The biggest culture shock I ever experienced was not when I moved from the U.S. to the U.K., but when I moved from the South to Southern California. I was not prepared for the food and everything I didn’t realize it would represent when it came to race, class, and fatphobia — and how much that had permeated my own thinking in ways I never realized.
My earliest memories of food are complex. I remember the rush of adrenaline and the pound of my heartbeat as I yanked daffodils from their cool flowerbeds nestled to the side of what looked like an abandoned house. Selling them to houses on another street, sliding scale, I could afford more than just my standard free lunch when my texture sensitivities made everything available impossible to eat. It also meant not spending an afternoon pushing the “Coin Return” buttons on the vending machines in the recreation center, a less embarrassing way of begging for change.
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I remember clearly the free breakfast I had each morning, usually Cinnamon Toast Crunch with chocolate milk out of a small plastic bowl. The vegetables I grew up eating were in cans due to the cost, boiled and buttered because I was Southern.
Food became a symbol of love in certain family rituals, such as the fried bacon, cheese biscuits, eggs, and grits that would line the table every Sunday morning at my great-grandmother’s house. I sought after Lunchables and Hershey bars like Fendi bags. Over-processed foods that are now described as “cheap” were luxuries. Salad was iceberg lettuce that had no flavor until you covered it with ranch dressing.
But then the family I knew fractured, split, and drifted apart, and at 15 I moved to San Diego, California and immediately noticed more than just my usual sense of otherness.
The people talked different. There were no seasons. I was made fun of for saying “y’all” and began to curb the strength of what I thought was a weak Southern accent in comparison to my family. The city I moved to was very wealthy. I found this out awkwardly when I went to a classmate’s house to complete a project on existentialism (ironic) and their pool house was as big as the small apartment I lived in. I had always assumed that because I had a computer, I was “middle class” and this city taught me otherwise.
But the most striking difference? The color of the vegetables that were nothing like the bland, boring isles of pale green that I grew up around, where the fanciest thing about the aisles was the automatic water mister. The vegetables in San Diego had real color. And they crunched when you bit into them.
I, at first, found this repulsive. But my Virgoean craving for self-improvement pushed me to accept the challenge. But food was and is never just food. It is always symbolic.
As I was surrounded by very thin people who did things like “cleanses” and very wealthy classmates who complained they got the wrong color Hummer for Christmas, meanings began to shift. Fried chicken livers no longer represented a quirky side of my Southern upbringing, the way I know haggis is connected to Scotland. Instead they were inextricably linked to poor, fat, uneducated white people.
Society links fatness to ignorance and stupidity. The comic image of the white poor, the people I came from, is always fat and eating “unhealthy” foods with the same voracity that they hate gays or illegal immigrants. I didn’t want to be one of them. I couldn’t spend like my classmates, so I instead tried to eat like them. Kale represented cleanliness, in both mind and body, and I wanted to fill the gap I shoved between myself and my Southern heritage with Jamba Juices. My intimate connection to poverty grew more and more obvious, like a pox mark, and I thought the best way to shed this image was to shed pounds.
I viewed fat and grease in foods as pathogens of a poor, white and ignorant outlook that would infect me if I consumed them. That’s when my obsession with becoming healthier to disassociate myself from the poverty and fatness of my background in the same way I now masked my Southern accent in class became just that: an actual obsession. It’s a lot easier to motivate yourself to diet obsessively if you believe it will lead you to a better mind as well as a better body. And when people believe that being poor and fat goes hand-in-hand with being a racist, you’re even more motivated to do an extra crunch.
Weight is a perfect poison for anxiety because the results are never immediate and simply avoiding eating altogether is not a lifelong, sustainable option. I used to count the number of chews — 20 — I took with each bite to make sure that I never choked. Now I counted every single possible calorie. In the process, food and life became joyless.
I can’t tell you when my moment of clarity came and, in truth, I still struggle to shed the idea that thinness represents health. Perhaps it was realizing when my now more academic way of speaking made people read me as “nicer” than others. The jokes white liberals make about “hillbilly” incest and inbreeding right in front of me because they assume I’m one of them feel like daggers in my back.
There are and probably will continue to be a lot of poor, fat, racist white people. There are also thin, wealthy, white racist people. When I stopped distancing myself from the trappings — namely food — of Southern culture, I realized that being poor has given me an understanding of life and the way the world works that no amount of kombucha will give a Goop fanatic. And that those white people who draw fat white people as racist and ignorant are dissociating themselves from their own white supremacy. They are not actually addressing anti-Blackness as they continue to ignore the systemic causes of poverty.