Reflecting on Food and Culture

Ever since I was a little girl, food and culture has played an integral role in my relationship with food. I grew up running down our apartment stairs to my mother’s beauty salon. At First Lady, beauticians from Poland, Germany, Greece and Mexico worked all day on their feet. They’d place rollers in the grey hairs of old ladies and listen to the stories of their customers. They would wave to the teachers, students and neighborhood folk that passed by the big glass windows of First Lady Beauty Salon. What was my role in all of this? I’m the girl that takes out the rollers, sweeps the floors, and happily passes pastries to the ladies who will later squeeze my chubby little cheeks and tell me to be good. 

These women are not just beauticians, or my mom’s old co-workers, they are family. These women have shaped who I am today. Their food and culture is a white noise in what is now my rock solid relationship with food.

In sharing the sacred beauty that food and culture offers us, allow me to introduce you to the very women, who in all likelihood, helped save my relationship with food, long before we even knew it was in trouble.

Alex (Ah-lex), a slightly secretive woman from Greece, would bring freshly baked bread and Koulourakia cookies to the beauty shop, particularly around Easter time. She’s the type of woman that rocks long white hair, keeps her age to herself, and laughs often. For reasons I don’t need to understand, yet whole-heartedly embrace, she chose “ca-ca roach” (cockroach – said in a heavy Greek accent) as a pet name for my sister and I. Much to my Mom’s disliking, Alex always gave her honest opinion on your latest recipe. 

Around Christmas time, we got homemade tamales from Paula, who taught me that you go the distance for your family. She often took long bus rides back to Mexico to look after hers, and it wasn’t uncommon that she’d bring her daughter to the shop. In the summertime, we’d often gather for a barbecue, where Paula would bring Palomas, and fresh tortilla chips from Taqueria El Asadero. 

Then there was Lottie. Oooohh Lottie – the German, brutally honest, self-proclaimed, “blair girl”, who hated to cook, but loved to dine. My love for sharing stories over food is undoubtedly strong today because of her. It was without question that I’d wake up early to meet Lottie for breakfast at the local diner, Jeri’s Grill. The best days were the double headers. We would part for a handful of hours, only to meet at Jury’s for burgers and beers. With some liquid courage and Chicago sunshine, I’d share things with Lottie in beer gardens all over Lincoln Square that I didn’t feel comfortable telling my own mother. (Jan has too pure of a soul to know what her ratchet teenage baby was up to back then).

Why am I sharing all of this? To counter balance a culture that will tell you ten ways to Sunday not to eat the bread, to avoid the cookies, have only 1 tamale, if you must, and god forbid you dine out twice in one day. This very culture wouldn’t have allowed me to honor Lottie’s life with a burger and beer when she passed away in 2019.

It breaks my heart to think of all the life experiences that diet culture robs from us. We are losing traditions, passing up opportunities, and killing food and culture. And for what? The pursuit of thinness? A phony definition of “wellness?” The world that we live in now focuses entirely way too much on health and nutrition. So much so that it has become unhealthy. Children are not allowed to share cookies with their grandparents. We are shaming people for enjoying the traditional, gluten-full, dairy-filled, dishes passed down from their ancestors. While the subscription to diet culture may come with good intentions, the impact is one that eating disorder clinicians, like myself, will go on to hold space for, and hopefully heal in the future.

Please do not misinterpret my concern as disregard for the power of food. I’ve studied and have gone on to teach Human Nutrition, so I greatly appreciate the health benefits food offers us. The difference between me and diet culture, is that I don’t limit this to composition, calories, or grams. I allow food to stretch beyond the confines of B-vitamin filled wheat husks, and into the souls of laughing women, who gather around tables, discussing their passions for social justice. I see that health is more than the indigestible fiber that feeds our gut flora. While sometimes this work beats me down, I get back up. I am committed to spreading the message that health is so much more than what we eat. It is certainly more than what a body looks like. 

I hold great privilege in all the ways I experience health. I am grateful for my physical and emotional, as well as social, spiritual, economic, and educational health. As a Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating and Eating Disorders clinician, it is quite literally my job to spread the message health is so much more than a number on a scale.

So this year, during eating disorders awareness week, I invite you to take a look at your relationship with food. Really ask yourself, “is it healthy?”. Are you able to see beyond the number on the scale? Do you give yourself permission to be flexible in your preferences? Or are you going hungry until you can be sure your food is “clean” and organic? Has diet culture robbed you of your roots and cultural foods? Do you even know what those are? And if so, do you allow yourself to unconditionally eat and enjoy these foods? Maybe the better question is, would a clinician like myself agree? 🙂

Cheers friends.

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