This Changes Everything, if we let it : using food narratives as social action

Lucy Aphramor

In a previous post I made the point that while diet and non-diet approaches to theorising eating are presented as polar opposites, they in fact also overlap in a really significant way:

“In both instances the binary is foundational: mind over body for dieters, body over mind for non-dieters. And all this devoid of context.”

A concise summary is that diet and non-diet theories operate within a framework of white supremacy as they’re tied to the binary which fosters a mindset that seeks to ‘divide, devalue, conquer’. Binary thinking rejects the self-in-relationship, and society, in favour of the split-off, or atomistic, self ricocheting around in an ahistorical vacuum.

If we believe that liberation for all emerges from a commitment to understanding mutuality and inter-connection for the common good it follows that our theories must have the indivisible self-in-relationship as an organising principle. So they have to upend the binary. I know, that’s huge right? This awareness has ramifications beyond how we approach eating, it changes everything if we let it.

If you agree with my analysis, and agree something needs to change, great. Carry on reading: I want to think about what happens now, and hope you’ll add your own ideas in comments at the end of the piece. If you don’t agree with the analysis I hope you’ll comment too, I appreciate that you engaged with me and am curiouse to grapple with where we differ. If you agree with the analysis and don’t plan to change anything, that’s also interesting . . . in a ‘wow, something is really f!cked-up here, I wonder what that’s about’ sort of way. Peace, and what’s going on?

diet and non-diet theories operate within a framework of white supremacy as they’re tied to the binary which fosters a mindset that seeks to ‘divide, devalue, conquer’

To recap, what I’ve also said is that if I/ME created a relational, socially embedded discourse on body knowledge, and interrupted the thought habits behind supremacy, the ways in which they oppress wouldn’t be news to any woke community of food workers and activists. But they are. They do need stating. Can you see how they cast new light and shadow and question marks? Invite rupture?

with thanks to Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The non-diet approach HAES emerged from a community of fat lesbian thinkers working for radical change. I/ME is a deviation from this radical agenda, not an extension of it: it’s just not possible to claim a liberatory practice while using theory that’s so throughly grounded in the ideas and ideals of binary atomistic thinking. We won’t end fatphobia using the tools of supremacist thought.

Talking Peace and Inclusion Through Food Work

As Angela Davis reminds us (from a poster in the dietetics department at Mount St Vincent University, Canada) “We have to act as if were possible to radically transform the world. And we have to do it all the time.”

Which means rejecting the divided, abstracted self of Diet and non-diet discourse and queering things up. What happens next? If you’re a food worker committed to social justice and using I/ME and agree with my analysis: you’ve just realised you’ve been transmitting an oppressive, trauma-ignored, colonizing ideology of healthcare and recovery and now you get to choose. I’m assuming collusion is off the table, which leaves various options. There’s the pursuit of personal congruence through contrition and semantic gymnastics. There’s enacting a commitment to justice through a care and repair ethic, seen in public conversation, collective accountability and subsequent change. That seems like a useful option to stop at.

If you’re a dietitian, your next conversation with a client can go something like this:

“I know we’ve been talking about I/ME together, and you’ve found learning to value body signals really helpful. I’d always thought that teaching a focus on body signals and rejecting food rules was the best way to support people make peace with food. In fact, I’ve been reading around the field since we last met and I came across Connected Eating. This links body signals with mind and circumstances, which has helped me develop my thinking. I still think that honouring body signals is important, and that it’s often overlooked. What I’ve realised is that listening to the body doesn’t mean the mind isn’t also important: rejecting food rules doesn’t mean rejecting everything the mind has to offer. And in fact that paying more attention to how mind and body interact, instead of seeing them as separate, is likely to be hugely valuable for our work together. . .”

If you’re already talking about trauma, or stigma and implict bias of any sort, you can draw in these threads. Explain how a core mistake in I/ME is that it extracts body from mind and context, annulling our embodied histories.

If your client wants more theory and clarity, mention that Connected Eating is a topic in the health-justice approach Well Now. Well Now integrates trauma, compassion, justice in a process that recognises self-care and collective healing arise from the same practices. It does this by teaching body respect, and health-gain — in its widest sense. Give them the web address if that’s appropriate.

It’s Big and It’s Not Going Away

I mean, have a holy crap moment! This is big! You’ve been waiting for something to lean into it: this is it. That non-diet book you wrote … the fact that you established The WhateverCity Centre for Intuitive Eating, how ‘mindful eating’ is all over your website. How you genuinely thought you’d cracked decoloniality. That you’ve spent so much time and money and heart and mind learning Diet Logic and so much of the same, plus outrage and confusion and solidarity, unlearning what you learnt and learning about HAES and I/ME, and you’re a licensed Intuitive Eating Provider, Certified in one thing, Accredited in another, a qualified Coach, a Thought Leader in one of the many many reiterations of the model. Gulp.

And isn’t this great? It’s not the crisis of a volcano erupting down the road, state oppression, an avoidable death in your kin group, it’s the crisis of opportunity. You’re still hard-core committed to change and things have been rumbling on without an opening and now here’s a way to kick-start discussion about systemic disablism using your new learning on I/ME as gateway.

“OMG I had no idea. It just never occured to me. You know how I always promote intuitive eating, and I’m in there with disability rights? Well I read this post on Medium by a radical dietitian Lucy Aphramor and they pointed out that intuitive eating is basically ableist. Because ‘follow your body signals’ is a dangerous idea if you feel like hurting yourself. And what if you’ve got a brain injury, or you’re neurodiverse? Intuitive eating assumes everyone is sane and neurotypical. Gut problems just don’t exist! I can’t believe I never noticed this.”

. . . Intervening in Racism

Or systemic racism: “Can you believe it, I’ve been using a practise that’s rooted in racism all this time without recognsing it for what it was. I mean me! I’m like triple shocked: that I could be doing that, that my entire food community has been doing it, and what that says about the power of an accepted idea to crush critical thinking. I can still hardly believe it.

I was missing how racist HAES was, it’s not intentionally racist obviously, but fuels racism through its approach to eating. The basic concept is all bodies are great, challenge food rules, listen to your body signals. But I read a Medium post by a radical dietitian pointing out that trust your body signals is how Black children get shot and the killer gets off. Because white supremacy wires ‘Black = threat” into body signals. All this time I’ve been bigging up body signals as simplicty itself and it didn’t even occur to me. It seems incredible now. Imagine if we’d all been more careful in the eating conversation, and allowed for nuance, we could have used this example of how racism shapes body sensations a zillion times, what conversations would we be having now instead? It feels like a body blow to have been so wrong but at least I know now. ”

Or a phone call on decoloniality: “We need to talk asap. I’ve got something to run by you that’s really important for the team to hear. I’ll just tell you a bit now so you can think it over. In a nutshell, did it ever occur to you that mindful eating was part of the problem of coloniality? Me neither. Then I read this Medium post and there’s a poetitian … yeah that’s right ….talking about how the model is more like cognitive restraint than it is different. I know, that got me too. They explained how it implants a binary logic. It doesn’t refuse domination in knowledge creation, it embeds it. You know, mind bad, body good. It’s so obvious when it’s pointed out. So we might be merrily calling our practise liberatory but what we’ve failed to notice is we can’t upend sexism, capitalism, racism when our approach to eating uses the same dichotomy of thought. And what’s more, it has an abstracted, priviliged body in its centre, and no space for the embodied impact of power relations.”

. . . For Queer Positive Food Work

with thanks to Jorge Saavedra on Unsplash

For fellow and femmey queers and other folk and allies: “No way. We only went and overlooked the massive binary that holds up the whole of intuitive eating. Jeez that’s extraordinary. What the hell else are we missing?”

When you think about having these conversations what makes it possible, who do you turn to, what are the tensions that hold you back? How would you respond if one of your leaders had written this critique? Can you imagine this happening, what does that tell you? What have you learnt about group-think?

And if you do decide to copy edit your website, change your practice, will you enact a colonial or decolonial habit? What’s your take on epistemic justice? Who do we write in, who do we write out, and what belongs uncited to the collective?

Imagine these conversations take place. That people, like you, choose innovation. Roll forward one month and this is the feel of real change. You shared the analysis with your groups, and responses have gone beyond the noncommittal, dismal offering of ‘a provocative read’ to actual dialogue. Together you are toppling some things and constructing others and know that this is what it means to have the courageous conversation, to do the hard work, as bell hooks says “When we end our silence, when we speak in a liberated voice, our words connect us with anyone, anywhere who lives in silence”.

How would you respond if one of your leaders had written this critique? Can you imagine this happening, what does that tell you? What have you learnt about group-think

You have stopped waiting, became aware of the tendency to act as if you needed someone else’s permission to be true to yourself. Noticed how you had been caught up in some weird groundhog day of behind-the-scenes preparation, finalising scripts, and upping the ante in readiness to leap onto the stage, yet the curtain never opened on first scene.

Today’s circling back, reaching out, looping round, diving in doesn’t feel like rehearsal, is energy soundly invested. A month from now, what history will you have made?


With big thanks to Nicole Maunsell for conversation, support and editorial advice.

Lucy Aphramor is a poetitian. They perform social action poetry working with director Tian Glasgow from New Slang Productions. Lucy developed Well Now as a way of transforming trauma through food and body stories. www.lucyaphramor.com

Lucy Aphramor

Written by

Lucy Aphramor is a poetitian — a radical dietitian and performance poet. They developed the health justice approach Well Now. www.lucyaphramor.com

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