Tag Archives: armchair diagnosis

Dear Imprudence: Food Policing, Ordinary Parenting, or Pathology?

Oh, Miss Conduct. How could you?

The Miss Conduct column at the Boston Globe published on 2 May featured the following letter:

I eat a healthy diet and incorporate fruits and vegetables into all meals, especially dinner. I have instilled the same habits in my toddler daughter. We frequently eat dinner at my in-laws’, and no vegetables are served. Would it be rude if I brought my own for me and my daughter to eat? J.C. / Waltham

The response begins:

Yes, it would be rude. Very rude, in fact. Food isn’t just nutritional; it’s social. People with medical or religious dietary restrictions can ask to be accommodated, and vegetarians in carnivore families can bring a side dish (enough to share, of course). If you have bona fide needs, you can make those known and negotiate as appropriate. However, when you are welcomed into other people’s homes to break bread with them, you do not implicitly critique their hospitality and lifestyle by bringing your own preferred foods. The message you would send to your in-laws by bringing along your own vegetables is “My dietary habits are superior to and more enlightened than yours.”

Is it rude or isn’t it? It can, in fact, potentially be rude to bring dinner along to someone else’s house when you are invited to dinner, unless, as Miss Conduct points out, you have dietary restrictions and you make a prior arrangement with the host.

This includes dietary restrictions such as limits on the kinds of food young children can safely eat, however. Young children cannot eat all of the same things that adults can. Bringing food safe for children is not being rude1, this is simply parenting, and making sure that the best interests of the child are looked out for.

It’s also not rude, I would add, if you have young children and you are concerned that the host might not serve food they want to eat2. Which is perhaps the case here; maybe J.C.’s daughter loves veggies, and if that is true, then, yes, it actually would be appropriate to bring along some veggies for her.

Lauredhel also pointed out, when we talked about this letter, that, setting aside concerns about allergies and kid-safe foods, it’s not necessarily rude in all cases to bring food along to dinner at the in-laws. Dinners at the in-laws tend to be more casual, and offering to bring a side dish to such events might be perfectly acceptable. There are also some communities and cultures where guests are expected to bring food and not bringing food would be rude. Of course, writing letters to the paper instead of communicating directly with the in-laws could also be construed as rather rude.

Miss Conduct continues:

The message you would be sending your daughter by bringing along the vegetables is even more disturbing: “Every meal must be perfect. You must always have vegetables. You can’t eat something just because it tastes good or because it’s polite to.” It’s good to teach children healthy eating, but rigid perfectionism will lead to social problems down the line. Is your daughter to be allowed birthday cake? Pizza parties? When she is invited to a friend’s house for dinner, do you plan to call and check on the menu? Part of the whole point of eating a healthy diet is so that we can splurge once in a while, after all.

Reasonably good. Miss Conduct is reinforcing some problematic stuff about ‘healthy’ food, but she’s setting a strong tone when it comes to talking about what is being modeled for the daughter here. It’s worth noting, too, that family pressures can contribute to the development of eating disorders.

But then:

Finally, do a little Web searching on the term “orthorexia.” Some people can get so obsessed with a healthy, “natural” diet that they wind up developing an eating disorder. “Orthorexia” isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but the term, coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, has gained attention and legitimacy over the past decade. I’m not diagnosing you with anything (I’m not a clinical psychologist, and even if I were, I wouldn’t diagnose anyone based on a four-sentence e-mail). But spend a little time thinking about how you would answer two of Bratman’s questions: “Is the virtue you feel about what you eat more important than the pleasure you receive from eating it?” and “Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family?”

Wait, what?

I really loathe it when advice columns do this. They just have to throw in a little armchair diagnosis. Robin Abrahams just had to add in a little ‘you know, perhaps you have a mental illness’ at the end, didn’t she?

This letter missed the mark in a lot of ways. Accusing the letterwriter of orthorexia instead of acknowledging the reasons she might have concerns about what’s on the dinner table? So not necessary.

Related reading:

The Fat Nutritionist

  1. After all, I’m never offended when I have friends with young children over for dinner and the mother starts breastfeeding!
  2. However, I would like to note that the good host anticipates the needs of all guests, and when people with young children are invited to dinner, the host should ask the parents if any food options should be provided. Some kids may like coq au vin just fine and be delighted with the menu, while others might prefer the option of some braised plain chicken, for example.