I went to see Michael Pollen speak tonight and for those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Pollen has become the modern-day Jiminy Cricket on the shoulder of the juvenile American food system. Pollen has dedicated his life to teaching, writing, and preaching about the benefits of a plant-based diet. He is the author of four NY times best selling books such as “The Omnivores Dilemma” and appears prominently in the documentaries FOOD Inc. and King Corn. Pollen has become iconic for his trademark soft-spoken manner of speaking along with his academic glasses and baldhead. He gained notoriety at Harper’s magazine writing about his garden before becoming a regular columnist for the New York Times in 1981. Pollen is a champion of the American farmer, advocating a return to a local farm-based food system that provides access to nutritious food regardless of a person’s income. He has lobbied the government to subsidize what he calls, “the perimeter of the grocery store” the area where fresh fruits and vegetables live.
In our current system, the US government provides subsidies to the meat and grain industry, especially grains that are easily processed like genetically modified wheat and corn. Foods with a limited shelf life often have the highest nutritional value but carry a high price tag due to the lack of government price assistance. Pollen created a viral video called, “Twinkie vs. Carrot” which educates viewers as to why a bunch of carrots, which require little more than being pulled out of the ground, cost more than a Twinkie which comparatively contains over 40 ingredients and must be shipped, processed and marketed. People of low-income households typically do not incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into their diet because of the prohibitive cost. The economic obstacles to eating a healthy diet disproportionately affects low income families, making them prone to obesity and a host of degenerative diseases such as diabetes and cancer. To illustrate the point further, know that the USDA subsidizes soda (high fructose corn syrup) and they allow you to buy it with government food stamps. Ouch.
Pollen has been a hero of mine since I was 18 so naturally it was very rewarding to hear him speak in such an intimate venue. Most of his work centers on the fact that the current American food system is unsustainable; nutritionally and environmentally.
If you’ve ever been to Disneyland or seen a drive thru parking lot overflowing with cars, you’ve witnessed America’s battle with obesity. As of 2012, a third (35.7%) of all Americans are classified as obese. Childhood obesity has tripled since being recorded in 1980 and now affects one in every five children. Obese children have a 50% chance of becoming an obese adult. Obesity is a major health concern not because of superficial beauty standards, but because obesity causes a person’s internal organs to shut down when they reach a body mass index (BMI) of 30. Since the average American woman’s height and weight is 5’6 and 160 pounds, I’d thought I’d illustrate the fact that she would have to gain nearly 40 pounds onto of her already unnaturally hefty frame to qualify as obese.
[I should issue a preface before this article gets personal: I am sharing the following information as someone who struggled with food from a unique and painful set of circumstances. I want other women to know that you’re not alone if you’ve battled with your weight or been written off for being “a big girl”. I did not write this article to vent about my demons, I wrote this to empower women who’ve dealt with the same bitter rejection from the world and overcome discrimination in spite of it]
Some of the things Michael Pollen had to say rekindled memories from my own bitter journey with food. Perhaps I should replace the word “journey” with battle. I’ve been battling food for the last ten years. Food and I became enemies at the age of 14 when I became a vegetarian, which is way younger than when most kids even develop a concept of what “food” is. I had never once considered becoming a vegetarian but was assigned “animal rights” as my topic for the freshman high school speech class. Topics were assigned randomly but looking back I feel like fate was testing me. Though I wasn’t disappointed to get animal rights, I knew nothing on the subject. Even growing up in a liberal haven like Portland Oregon, My parents managed to be some of the only republicans in town. Things like “animal rights” or CO-OPS, organic food, and farmers markets were shunned by family protocol.
A few weeks before my finals speech, my friends older brother came up to me with a box of VHS tapes and said, “I heard about that speech you’re doing, right on sister. Figured you could use these”. I blushed and took the box from him, inside were tons of tapes marked, “PETA: INSIDE SLAUGHTERHOUSES”. Later that week I sat on the couch to watch them, pen and paper in hand wearing my little GAP turtleneck thinking I was about to watch a NOVA series on meat farms. Boy was I wrong. These were some hardcore animal activist guerilla style videos taken with a shaky handycam hidden inside someone’s jacket. I was watching undercover investigation tapes, where PETA activists got jobs at slaughterhouses to expose the terrible reality of what conditions were like for animals. Within minutes I had started balling uncontrollably. What I had seen was workers torturing and abusing animals in ways that made the holocaust seem real to me. I was a blubbery mess. Soon I had watched the whole box: slaughterhouses, foie gras factories, veal, lamb, chicken. I had subjected myself to pure masochism but didn’t know any better -I was only 14 years old. After spending the rest of the night browsing animal rights websites, I firmly decided that the rest of my life would be dedicated to a meat free lifestyle.
The next morning I walked up to my mother and proudly declared, “Mom I am becoming a vegetarian”. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday; She looked at me, shocked. “Do you know what a burden you’re placing on this family? I’m going to have to cook special meals for you, what the hell are you going to eat?!”, she became so angry that she started swearing. “You’re going to have to cook all your own food, if you want to be a freak you’ll have to feed yourself, I’m not doing it”. I could understand where she was coming from, she had 4 children to feed, and at 14, I was the oldest. But I had to admit that I walked away from my declaration feeling empowered. I was glad I had stood up for my beliefs. However, I was left with a very real dilemma- I knew absolutely nothing about cooking. So naturally I did what every 14 year old would do, I ate things out of packages. My diet became, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, toast, pasta, burritos, chips, and any other carb I could get my hands on. I was a growing teen and devoured all the sugar and starch I could get my hands on. The funny thing was, vegetarians were supposed to be skinny but I was steadily gaining weight on my petite 105 pound 5’2’ frame. I was also feeling fatigued all the time.
Getting up in the morning was a near impossible feat. My nose was always running. I carried a Kleenex crinkled in my palm at all times which earned me the nickname, “sniffles”. Since mom had decided to exclude me from eating family meals, the food I made for myself didn’t contain a single vegetable. I never cooked them partially because I didn’t know how to prepare them but also because teenagers don’t understand nutrition. One time I felt so nutrient deprived I grabbed a handful of raw spinach from the fridge and sat chewing it for what seemed an eternity.
It should be noted that my rapid weight gain was also caused by the sheer amount of food I was eating or rather devouring during high school. My mother and I had a tense relationship during my adolescence. She was angry with me for being different than the rest of the family, i.e. not Christian or conservative, and I was angry with her for not accepting who I was. We argued incessantly which caused me to binge eat. Eating became a way to relieve stress. Food was the one thing I felt I had any control over. But soon after my weight set in, the fact that I was tired and chubby made me depressed. This caused me stay in my room most of the time, hiding from her and the world. It also led me to take up reading instead of exercise as a hobby. Food became a vicious cycle in my life.
By junior year, I had reached 130 pounds. I was still 5’2. Despite being on the heavier side for my age, my genes dictated that weight was evenly distributed to everywhere but my waist. Having an hourglass figure isn’t so bad when you’re 16. But being one of 5 curvy girls in one of America’s richest schools where eating disorders were practically competitive, caused me to be seen as “a big girl”. Girls strove to look like Paris Hilton and did “whatever” it took to look that way. The town I grew up is listed as the 7th richest city in the United States. Kids regularly drove BMWs, Mercedes, Audi’s to school. The parking lot was littered with them. There was even one family, the Halladays, who had 5 hummers. Each kid would drive a different hummer to school, everyday. Getting off the bus one time when I was 15, a popular girl sitting across from me said, “that’s your house? I didn’t know you were rich, why don’t you dress rich?” We had moved to this town because of my mother’s new husband when I was 10, but we weren’t from here. We were never brought up with money and everyone seemed to notice. My town never felt like home when everyone was you expecting to look like a pampered poodle. In reality I was comfortable with just being a lap dog.
I joined the feminist club my junior year of high school. I started reading avidly and arming myself with all of the intellectual tools I needed to feel superior to the rich brats around me. My room became cluttered with books, titles such as, “The Feminine Mystique”, “Siddhartha”, and “A Peoples History of the United States”, were read over and over again. My status as a social outcast, albeit an outcast with many friends, transformed me into an intellectual. I called myself voluptuous as a term of empowerment, grew my hair to my ass and wore clothes that evoked the 70s. Had the food I ate not caused me to gain so much weight, I probably would have developed into a more average teenage girl. In fact I’m positive I would have. The types of friends I had my freshman year before becoming a vegetarian were wide and varied. Girls from all different social groups would stop and say hi to me at my locker. I had an average to slightly skinnier body type. I was moderate in my opinions and dress; I was blissfully “normal”. But what I didn’t know was that I had a hidden but severe allergy to gluten and eggs, and since I becoming a vegetarian, I relied on them daily as staples in my diet. My body became bloated, tired, and emotional. Weird patches of scales developed on the backs of my arms. I suffered from extreme bouts of depression. Life went on this way for 7 years, until I met my college boyfriend, Sebastian, who like vegetarianism, revolutionized the way I viewed food.
Sebastian’s mom had lost 80 pounds and gained a whole new perspective on life after she read a book called The Schwartzbein Principle. It was a diet that an MD trying to cure her patient’s diabetes “accidentally” created. She found that whenever her patients cheated on the recommended high carb low fat diabetic diet with meat and dairy, their blood sugar went down and they were able to maintain a healthy weight. Many of her patients in addition to losing weight had also eliminated their type two diabetes on the diet alone. Since Sebastian was a mama’s boy, he insisted on trying to convert me to this spinoff Atkins diet. Given that my boyfriend was 6’2 and 150 pounds, we looked a bit awkward together even if we were in love. I agreed for vanity’s sake to take on a modified vegetarian version of the diet, although I really couldn’t see how eating Alfredo sauce was supposed to help me lose weight.
Although I still ate eggs for breakfast (severely allergic) I was steadily dropping pounds. My waist suddenly started shrinking. My thighs effortlessly fit into my jeans. Even my butt looked slimmer. I had cut out all bread and starch from my diet and started eating salads with Sebastian. We would venture to the farmers market and lovingly select over priced produce that we would then take home and nutritionally obsess over. Making a salad took an hour sometimes. Sure it was extreme but in comparison to how unhealthy I had been, it was a welcome change. Sebastian gave me a complex about food, one that never fully went away.
I started eating high fat low carb at 128 pounds. Within 5 days I had dropped to 125. Two weeks later i was 122. After a month I had dropped to 118 and then my weight finally rested at 115 pounds. Sebastian was delighted and admittedly so was I. I realized how differently people had started to treat me after a 15-pound weight loss. I did look better, my face looked more defined and radiant. Men gave me more attention. My friends asked me if something was “going on” or if I was bulimic. They didn’t know how to see me in a different body. One friend even said, “its weird now that you’re hot, I was always used to you being the confident chubby one”. It’s as if they felt that my curvy figure was an extension of my “politics” and maybe now everything had changed. What my friends were really doing was objectifying my body, but i didn’t know the proper vernacular to defend myself. inside I was still the strong feminist anti stick figure girl I’d always been; I was just finally at my body’s natural weight. None of my body transformation had been brought about through exercise; it was simply the food I ate. I suddenly had all kinds of energy and mental focus. I began to lift out of my depression, concentrate on school and become more confident. I even grew two inches, I was 5’4’ now.
It dawned on me that instead of being relegated to a small group of guys who would date me, I could now chose who I was attracted to from a wider variety of the college campus. It was unreal possessing what they call “feminine power”. Any girl who was once an ugly duckling that blossoms into a swan know what I’m talking about. Sebastian and I broke up. He was a very jealous person and when men started giving me attention he took his anger out on me. I began dating casually for the first time in my life. Being a bigger girl almost instantly cast me into a mode of monogamous long term relationships. Now that I could have my choice of men, i was curious to explore what I had missed out on in high school. I remember a guy once telling me a few months after I’d become thin that he loved talking to me but “didn’t think pretty girls could have brains”. It was bizarre to hear anyone mention “pretty girl” before “brains” in reference to me. I was still that brainy, feminist, vegetarian outspoken academic girl, nothing had changed- just my body.
After college, I moved to Austin, Texas. I quickly got a job as a waitress in the trendy warehouse district and began bartending. The beauty standards 2,000 miles south of home were radically different. Women were svelte to a T. Not even a women over 40 dare carry an extra pound. Beautiful women cornered me from all sides. My once burgeoning confidence would slowly be extinguished as men resembling our Neanderthal cousins thought it perfectly natural to ask me on a date. I was a bit shaken at the idea of having to settle for homo erectus just because I tipped the scales at 5 pounds over the Austin ideal. Even my first Austin boyfriend, who for lack of a kinder term was homely, had dated an enviable cadre of babes. Was it something in the water? One morning I examined myself in the mirror; I was 118 of pure muscle and shapeliness.There was nothing wrong with my body. After getting my eating habits under control I had begun to exercise regularly. My body had evolved into a leaner hourglass version of my former self. But it still wasn’t enough to get anyone above a c- in the brains or looks department to take interest in me. After a guy I was seeing in town played leapfrog over me to be with a more slender bimbo, I lost it. I didn’t necessarily want to be thinner, but I wasn’t going to let weight stand in the way of getting what I deserved.
Eating involved into a game. How long could I go before I broke down and put a calorie in my mouth? Nights behind the bar were fueled by pure adrenaline and diet coke. After days and nights spent on my feet I would go home at three in the morning and hit the treadmill, snacking on an apple just to sustain the 5 miles. Lunch consisted of salad, ordered without nuts, cheese or dressing. I’d pick the avocado off, slowly eliminating all the calories from my meal. I noticed as the pounds started peeling away that my tips began to increase. My coworkers began to say things like, “you’re getting little” and “eat a burger Barbie”.
After two months of practically starving myself, my weight read 105. My shoulders were starting to poke out into those little vulture wings that fashion models have. My abdomen was fully defined but my skin was so sallow it had turned grey. I had to cover myself in makeup every morning just to go out of the house. No one tells you that anorexia causes acne. The stress mode your body goes into from starving yourself turns your skin into an absolute nightmare. When I flew home to see my friends new baby, she hardly even recognized me, “how much weight have you lost? Are you sick?”. Everyone asked me and rightly so. I had lost 30 pounds over a two year period. I didn’t resemeble my former self. My hair had been dyed a golden halo of bleach blonde from its former chestnut brown. I assuaged their fears saying I had become a vegan and just stopped drinking. Those seemed like the only hippy friendly excuses for looking radically skinny.
Men in Austin had begun to notice me, first just moderately but the more the weight came off the more attention I got. The boy I had fallen for who’d snubbed me half a year before came back into my life. He enthusiastically conveyed to me just how much more “attracted” he’d become to me. I kind of hated him for it. But I also kind of hated myself for entertaining an experiment I knew to be idiotic and self-destructive. Maybe I wanted to prove myself that I could be like those girls in high school, maybe it was a cry for help. Whatever the reason, it made me realize that the only person whose opinion I should be courting, was my own. As weird as it sounds, my self destructive experiment in starving myself made me love myself.
Eventually I went mad from trying to stay malnourished. The stress of forcing myself not to eat consumed me. I’d have to work out for 2-3 hours every day before I went to my boyfriends house, sometimes showing up hours late from obsessing over each and every calorie I’d eaten. Every time I would sit down to read a book, I fell asleep from the mental and physical exhaustion of my diet. My eyes were a dull grey color. My hair was a frizzy straw pile that never looked good anymore. The man I ended up leaving my boyfriend for was someone who told me the first time he met me that I was beautiful but that I looked too skinny. He incessantly tried to get me to gain weight and in the end I did.
I’m not 117 pounds any more, I’m 112 pounds now that I quit working at a restaurant and have retired my drinking habits. I’m mostly a raw vegan with a little animal protein thrown in there every once in awhile. But more importantly, I’ve accepted that my weight is not meant to drop below 110 pounds. I don’t’ obsess everyday about not looking the same way Kristen Stewart does in a sweatshirt. Extremely low body fat is impossible for me to maintain.I’m with a man who loves my body the way it is. He’s not like every other austin playboy who wants a banana body hanging on their arm.
This article was written to document the pressure society places on a woman’s appearance and for people to understand how food can have a tremendous impact on your life. I didn’t connect the dots between my development as a teenager with my health problems or my self esteem until I listened to Michael Pollen lecture. That is what a good writer does, he connects the dots of human experience. Pollen is known for connecting the dots between monoculture to food riots in mexico to poor and disadvantaged families suffering from diabetes because of inadequate nutrition. He also helped me connect mine, just in an entirely unorthodox way.
At the end of the day, no matter how many people are telling you that you’re beautiful and don’t need to change, the only persons opinion that matters is your own. No one can make you feel beautiful or loved if you don’t love yourself. Food has become a hurdle to the 21st century woman. She is told not to enjoy it and to deny herself as much as possible. Food should be looked at as fuel. If a car doesn’t have any gas to run on, it stops running. If you’ve ever tried going day or two without eating you’ll notice your brain stops working. No one should ever be stupid enough to follow a diet so extreme that it shuts off the mental faculties that make us human. Eat foods that are nourishing and live on the perimeter of the grocery store and you’ll never resort to starving yourself again.