It is the moment before I have to explain why I would not like a cookie, or a beer, or a bagel, but thank you. For any number of reasons my polite refusal has yielded more questions, and I am now forced to explain myself. Because I have had this conversation many times before, I take a big breath and then let the answer out all in a rush, anticipating all of the follow-up questions and counterpoints, making sure that they know that I am not one of “those” gluten free dieters/vegans/monsters and it’s cool I’m cool please just don’t hassle me or say sorry or list off all of the foods that I can’t eat unless I go to a special store and pay twice as much or heaven forbid actually try to bake. I’m gluten free…aaaand vegan…and I try to eat healthy (oh gawd, do I tell you that I don’t drink either?) and yeah, I actually think tofu is pretty good and…wait. Why am I justifying my food choices, restrictions, and preferences to you?
Food is both a glorious and scary entity in my life. It’s something that I wage a very personal daily battle with, yet I find myself forced to have this conversation out loud with everyone from coworkers to strangers in coffee shops to the checker in the grocery store. For some reason the gluten free diet or lifestyle or whatever you want to call it has been especially visible, and the backlash against it has been nasty. Friends who are servers have voiced their frustration over their customers asking if menu items are gluten free, or can be made gluten free. A marquee sign for a local strip club got in on the bashing by proclaiming that their dancers were gluten free (congratulations on literally calling your female employees food). Friends roll their eyes at me when we’re ordering food and I have to be one of *those* who ask if menu items are gluten free (it seems like it should be obvious but, you guys, soy sauce is in everything and even Red Vines have wheat flour in them. Freaking Red Vines.).
Articles like this one get shared on social media as evidence that anyone who has tried to eat gluten free and found it beneficial is an idiot who doesn’t know the difference between a chickpea and a chicken nugget. I support doing research, reading articles, and consulting a doctor or nutritionist before embarking on any new eating plan. In fact, I think that even if you’re not changing what you’re eating, most of us could stand to have more information about what we’re putting into our bodies. With the conflicting messages about food culture, the prevalence of processed food, and the ability to grow most foods most times of the year (even though no one should ever buy or eat a tomato in January- that shit tastes like a cereal box), we are so disconnected from our food that it’s no wonder many of us don’t know how to feed ourselves in a healthy way. And that’s if we even have healthy choices available to us geographically and economically (shout out to food deserts). In any case, an article based on preliminary research with a click-bait headline slamming any particular diet is not helpful in having a better understanding of food. It is damaging in large part because most people will only read the headline and make their conclusions from there. It only adds more noise to the cacophony of advice that tugs at your sleeve from magazine covers and ads in sidebars proclaiming “Eat this! No, this! Try this one weird trick and you too can have a perfect body and fart glitter dust! No confidence needed!”
For women, this food policing furthers the message that our bodies are not our own. Not only is my physical being open for public comment whenever I walk out my door, but apparently so too is the stuff I choose to fuel it with. I am to exercise and eat in such a way that I get ever closer to the impossible ideal not for my own happiness or confidence, but so that I am nice to look at. So many women pick up diet trends and programs to reach an impossible beauty ideal, and then are laughed at or shamed for their efforts. Think for just a second about all the tired jokes we heard about the Atkins diet, or any Friends episode with “Fat Monica” flashbacks (http://www.xojane.com/issues/friends-fat-monica-and-me). Women turn to diets often because it seems like a path to obtain the unobtainable in a world of conflicting messages about food. The food culture reality around us is that Starbucks drink sizes are getting larger and pizza chains are finding increasingly creative places to put cheese. But the food culture we’re sold is that us lady folks are supposed to be both sated AND overjoyed at the opportunity to eat a salad or high fiber yogurt (real talk tho: I fucking love salad).
I didn’t try cutting out gluten as a way to lose weight, but because I realized that it was making me very sick. In fact, if you don’t believe that eliminating gluten was a last resort, then you don’t really understand my feelings about bagels. But that’s just me. If trying a new way of eating causes anyone to find other food choices, or cut out more processed foods and feel better as a result, then GREAT. I have certainly gone for diet programs with the goal of losing weight. In hindsight, these were ill-advised and actually caused me to gain weight, but as a result of one I cut refined sugar from my life and haven’t craved it since, and because of another realized that I didn’t have to feel bloated and sick with heartburn in a constant state of indigestion if I avoided certain foods. While the promises of the diets didn’t come to fruition, the information I got from them about what didn’t feel good to put in my body made them important steps in figuring out how to care for this mothafucking temple.
We need to turn in our badges when it comes to other people’s food choices. Whether a person is vegan, eats fries with every meal, eats or doesn’t eat gluten is probably mostly irrelevant to your life. (Quick note: vegans, you gotta hold up your end of the deal too. You may be doing a rad thing, but not everyone can choose a vegan diet, and minds are rarely changed through shaming or shouting.) To my server friends: your knowledge of the menu (or willingness to go back to the kitchen and check) means that I can enjoy eating there without worrying that I’m going to be sick the rest of the day. To my foodie friends (and mother) who enjoy or at least tolerate the challenge of making vegan and gluten free options when you’re hosting: bless you. To those who don’t: it’s okay. Those of us with alternative diets are usually pretty resourceful at making a meal from odd ingredients, and/or carrying protein bars with us just in case. To the rest of you who feel the need to give your expert opinion about my diet: …stop? The increase in gluten free and other alternative diet options affects your life not at all. Is it hard for you to walk past an additional end cap in the grocery store? Did you get eyestrain reading some extra words on the packaging? I know it may seem silly to proclaim certain foods gluten free, but let us not forget the Red Vines incident. Look, here’s how it does affect you. It means that there are increasingly more places we can go out to eat together. It means that if you are cooking for one of us gluten free folk, you don’t have to go to an overpriced health food store to get ingredients. It means that the people you care about have it just a little easier in navigating the complicated, sometimes scary world of food. You eat your chicken nuggets. I’ll have some chickpeas.