During a recent engagement at the San Francisco Public Library I got the chance to answer an amazing question about so-called “food deserts,” food justice and the cultural preoccupation with BIPOC children’s weight and eating habits. The person who asked the question worked with First Nations kids, and was as equally concerned with increasing their access to nutritious food as she was protecting them from fat-shaming rhetoric.
I am a fat woman of color. The last decade of my life has been dedicated to understanding fatphobia, a pervasive form of bigotry that positions fat people (including children) as physically, morally, and intellectually inferior. I work toward trying to end weight-based discrimination, and that means I spend a lot of time researching our cultural preoccupation with manipulating food in order to become ever-thinner (which is erroneously equated with “ever-healthier,” in the United States). I’ve noticed that when it comes to public health, this preoccupation with food and weight heightens when it comes to BIPOC communities, teetering into the troubling arena of surveillance.
In an ideal world this question would not have been posed to me. It would have been posed to a dietician, a nutritionist or a doctor. Unfortunately, practitioners in those fields overwhelmingly uphold harmful ideologies, including healthism (I’ll talk more about that momentarily) and fatphobia.
I sense I’m being asked this question because this person is cobbling together an answer from a variety of sources and vetting each of them for cultural awareness, potential stigma, and her own sense of whether she trusts the source. This act of cobbling is one of the many types of additional labor that BIPOC, women and fat people do all the time. And this additional labor adds up. It adds stress. It takes time away from self-care. It creates hypervigilance, exhaustion and a sense of isolation. The social reality that brackets her question tells an important story. And consequently it tells a story about the children she works with, too.
I do not say all of this to cast her or these kids as abject. They are not. There are historical forces that seek to pathologize and otherize them, and cast their bodies (especially their weight) as a sign of community failure and consequently, a hazard to national health. In fact, I know these kids are vibrant, smart, creative, silly and full of ideas. They laugh and go to parties and play and find bugs and ask for an extra serving of ice cream just like all kids do.
I answered her question in three parts:
First, food justice matters. Making sure that we all have access to nutritious food should be considered a basic human right. Shaming BIPOC children and families about how they eat is not how we achieve food justice. Food shaming leads to a heightened likelihood of that child developing an eating disorder, which will compound their marginalization. Children always need to feel safe and not judged when they eat.
Second, every American child seems to be expected to become a cardiometabolically pristine and long-living adult, who has a diet rich with leafy green vegetables and is largely free of anxiety or depression. That same child, however, will grow up in a country that refuses to provide universal access to basic healthcare, mental health services, clean water or a living wage. That child lives in a country that imprisons more of its population than any other nation in the world. If that child is Black, the police can kill their parents and potentially receive no legal punishment for that act. If that child is Indigenous, they are likely to live a shorter life compared to the rest of the U.S. population. That child lives in a country where inorganic farming – focused on the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock – is subsidized at a rate that far exceeds allocations to the production of either greens or organic farming.
There is a striking incompatibility between the expectation and the tools provided to achieve that expectation. This incompatibility is connected to a phenomenon known as healthism: when the individual (not the ecosystem or society in which that individual resides) is considered the most important unit in the creation of health. Healthism, to be clear, is not particularly scientific. A quick look at the CDC’s “Social Determinants of Health” page makes clear that health does not occur in a vacuum, and that things like discrimination, neighborhood crime rate, and even access to transportation are factors outside of many individuals’ control that impact health outcomes.
As scholar Naya Jones points out, “Emphasis on individual ‘healthy eating’ elides structural and environmental factors that affect health.” Jones further points out, “Food pedagogies often (re)produce binaries between ‘healthy’/’unhealthy’ foods (and) ‘good’/’bad’ eaters.” These pedagogies map onto binaristic ideologies to which BIPOC children have already been sensitized, such as racism, sexism, and fatphobia.
Almost all of our public health solutions for children rely on individual behaviors, like not drinking soda. Not drinking soda will not solve racism. Whether a person does or does not eat any amount of potato chips is not the key to ending structural poverty. Disproportionately relying on public health measures that target individual behaviors doesn’t appropriately address what are, in fact, structural inequalities. Further, that over-reliance compounds those inequalities.
How BIPOC children are eating could serve to be far lower on the list of U.S. priorities. Stop telling children how to eat. Start ending systemic injustice. Children thrive when they don’t have to live with the fear of things like the death or imprisonment of their families.
Finally, children dealing with racism, poverty, etc. are likelier to be stressed. In fact, we know that they experience something called minority stress, the chronically high levels of stress faced by members of stigmatized groups. They are likelier, therefore, to need more comfort. Comfort can be provided by any number of things: safe touch, a walk in a park, food, or meditation. In our country, food is one of the fastest, cheapest and easiest ways to access comfort, fulfill survival needs, and feel a sense of participation in our greater consumer culture. Our bodies are brilliantly designed to help us gravitate to the most readily available resources around us that make us feel ok. This is beautifully adaptive behavior. This isn’t bad, and children shouldn’t be made to feel bad for participating in intuitive behavior.
Expecting BIPOC families not to eat in a way that provides familiarity, ease and comfort while refusing to seriously undertake the measures necessary to ensure they are safe from systemic forces that seek to destroy their communities is, I believe, unconscionable.
The idea that BIPOC children need to be taught how to eat by outside sources is based on the belief that they don’t already know how to eat, which is simply not the case.
When thinking about how to change this conversation we must face a difficult truth: that our discomfort does not actually reside with BIPOC children’s bodies, but with the culture and its unacceptable treatment of those bodies.
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and podcaster. Tovar edited the anthology Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and she’s the author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat (Feminist Press August 2018), which was placed on the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer List, and The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color (New Harbinger Publications 2020). She is the founder of Babecamp, an online course designed to help people break up with diet culture, and hosts the podcast Rebel Eaters Club.