by Lucy McConnell
‘Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.
– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Vegetarian, vegan, pescetarianism, raw foodism, locavorism (consuming only foods produced within a 3-5 hour travel radius), paleo, intermittent fasting, high carb, low carb, Atkins, the 5:2 Diet, fruitarianism…
What we choose to eat, and more so, what we choose not to eat has become intrinsically linked to our own individuality, as we symbolically devour our identity with each and every mouthful. Eating has become an incredibly personalised act, as individuals seek to find a sense of belonging in their own tailor made diet.
‘Food is our common ground, a universal experience’.
With the need to eat to survive being a universal human experience, the natural, egocentric, tendency for people is to differentiate themselves from the status quo.
(Columbia Pictures 1989)
As explored by Sophie Egan in her social commentary on Americans and their food identity in her book “Devoured”, there has been a growth in what Michael Berry calls “Cheffing” – the customised meal building model, made popular by the rise of American food chains including Starbucks, Chipotle, Subway and Panera (O’Callaghan 2016). This unmistakably American food experience targets the universal human desire to constantly assert one’s own identity, even it that may be through a Grande, Iced, Sugar-Free, Vanilla Latte With Soy Milk.
Whilst one’s “food identity” is important to the way in which one perceives them, research has shown that the relationship between one’s dietary habits and how others perceive them is quite extraordinary. Sadella and Burroughs (1981) undertook a survey of how individuals perceived themselves as consumers and the perceptions they had of others based on their diets. Interesting connections were made between food choices and personality types based on five different diets. For example, regular fast food eaters were defined as religious fundamentalists, whilst health conscious individuals were coined as democrats and antinuclear activists (Almerico 2014). Furthermore, in a study by Stein and Nemeroff (1995) individuals perceptions of people’s profiles were ranked based on their diet. The subjects received images of two physically near-identical individuals along with information about their dietary habits. Unsurprisingly, despite the individuals being physically indistinguishable, those who practiced a more “healthy” diet were perceived as thinner, more attractive, methodical, practical and active than their “unhealthy” counterparts (Almerico 2014). Thin has become what is fashionable and desirable. Individuals will struggle to keep down food they despise, and turning their nose up at what they truly desire, in favour of conforming to their chosen dietary tribe.
Furthermore, one’s cultural identity and childhood memories are rich with food and dining experiences. In this way, food becomes an unspoken language for articulating one’s cultural identity, as something deeply symbolic. Geeta Kothari discusses in her article “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” her experience of growing up as an Indian in an American city. She details her observations of how ethnic identities are expressed and maintained through what an individual’s “everyday food” may look like, and how it can involuntarily reinforce a sense of cultural belonging when one is in a different cultural setting. (Kothari 1999)
It is evident that food has evolved to be more than something that simply fuels and sustains us. We are eating ourselves into identity, and food is an integral part of fashioning and sustaining our individuality, social boundaries and ethnic diversity.
Almerico, G. 2014, “Food and identity: Food studies, cultural, and personal identity”, Journal of International Business and Cultural Studies, Volume 8, pp 1-7.
Kothari, Geeta. “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” The Kenyon Review 21.1 (1999): 6-14. JSTOR. Web. 2 Oct. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4337801>.
O’Callaghan, J. 2016, “How what we eat defines us”, audio podcasts, ABC Radio, Sydney, 22 June, Viewed 18 August 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/drive/how-what-we-eat-defines-who-we-are/7509780>
Unknown Author, 2014, “Eating Yourself: We Consume Identity Through Food?”, Culture Decanted, Weblog, viewed 18 August 2016, <https://culturedecanted.com/2014/10/19/eating-yourself-we-consume-identity-through-food/>
Unknown Author, “An Introduction to Food & Identity: From the Everyday to Ritual and Beyond”, Food and Identity: A Global Response, Weblog, Viewed 18 August 2016, <https://foodandidenity.wordpress.com/>
When Harry Met Sally, 1989, motion picture, Castle Rock Entertainment, USA.