The Ways We Talk About Food: Part 1

Introduction

I can still see my 19-year-old self in the usual paraphernalia: lime green organic cotton T-shirt, burlap cap, juice-stained apron stitched with the image of a rising sun.

This was the work uniform of health-food-enthralled Cammy—the Cammy who was brewing her own kombucha, being discipled by books like Natural Cures They Don’t Want You to Know About, and who had just started her first of three consecutive summers working at a local grocery store.

But this wasn’t just any grocery store. It was the only store in our region to sell all and only organic products. Everything, from celery to pasta to cupcakes to chapstick, was USDA-approved organic and/or made with 100% organic ingredients.

In the grand destiny that was my organic-enthusiast self landing this little job, I was, of course, smitten by the place. I worked the juice and smoothie bar, where I churned out wheatgrass shots for the lunchtime rush, juiced elaborate detox concoctions, and whipped up different variations of guacamole for what became known as our “avocado shrine.”

This was also the place where my love for language and my love for “healthy” food collided in both good and bad ways (if I may dare tread the irony of using such language).

The good: I learned to pronounce words like “acai” correctly (we were pretty snobbish when we heard customers mispronounce it as ah-KIGH or ah-SIGH rather than ah-sigh-EE). I learned how to describe our different juices— “sweet,” “tangy,” “grassy,” “garlicky” (yes, one had juiced garlic cloves), “bright orange,” or “it’ll clear you out” (for the very beet-y ones). I learned the names of a hundred different ingredients, and the fact that quinoa has a saponin (SAP-a-nin) coating that one should wash off before cooking it.

The bad: I learned that, while there were a lot of good and pure and super foods, there were also a lot of bad and impure and never-eat-that foods. And in between them? Well… the middle of the spectrum seemed to give out, and I was left blinking blankly into the gaping and terrifying chasm.

I say “terrifying” because, as someone who was already bordering on an obsessive relationship with food and exercise, three summers saturated with food purist evangelizing—from labels, ads, co-workers, and the little community of foodies and hippies that comprised our clientele—may have done more harm than good. It created a kind of echo chamber in my mind, till all I could see and hear was that a LOT of foods were evil. How are you supposed to go on drinking milk, for example, when someone tells you that its homogenized and pasteurized essence is like “shards of glass going through your digestive system”? (For the record, I didn’t).

Now, the poet in me still likes something about that phraseology. Comparing a type of drink to shards of glass is, after all, poetic. It’s figurative language. And I love figurative language because it’s impactful—it’s illustrative, compelling, striking. It causes us to think about things in ways we haven’t before.

But figurative language also has its downsides, apart from giving way to a wellspring of cliches (probably like the word “wellspring”). It can be used—and abused—to distort reality.

The next few posts will be exploring in more detail why and how that is. My hope is that, by doing so, those of us who have had more drastic and polarized perceptions of  “good” and “bad” foods—so much so that we’ve ironically fostered more imbalance than balance in our lives— can move toward restoring (or recreating) the middle ground in the ever complex food spectrum. And as we become more aware of, and possibly even change, how we talk and feel about certain foods, perhaps the same transformation can happen in the way we talk and feel about our bodies.

There’s much to say on this topic, so I’m dividing into the following segments:

1.) “Pure” vs. “impure” food and the fallacy of perfect eating

2.) Orthorexia: when fear of “pure” and “impure” becomes hyperbole

3.) How our language about food affects body image

4.) Our mortal bodies: “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  (Kidding on this one. Sort of)

Thank you again to those who have shared their responses to my last survey, “The Ways We Talk About Food”! I’ve received some diverse and helpful and vulnerable perspectives that I’ll be referencing (with permission) throughout these posts. If you would like to contribute thoughts on this topic but haven’t yet, the survey is still open here.

Stay tuned for the next segment. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

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*NOTE: While my hope is that these entries open up a productive dialogue for any and all, some of them may be especially relatable for those who have struggled with—or love someone who struggles with—orthorexia, anorexia, EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), or simply any patterns of anxious or obsessive thoughts surrounding food and body image. But to also acknowledge those in a different realm of food challenges (or perhaps overlapping): if you are someone who deals with a food allergy or addiction, autoimmune disease, and/or medically mandated dietary restrictions, some of these sentiments may not be as applicable or resonant—at least, not in the same way. Either way, I’d love to know why that is or isn’t the case, so feel free to make use of the comments section below or message me!

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