A few weeks ago, I went out to lunch with a couple of friends to a lovely London café. The two of them had burgers, while I went for a huge falafel salad jam-packed with couscous, hummus, sun-dried tomatoes and other culinary marvels. It looked like heaven on a plate and tasted even yummier. The lunch felt like a luxurious indulgence and I was truly enjoying myself – until one of my friends, tucking into her burger, took a look at my plate and said, “poor you, Sascha, always salads for you. You never get any treats!”.
I was somewhat flummoxed. I was truly enjoying my lunch – up until that comment. It was very much a treat, in the sense that I was treating myself to a plentiful, gorgeous meal that I didn’t have to cook or clean up after, while sitting in a nice restaurant with people I liked – in my mind, that’s the very definition of “treat”. But since it was a so-called “healthy” option, with no animal ingredients, my friend, like many others, was drawn to make the conclusion that somehow, it was more of a necessity than a choice.
In an age where orthorexia nervosa is a new disorder and gym addiction is an actual issue, I’m here to shed light on the opposite – the social pressure to constantly make unhealthy food choices. The concept of “treating yourself” was designed to depict the act of allowing yourself an indulgence, a luxury, something that’s not part of your routine everyday existence, for the sheer pleasure of it. So far, so sundried-tomato-good. But somewhere along the way, the word “treat” has, at least in my social circles, come to mean “something that’s bad for you, just for the sake of it”. A cigarette is a treat, six glasses of wine are a treat – because one glass is just a Wednesday night – and pretty much any food that’s deemed unhealthy, regardless of whether it actually tastes good, is a treat. Everyone loves candy, right? What kind of sick person doesn’t love clogging their arteries and rotting their teeth with countless gummy bears and chemical-laden butter biscuits? And if you actually prefer fresh, colourful, fragrant fruit to stale-tasting, dusty old jelly beans, then something’s clearly wrong with you.
Don’t get me wrong, I love scrumptious, creamy chocolate cakes, oil-dripping sweet potato fries and frosty, Instagram-worthy pink cupcakes more than anyone (as long as they’re vegan!). It’s just that I don’t ALWAYS crave them, and on the occasions when I come across non-vegan “treats”, I’m perfectly fine with not eating them. Call me extreme (and a few people have), but I’d rather go for the decadent three-tier chocolate-dipped vegan cake once a month than “treat myself” to a packet of vending-machine crisps every two days. After all, a treat is no longer a treat if it’s presented on a daily basis.
In 2013, Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence both won very well-deserved Oscars, which, for some reason, prompted the world to endlessly compare them (because in our society, women get compared to one another for absolutely no reason – you don’t see Daniel Day-Lewis being compared to Christoph Waltz just because they both won Oscars that year) with Jennifer always emerging as the funny, down-to-earth one that we all want to be best friends with, while Anne was portrayed as the stuck-up, goody-two-shoes prissy princess. Some websites broke it down to bare details: while Jennifer regularly stuffs her face with pizza, Anne is a vegan. And we’d all rather be friends with the pizza-scoffer than the healthy one – after all, eating burgers every day is a “normal-girl thing”, making Jen one of us. Well, this shallow and one-sided way of thinking tends to crumble with the following three needle sticks: 1. Jennifer Lawrence very probably does not binge-eat on a daily basis. She exercises, as do most actresses, and chances are she eats very healthily. 2. Being a vegan doesn’t automatically guarantee a healthy lifestyle. You can survive on French fries, beer and cookies and technically still be vegan. 3. Neither of these eating habits, even brought to their extremes, are a one-stereotype-fits-all indication of the individual’s personality. If there’s one assumption that I’m tired of, it’s the idea that because you tend to reject unhealthy choices, you’re a boring person. If you need to gulp down seven beers in order to become your funny and sociable self, then surely I’m not the boring one?
Eating is a social issue, and it’s my personal theory that when we choose healthy food, people around us feel attacked. We make them feel bad about themselves for choosing that burger, that candy, that Coke. It’s the same with veganism – people get defensive because deep down, they know the industry is cruel, and our compassionate choices remind them of it, thus prompting them to come up with “but plants have feelings”-style excuses to make themselves feel okay about their choices. My issue is, I’m anything but perfect – and I’m not attacking anyone. I’m sure your cake tastes lovely. But all I want is to eat my apple in peace.
There has always been more focus on how food tastes rather than what it does to your body. Except for when women and weight loss are involved – that’s how we arrive at the conclusion that because a Diet Coke has zero calories and a banana has 89 calories, it’s somehow “better” to drink a can of Diet Coke. Newsflash: being healthy doesn’t always have to mean choose less calories. But making healthy choices just because it makes you feel better and might be a good health investment for your future is somehow less acceptable than “being good” in order to fit into your bikini. Because weight loss is viewed as a common goal that most women strive towards, sacrificing your enjoyment for the a “bikini body” is something that earns you compassion and understanding from the “sisterhood”.
Then there’s the whole “chemicals” issue. I’ve seen women I admire for their feminist stance passionately rant about society’s pressure on women to wear make-up, rejecting shampoo for the “no poo” method and going bare-faced. Why should we slather “chemicals” on ourselves in order to be accepted by society, they ask. I love make-up and know of many brands that effectively minimise their use of synthetic ingredients, but I agree that’s a personal choice and not something that should be forced upon us. I’d base my reluctance on other factors than “chemicals”, but that’s just me. However, when the same women defend their right to reject society’s body-image standards by posting Instagram photos of themselves with huge bags of crisps or tubs of ice cream, a part of me wonders how they feel about the chemicals in those foods. If you’re wary of putting artificial ingredients on your face, surely you’d avoid introducing them directly inside your body?
My bottom line is that no one should be criticized for what they eat, but if we ever were to question any food choices, then maybe the ones to discuss could be those that are detrimental to health, contribute to environmental damage, feed the obesity epidemic and kill animals? Just saying.
Header photo by Lavinia Marin