Last weekend, I attended an event that was followed by a potluck-style meal. Across the table from me sat a woman in her mid-50s and a little girl about nine years old. I didn’t know these people, so, being the socially awkward creature that I am, I was mostly focusing on eating my food instead of making conversation. However, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation across the table. The woman turned to the little girl and said, “I’m being bad. I’m on a diet that says I can only eat proteins and vegetables, but I’m eating these potatoes.”
I cringed and bit my tongue. That was neither the time nor the place for what I desperately wanted to say, so I’m saying it now.
Please do not say that you are “bad” for eating any food. Food can be “bad” in only two instances. One: it tastes bad and/or is poorly prepared, as in, “Don’t go to that restaurant. Their food is bad. Even my rottweiler couldn’t chew the steak.” Two: It is spoiled, as in, “Don’t drink the milk that expired last week. It is bad and will make you sick.” Otherwise, food is not “bad,” and eating it doesn’t make you bad.
What you eat has absolutely no bearing on whether or not you are kind, or compassionate, or interesting, or funny, or loving, or independent, or courageous, or any other adjective that is part of what makes you “good.” Nor does what you eat make you sinister, or evil, or mean, or gossipy, or rude, or needy, or foolhardy, or any other adjective that could possibly be “bad.” Maybe what you eat makes you less healthy. Maybe what you eat even makes you fat. But “fat” and “bad” should not be synonyms — and especially not when talking to an impressionable young girl.
Like most women, I’ve struggled with body image for as long as I can remember. I’ve flirted with disordered eating, and I’ve had my lists of “bad” foods. I’ve eaten and then felt guilty more times than I can count. You probably have, too. We’ve been down that road. We still go down that road, even though we hate it.
So let’s change that. Let’s keep our daughters, nieces, students, and friends from a lifetime of guilt, of feeling “bad” because of a certain food or food group. Let’s teach our kids — and remind ourselves– that some foods are less nutritious than others and should be eaten less frequently, but that food is not associated with morality. Let’s teach them that food’s main purpose is to keep us alive and healthy, and that while some foods are better at that than others, food’s minor purposes also include pleasure, celebration, etc., and those things also have a vital place in our lives.
That lesson begins with not only what we say, but what we do. So stop riddling yourself with guilt when you indulge in something you love to eat. Stop showing our girls that the occasional less-than-healthy snack makes us less-than-worthy people. Stop calling food “bad,” and maybe, just maybe, the next generation of women won’t have to fight that same old battle.