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Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh Headshot

I Hate The Term "Food Police" And I Wear It With Pride

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I hear the term "Food Police" a lot: mostly as a condescending slur on parents.

It came up on the comments for my last post, as it often does when I give speeches or people review my book. People are incredulous that I would suggest that parents can feed their own children. This distaste appears any time the topic of parents and food intersect. We are a culture that delights in chiding parents and moralizing about food and we are never happier than when we combine these passions.

My husband bought me a real metal sheriff's badge on eBay a few years back after one of my apoplectic rants about how often I hear "Well, you don't want to be the Food Police..." I wear it under my jacket or in my pocket so I can pull it out and make the slur into a badge of honor instead. I'm tired of this phrase and since I can't stomp it out I might as well own it.

Here's the truth: food isn't magic and it isn't optional. Neither are parents.

Parents have been feeding their kids since we had hands to do so. Although inherently mysterious, our relationship with food is not done with incantations and formulas; we have done it reliably and lovingly and communally down through the ages. Parents only became incompetent and penitent and apologetic more recently, but that we can unlearn.

Not coincidentally, it is only recently that food itself was deemed not necessary to eating. Eschewing food is now more important than chewing. Our eating culture is structured around avoiding elements of food. The grocery store is a guided map to "low" "no" "free" consumption that we then drive somewhere to "work" off in measured increments of self-loathing. We eat inside a moral sculpture in the shape of our bodies.

This is the hectoring unpleasantness we call healthy. This is the lifestyle we laud and the new Kool-Aid we give the kids. Do too much of it and you'll be the "Food Police" and do too little and you are part of the Childhood Obesity Crisis. The margin of normal? Vanishingly thin.

I'm an eating disorder treatment activist. So you may think my perspective is simply reactive. You are half right: I have a chip on my shoulder right over my Food Law Enforcement epaulets. The acquaintance of countless families watching loved ones slip into obsessive avoidance of food does alter my view, but not in the way you might think. Spending time in the eating disorder world has taught me just as much about the rest of us as it has anorexia and bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Disempowered parents are not great caregivers. Parents trained to be afraid of food, afraid of our own bodies, afraid of "passing on" our habits and hips and favorite foods, afraid of "too much" and excess and miscalculating the emaciated margin of Good Food and Ideal Body Weight -- these are parents rendered incompetent to nourish children. Faced with a child with a predisposition for an eating disorder and a mother and father become powerless and dependent on the ready militia of chiding, condescending moral experts on food. Even normal families in today's environment grow to fear and loathe the dinner table fraught with don'ts and can'ts and shouldn'ts. We give up and feed according to the label, without a schedule, eating to live but not together or in pleasure.

I am called the Food Police because I believe parents can and should be in charge of their own family's table -- even and especially when an eating disorder is present. I believe in family meals and call on parents to be responsible for planning and serving and being there even in a culture that thinks we should put soccer practice and 110-calorie snack packs above planning a meal around a table. I call on parents to put delicious food on the table and enjoy it with their children.

The policing, it seems to me, is better applied to those who would disempower a parent struggling to do the work of raising a family. An injunction against the term Food Police might be a start.

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