Class, race, food
September was Food Desert Awareness month, aiming to bring into the public consciousness the reality that many low-income, urban people face: the lack of access to quality foods, including fresh, affordable produce. It’s one of the many ways in which being poor seriously and negatively affects one’s life chances.
It certainly doesn’t stop mainstream commentary from blaming poor people for failing to be healthy given their circumstances. Search for an article or blog post reporting on studies that show that being on food stamps correlates with higher rates of obesity. Venture into the comments section (if you dare) and I guarantee you will find at least one variant on each of the following comments:
1. “Poor people are ignorant about nutrition.” (Extra points for a poor-Black-woman-who-fed-her-baby-Cheetos story.)
2. “I used to work at a grocery store, and everyone on foodstamps was obese and only bought Doritos and Coke.”
3. “I only make $X a week, and I cook all organic meals and freeze them!”
The obvious subtext is, naturally, poor people (especially poor people of color) are fat, lazy, and stupid. And the policy recommendations from these armchair analysts involve more “intervention,” not in terms of supplying the means to a more physically and emotionally healthy life, but in terms of oversight, greater control over what we’re willing to hand over to those with the gall to eat on the government’s dime.
Using government programs to punitively circumscribe the lives of poor people (especially poor women) is nothing new, from parenting norms enforced by welfare to “affordable” housing procedures that dictate where and with whom a poor person may live. If you “rely on” the government, many find it perfectly reasonable that it and its taxpayers have legitimate claim to the stuff of your life.
In relationship to food, this idea swam to the surface in a recent post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who discusses the added indignity of denying yourself the pleasure of food when you’re already denied so many other pleasurable things by poverty. It’s not about willpower, laziness, stupidity. It’s not about not knowing how to make yourself “healthy,” but about not having limitless emotional resources to deal with all the ways that people try to make you small.
Our demand that poor people not eat junk food is never coupled with a recognition like Coates’s, that food can be the one place where an individual’s pleasure in life is not determined by other people. We never suggest broadly reforming the conditions–both social and structrual–that negatively affect the health of poor people. And most of all, we never assume that the actors involved are trying to do the best they can to live their lives.
We need to recognize that–in most ways–asking someone to radically change their body to conform to some social rule is deeply problematic and thoroughly unrealistic. This holds true for White women on treadmills reading Vogue the same as it does for Black men working low-wage low-prestige jobs to put bread (and butter!) on the table, but we can’t overlook the systemic inequalities, the structural discrimination, that draws body positivity into another focus, be it racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, or any other kind of hatred. We need to view the dismantling of the hierarchies that defend and reproduce these attitudes as central to the goal of body positivity in order to see how (our own and others’) assumptions about our body are so innately tied up in them.