Good Food, Bad Food, and Moral Judgments in Eating

Over the last year or so, I’ve made some really mindful changes to the way I eat, and have, simultaneously, learned a ton about body acceptance and Health at Every Size from the communities that support that initiative. But I’ve found that there is a really contentious reception to talking about food and eating habits within some of my new-found communities, and I want to take a moment to think about that.

Health At Every Size (HAES) and Fat Acceptance have both been movements that have vocally insisted that there is something wrong with the language that gives moral assignation to our food choices. And I agree up to a point: a food’s calorie count or fat content or decadence does not assign it a moral quality. It is morally neutral, like, for instance, shoes. Wearing shoes, owning shoes, buying shoes, having different styles of shoes, liking shoes, enjoying shoes – none of these are morally charged ideas. We can have opinions about our shoe preferences and thus label different shoes good shoes. For instance, Kate Spade pumps, in my opinion, are good shoes. Crocs are bad shoes. You’re free to disagree and I think it would take a pretty extreme person to suggest that I am making a moral judgment about the shoes; it is clearly an aesthetic one.

But there can be good shoes and bad shoes morally, and there can be good food and bad food morally, too. But it isn’t based on calories! In both cases, it’s based on ethics of trade. The problem is that our language doesn’t reflect this. We all know that when someone says “I ate such terrible food last night!” they mean that they ate a bunch of greasy, high calorie, carbohydrate-laden bar menu nibbles. Never mind if the food was all grown within 20 miles of the bar in question, was entirely vegan, and was sold at a fair trade price directly from the farm to the bar’s cook. When we say “bad food,” we mean food that can potentially add to our girth. And frankly, when we start considering that, it’s no wonder that the phrases “good food” and “bad food” are so charged. It’s kind of outrageous that we reserve our moral judgments for what goes on our table in terms of how it impacts our personal marketability rather than how our choices affect the environment and the poor. There are moral food choices. They are just entirely and unequivocally not related to your dress size.

Worse, I think, is when nutritional judgments about food – what is good for us versus what is bad for us – are reduced to whether or not something can potentially make us gain weight. If you think my body isn’t overwhelmingly delighted to receive a high calorie brunch replete with fresh fruit oozing natural sugars, pastries made with whole grains, fresh cream in my coffee, and fresh, saffron-yolked eggs all smothered in organic cream-based Hollandaise, honey, you’ve got another thing coming to you. The amount of HDL-based lipids, rich proteins, fiber, and vitamins and nutrients in the breakfast I described makes my body so happy. It makes me healthy. It also makes me fat. Those fats keep your brain healthy and active, not to mention keep you warm. Those proteins are great muscle-building energy, and who the hell doesn’t want to be strong? I want to be strong enough to knock down injustice and haul my dog around the apartment (she’s not small). The fiber helps me poop, the vitamins promote everything from healthy skin and hair to disease fighting and cell regeneration. The calcium in the cream keeps my bones and teeth strong.

And it all tastes really fucking good.

The truth is, of course, that we have all come from a system in which food and morality and body size and social obligation have all been confusingly, conflictingly, and wrongly linked. My Body, My Choice? Only if we’re talking about reproductive rights; we’re still obligated to others to take care of our health in the way another prescribes. But it’s possible that a reclarification of our language, a new understand of what morally “good” and “bad” food really is, could help us all show a little more compassion, take our health into our own hands (or not), and ultimately – and most importantly – respect each other fully.

By Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

9 replies on “Good Food, Bad Food, and Moral Judgments in Eating”

This is an interesting article, I think because it describes a lot of what I have been going through as of late. I have been on WW for a bit of time now, and have been really happy with the results, but that extends far past being able to squeeze my ass into smaller pants. Rather, I am thrilled to have moved myself out of a risk bracket for diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and stroke (something that was very real to me as I am the same stocky, big boobed body type of all of the women on my Dad’s side of the family who have all had these health complications). I am also better at the sport I love (martial arts) because I am more agile, and finally, I have figured out how to eat food that is healthy for me and be full, rather than, as I was mentioning in Michelle Miller’s article yesterday, snack on plain bread that makes my chronic tummy condition briefly feel better. For me, weightloss was the right choice, that doesn’t mean it is for everyone…. and I definitely wrestled with the idea, that as a feminist, confident, smart woman I should just love my body, period. But  came to the conclusion that to love my body didn’t mean being a toothpick, but it also didn’t mean staying where I was.

On a semi-related note, I think the whole “good” vs “baaaaaad” food thing is really problematic. Not just because of what you described, but also because food becomes just another area where a women’s sense of agency and choice are taken away. Food, much like appearance, career (to a degree, even in North America we make less than men and often don’t excel as fast because of mat leave and childcare), sexuality, and reproductive rights, has just become another place where control and agency are lost. And perhaps this is what HAES is getting at- that women deserve to choose what goes into their body.

When you said you wrestled with the idea that “as a feminist, confident, smart woman I should” ANYTHING, I think that’s where my red flags go up. The only thing you “should” do as a feminist is make your decisions for yourself and exercise your agency. Frankly, I think any time someone tells me what to do with my body – keep a fetus in it, carve pounds off of it, or keep it in stasis out of someone else’s idea of what “loving” my body means – I’m going to have a problem with that. If our feminism, or our body acceptance, have started dictating to us the terms on which we relate to our bodies, they have failed.

I’m really annoyed with the FA and HAES movements for the reasons you stated. Additionally, I don’t fell allow people want to lose weight a safe space.  Wanting to lose weight is tantamount to treason to FA/HAES. I am not healthy at my current size and losing weight will signiigantly help me to be more healthy.  But no, in FA, I have to be OK with being this size and if I’m not I must hate myself.

Do you know what I mean? It’s hard to explain. Let me put it like this: it’s like with feminism.  Many feminists feel that shaving your armpits or wearing makeup means you aren’t really a feminist.  You can’t do these things because you want to, you must be an ignorant tool of the patriarchy if you do.  Which is ridiculous.  A woman can wear lipstick and still be a feminist.

To put it another way: You can love your house, but just because you want to repaint a room does that mean you hate your house? I know I’m not explaining it right.

I know exactly what you mean.  FA/HAES frustrate me in that it seems to give people license to declare themselves healthy in lieu of anything at all.  These people are really anti-doctor and yeah, there are a lot of shitty doctors out there, but the vibe seems to be:  “He told me to lose weight, which hurt my feelings, and that means he doesn’t know anything about medicine.”  For people who are working to break down moral judgments regarding weight, they seem to feel those judgments everywhere, even if that’s not what’s going on.

I have to disagree with your definition of the “vibe” around the standard FA view of doctors. My own personal experience, from multiple doctors, has been that they focused on my weight to such a degree that they ignored the issue I came to them with, and were so persistent in shaming me for my size that it made me reluctant to visit them or discuss other issues. I should point out that I, despite being fat as fuck (and yes, that is the medical term, I believe) have absolutely no weight-related health issues, and yes, I do get checked for them regularly.

Doctors telling fatties to lose weight when they have weight-related health problems (or are even just on the path to them) are not the problem. Doctors with such horrific bedside manners that they make their patients extremely uncomfortable are. And frankly, doctors who tell you to lose weight when there is no actual need to do so are a problem, especially if hearing that makes a person less likely to go to a doctor. The diet industry is what, billions if not trillions of dollars? There is an obscene amount of money to be made in supporting the idea that thinner is intrinsically healthier (when repeated studies have shown that it isn’t) and a lot of doctors buy into that.

As a person who was once morbidly obese and is now merely vaguely overweight and active and eats “right” and blah blah blah, but who always had incredible blood work, great cholesterol, and has developed blood pressure problems since losing weight (unrelated, I believe), this really resonates with me. I would go to the doctor with a sinus infection or chronic migraines and they’d immediately say, “Well, have you thought about losing weight?”

1: I’m a woman in the U.S. of course I’ve fucking thought about losing weight.

2: We’re on a limited time here and my insurance will only pay for so much advice; can you treat the problem I came in here with, please?

So annoying. It’s annoying because I was aware of the health problems that were directly related to my weight – it’s not like I’m walking around in this body completely unaware of what’s happening with it – but there are SOME doctors who are so pigheadedly anti-obesity that they refuse to treat anything else until you “take care of” what they view as the chief problem. even if it’s unrelated to a current health condition.

And just about every fat person I know has a story like this. That’s the problem – not that doctors say, Hey, you could stand to lose a few pounds, but that doctors say, Hey, you have a sinus infection; LOSE WEIGHT.

I think I understand what you’re getting at, which is basically that wanting or deciding that you need to lose weight or change something else about your body does not automatically equate to hating your body, and I agree, and that is where HAES/FA and I part ways. I also find it peculiar that a movement that can argue for a person’s right not to want to take care of their health at all (which you see more often in FA than in HAES) would then feel it’s perfectly acceptable to turn around and slam other people for exercising their bodily right to change their body or relate to their body in another way. Where I can definitely concur with them is in their insistence that we stop couching these decisions in moral language, and that we stop trying to police one another’s bodies.

I don’t want this article to come off as a slam on those movements, though; I intended it more as a meditation on some language-specific observations they’ve made that I find interesting and agree with, with this one footnote.

You’re explaining it perfectly. The logic that’s getting me through my new get-more-active kick is this: This is my body. I love my body, because it is mine. My body is neutral, it is not bad or wrong or gross. However, something doesn’t have to be bad in order for it to get better. You can improve on something that’s already a good thing – just like your house analogy.

I think FA/HAES is a fantastic refuge for people who have been on the dieting/weightloss roller coaster for years and who have been taught to hate themselves. I know it completely changed my life and how I see myself in relation to the world around me – it’s not that I’m too fat for the clothes, it’s that the clothes are too small for me, you know? Sounds stupid but it’s a huge difference. And were it not for FA, I don’t think I’d be able to work out now without slipping back into my old habits of self-loathing. I know it’s not for everyone, and wanting to lose weight does feel treasonous, but I do think it’s a really good movement for a lot of people who have been utterly rejected and insulted by mainstream culture.

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