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22.3.06

Let Them Eat Malai Kofta!

Maia from Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty has sparked an interesting discussion about how much of our health is under our control. Maia takes a position close to the "no control" end of the spectrum, attributing most of our health outcomes to chance or social structural factors, rather than individual behavior. Some commenters have responded with examples of things that one can do to improve one's health. Others have replied to that argument by pointing out how it is rooted in privilege. Our society gives some people the privilege of being able to control their health more than others. Those who can control their health too often then universalize their own experience, assuming that everyone has that privilege (and can thus be blamed for failing to stay healthy).

A common example of a (supposedly) controllable health-impacting behavior is diet. I think most people would agree that the average American would be better off if they ate more vegetables and less grease. My own diet (not to mention my gustatory satisfaction) has improved greatly over the last few years as I've learned to cook vegetarian Indian cuisine. But let's look at the privilege underlying my shift of eating habits.

The first privilege to be pointed out whenever this discussion arises is economic. The ingredients necessary for many of the dishes I like can be very hard to obtain within the geographic and budgetary constraints faced by many lower-class people. Time is related, too -- because I don't have to work long hours at two jobs just to make ends meet, I have the time to spend learning to cook new things, as well as carrying out that cooking on a day to day basis.

Also frequently mentioned is the privilege of access to information. All of my recipes came from the internet, which blocks the many Americans without internet access from following in my footsteps. Then there's the deeper question of even knowing what to look for -- how was it that I learned that Indian food was tasty and good for you?

I think that a third type of privilege is as important as these rigid constraints, but much less often cited (perhaps because, being "softer," it seems less likely to convince those who deny the existence of privilege): cultural privilege. Eating is not a purely functional act like putting gas in your car*. It's loaded with cultural significance. What you eat is an expression and a shaper of who you are and what group you belong to. (This is described well, albeit in more generality, in Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood's The World of Goods). This is why poor people frustrate diet advisors and welfare critics by spending their food stamps on TV dinners and brand-name breakfast cereal rather than stocking up on beans and rice. When you're at the bottom of the social totem pole, you cling tenaciously to that sense of belonging and dignity that comes from eating the same kinds of food as everyone else.

In the case of my own shift to Indian food, I benefit from the privilege of being part of a social circle -- the young, liberal, well-educated elite -- that finds such a diet acceptable. I can have some friends over for saag paneer and they'll find it exciting and compliment me on my cooking. Even when eating alone, I'm pleased with what having dahl says about the kind of person I am. This, however, is not true for many people. Even if the ingredients were affordable and the cooking skills were accessible, making healthier meals would be a major cultural sacrifice.

*Though of course gassing up can have strong cultural overtones as well -- like the liberal who drives the extra mile to patronize BP instead of Mobil.

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