Food for Thought: Eating and Identity

Outer Thinking Division
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You are what you eat. It’s a common phrase, and one most of us will have seen on cookbook covers, heard on TV adverts, or read in reports advocating healthy eating. The implication is that if we eat good food, we’ll be strong, fit and healthy. And that’s more or less true. But the phrase can also be interpreted in a different way.

“You are what you eat”

It can be understood not just in relation to our bodily health, but also in relation to our identity, our values, our personality. In this sense, ‘you are what you eat’ is about more than just physical wellbeing. It’s about how our food choices signify our social standing, our education, our income, our values, our aspirations, our whole identity.

Veganism is an obvious example. The vegan’s meat-free, dairy-free diet tends to signify a wider set of beliefs and principles. The decision isn’t usually about disliking the flavour of meat or questioning its health benefits. Most often it’s the result of a larger concern for animal welfare and the state of the environment. Another example is the individual who, instead of taking a packed lunch or buying food at work, drinks the nutritionally complete powdered food, Huel. That individual shows that she values efficiency, convenience and sustainability over, say, flavour, colour and variety. The choice to drink Huel rather than buying a soup, a salad or a sandwich, for example, is an expression of who that person is and the values they hold.

So, the food we eat every day is a clue to who we are and what we stand for. But by the same token, our food choices might indicate who we want to be and what we aspire to. Just as we eat the food we eat because we like the way it tastes or because we know it’s good for us, we might choose to eat certain foods because they fit with the image of ourselves we want to present to the world.

So the food we eat is as much an expression of ourselves as our clothes or language. It’s part of the message we want to send out to the world. Food is part of our personal brand.

But, what is a personal brand?

Self Presentation

Roughly defined, it’s a way of establishing and consistently reinforcing who we are and what we stand for. In addressing the subject, Erving Goffman proposes his theory of Self Presentation. Like actors in a play, Goffman suggests we all have characters we are looking to project to the world. This suggests that everything we do is dictated by who this character is; we model ourselves on how they would speak, where they would live, what they would wear, what they would eat.

To many, this theory will seem far-fetched, and there is the argument that we aren’t trying to perform or play a certain character; that character is simply who we are. But Goffman responds to this by differentiating between our ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ personas. He suggests our front stage persona is who we are in public, how we want to be seen by others. Our back stage persona, on the other hand, is how we act outside of the public eye; it’s what we do when we don’t have an audience watching.

It’s not hard to imagine how Goffman’s theory plays out in relation to food. If the front stage persona is an Instagram post showing someone posing alongside a freshly made, healthy looking smoothie, then the back stage persona might be that same person hurriedly eating a late night McDonalds in a drive-thru carpark.

But whether we buy into Goffman’s theory or not, it’s hard to deny that building and maintaining a personal brand is the driving force behind the choices many of us make, from the clothes we wear and the products we buy to the places we frequent and the food we eat.

With all this in mind, let’s go back to the beginning and reconsider the phrase ‘you are what you eat’. The phrase can be traced back to Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1826 quote: ‘tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are’. A beautiful quote, but in the age of cultivating personal brands through social media, it may need adjusting. Perhaps today’s equivalent should read: tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you want to be.

To quote one of Steve’s heroes, Oscar Wilde, ‘to be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.’

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