Eating as Performance of Moral Superiority

We live in a culture where so much of what we do has become performative, designed to impress others rather than intended to be a pure action divorced of any weighted cultural or social meaning, or a personal choice in line with individual ethics and beliefs. Driving, eating, reading, all of these actions have become culturally loaded in a world where we are under constant scrutiny, and where we put ourselves forward for that scrutiny. We Instagram our meals, maintain reading lists on social networks, talk about the cars we do (or don’t, as the case may be) drive, all for public consumption in a way that’s really intriguing—ten years ago, this level of personal exposure and discussion wasn’t happening.

While performative behaviours were of course still present (they always have been), they weren’t so insidious, and they didn’t occupy almost every aspect of people’s lives; there was a point at which one could escape, check out, as it were. In a culture where everything is on display, though, people don’t have that option, and thus people have become increasingly self-conscious about everything they do, every move they make, and everywhere they do it.

Food is one of the areas in which these behaviours have become most spectacularly noticeable. Food, of course, has always been an important cultural and class marker; what people ate, and how they ate it, was a performance of who they were. There were always divides between rich foods and poor foods, between foods of different cultures (which came with a laden racist and xenophobic judgment), and now, there’s another stark divide; there are also distinctions between ethical and unethical foods, morally righteous and wrong foods, and thus, eating becomes another opportunity to perform moral as well as cultural superiority.

‘You are what you eat,’ they say, and that saying has come full circle in a world where people are very much judged by what is and is not on their plates. Not just in the sense that they always have been, but in the new rubric of the foodie movement, where people are expected to adhere to a narrow set of rules. They’re supposed to eat ‘wholesome’ and ‘natural’ foods; bacon from the store is not okay, but organic cured pork belly bought from the local butcher is fine. Frozen vegetables thrown into a packet of Ramen are not acceptable, but fresh produce from the farmers’ market and eaten with noodles you’ve made yourself, prepared in a stock you personally laboured over, that’s fine.

Food has become so laden that it sometimes seems like it’s impossible to talk about because people are talking at cross purposes. At the same time that foodies are judging people for not eating righteously, they’re not necessarily making it any easier for people to make the same choices they are. In many cases, as I’ve discussed before, foodies like to actively brag about how much they spend on food like this is some kind of moral accomplishment, in a world where people are struggling to feed themselves on the amount they can afford to spend.

And people are judged not just for the source of their food but for what’s in it, viewed askance for having personal tastes when it comes to food; it’s wrong to like certain things and dislike others, you’re not fulfilling your social contract by liking the ‘right’ kinds of foods, no matter what your personal relationship with those foods might be. This has become particularly acute in an era of fad diets which are used to reinforce that moral superiority even further. People talk about how adhering to a given dietary plan makes them ‘feel better’ and ‘get healthy,’ implying that people who don’t follow that plan not only eat garbage, but don’t care about their bodies.

Setting aside the need that dietary needs are variable and different people respond differently to varying diets, such comments are specifically designed to shame people, reminding them that they lack the moral fibre to participate fully in society. Passage to the ranks of the moral eaters is open to a rarefied few, and that passage is very much limited by cost; it doesn’t escape my notice that many dietary trends are extremely expensive, and also require large budgets of time and energy to stick with. Yet, the issue is approached as one with simplistic rules: either you care about your body and hop on board, or you don’t, and if you don’t, it’s a personal moral failing, and nothing to do with other limitations like the fact that your body might not tolerate that kind of diet, or you might not be able to afford it.

Meanwhile, some people with allergies and other food restrictions may struggle to find safe food to eat, and yet they aren’t considered among the ranks of the morally righteous because they’re forced to compromise in order to survive. If you have dietary sensitivities and you don’t have very much money, the combination can be frustrating, and it can force you to eat food that is actively bad for you in the sense that it will cause a reaction.

Or you’ll have to stick with a limited range of food options, and be judged for not eating more varied food, or for eating what’s in your comfort zone; if you have celiac and you’re autistic, for example, you may be limited by the dual issues of gluten sensitivity and textural/flavour issues related to food, so you may end up eating a lot of the same thing, and avoiding the things that are ‘morally right’ to eat, like fresh vegetables. That makes you a ‘bad’ eater.

Until eating can be divorced from value judgments, it’s going to be difficult to repair a broken food system. Individual dietary choices are not made in a vacuum, but a world filled with pressures, and those pressures must be acknowledged in a discussion of what people eat, how, and why. There’s nothing morally superior about eating one thing and not another, and people need to stop acting like their fridges contain proof of sanctification.