Tag Archives: food police

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.

Recommended Reading for May 25th, 2010

Dorian at Dorianisms: “Men Who Get It”

The danger lies in beginning to assume that you are some kind of Ultimate Authority, and in particular, that you can teach people about their own experiences. That you know better than marginalized people what is happening in their lives, with their marginalization. That you are the Ultimate Arbiter of what is and is not offensive. In short, once you assume you “get it”, it’s very easy to become a mansplainer. Or a straightsplainer or ablesplainer or whateversplainer, as the case may be. The point is that this is really, really, bad. And can pretty directly be traced to the assumption that you “get” something better than, y’know, the people who actually live it.

Diane Shipley, special to the LA Times: My Turn: A Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferer reconnects with the world

Embarrassingly for a former English major, I lost words, even simple ones. “You know, those things! They go on feet!” I’d cry, frustrated.

“Shoes?” my mom would ask. “Socks?”

Janani Balasubramanian at Racialicious: Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green always White (and Male and Upper-class)

Still, what could be better than a return to family farms and home-cooking, which many of these gurus champion? The images are powerfully nostalgic and idyllic: cows grazing on sweet alfalfa, kids’ mouths stained red with fresh heirloom tomato juice, and mom in the kitchen rolling out dough for homegrown-apple pie. But this is not an equal-access trip down memory lane.

darryl cunningham at tallguywwrites (LJ): The Facts in the Case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield [Image-heavy]

A fifteen page story about the MMR vaccination controversy.

Dear Imprudence: Can I Stick My Aging Parent In A Nursing Home Yet?

I always love when I can do a ‘doing it right’ edition of Dear Imprudence, and this week we’ve got a doozy from the live chat with Prudence:

Everywhere, USA: My older siblings financially support and care for my sick elderly parent. My parent is admittedly happy as they do not want to live out their days in a nursing home. I live five hours away and get home only two or three times a year and do not earn enough of an income to help. While I appreciate my siblings’ efforts, I disagree with the diet my parent is fed, which is not healthy and caters to my parent’s every wish and whim. I also think that a nursing home is better equipped to care for my parent. This has created a divide in our once-close family. What can I do to narrow this divide?

Emily Yoffe: You can pitch in or shut up. If you’re a five-hour car ride away, you can come on long weekends and prepare the kind of healthy food you think your parent should be eating. Since you contribute nothing financially and rarely visit, and the other siblings have taken on the burden of caring for your ailing parent, and making him or her happy—as you acknowledge—be grateful they have relieved you of this burden. Stop complaining, start acknowledging the sacrifices your siblings are making, and do more so that when it’s all over, your siblings don’t forever resent you.

Let’s see. Everywhere lives five hours away from Aging Parent, doesn’t contribute financially, and doesn’t provide any other support. We don’t know what the circumstances are behind this; it sounds like Everywhere may work at a not so great job that pays poorly and doesn’t provide a lot of time off for coordinating trips home, so it’s good that Everywhere’s siblings are capable of providing care, since Everywhere cannot. This person ‘appreciates’ the ‘efforts’ of the siblings who are acting as care providers to prevent Aging Parent from being instutionalised, but disapproves…of what they are feeding Aging Parent. Because Aging Parent is being fed the food ou likes.

Solution? Stick Parent in a nursing home, of course! Because clearly community-based care from family members is inferior and wrong. Obviously Aging Parent has no established friendships or relationships in the community that might be disrupted by being forced into an institution. And it’s clear that ‘force’ would be involved here because it’s pretty strongly indicated that Parent is very happy to be at home, with family members. I wonder who will be paying for that nursing home, since Everywhere claims to not be earning enough income to help; nursing homes are rather expensive.

This sounds like a divide Everywhere has created, and that’s why I was glad that Prudie came back swinging. Although I could have done without Prudie’s referring to Aging Parent as a ‘burden’ and caring for a family member as a ‘sacrifice,’ the rest of this advice is right on point. Everywhere does indeed need to either start getting involved in caregiving, or zip it.

It doesn’t sound like Aging Parent is disabled, but this type of dynamic occurs both with people with disabilities and older adults. Family members chomping at the bit to pack them off to an institution so that they will stop being a bother. This a narrative that’s also supported and reinforced by the society we live in; look at this letter, where the person tries to claim that a nursing home is ‘better equipped’ to provide care than Aging Parent’s own family. I’m really glad that Prudie pushed back hard on this, because my jaw actually dropped when I was reading the question.

Quick Hit: The Food Police Are In My Asparagus!

I am a huge asparagus fan, which means that, yes, I am unspeakably excited about the fact that it is asparagus season and yes, the rumours are true, I did eat a pound of asparagus on Monday, another pound on Tuesday, and I am about to go eat another 3/4 of a pound.

When I went to grab some asparagus from the fridge, I pulled the tag off and did a double take:

The tag which was attached to a bundle of asparagus, photographed on top of said asparagus. Text on the tag reads: 'Healthy, Sensible Food Practices: Always wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. Health Professionals recommend that you eat least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Distributed by The Nunes Co. Inc Salinas, CA 93902 Produce of USA For more information 1-800-695-5012 www.foxy.com'

Seriously, can’t a person eat asparagus these days without being lectured about needing to eat “five a day”?!

Healthy Obligations

Even the President of the United States, it appears, is not free of an obligation to be healthy. Society is even conveniently provided with the means of policing him, in the form of ample news stories about his latest physical. The Guardian had three stories up about it at the same time! A British paper, I would add! I don’t think any American papers cover the Queen’s health in such exhaustive detail.

A quick perusal of front pages and “health” sections at some major newspapers netted (warnings on all of these links for health/food policing, sizeism, ableism, don’t read the comments, &tc.):

Barack Obama’s medical: how does he compare to the rest of us?

Cigarettes and alcohol and Obama

Give the guy a cigarette break

Obama in excellent health, doctor says, but he should quit smoking

Obama’s other health downfall — pie

Desserts to Blame for Obama’s Higher Cholesterol

Spoonfuls of Southern Cooking for Obama

What’s interesting and horrific about all of these stories is that they go well beyond “the President had a physical and was pronounced fit for duty.” They provide explicit and detailed medical information about medications, injuries, his blood pressure and pulse, and recommendations made by his doctor.

Apparently HIPAA does not apply to Presidents.

And apparently Presidents are subject to the health police just like the rest of us. The President should eat less pie! The President should quit smoking! The President should use a different exercise routine! The President should be mocked for eating arugula! All of these things are repeated, with varying degrees of force, in the news articles about his physical. Indeed, many of those articles are being used by their authors to launch little screeds on their own agendas (anti-pie, anti-smoking, exercise prescriptionism, anti-arugula). In the eyes of the media, evidently, the President’s health is not just an object of public consumption, it is a teachable moment packed with moral object lessons.

Here’s what I think about the President’s health: It’s not my business, except in some very special circumstances.

I assume that if the President does have health concerns, he can deal with them privately, and he has the right to do so. I would certainly never dictate what he should or should not do because I am not the President. I am not living in his body. I don’t know what kind of needs his body has, and can’t presume to imagine that I do know. His medical appointments are his own affair. His nutrition is his business. His medications are a personal matter.

There are certain situations in which the President’s health would become a matter of concern to me. If, for example, he was in a coma, that would be something I would like to know, because I have worries about the continuity of government. If something was temporarily preventing him from making sound decisions, I would prefer that he not be holding the nuclear football, but I don’t particularly need to know what might be impairing his judgment. Indeed, I don’t even need to know why other people are temporarily taking over Presidential duties; I just need to know that things are being handled appropriately.

I do not need to know President Obama’s blood pressure. I don’t need to know his cholesterol levels. I don’t need to know about what medications he takes, where his sports injuries are, what he eats and when, or even how tall he is. None of this information is relevant to being the President of the United States.

And all of these reports salivating over the details of the President’s medical record fill me with new awe that FDR managed to conceal many of the aspects of his disability. A different era, indeed.

Given the fact that not only the US media but the international media is covering the results of the Presidential physical in such graphic detail, I am curious to know if readers in other countries have noticed similar trends in terms of mediasplosions over the health of their heads of state1. Is it unusual to see such coverage, or par for the course?

  1. It’s not just heads of state here who are subject to such intense scrutiny, of course; here in California, Senator Pat Wiggins has been mercilessly pursued by the media over her health issues. This includes rampant speculation about the kinds of medical issues she might be experiencing and whether or not she is able to serve as a Senator.