating disorders are, unfairly, hit particularly hard, with the assumption that they’ve brought their disorder on themselves through vanity or just perfectionism. “An eating disorder is characterized by an extreme disruption in regular eating habits, whether it is eating too little or eating too much,” according to an expert at Psychguides.com, but popular culture would rush to reassure us that what eating disorders are really characterized by are personal failings. However, we all ended up getting painted with the same brush, just in different colors.

Food Doesn’t Need To Be Justified

Ordering dessert – or even just a fatty, delicious steak – in a restaurant can be a fraught moment. Regarding ordering cake when your friends are abstaining, The Story of Telling writes that a “great waiter knows that an emotional decision is being made. He understands that he’s not just there to scribble down an order—he’s there to support the dessert orderer’s choice.” That choice is often justified by ‘well, I’ve eaten well all day’, or ‘I had a salad for lunch’, because society is convinced that we should be held accountable for every small indulgence we grant ourselves. It’s become such a common tactic that it’s now used to advertise cinnamon buns and cakes – something which bemuses even those involved in the diet industry, one of whom wrote that “there’s nothing inherently evil about this or any dessert. Though I would imagine that promises of burning the calories later are more likely lead to weight gain than simply making sure that you eat dessert in moderation.”

This, of course, is the paradoxical heart of nutrition double-talk – not only does it make us feel worse, but it also makes it difficult to have a healthy relationship towards food, and therefore difficult to eat well. It’s a vicious cycle, and one we could all do with getting off.

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NolaFemmes reader Susie Price is now a travel writer, but before she took to sitting at her desk musing on the places she’s visited, she spent a good deal of her life working in the leisure industry in different roles. Now she combines random scribbling with motherhood and is pretty happy with her lot.

No Resolutions

After a six week holiday break, Pistolette has returned. I’ve been quite productive though, getting up at 4:30am to make short story deadlines, and crack out word-count on other fiction projects. But now, it’s back to the essays. Happy New Year!

Using the word “resolution” for something you want to accomplish just destines it to fail. It sounds disorganized, undedicated, and passive aggressive, like something the United Nations would declare. Call it anything but that. Ambitions, objectives, aspirations, and even intentions sound more tough than resolutions. “Goals” is a nice direct one.

That aside, making any such attempts for the New Year is almost destined to fail when you live in New Orleans, especially when eating healthy and starting exercise programs are at the top of the list. Everywhere else in America, it might be productive to mark the end of the Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas seasons with new “resolutions”. But January is actually the worst time to start life changes here because it’s technically holiday MIDSEASON for us.

Take January 2nd. The new diet begins. You learn to grill some fish and steam some veggies, adding liberal amounts of cayenne just so you can swallow it. Then the workout starts. You endure stabbing pains in your side while you run in Audubon Park – and that’s before you even make it out of the parking lot. But you survive four whole days, pat yourself on the back, and give yourself one fat-free organic chocolate chip to celebrate, and then…

Aunt Jeanette comes over on Twelfth Night with a f#%king King Cake.

And this is how it goes for months. After January 6th there’s a slew of diet-destructive treats related to Superbowl parties and Mardi Gras, not to mention Valentine’s Day goodies that sneak in from the office and school. Before you know it your Pilates DVD is buried under beads and candy wrappers, and your health food is rotting in the crisper drawer. Just a minor setback, you think, there is still hope.

Lent! Yes, Lent will save me! Forty days of behaving for a higher purpose! Unfortunately there was a comedian in the Catholic bureaucracy who thought it would be hilarious to place St Patrick’s Day during Lent (yeah, I know Paddy died that day, but what the hell was wrong with his birthday?). So there are more parades, and food, and alcohol. In any other city this might be a one afternoon event, but in New Orleans, hell no, at least a week. This also happens to be wedding season too, and if you’re standing in one, consider your ‘get in shape’ plans decimated.

Even if you survived all that, you surely wouldn’t make it through festival season. From mid-March to the end of May there are more Springtime events in Louisiana than dirty politicians (ok, maybe not that many). If you’ve made it this far… oh hell no you haven’t. You’d have to be Jesus to endure that kind of temptation. And even he liked a big family dinner with plenty of wine and Saints.

Nope, I’m not apologizing for that. Quit groaning and read.

Now you’re in the first week of June, and your New Year’s resolutions are long forgotten. You likely gave up somewhere around your fifth slice of Cream Cheese and Raspberry stuffed Randazzo’s at the office party, right before the “Be Mine” card with a box of Godiva arrived. You didn’t decide to give up, you just decided not to think about it anymore.

But you didn’t fail, really. You simply started at the wrong time. Many of these goals take months of uninterrupted dedication, and when do we ever get a break from partying around here to do that? Well…

Hurricane season.

That’s right. The perfect time to start New Year’s resolutions objectives in Louisiana is June 1st.

In June the worst of the summer heat kicks off, and a lull in the city’s fun agenda along with it. You’ll have several months of no interruptions*. You’re going to switch from bacchanal mode to survivalist mode anyway. You’ll clean out the pantry so you can fit canned goods and bottled water in it, stock battery powered electronics, scrape out the storm drains, do some house maintenance, check on the important documents, etc. This mode is far more conducive to making health changes than the beginning of Carnival season because you can convince yourself it’s hurricane survival training**.

The peak of hurricane season is so hot that you won’t be as pissy about salad or grilled cuisine as you’d be in January***. If not, you might just forget to eat while obsessively checking the Weather Channel every ten minutes to the hour. So work off the stress in a chilly 65 degree gym, or get up at 5am and beat the heat for a run. By the time the Fourth of July comes around you’ll have shed several pounds while everyone else will have already gained back what they lost in January (plus a few extra). And when those 4½ months are over you’re far more likely to enjoy the October through May onslaught of decadence in pleasurable moderation****.

So there you go. You’re officially off the hook until Summer. Enjoy that King Cake.

*Sure if you LOOK for trouble you can always find it here, but during these month it usually stays out of your way.
**Which in diet psychology feels morally superior to “I just wanted to wear a bikini again”.
***Sometime during June’s Tomato Festival last year you probably bit into a juicy fresh Creole tomato and thought, “Hmmm, this is healthy *and* delicious. Too bad it’s not the proper time to start eating well”.
****I’d never suggest giving up the local fun completely. If that’s your goal I’d just advise you to leave town.

Originally published at Pistolette.net, January 1, 2011.