Alice and I are walking down the aisle marked Dairy. I take four small tubs of Total 0% Greek yogurt, a couple of raspberry-flavor Müller Lights. I add a four-pack of vanilla probiotic Activias, then a two-pint carton of skim milk. My sister grimaces at the red-top milk—“Skim? That stuff looks like dirty water.” I nod cheerfully, “I know, tastes like it too.” We turn the corner into the aisle marked Meat, where it’s Al’s turn to stock up: bacon, chicken, and some kind of fish.
At the checkout line, we look at our baskets: butter, bacon, and eggs in hers; muesli, pita bread, Greek yogurt in mine. I also have apples, broccoli, bananas; Al has sparkling water, salmon, avocado.
See what she’s doing, and see what I’m doing? Without even thinking about it, we both have our forbidden foods—or, if not entirely forbidden, substances we steer clear of. Al never buys coffee or wine, although she will have the occasional cappuccino or glass of wine when she’s out. I literally don’t go near butter, and I wouldn’t know how to cook any of the meat she buys. Odder than her wariness of caffeine, and my strict vegetarianism, is our avoidance of whole food groups. I don’t do fat; she doesn’t do carbs. A few decades ago these might have seemed strange rules to follow, but these days they’re pretty normal. In the twenty-first century most women police their diets in some way.
At the heart of it all is food, or rather our relationship with food. If we ate just to satisfy our hunger, we could have our “meat and two veg” and leave it there. If calories were simply fuel, we’d consume what our bodies required, and there would be no weight problems. But few of us are that straightforward: We eat in response to emotional cues, not just hunger; we use food as a reward or withhold it as punishment; we bury sadness or despair in eating; we celebrate or console with meals; we demonstrate love and care and nurture through feeding others.
I suppose anorexia has made me hyperaware of our ever-present food culture. Not that the food is tempting per se—not eating is the most basic rule you master in anorexia—simply that the enemy is everywhere. Social situations involving food are hard to avoid, and those mantras of my anorexic decade—“Honestly, I’m not hungry,” and “I’m fine, I just ate”—resound in my head.
When I was writing An Apple a Day, one of the promises I made was that I would try to be less fearful of fat: “I will remember that Brazil nuts, olive oil, and other essential fats give you shiny hair and great skin, not a fat bum.” I’ve had some success with this—linseeds and pumpkins seeds for fat, hummus for protein—but I have to be careful. I try to ignore articles in magazines on sinful foods and miracle diets. And when other women are discussing what to eat and what to avoid, I do my best not to take it too seriously.
Bananas, for example. Yesterday a colleague at work commented, “If I ate bananas I’d have to run about twenty miles a day to burn them off.” It was an offhand comment, said through a mouthful of chocolate brownie, and I shouldn’t have even given it headspace. But bananas used to be problematic for me—they have a reputation for being higher in calories than other fruits, full of carbs. I felt a residual twinge of anxiety because I eat a banana most mornings—I love them, and they give me energy. But do bananas make you fat? . . . And so begins the banana anxiety.
Later, quite by coincidence, I noticed this link on Twitter: “According to a Japanese scientific research, a banana contains TNF which has anti-cancer properties. The degree of anti-cancer effect corresponds to the degree of ripeness of the fruit. In other words, the riper the banana, the better the anti-cancer quality. Eat bananas for optimum health.” Instantly I began to feel better.
The same thing happened recently with peanut butter. After I wrote my Times column, I received this email from a reader: “Emma, do you like peanut butter? I challenge you to one slice of toasted granary bread—with peanut butter if you can manage. Eating small but tasty, nutritious snacks really helped me gain weight. Try it, and tell me it’s not good?”
I thought about it. I’m always looking for good vegetarian sources of protein—and I like challenges. But peanut butter, quite apart from having the B-word in it, is terribly fattening, isn’t it? So I Googled it: “Peanut butter has long been shunned as high-fat and high-calorie, but it’s not all bad. True, it contains 16 grams of fat per serving, but it’s the heart-healthy, monounsaturated kind. Go for it.” And so I did. Crunchy peanut butter on piping hot toast.
While our eating habits are deeply personal, food itself is laden with social connotations. The choices we make are quite mixed up, a combination of income, availability, preferences, and personal food ideas: For example, fresh is better than frozen; supporting local shops is a priority; large supermarkets are evil; and so on. From childhood we have preferences around food and shopping based on a range of factors, such as where we grew up, our parents’ income, family habits, and tastes. We differ in our feelings about “value” brands, whether we drive to the supermarket and do one big shop every two weeks, or prefer to putter to the local shops and buy smaller amounts fresh every few days. My boyfriend relies on his Tesco online order once a week, but I quite like choosing my own fruit and veggies in a real-life shop; these are just our personal choices.
As well as our personal quirks and habits, we’re also heavily influenced by advertising and marketing, with their myriad messages about what we “deserve,” what we’re “worth,” and how the successful, happy consumer looks and eats. For large corporations, especially food producers and supermarkets, brand value is worth millions. When a brand is perceived to be tainted, consumers can very quickly turn against it.
As well as the basic publicity function of advertising, there’s an awful lot of subliminal communication going on too. Although we may not always notice it directly, we are constantly receiving messages about products and brands that resonate deeply with our sense of who we are and how we define ourselves. Maybe we feel more refined and sophisticated when we buy “artisan foods” from small producers, or maybe we feel more ethical when we buy fair trade goods. Everyone is affected by these advertising messages in different ways—but we are all affected, whether we know it or not.
I have female friends who now buy exclusively organic, who cook wild-farmed salmon for their toddlers, who make pesto by hand. They want their children to be healthy, and it all sounds delicious, but I think back with nostalgia to my own childhood in the 1980s. As well as home-cooked meals, we ate fish sticks and oven fries (from the freezer), or macaroni and cheese, or bangers and mash. Afterward we might have had Angel Delight (a powdered mousse pudding) as a special treat, or jelly and ice cream, or just fresh fruit. We ate apples, tangerines, pears—with five children, mum was forever filling up the fruit bowl. But my parents weren’t obsessive about our five-a-day. And none of my siblings or friends were unhealthy or overweight.
Meals have changed beyond all recognition of what the average family would have sat down to a hundred or even fifty years ago—and of course this isn’t just about foodie fashions, fads, or social aspirations. One of the greatest determinants of what we eat has been the general affluence of the population—such as the food shortages during the two world wars of the twentieth century—along with the availability of different kinds of food. And as we travel more, an ever-wider range of European and international cuisine has found its way home with us: French, Italian, and Spanish; Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese.
Despite the fact that frozen foods such as vegetables often have higher levels of nutrients than fresh produce—frozen peas, for example, or berries, as they’re preserved within hours of picking—many of us still disapprove of the freezer (a modern miracle). We may not like to admit it, but we do judge people on the dietary choices they make. Frozen food is a guilty secret, while fresh—ideally covered-in-earth fresh—is king. Some people disapprove of those who feed their children “junk food” or defrost something quick and easy; others disapprove of ready-made microwavable meals. And as for Chinese takeout, pizza, and curries, as tasty as they are, you’d be unlikely to serve them to dinner guests.
In the last few years farmers’ markets have sprung up everywhere, as has the mania for “buying local.” London’s Borough Market is a hip weekend destination for aspiring, affluent foodies from miles around. Walking past the cheese stalls in Islington’s Chapel Market, I’m astounded at the prices: You can buy Brie, Camembert, and Stilton at half the price in Sainsbury’s grocery store opposite. At my big sister’s local foodie street market in Pimlico you see young children sharing gourmet chorizo rolls and handmade quiche, while their middle-class parents stock up on fresh-roasted Arabica beans, doling out more than $30 at every stall. It’s hard not to reflect that not far away, schoolkids and adults are paying $1 for jumbo sausage rolls from Greggs the Baker.
The craze for farmers’ markets comes in part from environmental concern about food miles, and in part from a growing desire to know where and how our food is produced. But there’s no denying the class and wealth dimension to food these days—and there’s more than a whiff of self-righteousness to the movement. How smug is the term “artisan foods”? What does it even mean?
A school friend just posted this ad for her new business on Facebook: “At the heart of Organic is love: love of the land, love of nature, love of the task of raising living things with respect, love of the process and the people involved in it, love of health, love of food and the flavors, smells, and textures of something created with enthusiasm, care, and commitment.” It sounds great—but god, so worthy.
The model-actress-turned-farmer Liz Hurley is evangelical about her decision to eat only organic: “I almost never eat anything from a tin or a packet . . . I’m passionate about home-cooked food and am convinced that eating a lot of packaged and processed food encourages weight gain. If you think about it, a homemade cake has only four ingredients: butter, eggs, sugar, and flour; but if you look at the ingredients list of a shop-bought cake, it can be quadruple that—and most of it stuff you don’t want in your body.”
Of course we’re expected to shudder at the thought of those nasty “shop-bought” cakes.
I smiled recently at this opinion piece online from Sydney Morning Herald writer Jacqueline Maley: “One of the more insidious trends of the modern era . . . is the moral sanctity people attach to their food choices. Eating is no longer something we do for taste and energy consumption; it is a political act. The ability to select and consume biodynamic, macrobiotic, locally sourced and fully organic food is surely the greatest middle-class indulgence of our time.”
A middle-class indulgence indeed. And the foodie lifestyle is spreading. Back in 2003 the news that Liz Hurley was going into farming seemed incongruous, to say the least. What would a MAW (model-actress-whatever) know about sausage-making?
Nevertheless, she persevered, producing an organic range from her 400-acre estate in Gloucestershire, with her four Labradors, two cats, three geese, eight chickens, forty-nine cows, sixty-three sheep, and eighty-two pigs. In between bringing out new bikini and beachwear lines, she gave countless interviews extolling the virtues of rural living and baking muffins on the AGA.
More recently Hurley seems to have fallen out of love with her rare-breed Gloucester Old Spot pigs, and spends a lot of time in Australia with her on and off again partner, cricketer Shane Warne.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Sophie Dahl have also joined in, with recipe books, blogs, and TV cooking programs. Suddenly models are foodies, actresses are chefs, and musicians are organic farmers. Food-as-lifestyle is well and truly here.
EMMA WOOLF is the great-niece of Virginia Woolf. She is a columnist for The Times and The Daily Beast and also writes for The Independent, The Mail on Sunday, Harper’s Bazaar, and more. Emma’s first book, An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia, was shortlisted for the Beat Award for Recovery Inspiration. She lives in London, and is available through Counterpoint Press. Emma’s new book The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control is out now. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf
Excerpt from The Ministry of Thin by Emma Woolf, published 2014 by SOFT SKULL PRESS © Emma Woolf 2014, All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.