Refusing Food to Create an Identity

Our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them. Today’s post is from Emma Herman, a student in the Nutrition Program at Boston University’s Sargent College

Emma Herman
Emma Herman

As a dietetic student I am excited for the opportunity to work with people in modifying their diets for optimal health. After taking Anthropology of Food, I promise to always consider their cultural and familial food consumption habits first. American diet culture has a nasty habit of judging other people’s food choices and idealizing certain food habits over others. Why can’t so and so stop eating the macaroni and eat some kale? The industry has the habit of telling people to stop eating whole food groups without considering what these food items might mean culturally and to focus instead on grams of macronutrients or levels of vitamins.

What a person chooses to eat tells their story. It may imply religious beliefs, personal values, or cultural and ethnic heritage. Telling someone to avoid rice may actually create more issues than it solves. Did this person grow up in a household that considers a meal incomplete without rice? Was their recipe for rice passed down for generations? Does eating a separate meal from their family create a feeling of exclusion? If a person of their own volition chooses to follow a new diet trend, this too is a way of expressing personality and cultural group inclusion. As food trends like the Whole 30 and vegan diets pop up all over my social media page, I realize that this too is a way of telling the world “I belong to this group.” Pledging allegiance to vegan eating or avoiding non-sustainable seafood says who you would like to be, this is a change you are making purposefully, while food avoidances you grew up with, like kosher or halal eating may honor your cultural heritage.


In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer tells the story of his grandmother who starved during World War II. Towards the end of the war, a Russian Farmer offered her a piece of pork, which she refused. When her grandson questions this choice—“But not even to save your life?”—she answers, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” When you have nothing else left, you can still choose what you will and will not eat. Her identity as a Jew was strongly tied to her kosher diet; giving that up would have made her feel like her identity had been stripped completely, and she would have nothing left to save (Foer 2009).

Eating is a necessity, and those of us who are lucky get to choose what we eat several times a day. Our food choices reflect who we are, and when stripped of all other identifying features like home and family, you still must eat to survive. Rejecting food while starving might seem strange, but it can be a way of preserving identity when you have nothing else to save.

Works Cited:
Foer, Jonathan Safran. 2009. Eating Animals. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.


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