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There are a number of foods that have a history tied to occupation, violence, and colonialism - including things like:
SPAM - which was brought to the Pacific Islands during World War II by occupying American military forces.
Potatoes - which were brought from Peru to Europe and North America, and led to spikes in population growth that facilitated the occupation of Native American land.
Wheat - which was brought from Europe to the Americas during colonization.
Cane sugar - which is deeply connected to the history of slavery.
Recently I was doing a virtual talk about food positivity, and during the Q&A someone shared that they didn’t agree with my policy that “all food is good food” because certain foods, like sugar, have an oppressive history. They shared that they never eat sugar for this reason.
This brought up a complex intersection between two anti-oppressive values/politics: anti-diet and decolonization. What do we do when two values we hold seem to be leading us in different directions? In short, there's not one single - or "right" - answer. It depends on your history, desires, limitations, politics, and goals.
Ultimately, avoiding sugar is not a goal or value I possess. It does not align with either my decolonial/anti-racist or anti-diet values. Of the myriad ways one can practice both of those value systems, cutting out sugar is not a type of activism that works for me (more on why in a second).
Even though we didn’t see eye-to-eye, the person in the Q&A brought up something important: that there's more than one way to deal with complex intersections.
We all crave a world where oppressive history is not attached to any of our foods. However, in a culture where sugar is a part of daily life and eating desserts are part of important cultural rituals (like weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations), it might be alienating or inaccessible not to eat sugar. If you have a history of disordered eating (like me and approximately 30 million other Americans), that rule might be dangerous because restricting food can be a slippery slope. To the person who brought this up in the Q&A, however, not eating sugar feels important on an ideological and moral level.
Theirs is just as valid as the ideological and moral reasons that I choose to eat sugar - and generally don’t believe in restricting food unless there's an allergy or medical condition that require it. Let me talk about those reasons.
During my decades of disordered eating, I avoided sugar consistently. Never eating dessert was one of the worst parts of dieting for me. Dessert was one of the “carrots” at the end of my “weight-loss journey.” I deeply felt I didn’t “deserve” to eat dessert because of my fat body. When I decided to stop dieting, dessert was one of the first things I gravitated toward.
Eating dessert felt like letting go of the vicious cycle of constantly putting foods into “good”/”bad” and “leads to weight-loss/doesn’t lead to weight-loss” categories. Binaries and moralizing are themselves also a product of colonialism. Furthermore, eating dessert felt like a reclamation of my humanity as a fat woman of color, and my right to eat things I loved and desired after years of severe restriction. In that way, enjoying food with sugar in it is part of my mental health and part of my anti-diet value system (and adhering to my values also helps my mental health). For the person in the Q&A, I imagine that their stance on sugar is likely equally affirming and perhaps they don’t have an eating disorder history like I do. So the stakes might be different.
The best thing for me - the harm reduction approach to dealing with this as a person with a history of internalized fatphobia and disordered eating - is to eat things I love without shame and not to add (more) stress to eating. Additionally, I feel very positive and clear about my commitment to ending diet culture, specifically because of the strong role that colonialism/colonial frameworks play in the construction and perpetuation of diet culture. That's how I choose to meld my commitments to both decoloniality and anti-diet principles.
Reclaiming foods with a colonial past is another decolonial practice. When I think of food like SPAM, I think of my friend Dr. Joanne Rondilla, who is an Asian American Studies scholar who focuses on Filipinx culture and history. Joanne loves SPAM, and feels that creatively elevating SPAM is part of resilience and affirming her cultural identity as someone who grew up on Guam.
In short: different people deal with complex issues like this differently. We make meaning from different things. We have different histories, different politics, different challenges, and different ideas of what to do with the fraught legacies we’ve inherited.
Here are 4 questions to ask yourself if you find yourself at the crossroads:
What are my values? What truly matters to me?
What path or decision feels sustainable to me and honors who I am at my core?
What tools, resources or practices (like journaling or talking with a friend) do I need to remain open as I figure out the right answer for me?
Every political ideology offers almost endless types and variations of activism. I can't do them all. Which ones feel accessible and good to me?