Let’s drop the food-choice shame
Food writer Polly Robinson has a new year’s resolution for everyone to take on board: let’s stop lazily stereotyping people’s food choices based on what supermarket they shop in, how they speak, where they come from or even what gender they are.
When I became a vegetarian 20 years ago I quickly realised I was perceived not merely as having changed my diet, but as if I’d had a personality transplant. Overnight I’d become, to my friends and family, a pasty-faced sandal-wearer who lives on lentils. A formerly doting aunt, explaining why she wouldn’t be able to invite me round any more, said, “I don’t know how to cook vegetarian food,” as if it were some alien species of nourishment.
Thankfully, the world has moved on in the past few years when it comes to vegetarianism. Home cooks and chefs have recognised it’s okay to let vegetables take centre stage. Vegetarianism has become mainstream, even fashionable. But food stereotyping hasn’t gone out of fashion, and there are plenty of other food ‘types’ to deride and tease.
"Food stereotypes are usually evoked with a sneer of derision"
Eaters are stereotyped according to their class: the middle-class food snob who’ll let nothing that’s not artisan, organic or from Waitrose pass his lips; the working-class family who can’t cook and who live off junk food. We also stereotype by gender: women eat salad and get their kicks from cupcakes, while men eat red meat and hate anything green. We even pigeonhole people based on where they live: northerners wolf down pies, southerners pick off ‘small plates’.
More often than not, these stereotypes are negative ones, evoked with a sneer of derision.
And as with all stereotypes, the broad-brush categorising of different kinds of eaters comes from a combination of a lack of knowledge and a soupçon of fear of the unknown. In my case it was my friends and family’s lack of confidence about cooking vegetables and their belief that you couldn’t get the nutrition you need without meat and fish in your diet, with an added teaspoon of “those veggies aren’t like me – they must be weird”.
Why are our food choices such a divisive thing in our society? Are the media and marketeers to blame? Our TV screens and magazines are full of ads featuring women fawning over yogurt or erotically eating chocolate in the bath; butch men bonding over the barbecue, beer in hand; and former models glowing with vitality on their gluten-free, dairy-free diets.
In films and TV we see characters such as hippy-dippy veggie Fiona in About A Boy, who forces her son go to school in hand- knitted jumpers. And have you ever seen a movie or TV tough guy depicted eating a salad?
We can’t lay all the blame at the media’s door, though. They’re just reflecting and reinforcing the way we think already.
I say it’s time to defy stereotypes and prove these assumptions wrong. Let’s
hear it for the clean-eating builder and the supermodel who carries pork scratchings in her handbag! Let’s celebrate the diversity of food choices out there and stop judging people for what they do or don’t eat and where they do their shopping. We’re all individuals with our own quirks, not marketable ‘types’, and thank heavens for that. The world would be a boring place if we were all the same.