The Food Bullies

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green)

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green) › I like to think of myself as a young, cool, urban fringe locavore, but the reality ...

food-bullies
 

Editor’s Note: Don’t you hate food bullies? We are running Bri’s story again to support all who have felt the cringe of the holier-than-thou food reformist. We’re all for eating the best whole real food around, but please, Papa don’t preach! Let people come around. Make a good dinner for friends and let them experience the flavors.

Food bullies are among us.

When other parents started coming to me with stories of how they, or their kids, were belittled or embarrassed by others because of the food they eat, I have to admit that I was inclined to take it all with a big pinch of salt. Bullying is a THING, to be sure, but also, the world is a cruel place–especially in the elementary school lunchroom. Was there really a sudden pattern of food-related bullying sweeping the nation, or was it just a couple of random one-off stories that all found their way to my ears?

Sadly, after a few years of food blogging and nearly seven years of parenting and feeding my own kids, I’ve come to realize that it’s not a series of isolated incidents, and it’s not going away. Even worse, I know that if I’m brave enough to stare reality in the face, I’ve probably been a part of the problem at one time or another in my life. Even the very well-meaning among us may have engaged in just a touch of food bullying at some point–obviously without meaning to, but the result is the same.

Not convinced? I’ve decided to sort through and classify the types of food bullies and their behaviors. Hopefully knowing what to look for can help us all not only recognize food bullying when we see it, but also–more uncomfortably–when we’re tempted to do it ourselves.

The next time you’re tempted to engage in any of these behaviors, stop and examine your motives.

1. THE ALLER-BULLY

Tactic #1:
Chasing the allergic person with the offending food, trying to wipe the offending food on the allergic person, or placing the offending food at the allergic person’s seat. This is mostly (I hope) perpetrated by children.

Why it’s bullying:
Fairly obvious, I think, not to mention terrifying. My only experience as an allergy mom is with my younger son’s allergy to food dyes, and all that does to him is give him a rash, a little tummy upset, and turn him into an approximate hybrid of The Hulk and a strung-out chipmunk for a couple of days. I can’t imagine how scary this aller-bullying tactic would be if I thought Red #40 could kill him.

Tactic #2:
Flinging hostility at allergy parents: “Peanut allergies are just Nature’s way of selecting out the weak!” or “If your kid is so sickly, stop letting them go to public school/play on any playground/attend any public function anywhere/travel anywhere, ever/exist near my kid!”

Why it’s bullying:
Well, first of all, it’s just plain mean, and it reflects a refusal on your part to actually take into account any experience that’s outside your personal bubble. Secondly, hurling around rhetoric like this is sort of similar to what happens when monkeys fling their poop: it’s blatantly disrespectful, it creates an automatic distance between you and the person you’re supposedly engaging, and in the end it’s just unpleasant and makes everyone aware that you stink. Don’t do it.

Tactic #3:
Being uber (un)helpful: “I’m so sorry your child has severe food allergies. You know it’s probably due to lack of appropriate breastfeeding/probiotic supplementation/co-sleeping/household chemical avoidance, and if you would just adhere to a highly specialized and completely exhausting and consuming dietary regimen like WE have, you’d be able to cure your child.”

Why it’s bullying:
Look. I’m genuinely certain that you mean well. But it’s probably hard for other people to see that when they have to crane their necks back sooooo far to see you up there on your very tall horse. In parenting, very few things are less helpful than having others point out to you where they perceive you to have failed, and how if you’d just actually TRY HARDER, you could stop ruining your child’s life. Information-sharing is one thing; offering medical advice couched in condescension is another. Besides, if people want medical advice couched in condescension, they should have to pony up a co-pay first.

2. THE WEIRDLY DEFENSIVE BULLY

This is the person who thinks the best defense is a good offense, and for whom the fact that you pack a salad for lunch every day signals your desire to humiliate them from afar.

Tactic #1:
Shunning. A reader of mine once told me that when she mentioned bringing her own packed lunch to an office party so she could stick with her dietary changes, she was DISINVITED from the party. That’s right–the defensive bully or bullies in charge told her that if she was going to eat her own lunch rather than the provided junk food, she may as well not come.

Why it’s bullying:
You don’t need me to explain this one, right? But if I did need to explain it, it’d be enough to remind you that if my reader had a serious allergy, or diabetes, or some other medical reason that required her to feed herself, rather than this being a preference of hers, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all, right?

Tactic #2:
Passive-aggressive commentary: “Oh, don’t offer HER any of the cake. We all KNOW she won’t eat this kind of stuff.”  Also known as: “Oh my GAWD. You’re eating the CAKE?  That’s just so UNBELIEVABLE.  Aren’t you afraid you’ll die of cake poisoning, or something?”

Why it’s bullying:
What could you possibly hope to gain from this behavior, other than singling someone out like a three-nippled monkey at a sideshow? Discretion is the better part of valor. In other words, whenever you’re tempted to comment loudly and publicly on someone else’s food choices–don’t.

 3. THE ZEALOT

One and Only Tactic:
Preaching. Finds all people eating fast food in her general vicinity, then–unasked and uninvited–holds forth at length on the following themes: Meat is Murder/You’re Using Your Food Dollars All Wrong/Have You Seen The Internet Pictures of the Never-Rotting Happy Meal/I Only Tell You This Because I Deeply Care About You, Whether We’ve Met Before Or Not.

Why it’s bullying:
Forgive me for casting stones, here, but as much as I love people with strongly held convictions, wearing those convictions like a pair of horns and using them to gore anyone in your path who may not agree is not the way to win fans to your cause. I don’t eat fast food if I can help it, but the one time a year I take my kids to Johnny Rocket’s for a thrill so they know what they’re missing, I don’t want to have to endure you waving a copy of  Forks Over Knives in my face afterwards.

4. THE LUNCHABLES POLICE

This is generally a child bully, but it has a grown-up flip side.

Tactic #1:
The Gross-Out. “What’s THAT?” “Do you really EAT that?” “Ewww. Don’t eat that near me!” “Your lunch makes me want to throw up!” This tactic usually involves some typically childish drama like holding noses or pretending to gag at the mere sight of another kid’s carrot sticks, hard-boiled egg, or olives.

Why it’s bullying:
It’s the classic kid torment. And if it lasts for more than one lunch period and is targeted at the same kid or group of kids over and over again, with the obvious goal of making them feel bad about themselves, then it’s bully behavior.

Tactic #2:
Polite Concern/Feigned Admiration: “Does Little Joey ever feel bad about the fact that you won’t let him enjoy his childhood and force him to eat vegetables and tofu instead?” “I so envy how you can just pack whatever you want for Little Sarah and not worry about all the teasing she’s going to get at lunchtime.” Or, the flipside: “It’s SO GREAT how you can let them just go and eat whatever they want. I can’t imagine letting my kids drink soda and eat all that candy, even at a party!”

Why it’s bullying:
This is the kind of “Us vs. Them” shenanigans that makes me think you’ve spent too much time watching “Mean Girls” and totally missing the message. Come on–nobody thinks you’re really worried about Little Joey and Little Sarah’s social-emotional well-being, or that you secretly long to be like their moms. This is just like the behavior of the Weirdly Defensive Bully, in that it’s motivated by your own insecurity about your kids’ eating habits or your time-management skills, but in this case you’re taking it to the parenting level–which is an additional low blow. This type of bullying is at the root of all the fraught PTA meetings where one or two moms stand up to ask that the Valentine’s Day tradition of serving red Kool-Aid all day long be replaced with strawberries, and the whole room grabs torches and pitchforks. Relax. Nobody’s packing their kids’ lunches AT you.

Food choices, whether they’re for yourself or for your family, are highly personal and private. We need to stop wielding them as weapons against each other, because nobody has ever changed hearts and minds or successfully shared a new point of view with someone else by force, condescension, passive-aggressiveness, or snobbery. The next time you’re tempted to engage in any of these behaviors, stop and examine your motives. Then–please–  just stop.

Have you or any of your children ever been bullied because of issues surrounding food?

Photo credit: Craig McCord