My Diet & My Feminism

I recently found The Curvy Nerd and on it, a post titled Is dieting anti-feminist?. I suspect that my current incarnation with dieting is not what the author means when they talk about the term. Also, I think I will ramble and reveal massive insecurities — hence posting here rather than as a comment over there.

About a month ago, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and endometriosis in my rectum and sigmoid colon. (The endo diagnosis itself isn’t new, but the additional location is like a bonus feature of the most unwelcome variety). Via doctor-recommended elimination diet, I’ve discovered that my body is much happier when I remove dairy from my diet. Well, this is true at least for my gastrointestinal system and the portions of my reproductive system that have taken up residence within my guts. For the rest of my reproductive tissues scattered throughout my pelvic region — who knows what they want anymore? But my poops are manageable again, so that’s something.

On a very carnal level, giving up dairy has been tough and frustrating. Whether I’d ever consumed excessive quantities of dairy before, I can’t deny that my emotional attachment to some very specific food items:

  • Milk or half and half for coffee. I like my coffee, I need my coffee, and unless it is exquisite coffee (most isn’t), I need it with cream. Powdered or other non-dairy creamer does not cut it. I figured out (via lots of help!) coconut milk is my preferred substitute, but guess how easy that is to find?
  • Milk chocolate. The kind of chocolate that’s most abundant in my everyday life, the kind I’m most likely to be offered by someone who might not understand why I’m refusing. I’m not trying to lose weight; I’m trying to lose gastrointestinal distress.
  • Cheese. Outside my home, cheese is on everything. Perhaps nearer and dearer to my heart, cheese is on pizza. No lie: I have not been in a pizza place since eliminating dairy because I’m just not ready to face that reality.

Aurelio's Pizza

Going deeper, I can’t help but think this is linked to how my mom regarded food while I was growing up — and, if I’m being honest with myself, even now. She tended to restrict herself and us (my sister and me) from certain “bad” foods (the exact foods could vary depending on her target diet at the time) for weeks or months, then purchasing them and eating multiple portions of them at a time, then feeling guilty and so restricting them again. When we were younger, my sister and I weren’t privy to this periodic eating of the “bad” food in quantity, so mostly what I remember is the restriction. And I remember very vehemently that I did not like the restriction. It felt…

It felt, not like saying, “This food is bad for your body,” but rather, “This food will make your body bad.”

I won’t say I’ve never restricted foods or calories of my own volition, but I have never done so in a healthy way or at a time when I was physically and mentally healthy otherwise.

I did it in high school, eating “cool” foods — in our lunchroom, that was candy bars, Mountain Dew, and tater tots — while the people who mattered to me were looking but restricting to “make up for” my “junk food habit” when they weren’t.

I did it in college, after I was assaulted. I knew I couldn’t keep food down normally most of the time. Instead of trying to get at the heart of that — which, in fairness, I was maybe not ready for just yet — I skipped meals, stretching out my portions (e.g., holding over a cookie from brunch to get me through dinner) and limiting myself, when I could, to bland foods (toast, bananas, etc.).

I did it after my last relationship went (visibly) bad, and my ex started making passive-aggressive comments about how he hoped I wouldn’t gain any more weight. “Because rule number one is no fat chicks.” I’d skip breakfast and eat salad without dressing for every lunch just so I could come home and eat whatever (I cooked) for dinner to prove that his bullshit commentary wasn’t getting to me.

Except, of course, it was. They all were.

I have a long history with the idea that commentary about my dietary choices is a commentary about my body, about me.

There was a moment I recognized that and a process of growing to live with it. I did a lot of experimenting, determining which foods I actually felt good eating (black bean salsa, ahi tuna, the first perfect cup of coffee in the morning) and which I ate out of boredom or ubiquitous availability (potato chips, iceberg lettuce, ranch or Italian dressings). I experimented with eating for nutrition versus eating for physical satisfaction versus eating for emotional satisfaction — and decided that for me, healthy eating involves a balance of all three.

Now, as that balance shifts, I’m observing and adjusting. Certainly, eliminating dairy is aiding my nutrition (as it’s reducing the amount of GI inflammation). And to a certain extent, it’s helping my physical satisfaction: It’s harder for me to feel satiated by eating the same dish sans dairy (which makes sense, since it removes some calories from the meal), but at the same time, not having jet-propelled feces is a plus. In terms of emotional satisfaction, though, that’s where I’ve had the most difficulty.

I bristle at the idea that I need to eliminate a category of food entirely; that brings to mind the “your body is bad” ideas I internalized over two decades ago. Even if it’s a food I ate only in small amounts or only infrequently, it still feels stifling to decide I’m not going to eat it at all. Even if I’m the one making that decision.

Moreover, it occurs to me that each of my lamented dairy examples is part of a food ritual for me.

My morning coffee is about more than the caffeine: It’s about the aroma that wafts through a Midwestern winter house, coaxing me to be up before the sun. It’s about coming in out of the cold — shoveling snow or shoveling stalls — and finding warmth to refuel. It’s about an excuse to meet up with friends and family — “Hey, want to get a cup of coffee?” With that same line, it’s a reason to extend a fantastic first date.

Milk chocolate is pretty much my school’s go-to comfort food. I’m notorious for keeping some in my drawer, available for first year teachers and anyone who’s had an exhausting day. It’s smooth and sweet and a shared experience: When I bite into a Hershey’s mini on a PMS day, I’m getting the same physical comfort from someone who does so a week earlier or later on account of non-hormonal stress. I can still keep the chocolate on hand for others, of course, but on some level, opting out of the food opts me out of that shared food experience.

And pizza. For me, it has always been a celebration food, whether it’s a birthday or promotion or making it through the entirety of a school semester without once cussing in public. And yes, for that celebration food to have the same emotional impact, the cheese has to be on the pizza, just starting to crisp golden brown and to dribble down the pie, all melty-like.

That food ritual is important, and it hurts to let go, but giving it up is my choice. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s not at all related to my appearance. My primary reason for restricting dairy is the hope of eliminating projectile poo, yes. But I’d be lying if I said I’d be sad if eliminating my GI inflammation didn’t reduce me a waist size or so. Because a small body size was conflated with a “good” body when I was young, because that’s the image mirrored back to me in so many advertisements and movies now, because talk of weight loss is so prevalent in current societal discourse, it’s hard not to want that.

And I think, if I can’t escape that want via a doctor-prescribed diet for a non-weight-related issue, then I think it’s not fair to ask for more from others.

Whether others can diet while feminist? That’s their call, not mine. Whether I can diet while feminist? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that my diet always falls in line with my feminism. Because some part of me conflates “food restriction” with “not good enough,” and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get away from that.

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I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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5 comments on “My Diet & My Feminism
  1. Holly says:

    Because I would hate to leave someone without access to chocolate, I offer the following.

    There are high-end chocolate bars that do not have milk (or other dairy products) in them. Yes, they tend to be expensive, but they also tend to be of very good quality. You will probably have to try several different types before you find chocolate that is to your liking. One of my favorites is Chocolove bars. They just seem to be smoother than other dark chocolate bars. If you are used to milk chocolate, I’d suggest starting on the shallow end of the cocoa percentage with a bar like so: http://www.chocolove.com/dark.htm I don’t know how strict you need to be about dairy, because as you can see on the wrapper there, it *may* contain traces of milk and nuts, but that isn’t one of the ingredients listed.

  2. Autumn says:

    The dieting-while-feminist question has haunted me for a while, and the best I can come up with is that if I shame myself for every single thing I do that doesn’t fit 100% within my philosophical code, I’m not actually helping myself. That’s not free license for me to blithely diet and crow about it; it is license to tailor my diet to allow me to maximize my personal comfort. I have a post about “liarexia” (eating heartily in public and restricting in private, as you mentioned here) and what I didn’t get into there was how I think it can be indicative of women who are caught in the double bind of wanting to resist patriarchal constrictions on our bodies…but who still want to be thin. To set up a dichotomy helps nobody.

    In any case, I deeply and seriously feel for you and the loss of pizza. It’s my #1 comfort food that I use healthfully (that is, ice cream is my #1 comfort food but it’s a “bad” comfort food in that I will then want another pint, and another, and another, whereas with pizza I feel sated by a normal amount of it). Amy’s has some good cheese-free and soy cheese pizzas, but a frozen pizza isn’t the same thing, I know.

  3. Alexa says:

    I love this post! I actually have issues with dairy, too — go figure. And when I figured it out, I did think “and if I lose weight because I no longer eat cheese, that would be awesome.” Sigh.

    The whole dieting and feminism thing is weird for me (hence a whole post on it). I think I reconcile myself pretty well with it — I don’t really think I’m “dieting” and for the first time I’m trying to lose weight not just for an end game of looking smaller/thin privilege/landing a hot guy (oh, the fat teenager dream of losing weight and getting the hot guy). But I don’t think I, or most women, can ever truly divorce all the societal stuff from wanting to be thinner. And that’s ok… but, boy, do I wish I could do something to start to turn the tide of girls obsessing about their bodies. It’s really maddening.

  4. Quercki says:

    A friend of mine had to eliminate dairy. He eats Cheeseless pizza. I haven’t tried it, but he says it’s good: he can have anything on his pizza he wants to except cheese. (Poor him–he also had to eliminate chocolate, even the too-dark-for-dairy kind.)

  5. Tamara says:

    I’ve also suffered with endo and recently have given up gluten. Dairy is my next step, depending on how well gluten works or now. I’ve been gluten free mostly (um yeah I had no idea it would be in soy sauce…? and a couple other things) for two months and my pain has decreased greatly.

    I’ve never been a dieter, and I’ve never been really worried about what other people think of my body so I’ve never related food to feminist ideals like you have. Its really interesting and something I’ll think about a lot more.

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