Sunday, April 30, 2006

What would feminist nutritional information look like

I wrote a long response to an article in a local feminist 'zine called '10 Wise Ways to Women's Wellness'. I responded the way I did because I believed that the original article was not feminist (whatever the intentions or personal beliefs of the author). I also believed that that article could hurt women who read it.

That belief didn't come in the vacuum. I've got friends who read that article. Friends who have been talking to me about how hard they struggle against using ideas about healthy food to control food, how they've fought back against eating disorder thoughts and behaviour, that they'd found reinforced by everyone around them. Other friends who I've never really talked about food with, just watched and listened, as they talk about morality and food, as they talked about food and control, talked as if eating healthily was a political act and never known how to say 'I'm really, really scared for you'.

A number of people in the comments to that thread (including the original author) said that I should have been more constructive in my criticism. I'm not sure what they were looking for, but now I'm going to write about what I think feminist nutritional advice would look like.

Actually it wouldn't be nutritional advice, it would be nutritional information. A huge part of the feminist project has been fighting against a society that does not trust women to make decisions about their lives and about their bodies. So the aim would be to give women information about the way our bodies work, and what qualities different foods have. Rather than saying 'eat this' or 'don't eat that' feminist advice would trust women to make their own decisions, based on full information.

This would also end up with much better results. Our bodies are different. I have a family history of alcoholism, heart attacks, manic-depression, and cancer (actually that's just my grandfathers), but the women have all lived to a reasonably old age. Right now I have quite good health. My priorities in terms of preventative health would be to prioritise nuturing my brain (because the old age of women in my family means that brains may die before bodies), and to avoid fibroids (because there's a lot of that in my family). Friends who have quite different family histories might want very different things.

But far more importantly feminist nutirtional information wouldn't just look at food and our bodies in isolation. Food and women's bodies are both loaded with meaning in our society. Women's bodies are there for almost everything, but the women who live in them. Food, and nuturing, are women's responsibility. We provide it, we care about it, we know about it. How women react to that differs, both on an individual basis, and depending on your class and ethnicity. Feminist nutritional information would take this into account.

So the fact that women in hetrosexual relationships usually do most of the cooking is as much an issue for feminist nutrition, as the use of hormones in factory farming. That most women hate their bodies and use food to punish themselves is as much of an issue as iron levels. The price of food is as much of an issue as the quality of that food.

Finally for nutritional information to be feminist, and just not harmful, it would need to go beyond individual women. It would have to be part of a project to fight back against everything I've described, not just a way for individual women to solve health problems they may have.

Now I work for a union, and I'm a feminist, but I wouldn't say I'm a feminist union organiser (I also don't think I'm a particularly radical union organiser). Feminist nutrition probably isn't possible as a job in the world you live in. It doesn't mean that feminists can't study nutrition, it just means that just because your a feminist and a nutritionist, doesn't make you a feminist nutritionist.


  1. My wife's in the food biz and would probably agree with you re attempting to ascribe morality to food. It all has a certain nutritional value, and some foods are so high in nutritional value that you're probably better off not sconning large quantities of them, but that's really about as much as you can say about it (although she'd also disagree with you I think re some types of fats being more harmful than others - that seems to have plenty of evidence backing it now).

    Sue Kedgely was in the paper yet again this morning with that whole bullshit about "healthy" vs "unhealthy" foods, this time re kids being given toys if they buy Macdonalds, and the "pester factor" for parents that results from this. "Well, you know what Sue? I get my kids to stop pestering me. I don't need a govt minister to assist me with this. I've had 10 years to figure this "parenting" shit out, and I've got the hang of it thanks. Maybe you could never say no to your kids, but do me the favour of not thinking I'm no better than you are."

    Your posts on nutrition ought to be required reading for the Health Select Committee Maia.

  2. Well, I personally am all for discouraging McDonald's, but more because of reasons Eric Schlosser describes in Fast Food Nation than because of nutritional reasons. I'm all for making sensible nutritional information available to peopl, but patronising them and being the "food police", however, is another story, and I'm really against the practice of equating diet with morality. Thanks for this post, Maia, it was most thought-provoking.