Stop Policing Our Bodies: When Cis White Men Determine What is "Healthy" for Everyone
Photo via Simon Matzinger
“Females should not eat eggs,” the cis white man told me. I was in a conversation with him about his choice to be vegan. He said he had done a lot of research about what certain bodies should eat and not eat. I had a lot of questions to say the least. Like who did the study from which he found his “evidence”? How did they do this study? Who did they include in this study? I was annoyed and blown away by his audacity.
I was annoyed because he was using the word “females” to describe female-bodied people. This is an important distinction because when people, especially cis white men, use the word “female” they are usually conflating it with “woman.” Gender and sex are not the same thing and this seemingly benign faux pas is actually incredibly harmful because it erases the experiences of trans people and homogenizes womxn, as if our bodies and lived experiences are all the same.
And I was simultaneously blown away -- as blown away as someone can be with cis white men -- at his audacious ability to assert a truth about someone’s body that was not his own. Because of the context of us talking about veganism, bodies, and health, his language implied that female-bodied folks shouldn’t eat eggs because it was not “healthy.” He had a lot of reasons and a lot of research for this.
This presumption about what is “healthy” for female-bodied people makes me think of James Pollan, the author of the popular 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the follow-up book in 2009 called Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Pollan advocated for a more sustainable food system, but in the same breath disparaged fatness. While it is important to make the connection between industrial agriculture and environmental health, what his analysis lacked were the ways that Pollan as a thin, cis white man has access to the lifestyle and food that he is promoting, and also that his body is genetically unique to him. What works for him will not work for everyone else, and fatness is normal and healthy.
I had to sit back and reflect on the matter-of-factness of this man’s delivery that female-bodied people shouldn’t eat eggs. Growing up in a culture that force feeds you the food pyramid in gym class and magazines that focus on diet and weight-loss, our white ideas of what is “healthy” is incredibly skewed and entitled. Throw in the culture of “peak performance” for summiting mountains and climbing rocks on stolen land, and white vegans have staunch opinions about how people eat that are just plain racist and inexcusable.
And I have to admit that I personally was guilty of thinking that there was a universal standard of health just like this dude who I was talking to about his veganism. As I did more learning, listening, and researching I began to see that our European ancestors are the ones who created the oppressive food systems and barriers to access that we see today, which oftentimes make it difficult for people of color and poor folks to eat a plant-based, dairy-free diet. European colonialism is the reason why processed foods and food chains are easier to access than organic produce.
This white entitled mindset — a mindset that believes one can determine what is healthy for another body without taking into account one’s position of power and privilege — is the same mindset of our political system where congressmen enforce legislation upon bodies that are not their own. This cis white man’s mindset struck a chord in me because it’s the same mindset that bolsters our government — a government that cannot be questioned, held accountable, be regulated, or prosecuted for their wrongs, and yet can regulate the masses and police bodies that are not their own.
Regardless of what the “research” says, no one can claim what is “healthy” for another body. It makes me think about our “wellness” culture and the dieting and “clean eating” fads that are in full-force at this moment. If your veganism is devoid of actively working on helping other people gain access to fruits and vegetables, advocating for more support for indigenous food sovereignty programs, working to end food deserts and environmental racism, then can you really call yourself a vegan? When we take into consideration access to food, geographically where people live, socioeconomic status, race, class, gender, and more, “health” for one person is going to look a lot different for someone else.
His insistence on this “fact” that female-bodied folks should not eat eggs could only be coming from one place: the potent mixture of toxic masculinity and white supremacy. It’s this specific concoction of power and privilege that triggers an impulse to have such control, to have such a grip on everything, to be the most informed and educated, to be so precise and researched, that you whole-heartedly believe in the written words you dug up so much that you can make statements about what is “healthy” for other people’s bodies.
It’s historically been thin, white guys who think they know everything about everything in general, so it’s really no surprise, but in this conversation I was particularly irked. Veganism is a wonderful option if you can afford the time, energy, and money to do it. It is great for the planet too. But veganism mixed with white supremacy and toxic masculinity furthers the patriarchal agenda to police womxn’s bodies, particularly Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies, and even more particularly trans people of color.
In a society the polices women’s bodies right down to the food they eat, to hear a cis white man assert so definitively that female-bodied people “shouldn’t” eat eggs made my chill go bankrupt because it comes from a place of paternalism and judgment.
As Virginia Sole-Smith writes in Well, Actually: The Thin White Men Who Rebranded Dieting as Wellness,
“Healthy homemade meals require a significant outlay of time, money, and mental labor to plan, shop, prep, cook and, clean it all up. But if we don’t do it, we’re lazy, selfish, wasteful, probably fat, and certainly bad moms. As Karen, a 51-year-old mother and science writer in Silicon Valley, told me after confessing how often her family eats Nutella on toast for dinner: ‘I find it hard to exist in today’s judgmental food environment.’”
In this age where 50 percent of teenage girls and 25 percent of teenage boys are on diets as Sole-Smith reports, I want to advocate for us all to have more loving, nourishing relationships with our bodies and food. I want cis white men to shut the hell up about what is Healthy™ for a body unless it’s their own. I want us to break away from shaming others for their choices. I want to encourage eating guilt-free, no apologies.
Most of all, I want cis white men to check their paternalism and entitlement. Trust that we know what is best for our bodies. Because what this comes down to is that cis white men think they can determine what is Healthy™ for all bodies. But this is dangerous, dysfunctional, inaccurate, irrational and illogical. There is not one absolute version of what is healthy for all, but cisheteropatriarchy and white supremacy will have you thinking otherwise if you are not careful.
Some Vegan Resources: