by Eva Coutts
Ruby Tandoh, author, journalist and chef talks about the need to connect food with mental wellbeing in order to eradicate the toxic relationship we have with food.
We have come to the end of another Eating Disorder Awareness Week. And may I ask, how much more aware are we?
Are we now equipped to spot the signs of serial under-eaters who shun the pub with friends for heaven forfend they may accidently guzzle a few chips. Office workers rubbing flakes of pastry angrily into their suit jacket with sweaty palms, terrified their colleagues will discover their morning trip to Greg’s. Children whose weary parents have come to accept the only thing they can give any sustenance to their frightened child with is a sliced white bagel, with sliced white cheese.
Though the first case of anorexia was diagnosed 138 years ago, there is still a huge misunderstanding that eating disorders are self-absorbed flirtations with health. Quite the contrary – one in five chronic anorexics will die as a result of their illness. Campaigns to reverse the stigma and fervent lobbying from charities has been ramped up over the past week but in addition to this, reports have emphasized just how shocking the consideration and training in eating disorders is. One junior doctor reported she had ‘just two hours on the subject throughout five years of medical study’.
Ahead of a new zine which she has nurtured with her partner, Ruby Tandoh, author and chef, discusses what she believes leads to the disordered relationship so many of us have with food. From the moralising, loaded language, to the disparity of our dreams and realities, Tandoh talks with clarity and wisdom well beyond her 25 years.
“Food has a long history of being used as a tool for subjugation, certain groups being denied food or individual people using food to punish themselves. On a fundamental level food is what we need to be strong and to thrive and fight our fights – it’s easy to see why it’s a target for those who want to weaken us.”
Food is so intricately bound up with our sense of self-worth, which seems to be heightened for women, who Tandoh goes on to describe as being ‘taught to fear the humanity and messiness of their bodies’, so naturally the denial of food becomes a way of controlling those fears. Whilst new trends have come along to perpetuate the problem at hand, the epidemic of comparison and self- criticism is no new ailment;
“Women have always had to assert, defend and ‘improve’ themselves in order to fall into line with sexist beauty standards. That said I think there is a renewed burst of collective anxiety right now. Women, including women of colour, trans women, sex workers, are beginning to organise on a bigger scale – so we’re hyper aware of all the shit in the world, but the world hasn’t caught up with our ideals just yet.”
The moralising, loaded language we use around food only perpetuates the problem, food items are now categorised into ‘naughty’ and ‘clean’, ‘sinful’ and ‘free’, a contorted logic that by putting something into your body you could contaminate your very being.
“The founding premise of all of those diets is this idea that you can get more – more happiness, health, wealth, beauty – by having less – less food, fewer possessions. There’s also the pretty flagrant pseudoscience and misinformation spread by the spokespeople for these diets: they claim that you can ‘cure’ depression or autism, just by returning to some, frankly impossible, ‘pure’ way of eating. There’s a weird quasi-religious element to all of this.”
On asked about her hopes for the future, Ruby talked about the need of changing the way we educate future generations about food.
“[We need] a compassionate, sympathetic approach to food that helps people learn to cook early in life, helps them navigate a contested food world, and saves them from falling prey to the sensationalist claims of the diet industry. It’s about reminding people that it’s OK to be nostalgic, happy, tormented, desperate around different foods. Taste and memory and our mental states are so interconnected. Embracing that is key.”