If food wasn’t a part of our cultural and social identity, we wouldn’t label foods ‘ethnic’, ‘traditional’, ‘mexican’, ‘asian’, ‘classic’, ‘indian’, ‘chinese’ or ‘comfort food’. We wouldn’t have ritualistic food like turkey on Thanksgiving, birthday cakes or Christmas ham. We’d simply refer to it with non-emotional and non-descriptive identifiers.
Which, side note, diet culture is always trying to do. Diets or “lifestyle changes” try to condition us to think of food as just ‘calories’ or ‘fuel’ and that our attaching of emotionality to food is the problem that needs to be fixed. There is a concerted effort to strip food of identity and emotionality because homogenization and conformity is the ultimate goal of dieting. Everyone needs to look the same and eat the same in order to be loved.
However, truth is: all eating is emotional because of food’s inextricable role in survival, society and culture.
Imagine, you were unable to eat for an entire day and begin to feel irritable. This is a biological and emotional reaction to food scarcity. It is well known by the fasting community that the longer you fast, the worse your sleep gets, this is a biological panic in your body. Stress hormones are pumping and trying to keep you awake to hunt for food. Thus creating an emotional response in the faster to be on alert.
Food is and always will be emotional because survival is emotional.
Outside of survival, more symbolically food is a cultural expression of love. Our earliest association with food is something most of us don’t remember, but as infants went we became hungry we cried and a caregiver fed us. Along with the soothing of food, they often held you close and potentially rocked you, spoke calmly to you, kissed you. In the human brain, these events repeatedly happening together wires food with love.
“Food is almost always shared,” writes anthropologist Robin Fox in the article Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. “people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is an occasion for sharing… for the expression of altruism” (2014, pg. 1).
Highlighting that food now and always is inherently social. Sharing food with others has always been an act of peace and good will. Status could and can be ascertained by how food is portioned or distributed.
If we look at diet culture’s rhetoric, all we have to do is ask: Who is allowed to eat without restraint? What status is given to those who can eat without restraint or being shamed for what they eat? And pretty quickly, you stumble onto the concept of thin privilege. Does this mean thin people don’t suffer from the harsh rhetoric and status distribution of diet culture? No. They are often in a perpetual state of weight gain, which underscores the ultimate goal of dieting and diet culture: homogenization and conformity.
If the food you cook can portray the culture you are from, it is more than just calories. If the amount of food you eat or don’t eat can illustrate your status, it is more than just fuel. If what and how you eat can determine if you are accepted or rejected by a society, food is utterly emotional because it securely attaches you to belonging and love.
I’d love to hear from you! What are your cultural traditions around food? What stories did you hear about food, culture, emotions and love as you were growing up? What food makes you feel loved?