Saturday, March 2, 2013

Diet is More than Food: It's Also a Study in Privilege and Gender

This isn't the usual beat for this blog, but I ran across this blog post on eating healthy using the Whole9 approach by The Minimalist Mom. I used to be a devoted reader of "Mommy Blogs"*, but I stopped reading them because they made me feel so needlessly inadequate. (Seriously, if you're an academic mother, one of the first steps toward work/life balance is to stop reading those damn blogs.) I really enjoy(ed) The Minimalist Mom, and I wholeheartedly agree with her approach to minimizing her consumption, debt, and time sinks. I also have a lot of respect for Whole9 and their approach to healthy eating. I don't agree with everything they recommend, but I'm not unsympathetic to their cause.

Nonetheless, The Minimalist Mom's post on her family's Whole9 diet had me fuming.

There's a reoccurring problem with both the minimalist movement and whole foods movement (and this includes a whole bunch of popular blogs and books, from Radical Homemakers to The Omnivore's Dilemma): they consistently ignore issues of gender and privilege. This most recent blog post is not the worst of the offenders, but it caught my attention, so cue the rant:


All it takes, we are told, to live a "good" life, is a little time and effort on our part. And just a little sacrifice. Eating healthy doesn't require you to be rich, it just means giving up some unnecessary extravagances. The Minimalist Mom mentioned several items that could be easily given up or changed in order to afford higher-quality food:

iPhone - An estimated 55% of Americans own a Smartphone. That leaves 45% of the country who can't afford one. Personally, I have a cheap pre-paid cell phone.

cable plan - Most Americans have cable. They probably could give it up. I don't own a television.

drive a second-hand car instead of a new one - I've never bought a new car in my life. I can't remember anyone in my family ever buying a new car. We are not the only ones who usually buy used. We currently drive a 10-year old minivan that we bought with 100,000 miles on it. We consider it new. 

sell your car - Our nation is built for cars. Many people can't get to work or the grocery store without one. To find housing that is both affordable and safe, many people have to live far from their place of employment. I am lucky enough to live in a very small town where I can walk almost everywhere, but even I need a car, unless I want to carry an infant on the 25-min walk to daycare through -35 windchills.

vacation closer to home - Vacation? Since when has a vacation been anything but a privilege? I'm very lucky to be able to visit family in different parts of the country, and to get money from work to attend conferences or do research all over the world. Most people don't take "vacations" in the sense of a yearly trip away from their home to Vail or Cancun.

get a job closer to home - We currently have 8% unemployment. That number is far higher for individuals without a college degree and for people of color. It's not that easy to find a job, and, as discussed above, it's not that easy to move close to your place of employment.

So, other than giving up cable, most of the items on The Minimalist Mom's list are items of privilege. In other words, only well-off people can afford this diet. And even if a person can afford it, it's not necessarily easy to follow. For example, I live in a rural area. Although we have a farmer's market, a food co-op, and some local organic farms, access to affordable organic food is difficult. It requires driving around the countryside to collect the food, access to storage (like a large freezer), and paying even higher prices than in cities, since shipping costs are high. And some organic fruits and vegetables are just not available, period.

I'm a very privileged person. I have a great job. I've never gone hungry. I've never faced racial discrimination. I have access to affordable health care through a wonderful insurance plan. I can afford high-quality daycare with excellent teachers. We can even afford to send our daughter to our parish school (luckily, much cheaper than private schools in cities). But even I'm not privileged enough to follow this diet. How can a family living in poverty, or a family who is one paycheck away from poverty, possibly manage? Yet, the message behind The Minimalist Mom's blog post (and many, many similar books and blogs) is that we are selfish for not providing our family with adequate nutrition, and it would be so simple for us to do so!


It takes more time to buy, process, and serve healthy foods. Who does most of this work? Mom, of course! Men are more likely to do housework and childcare now than in the past, but women in the U.S. still are overwhelmingly responsible for cooking, cleaning, and caring for the kids. And, of course, 35% of children live in single-parent homes, mostly headed by women. If we want to follow Michael Pollan's advice "don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food", does that include a return to gender roles our great-great-grandmothers would recognize, as well? 

Not necessarily, of course. The "green" movement, the "whole foods" movement, the "minimizing" movement could focus on the importance of equal responsibilities within the family. But, by and large, they don't. Just as the issue of privilege tends to be ignored or minimized ("gee, it only takes a little sacrifice"), the gender problem tends to be ignored or minimized ("one partner can stay home", as if that "one partner" wasn't the woman in a heterosexual relationship, 95% of the time). 

Don't get me wrong. If I had more hours in the day, more energy, more money, I would put them into better health for my family. But, at the moment, I can barely keep the dirty clothes from building up on the floor, the dishes from piling up in the sink, or my job (and my husband's job is dependent on mine, so I can't just stay home). In other words, if there's a hierarchy of needs for the family, then I'm well above "basic subsistence", but not yet to "home-canning tomatoes", even though I'd like to be. And I'm not alone. Our food industry, food distribution system, employment and gender structures make it very difficult for poor families and two-income families to provide healthy food for their children. By ignoring issues of privilege and gender, we're suggesting cures that put more pressure on individuals ("can't you just make those little necessary sacrifices?") rather than dealing with the underlying structural problems. We're creating a situation where only the privileged are given access to health, and where traditional gender roles are imposed in order to provide it. Maybe that's what we want as a society, but that should be the discussion, not whether or not it's worthwhile to "give up" an iPhone in order to eat well.

*Am I the only person who dislikes this term because it seems dismissive and condescending? 


  1. I suspect your reaction will be shared by a lot of people. I'm not quite sure what the Whole9 approach is, or exactly what the author eats. I'm a little alarmed, however, by any suggestion that to provide healthy food you might have to sell your car/tv/first-born. What exactly are we aiming for, anyway, in a world awash with high-fructose corn syrup? Can't we just eat an apple and call it a day? A vision of all grass-fed meat, all organic veg, etc, as the only way to eat healthy definitely means blinders of privilege. This is just as unrealistic as the "look, I knitted sweaters for the baby and the dog today!" blogs. --MB

  2. Don't know why, but I couldn't get comments to work yesterday!

    It's a paleodiet, so unaffordable for many Americans, and on a global scale unattainable and unsustainable. Much of my negative reaction, I'll admit, comes from my guilt over not providing a healthier lifestyle for my family. I know, intellectually, that Whole9 is trying to sell a product, and that's why they're running these blog posts. But despite that knowledge, I react far more strongly than when a cosmetics company tries to tell me that make up is the only way to beauty, or when a car company tries to tell me that their sedan is the only way a middle-aged professor could ever be cool. I guess they really know my advertising weak spots, and exactly how to target working mothers.

  3. I suspect almost everyone (perhaps subconsciously) is acutely aware that "health" is about privilege and gender. Being able to obsess about our diets, how "healthy" they are, being wheat or dairy or unpopular-traditional-staple-of-the-month-free for some vague and faddish nonmedical reason, etc. is something not everyone can afford to do-- hence all the press it gets, and all the public complaining everyone does about it. If these things had any sort of low status attached to them, we wouldn't talk about them so openly-- the fact that some of us have time/money to worry about them conveys a message about higher social status we're happy to put out there about ourselves. Hence, the whole "if you really cared about your family you'd be providing this" message drives me up the wall, too. Maybe it's because we're used to tuning out the obvious marketing messages we grew up with (about "things" like makeup and cars), but this guilt-based type is relatively new? Or because we haven't developed the instinct for blog analysis we all have for separating infomercials from documentaries?

    As for our great-great-grandmothers: my grandmother's generation excitedly embraced canned foods as miracles for a reason, and a lot more women stayed home full time back then. 1950s-era recipes that mix a can of this and two cans of that don't sound too tasty to me, but surely there's a happy medium, and that's what I aim for. (At least, in my more rational moments.) -KS