Perspective: Food Relationships

Sarah Rotz

Food as Relations: Reflecting on our Roots, (Re)visioning our Relationships
Sarah Rotz is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change at York University. Her academic and organizing work is grounded in environmental justice, with a focus on land and food systems.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe the relationship between systemic/structural food issues and personal food choices and beliefs.
  • Reflect on and question their relationship to food and body, particularly as related to issues of systemic racism and sexism.
  • Critically interrogate the personal and political impacts of diet culture, and propose alternative perspectives toward food, dieting, and body acceptance.

Introduction

How oftenand how deeplydo you think about your relationship to food? If you’re like many students I speak to, you might say, “I try to eat healthy, but other than that…not too much.” Yet we are inundated with all sorts of food messages every day. How, then, can we make sense of all this information if we don’t ask ourselves some critical questions? Let’s start with the following: How would you describe your relationship to food? What meaning does food have in your life? What thoughts and feelings does food evoke for you? What different feelings are associated with certain foods and food practices? What key memories have shaped your ‘coming to know’ food?

This process of reflection has been powerful for me personally, because it has helped me connect biggerpicture food system issues, such as industrialization, corporate concentration, and systemic racism, to cultural and emotional dimensions, such as diet culture, body image, and fat-phobia (fear or disdain of fatness). For this chapter, I draw from my own reflection process to make some connections between seemingly abstract structural forces of racism, , and to our personal relationships with food, our bodies, and ourselves.

Some of my earliest food messages centered on themes of food restriction and self-discipline, creating an inner world of confusion and self-doubt. Many of the people in my life—especially the women—modelled an anxious and polarized relationship with food, displaying a venomous hate for both ‘the calorie’ and the body in some moments, and a ravenous desire for food in others. The latter often ended in self-blaming and punishing remarks about piggies,” along with promises to never do that again. Weekend brunches were often followed by declarations that “we don’t need to eat anything until dinner!” I remember feeling nervous, thinking: But, what if I get hungry before dinner? The message I took from this was that that hunger is something to be controlled, managed, and contained, and that one should only feel hungry at socially appropriate times. If, then, my hunger arose outside of these socially sanctioned moments (which was often), I would feel shame: Why am I hungry? This isn’t right, I shouldn’t feel hungry. Looking back, I see how immediately I internalized my parents relationship to food as I grew. Their punitive, regulatory voice became my own.

Situating our Relationship to Food

Exploring our personal relationships to food (made up of intertwined experiences, perceptions, mentalities, narratives, and messages) can feel difficult because it is so deeply connected to our core sense of self. Our early messages about food tell us a great deal about whether or not we can (and should) trust ourselves, our bodies, and our feelings. If they are shaming, critical, and restrictive messages, they can have deep and persistent negative effects on our self-worth, and our degree of body acceptance. They also shape how we understand and internalize larger cultural messages, such as fat-phobia and the idealization of thinness. The relationship between the personal and political reveal themselves in the realm of food. Our internal relationship to food is shaped and informed by our familial and socio-cultural food knowledges and practices, which are strongly determined by larger forces that condition how we understand, access, interact with, and consume food. Put simply, our ability to engage in different food practices (e.g., whether we gain access to food from a fridge, restaurant, garden, or forest) are limited to a large extent by the culture and society we live in (e.g., how we are situated in society to have access to economic resources, cultural knowledges, land, and natural spaces). So while we can certainly push back against and move beyond food messages that feel unhealthy and harmful to us, it is helpful to remember that our social conditions have heavily encouraged some ways of knowing and interacting with food, while making others incredibly difficult.

As my own memories affirm, many of us struggle with various forms of rigid and disordered eating, which can be described as a way of relating to food that causes emotional, psychological and/or physical harm. Again, this harmful relationship does not arise simply from one’s own mind—external forces shape our personal relationships to food. Diet culture, defined as a system of beliefs that equate thinness and particular body shapes and sizes to health and moral virtue, has played a particularly destructive role here. Its roots run deep. As systems of , colonialism, and ecological imperialism reveal, unhealthy and unethical systems often cultivate unhealthy and dysfunctional relations to food, the land, each other, and ourselves.

Getting to the Roots of our Personal Food Relations

The restrict-binge cycle of eating has become so common in Western culture that most of us can easily recognize it in ourselves and others. Fat-phobia and diet culture have a centuries-long history rooted in European imperial and colonial expansion (marked by resource theft and political and cultural domination), and cultural beliefs in the superiority of white peoplemen in particular. These are the same systems through which the dominant food industry has evolved. In her book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, sociologist Sabrina Strings clearly shows how anti-black racism (linked to the Atlantic slave trade) and the rise of religious Protestantism shaped anti-fat expressions around food and the body, coming together firmly in the early 19th century.

Fat-phobic language and the admiration of the thin body were deployed through popular culture and media by Europeans and white Americans to create and reinforce “social distinctions between themselves and so-called greedy and fat racial Others.” Religious language linked slenderness to ‘civilized’ dispositions and moral and racial superiority, while equating fatness to signs of ungodliness, “poor constitution”, and savagery. The popularization of fat-phobia in dominant North American culture had material interests and consequences, and it played a key role in degrading Black people, so-called “hybrid whites” (e.g., Celtic Irish, southern Italians, Russians), immigrants, and poor people. As feminist and gender scholars have shown, fat-shaming language and thin obsession has targeted women by regulating and denigrating women’s relationships with food and their bodies. White women became the representatives and delegates of the white Protestant ideal, involuntarily assigned the role of upholding established codes of superiority—a slender woman is a disciplined, civil, dignified, and pure woman. In this way, Strings argues that race acts as a double agent “to both degrade black women and discipline white women.”[1]

The disciplining language of fat-phobia has been passed down through generations of families, and mine was not immune. Reflecting on how the main tenets of diet culture have shown up in my own life[2]—in my home, amongst friends, at school, and in the media, the messaging was everywhere. Family and friends were often comparing themselves and each other to white, thin ideals, and they tended to associate thinness with health and moral virtue. When I was as young as ten or eleven, I remember the shame and frustration on the faces of female friends as they declared their weight loss goals and focused on “getting thin.” I learned at a young age that weight loss was widely attributed to sexual desirability and social status. Around this time, my mom began an especially intensive healthy eating’ phase in which she demonized certain foods and revered others.[3] This self-disciplining language of ‘good’ or ‘healthy’, versus ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ foods, creates a sense of shame and erodes our pleasure and trust around food. These thoughts and practices have far-reaching impacts on our internal lives and psyches. Also, these culturally constructed categories of food (as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’) are rooted in racist and classist language that centers white Euro-American foods while excluding, demonizing, or otherwise appropriating foods from non-white cultures and communities.

When I was young, my family didn’t cook or eat together regularly. Money and time were both fairly tight, but that doesn’t fully explain why our food culture felt so isolating and noncommunal. My family, too often, carried and reinforced food messages based in shame, restriction, and discipline.[4] Looking back, I would describe our food atmosphere as unloving, with undertones of hostility. Food preparation and eating practices were often spoken about negatively—as an unwelcome obligation (and unwelcome calories)—rather than as a potentially joyful opportunity to bring people together. These characteristics are not unique to my family. They are premised on age-old sentiments that openly loving and finding joy and pleasure in food implies you are weak, inferior, boorish, and unrefined. These sentiments have evolved from—and serve the interests of—capitalist food and diet culture, but they have particular historical origins in North America under white European settler colonialism. While particular in how they function, settler colonial and enslavement societies are relatedly underpinned by beliefs and practices of discipline, control, and hierarchy, alongside individualist, acquisitive, and supremacist ways of thinking.

Reflecting on Colonial Food Relations

While my ancestors may not have been the central architects of colonial invasion (although I’m still unclear about the details), they were by and large colonial in their mentality and actions. Like most settler Canadians, my ancestors were born into a mental framework of Euro-American arrogance”[5] that operates as a widespread system or method of control and underpins our dominant society. In terms of food, the settler colonial mental framework drove the project of land theft and resource accumulation, and gave rise to the dominant food system we are now steeped in. The settler colonial origins of our food system are marked by the rise of the settler patriarchal family farm engaged in market-based production using increasingly large and expensive machines and inputs (such as seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides) on relatively large plots of land within a growing agri-business industry. In turn, the vast majority of agricultural land and other-than-human beings (also described as ‘resources’) in Canada have been built by and for white settler people, governments, and corporations. It is thus unsurprising that nearly all of the agricultural land in Canada is managed by white (male) settler farmers. Collectively, settler culture understands land and food as an economic resource and commodity, and this way of seeing has deeply shaped how settler societies and institutions relate to it.

Put differently, regardless of the motives of individual settlers, the structure of colonization (comprised of institutions, laws and policies, norms, and worldviews) evolved with intent and purpose. Patrick Wolfe argues that to effectively accumulate land and build an industry, peoples and cultures currently living on those lands must be eliminated.[6] Giving the lie to the rhetoric that Canada was “empty land” or “terra nullius, Indigenous peoples had deeply rooted food relations and practiced complex forms of food growing and gathering for centuries before contact with Europeans; they continue to do so today. Colonial governments created policies to suppress Indigenous food growing, gathering, and harvesting while also restricting Indigenous involvement in settler agricultureeven while colonial policy-makers argued that they wanted Indigenous people to be farmers. These policies (including the , , and systems) played a central role in dispossessing Indigenous Nations and dismantling their food and livelihood systems. Further, they forced certain settler food cultures, habits, and relations upon Indigenous Nations. Forced starvation, food and water contamination, the prohibition of Indigenous food practices, and other food injustices that the colonial government has inflicted on Indigenous peoples are often strategies in the larger project of settler expansion. Indeed, settler expansion requires the concurrent undermining of Indigenous lifeways, control, and self-determination (although Indigenous peoples, communities, and nations have done a great deal to resist this).

Revisioning Food Relations: Making Joy, Love, Kin & Justice

If colonial mentalities and behaviors are conditional rather than inevitable states of a society[7], how then can we move beyond colonial and patriarchal food relationships, both personally and collectively? I have shifted away from the perspective that sustainable food solutions must be found primarily through legal regulation (e.g., banning or mandating certain foods or ingredients) that would change consumer behavior. This is specifically because these approaches have been shown to reinforce diet culture tenets of discipline, restriction, and shame, while transferring structural harms onto individuals and deploying cultures of surveillance onto those with the least power.

Taking direction from Black and Indigenous scholars, activists, and teachers—and in community with students and colleagues—I envision what it means to build a (de)(anti)colonial and feminist relationship toward food. As Kim TallBear explains, “in order to sustain good relations among all the beings that inhabit these lands, we must undercut settler (property) relations. Instead of killing the Indian to save the man, we must turn the table.

As a first step in this life-long process, I began working to confront my internalized racism, sexism and fat-phobia, especially with how I thought about and acted on food. By applying processes of reflection to my own life, I have been able to better understand how these internalized mental frameworks have guided my approach to food and my body. The wisdom and support of teachers and community have shown me the power of practices and relations grounded in mind-body attunement and self-trust (through, for instance, an ‘intuitive eating’ approach)[8], starting with simply listening to and affirming my body’s own intuitions, desires, and needs. Doing this work has allowed me to begin healing shame- and control-based food behaviours while encouraging internal dialogue that de-links self-worth from appearance. For me, these teachings have been the most promising and sustainable path of recovery from personally destructive food relations. In addition, they can be extrapolated to the political.

Given our deeply unequal social conditions, we know that declaring that all people ought to just make healthy food choices’ only strengthens shame-based food messages, especially for marginalized folks and those in larger bodies. Instead, what would it mean to center the needs and well-being of those whose bodies and identities fall outside of the limited boundaries of diet culture, and who bear the brunt of white, heteronormative patriarchy? What would it mean to apply decolonial and feminist mental frameworks to our understanding of and relations to land more broadly? Wise teachers and practitioners are showing us what a different way can look like through visions, principles, and practices of collective cultural resurgence, land-based learning, and , land reclamation, remediation and , and .[9] Taking these visions, principles and practices seriously allows us to work together toward emancipatory food relations rooted in personal food relations of pleasure, joy, and deep acceptance, alongside nourishing and mutually supportive family, kinship, and collective food cultures.

Discussion Questions

  • What are some of your significant experiences with growing food, working with soil, or cooking and preparing food? In what ways have these food experiences been influenced by your or another’s race, gender, or class?
  • When you think about ‘Canadian’ food, what kinds of foods do you think of? What messages have you been told about ‘Canadian food’? What kinds of foods and what different communities and populations of people might these categories and messages exclude?
  • How much do you know about First Nations (Anishinaabe or Haudenoshaunee, for instance), Inuit, or Métis foods, or Haitian, Jamaican, or South Asian foods? Why or why not?

Additional Resources

Brady, J., E.M. Power, M. Szabo, and J. Gingras. 2017. “Still Hungry for a Feminist Food Studies.” In Critical Perspectives in Food Studies, edited by Mustafa Koç, Anthony Winson, Jennifer Sumner, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carter, S. 1990. Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

———. 2016. Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies. Univ. of Manitoba Press.

Corntassel, J. 2012. “Re-Envisioning Resurgence: Indigenous Pathways to Decolonization and Sustainable Self-Determination.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 86–101.

Cox, J.A.R. 2020. Fat Girls in Black Bodies: Creating Communities of Our Own. Berkley: North Atlantic Books.

Daschuk, J.W. 2013. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press. https://doi.org/10.15353/cfs-rcea.v1i2.51.

Friedmann, H. 1978. “World Market, State, and Family Farm: Social Bases of Household Production in the Era of Wage Labor.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 20 (4): 545–86.

Harrison, C. 2021. “Food Psych #269: Gender Dynamics in Food Media and Marketing with Emily Contois, and the Links Between White Supremacy, Diet Culture, and Nutrition with Joy Cox.” Food Psych #269.

Kimmerer, R.W. 2015. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneaopolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

La Via Campesina. 2009. La Via Campesina Policy Documents.

Laduke, W. and D. Cowen. 2020. “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 119 (2): 243–68. https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-8177747.

Linardon, J., and S. Mitchell. 2017. “Rigid Dietary Control, Flexible Dietary Control, and Intuitive Eating: Evidence for Their Differential Relationship to Disordered Eating and Body Image Concerns.” Eating Behaviors 26: 16–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.01.008.

Monture, R. 2014. We Share Our Matters (Teionkwakhashion Tsi Niionkwariho:Ten): Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of Grand River. University of Manitoba Press. https://doi.org/10.7202/1050643ar.

Muthien, B. n.d. “Rematriation of Women-Centred (Feminist) Indigenous Knowledge.”

Newcomb, S. 1995. “Perspectives: Healing, Restoration, and Rematriation.” Indigenous Law News & Notes (Spring/Summer): 3.

Rogers, C.B., J.J. Taylor, N. Jafari, and J.B. Webb. 2019. “‘No Seconds for You!’: Exploring a Sociocultural Model of Fat-Talking in the Presence of Family Involving Restrictive/Critical Caregiver Eating Messages, Relational Body Image, and Anti-Fat Attitudes in College Women.” Body Image 30: 56–63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2019.05.004.

Rotz, S. 2017. “‘They Took Our Beads, It Was a Fair Trade, Get over It’: Settler Colonial Logics, Racial Hierarchies and Material Dominance in Canadian Agriculture.” Geoforum 82: 158–69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.04.010.

Simpson, L.B. 2014. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3 (3): 1–25.

Mitchinson, W. 2018. Fighting Fat: Canada, 1920-1980. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Whyte, K. 2017. “Food Sovereignty, Justice, and Indigenous Peoples.” Oxford Handbook on Food Ethics, 345–66.

———. 2018. “Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Injustice.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9 (1): 125–44. https://doi.org/10.3167/ares.2018.090109.

Wildcat, M., M. McDonald, S. Irlbacher-Fox, and G. Coulthard. 2014. “Learning from the Land: Indigenous Land Based Pedagogy and Decolonization.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3 (3): i–xv.

Wolfe, P. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8 (4): 387–409. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240.

References

Alfred, T. 2005. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Barker, A.J. 2009. “The Contemporary Reality of Canadian Imperialism: Settler Colonialism and the Hybrid Colonial State.” American Indian Quarterly 33 (3).

Harrison, C. 2019. Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. New York: Little, Brown.

Strings, S. 2019. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. New York: NYU Press.

TallBear, K. 2019. “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming.” Kalfou 6 (1). https://doi.org/10.15367/kf.v6i1.228.

Tribole, E., and E. Resch. 2020. Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. New York: St. Martin’s Publishing Group.


  1. Strings 2019, 6.
  2. See Christy Harrison’s book, Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating for a deeper analysis of diet culture.
  3. I now see that my mother was merely responding to the same diet culture and fat-phobic messaging that pervades our society.
  4. Both markers of broader settler colonial and European imperial cultural norms and ways of knowing.
  5. Barker 2009, 341.
  6. How the elimination happens is always ongoing, and it shifts according settler-Indigenous relations of mediation, action, and resistance.
  7. To differentiate between social states and cultural imperatives, Barker points to Taiaiake Alfred’s passage from Wasáse (2005, 109). As a clash of “cultures,” “civilizations,” etc., this problem could be discussed in more objective theoretical terms to avoid the discomfort of personal responsibility, but in reality, the injustices we live with are a matter of choices and behaviours committed within a worldview defined by a mental framework of Euroamerican arrogance and self-justifying political ideologies set in opposition to Onkwehonwe [this term is the Kanienkehaka equivalent to “Indigenous,” meaning roughly “original or authentic peoples”] peoples and our worldviews. The basic substance of the problem of colonialism is the belief in the superiority and universality of Euro-American culture.
  8. See Tribole & Resch 2020.
  9. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the concept of kin-making can be applied to re-imagining and righting our relations to food, land, and the body as non-Indigenous people: “Making or creating kin can call non-Indigenous people (including those who do not fit well into the ‘settler’ category) to be more accountable to Indigenous lifeways long constituted in intimate relation with this place. Kinship might inspire change, new ways of organizing and standing together in the face of state violence against both humans and the land.” (TallBear 2019, 38)

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Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Rotz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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https://doi.org/10.22215/fsmmm/rs38

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