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The Politics of Dieting

May 7, 2009

What does it mean to have the choice to refuse food?

Mia Farrow has decided to go on a hunger strike to call attention to the issue in Darfur. Her website has a video blog of her progress as well as information on the crisis itself.

On April 27th I will begin a fast of water only in solidarity with the people of Darfur and as a personal expression of outrage at a world that is somehow able to stand by and watch innocent men, women and children needlessly die of starvation, thirst and disease.

Inherent in her fast, beause she is coming from the standpoint of privilege and celebrity, is two things: that she has the choice to refuse food and that these choices matter to a significant number of people. I am still debating how I feel about this choice: Is it bringing too much attention to herself, as opposed to the issue? Is this the best way to use her significant privilege to help?

And what does it mean to be in “solidarity” with the people of Darfur? She is using her body as a means of connection with the suffering of fellow humans, but can you understand starvation if it is a choice? Does, in fact, refusing food, diminish the issue of hunger? On day 10, Farrow writes,

Strangely I am feeling fine. I realize we don’t need to eat every day. And we certainly don’t need 3 meals a day. I feel so well that I’m bored. I cant really go out. I was told not to do the stairs (but I do anyway)

The fact that people do refuse food in America has impacted our conceptions of the amount of food that people deserve. In the Bush torture memos, it was argued that because people (women) voluntary choose to restrict their diets to 1,000 calories a day, this “dietary manipulation” of prisoners is not torture. :

“While detainees subject to dietary manipulation are obviously situated differently from individuals who voluntarily engage in commercial weight-loss programs, we note that widely available commercial weight-loss programs in the United States employ diets of 1000 kcal/day for sustain periods of weeks or longer without requiring medical supervision… While we do not equate commercial weight loss programs and this interrogation technique, the fact that these calorie levels are used in the weight-loss programs, in our view, is instructive in evaluating the medical safety of the interrogation technique.”

(Although, Hydroxycut, a “widely available commercial weight-loss program”, was recently recalled after reports of serious adverse health effects.)

Shapely Prose has a great post on what it means for women told to diet that these programs are the equivalent of torture. But I was thinking about it from the opposite standpoint, what does it mean for the issue of world hunger that we are refusing food the food that we are privileged with here?

There are many direct links in the way our food choices here in America affect hunger throughout the world. I think of my choices as a consumer as having far more power than my single vote. The type of food industries we support have a direct impact on people throughout the world; movements like Food Truth are empowering people to see this connection. A hunger protest like Farrow’s does not have a direct affect on the amount of food for those who are hungry, but she it may, hopefully have a positive effect in Darfur.

I make the choices to eat organic and local, and limit my meat intake because I see a direct link between these actions and injustices throughout the world. But I also want to respect the privilege I have to make these choices about food. I am kind of disgusted with myself for thinking of food as the enemy. For feeling that sense of self accomplishment when my stomach growls, or thinking that I have a lot of will power if I threw out the rest of a cookie I actually want to eat. It’s degrading to my body that I base my sense of self on how I can restrict it. But it’s also degrading to the people around the world or here in America suffering and dying from malnutrition and hunger that I try to limit my vital calories for a false sense of self worth.

What do you guys think of these two stories? What responsibilities do you think come with our privilege of food choices?

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