In January, I attended a lecture at Castilleja School, a Palo Alto school for girls in grades 6-12. The lecture, given by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, was part of Castilleja’s annual “Global Week” program, in which the school holds a series of lectures and events related to a specific theme in international issues. This year, the topic was “Food Justice and Sustainability,” and Menzel and D’Aluisio were presenting their findings from researching their book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. For the project, they traveled to approximately 25 different countries, interviewing and photographing people with all of the food that represents an average week in their diet. The slideshow and lecture brought up deeply complex issues of class, culture, and health.
Among the interviewees were a family in Chad that could only afford about $1.23-worth of food per week, a family in North Carolina eating primarily packaged and fast food, and a size-4 American model who expressed dissatisfaction with her weight and limited her calorie intake. The spectrum of diets, class backgrounds, and attitudes toward food highlighted food’s symbolic value: what we eat says a lot about who we are and where we come from. During the lecture, I thought about how the middle- and high-school girls might interpret its message. After all, you can turn to any fashion magazine to see how a discussion of “nutrition” can actually be one about thinness, an example of the mixed messages about food that surround girls from a young age.
This semester at Vassar, I am exploring these issues further by taking a Women’s Studies seminar called Thinking Women’s Bodies. The professors have asked each of us to embark on a “body project” for the semester. The guidelines are essentially limitless, and students are doing anything from meditating to experimenting with veganism. For my own project, I am to trying to practice “intuitive eating,” about which I first learned a few years ago at a meeting of The Body Positive, a Bay Area-based non-profit.
Intuitive eating essentially means eating exactly what you are craving, when you are hungry, and stopping when you are full. It works in opposition to diet trends and militaristic regimens; it is about listening to your body, enjoying the pleasure of eating, and developing a positive relationship with food. Though it may sound like the natural way to eat, it is actually quite difficult for me and presumably a lot of other people to eat without being regulated by factors like time of day, calorie concerns, or serving size.
At the same time, as Menzel and D’Aluisio implied, it is a reflection of my privilege to be able to focus on eating intuitively, rather than on whether or not I can afford my next meal. If anything, I left the lecture reminded that, depending on your gender, culture, and class, food may be an enemy, friend, or rarity. Hopefully, educators can keep all of these issues in mind when talking to girls about eating because, especially with girls, we can’t pretend that food is just food.