Friday, January 5, 2018

"The Beautiful Environmentalist: On the Real Food Movement and the Disciplined Body," by Madi Whaley

The following essay is a guest post by a brilliant student of mine, who I keep pestering to publish.  She agreed to let me post this essay as a start.  Enjoy!

The rhetoric of the “real food movement,” or “alternative food movement,” as termed by Julie Guthman, touts consumer food choices as beautiful, meaningful acts of food systems change, linking environmental ethics and healthy eating (Guthman, 2011).  Through this rhetoric, the mainstream real food movement creates a feminine-bodied archetypical beautiful environmentalist defined by lifestyle and image: environmentally conscious, healthy, and conventionally attractive. This archetype ultimately reinforces the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as termed by bell hooks (hooks, 1981). This research contextualizes the archetype within a larger socio-political framework of environmentalism and analyzes the dominant narrative of the real food movement. In turn, it explores the archetype’s dangerous ramifications for the individual’s perceptions of, and actions toward, their bodies, as well as ramifications for cultural perceptions of people whose bodies are not included in this archetype. Furthermore, I offer my subjective experience with this phenomenon to actualize the potential danger in this narrative. Michel Foucault’s concepts of biopower and governmentality, and the adapted concept of ecogovernmentality, serve as a framework to explain the relationship between the discursive tactics of the real food movement and the creation of self-disciplined environmental subjects (Foucault, 1978). Finally, I will discuss strategies for resistance to the patriarchal body ideals espoused by the beautiful environmentalist archetype, ultimately advocating for transformative food systems change with roots in community rather than in consumerism.
To understand how the real food movement creates this beautiful environmentalist archetype, we must first understand the dominant narratives, rhetoric, and cultural images produced by the real food movement. The real food movement is characterized by a focus on eating locally produced organic “wholefoods,” or unprocessed foods. The real food movement emphasizes the individual consumer’s choice, all the while directing individuals toward a specific realm of purchasing food that fits the healthy, organic, wholefoods criteria. Various aspects of culture shape the narrative of the real food movement. Michael Pollan has been instrumental in shaping this narrative and the beautiful environmentalist archetype. His well-read book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, contains language emblematic of the real food movement:
‘Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world - and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them. (2006)
Here, Pollan suggests that the individual’s consumption choice is more than a personal matter: it is a vehicle for radical social change. The body becomes a political agent. Those who “choose” to eat local, organic, wholefoods “eat with a fuller consciousness.” They are the enlightened, ethical environmentalists, and we should all aspire to be so good.  This contrasts with those who “choose” to eat food produced industrially, who are “eating in ignorance.” These people, Pollan implicates, are the unprincipled, the ignorant. Certainly, such traits are not ones well-respected in society.
            Pollan’s insistence on consumer behavior as an indicator of consciousness and enlightenment reinforces two related aspects of the dominant narrative. One of these is the fallacy of consumer activism: the idea that individual consumption habits are responsible for whether or not we transform industrial agriculture. The other is the moral high ground established for those who purchase real food. In her book Weighing In, Julie Guthman criticizes elitism in the real food movement. For example, she writes:
By exalting a set of food choices, the alternative-food movement tends to give rise to a missionary impulse, so those who are attracted to this food and movement want to spread the gospel. Seeing their food choices as signs of heightened ethicality, they see social change as making people become like them. This gives far too much power to those who happen to be privileged (and thin) to define the parameters of food system change. (2011).
Indeed, as Guthman explains throughout the book, people of color and lower-income are far less likely to have access to organic produce, to have the time to prepare their meals from scratch. Furthermore, as Sarah Wald explains in Visible Farmers, Invisible Workers, this perpetuates a neoliberal cycle of food production, wherein those consuming the food are made to feel morally righteous, healthy, and beautiful in their consumption meanwhile those producing “real” food (at least as far as large-scale organic food production is concerned) face low wages, unsavory working conditions, and are largely denied access to the food. Together, these pieces of the dominant narrative contribute to a culture of guilt and shame around food purchasing for those who may not have the access, the finances, or the “self-discipline” to purchase real foods, and inhibit our ability to put the power of food production in the hands of workers and communities.

At the same time, the real food movement packages this sense of morality with patriarchal beauty ideals, which are enhanced by social media and food blogging sites. For example, a popular plant-based food blog, “Oh She Glows,” features recipes to help you “glow from the inside out.” Radiance, vibrancy, light: these are components of the real food movement’s lifestyle. They work in tandem with the ethical notions of purity, wholesomeness, and the natural. In her book, The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wulf explains that light has a strong historical association with divinity, radiance, and beauty. Conceptions of divinity, or purity, and radiance, or beauty, reinforce one another. Here, I argue that the beauty myth is getting packaged in a new form: going “green,” consuming “real” food makes one beautiful both in mind and body.
I argue that, albeit unwittingly, these discursive tactics reinforce the white supremacist patriarchy. Since, as scholars such as Guthman, Wald, and Van Jones note, “real” food is less accessible to people of color and low-income, one must ask whether this archetype allows for people of color and low-income to be considered beautiful. The archetype is certainly white-bodied, even though most “alternative food” is grown by migrant farmworkers. Furthermore, the real food movement’s conflation of authenticity, naturalness, purity, and beauty perpetuates patriarchy in a broad sense, through creating a new standard of female beauty and reinforcing the problematic conflation of femininity and naturalness. It perpetuates the cultural treatment of fat people as “ecological others,” as Sarah Ray would say. For environmentalists of varying positionalities, purchasing only “real” food may seem obligatory, especially with threats of climate change looming. The real food movement’s promise of agency and beauty add to this pressure. This is a cognitive and emotional pressure for those who experience it, but it manifests physically. We literally embody the narrative of the real food movement; the very compositions of our bodies are altered based on the “real” food we feel compelled to consume.
As such, real food movement discourse can be seen as an eerily literal form of biopower, a concept explored by French philosopher Michel Foucault. Biopower is characterized by “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations,” largely through discursive tactics that lead to self-discipline in the interest of the State (Foucault, 1976). Political ecologists and environmental humanities scholars have adapted Foucauldian concepts of biopower and governmentality to explain the ways in which the State and its auxiliaries exercise social control and control over the body to create “good ecological subjects.” Rather than offer structural or collective solutions such as small-scale worker-owned cooperative farms, the onus is placed on the individual consumer, who is expected to behave with moral discipline. In Discipline & Punishment, Foucault explains that such discipline creates “docile bodies,” easily transformed, yielding themselves to such mechanisms of power. Via the rhetoric of the real food movement, we are told that the good ecological subjects – those that are morally pure – improve their bodies, as they consume only the purest of foods: local, organic, wholefoods. Selectively disseminating knowledge, providing a set of principles by which the beautiful environmentalist archetype would eat, the real food movement creates an illusion of truth, autonomy, and freedom of choice for environmentalists with access to “real” food (Agarwal, 2005).
For example, ecogovernmentality is rampant at mainstream environmentalists’ grocer of choice, Whole Foods Market, which upholds the real food movement’s mantra of the conscious and beautiful consumer choice. The Whole Foods website hosts a page titled, “Healthy Eating: How to Eat Healthy Your Way.” This is followed with guides titled: “How to Eat Healthy on a Budget,” “What to Eat,” “How-to’s,” “Cooking and Shopping Tips,” “Family and Special Diets.” Whole Foods, ever so gracious, provides us with the necessary guides to healthy eating. They’re the experts, and they’re here to help us. We can take the information they provide and fine-tune it to meet our needs. Whole Foods’ rhetorical contribution to the real food movement perpetuates the beautiful environmentalist archetype, and provides consumers with the food they need to reach this ideal. Indeed, Whole Foods’ profits are hinged upon consumer anxieties and desires to feel healthy, beautiful, and morally righteous. Meanwhile, our individual consumption choices, and the increased pressure we feel regarding food choices do not result in the transformative food systems change that we need.
The Foucauldian framework also allows me to understand my own internalization of the real food movement narratives in a socio-political context. My experience also serves to illustrate the great potential for harm from this narrative. Having struggled with an eating disorder in high school, I sought recovery by ensuring that the food I ate was as “real” as possible, believing that it would improve my relationship with food, as an avenue for activism.
When grocery shopping or preparing meals, thoughts fired off so quickly in my mind that I sometimes thought it would overheat. Overwhelmed with the inescapable reality that almost every product I looked at somehow contributed to ecological, social, and personal health problems, my mind would fall into a swirl of panic over the choices at hand. Sometimes I would leave without food altogether, deciding that it was better to go hungry altogether than to make the wrong decision. And despite my great hunger and anxiety, this seemed perfectly justified based on the narrative I had been fed. To disappear, to become smaller, was to be beautiful. For I had consumed less resources, I had disciplined myself, given myself to some bigger issues. This was my reality: I wanted to save the world, and I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted to be that good, wholesome, beautiful environmentalist whose image was burned into my head by the rhetoric of the real food movement.
            But how do I make this real for you, my reader? This struggle seems so silly, so trivial, I’m sure. It may be incomprehensible, may seem preposterous that someone could internalize the rhetoric of the real food movement to such an extreme degree. And perhaps it seems quite a privileged kind of worry. Indeed, perhaps it is a luxury to fret over which produce I should buy rather than whether or not I can buy food at all. But the anxiety is real and it is horrible, I swear to you. It has consumed my mind and physically altered my body.
 In fact, various studies document the historical congruence between asceticism, with its goals of purity and freedom, and anorectic behavior, as well as the tendency among people with eating disorders to turn toward veganism or vegetarianism as a way to feel strong and righteous, while continuing rigid eating habits (Herzog, 2011) (Crisp, et al. 1986). For example, anthrozoologist Hal Herzog recalls a conversation with a young girl recovering from an eating disorder, who was attracted to veganism because of its “righteousness.” The phenomena they describe are consistent with my own experience regarding consuming “real” foods.  “Ecogovernmentality,” “self-discipline,” “rigidity,” and “orthorexia,” – these are the terms that describe the times when I go to the grocery store and feel my body start to shake, to feel a lump swell up in my throat, rendered unable to act. They describe my compulsion toward growing smaller, toward being pure and wholesome.
I do not mean to suggest that the rhetoric of the real food movement is wholly responsible for an epidemic of eating disorders. A variety of other cultural narratives, social situations, and interpersonal relationships influence our relationships with our perceptions of our own morality, our bodies, and our health. However, my experience exemplifies the severe reactions that a multitude of people can have to disempowering narratives.
To be clear: I firmly believe that we need to radically change our food systems. I want all people have access to healthy food. I want us to produce food in ecologically resilient manners. I want us as communities, as democratic social bodies, to have control over that production, to decide what we eat. I do not, however, believe that we can reach such change using the patriarchal and capitalist consumption-based narrative of the mainstream real food movement, where corporate control still reigns and farmworkers are still exploited, where farming practices are still unsound, and where women are shamed. We must focus our energy toward transformative food systems change, building networks of sustainable, community-centered food production. The beautiful environmentalist archetype has no purpose here. Indeed, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains, we cannot even create an ecologically sound world if our movement is focused on valuing that which is “natural” and “beautiful,” as if the two are mutually constitutive.
Many people can – and are – resisting this problematic rhetoric and constructing a more radically transformative food movement. Grassroots food systems change work is popping up all over the country, and the world. In fact, our abilities to mobilize on this front may be greater than ever before.
I believe that dismantling the oppressive structures in our own minds is a form of resistance. We must unlearn the problematic narratives we are subjected to, and create new stories for ourselves as individuals and as a society: stories that allow for us to be undisciplined, messy, dirty, impure; but full, happy, and healthy by our own standards. In my larger project, I discuss psychologist Michael White’s “deconstruction as therapy” to provide a framework for this change in thought. Perhaps we can see body positivity movements in ecological terms. We need to create our own narratives and our own cultures that are respectful of individual minds, bodies, and differences, as well as communities’ agency to produce their own sustenance.
Ultimately, the “real food” movement’s rhetoric certainly creates an archetypical beautiful environmentalist. The dominant narrative of the real food movement reinforces systems of power and privilege in society by tying morality to privileged consumption choices. It denies the transformative change required for our food systems, and by virtue of access and representation, excludes many people from the scope of beauty and environmentalism. Furthermore, it upholds patriarchal beauty ideals that are harmful to women at-large. Transformative food systems change truly addresses the issues that real food movement rhetoric caters to, without any need for shame regarding food consumption, without the need for white supremacist patriarchal beauty ideals.
The fate of the world is not resting in your stomach, and beauty is not predicated on likeness to the image, or essence, of the beautiful environmentalist. I have learned that you can eat the cookies if you want them, break bread with your community, and use the energy from all that good food to build community-oriented, ecologically resilient food systems.

Works Cited
Catalina Zamora, M.L., et al. “Orthorexia nervosa. A new eating behavior disorder?” Actas Esp Psiquiatr, vol. 33, no. 1, 2005, pp. 66-68.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Éditions Gallimard, 1976.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Vol. 3. Éditions Gallimard, 1988.
Guthman, Julie. Weighing In. University of California Press, 2011.
“Healthy Eating: How to Eat Healthy Your Way.” Whole Foods Market, 2016,
McNay, Lois. “The Foucauldian Body and the Exclusion of Experience.” Hypatia, vol. 6, no. 3, 1991, pp. 125-139.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Press, 2006.
Ray, Sarah Jaquette. “How Many Mothers Does it Take to Change all the Light Bulbs?” Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011, pp. 81-101.
Statenstein, Liana. “Why You Might Want to Head to Eastern Europe for Your Next Cleanse.” Vogue, 2016.
Van Dooren, Thom. “Care: Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 5, 2014, pp. 291-294.
White, Michael. “Deconstruction and Therapy.” Dulwich Centre Newsletter. No. 3, 1991.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. Harper Perennial, 2002.

Wright, Laura. The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror. University of Georgia Press, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. That is very good. One point here to think: what kind of food gives you energy and what kind take the energy from your body?