“Oh, you don't eat wheat? Are you a coeliac?”
I may be new to the food intolerance game, but I know a loaded question when I see one. If I lie and say yes, and I’ll be peppered with questions intended to trick me into revealing my disingenuity. Tell the truth and say no, and there’s no point in elaborating my condition, because the silent judgment has fallen regardless of whatever explanation I do provide. To the self-proclaimed prosecutor, judge and juror, I am just another pretentious white girl heralding a crash diet beneath the barbarous appropriation of someone else’s illness.
Except there myriad food intolerances in the world beyond coeliac’s disease (an autoimmune disease that presents as an intolerance to gluten). And in their haste to judge those who make dinner parties inconvenient by bringing their own food, or politely request the kitchen at a restaurant not include one or two ingredients, people have started their own personal lynch mob. It’s the new fad to hate du jour: the food intolerant are now more loathed than veganism, Scientology, and Justin Bieber combined.
I’ve worked in hospitality for years, I know the routine well: sneer, roll eyes, bitch to the kitchen about the pickiness of some people. Create a false correlation between the increase in food intolerance identifiers compared to when we were (hardier) kids. Ignore the fact that people were still sick from eating foods they couldn’t digest back then, but they simply didn’t know why. Get huffy and judgmental that anyone would dare eat the food they like with alterations that will allow them to be consumed without a negative impact to their health. Remark that people who “fake” intolerances make life harder for the “real” sufferers despite the demand for such products increasing the accessibility of all alternate food products everywhere, which is a net win for everyone.
Oh yeah, but guess what? It’s also nobody's fucking business.
I have a food intolerance. I was diagnosed in early 2014 when someone who had known me for years on end insisted that it was not normal to feel nauseous, fatigued, bloated and sickly virtually every day. I had protested against it at the time, but later began to notice that nobody else in my life seemed to grit their teeth against pain and exhaustion just to get through the day like I did. I reluctantly came to terms with the possibility of actually being afflicted by some chronic mystery illness.
The next few months weren’t fun. I was subjected to ultrasounds, blood tests, gastroscopies, and referred left and right for a handful of symptoms that were too unpredictable for me to map back to any one source. Finally, my doctor said: “I'm pretty sure it will yield nothing, but we should try hydrogen breath testing before opting for the next step considering that will involve invasive exploratory surgery”
Boom. Two weeks, three tests, and a strictly limited control diet later, I was diagnosed as FODMAPS intolerant with the addendum that lactose products were uncharacteristically okay for me, despite most people in my position being additionally lactose intolerant.
Being FODMAPS intolerant is, simply put, awful. Being forced to farewell not just wheat, but garlic, onion, almost all fruits, beans, legumes and a handful of vegetables was devastating at the time of diet alteration. The list of things I can’t eat is so expansive, I have to keep an app on my phone that updates as new scientific research classifies further additions as tolerable or otherwise. I’m not ashamed to admit that in those early days, I cried in restaurants more than I’d like. Hard to be a food blogger when you can barely eat anything on the menu.
Adhering to dietary restrictions is a daily battle of wills. To capitulate is to endanger both my short-term and long-term health, running the risk of depression, fibromyalgia, fatigue, chronic headaches, autoimmune conditions and even cancer in later life.
In the last year, I have tried to navigate this minefield as best I can. Research indicates that the body of a person with FODMAPS intolerance can tolerate small amounts of these foods without gastric distress, but will suffer punishing symptoms if this (low) quota is exceeded. As such, I am acutely aware that my daily mental mapping of meals will likely sound inconsistent to others… perhaps even suspicious. As if I have fabricated "the rules" so as to conveniently be permitted the food that I want when I want it.
And it’s exhausting. I am habitually forced to trounce out the minutiae of my condition for people who make their enquiries as part of a “gotcha” ruse, rather than from a place of genuine concern. I have made an art-form of flippantly attributing my condition to karma, following my hospitality days of scepticism regarding some guest’s orders. Maybe that joke rings true.
What I find the most frustrating, however, is my own submissiveness about my intolerances. It is not fun to routinely fall into pathetically evasive “not like the others” language when identifying my dietary needs, a refrain so underscored by the subtext of “please accept me”. Even to this day, I often am plagued by guilt when listing everything I can’t eat. Instead, I tend to order food with only minor variations that will ultimately do little to allay the severity of my inevitable symptoms when they strike. Essentially, I compromise my health so as to avoid the sneers from waiters or dining companions who think they know more about my body’s capacity to process food than I do.
I shouldn't have to throw myself at the mercy of a peoples' court on the rare occasion that I must posit a question or two about the ingredients in a meal when it’s necessary for my health. But for some reason I am consistently pressured to feel apologetic for saying no to foods that I wish I could eat, which is already depressing enough. I despise being side-eyed as if a liar, a pedant or both. And yet even if this condemnation was reflective of my character, it’s hard to comprehend why my choices about what I put into my body seems to be so upsetting to other people.
So to the food intolerance-policing circlejerk: I hope this resolves any and all of the smug interrogations to which you have subjected me. Because I am no longer willing to compromise my health to dodge your criticisms… and I am not sorry.
The older I get, the more I realise that the personal is the political. The old adage “the standard you choose to walk by is the standard you accept” has never rung quite so true. Malevolence is not the true enemy of human kindness, it’s ambivalence. And when enough people suppress a quiet dissatisfaction with a social expression, the aforementioned social expression becomes a standard, and when it becomes a standard, it becomes an ingrained cultural norm that requires a concerted effort to pull from the roots.
And we all know weeding the garden of human decency is gruesome work. To point out the ingrained biases in ourselves and others is confronting, which is why people are quick to react adversarially to preserve these biases. To the average person, justification reads like, “Who are you to judge me? I am a good person.” And to an extent, they’re right: every villain thinks they are the hero of their canon. The world would be a strange place if self-awareness was so honed as to prevent anyone from ever making an error in judgement that saw another hurt.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise then that when a group of male friends back home were sprung by a mutual female friend for maintaining a Whatsapp group which, amongst the usual banter, was used to share compromising photos of their romantic and sexual partners without consent, the reaction was one of anger and defensiveness. The female friend, upon expressing her disgust, was immediately treated as if a traitor; accused of histrionics, of making mountains of molehills, of having some disloyal agenda. But she held fast, determined to have the necessary emotionally-exhausting conversations with each individual regarding how their actions – from passively viewing these images to actively sharing them – were equally harmful, criminal, and cruel.
Sadly, but not surpisingly, the clique closed ranks. Several resorted to emotional blackmail, even going so far as to threaten to terminate their individual friendships with her if she would not let the issue lie. Despite this, she persisted with encouraging them to do the right thing by closing down the Whatsapp group, and contact the women involved to both disclose their actions, and apologise.
Considering the ongoing insistence that the sharing of these images was harmless, none of the men involved were comfortable with informing their sexual partners of their photos’ divulgence. And this, I feel, is extremely telling of the undercurrent of semi-self awareness that ripples through issue: if the act of sharing these womens’ images without consent was not an inherent misogynistic criminal act, then why were these men so anxious to conceal it from the victimised parties?
The female friend’s persistent challenging of these attitudes were grueling and came at great personal cost to her, something that I sadly only learnt of long after the fact and from a different party. But ultimately, a modicum of progress was made. Some perspectives changed, some apologies were made, and some women were contacted to explain how their images had been used with a request for forgiveness. Others, unfortunately, opted instead to double down. Such is the way when emotionally immature people who, fortified in the privilege of never needing worry about the commodification of their bodies, are confronted with how their so-called harmless fun victimises others. Curiously enough, the staunchest proponents of the “it’s not a big deal” camp were seldom the individuals who shared any pictures in the first place. It would seem that in this situation, the bystander effect – or perhaps a mere combination of guilt and defensiveness regarding the exposure and attack of “secret men’s business” by a woman - remains a powerful psychological motivator.
It is not a complicated exercise in empathy to determine the moral failings of this situation, and the countless others that have seen revenge porn increasingly criminalised across the western world. These women shared their bodies with a partner, an act of inherent vulnerability in a world that perpetually shames them for having a sexual appetite, even as they are burdened with unreasonable expectations to play the part. They trusted these men with their physical bodies with the expectation that to do so could be reciprocally enjoyable, not to mention void of commodification and objectification. Instead, that trust became the basis of mockery – the images were used to flaunt a trophy, to denigrate the women for being so arrogant as to think their bodies were their own, to shame them through covertly laddish bro-culture.
When the personal is political, placing one’s sexual vulnerability in another person is an innately political act. It is unpleasant to think even sex must be seen in this light, but the reality is that sharing someone’s unclad body without their consent is criminal, and with good reason: in the process of sharing or passively receiving these shared images, we are perpetuating a socio-political norm that shames women for daring to embrace their innate sexuality, even as we try to nurture it for our own satisfaction.
This is beyond “boys will be boys” or “we meant no harm” or “I was just so proud to be with a woman this beautiful.” This is “look at what I snapped when she was going to the bathroom the morning after” and “the image stopped being just hers when she pressed send” and “I thought the guys would find it funny” and “who the fuck does this slut think she is to demand I keep this private?”
These men have been my close friends for many years. We have laughed together, cried together, exposed our soft underbellies, and celebrated each others’ successes. I know them to be, at their core, well-intentioned people. But their actions victimised other women and I’ve struggled to reconcile the ways in which they have treated me – a girl “friend” rather than a girlfriend – by contrast to the women who sit lower down the hierarchy for trusting them with a side of themselves a platonic friend has no need to. It is when good people go to extraordinary lengths to preserve a status quo that repeatedly oppresses and humiliates others that the true degradation of their moral character becomes apparent.
I don’t know how these friendships will play out when I return home. Maybe by virtue of writing this piece, I will have negated my right to have them in the first place. But what I do know is this: uprooting ingrained misogyny is dirty work, and I would rather be elbow-deep in filth than ever be passive when women are treated as prize pigs or a cheap punchline for daring to have sex. And if that precludes me from remaining part of the clique, then so be it. If norm-challenging women are unwelcome anyway, then maybe I never was.
And now I think of it... even in its innocent heyday, there were never any women in the Whatsapp group in the first place.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.