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Health & Wellness Is About Mental Health, Not Food Intake

These standards place a burden on fat scholars to shrink themselves and their bodies to fit the mold of health and wellness constructed by white supremacy.

CW: this article discusses food, diets, and other content around fatphobia.

By Bry Reed

It’s Sunday and my mother stands over her black cast iron skillet. The grease pops as the smell of fried fish, whiting to be specific, rises and fills our apartment. On the counter, fried potatoes mixed with onion sit covered by a white paper towel dampened by grease. There’s broccoli next to a skillet filled with golden-brown cornbread. As my mother walks away, I look over everything, taking it all in. This is Sunday dinner; a ritual carried up the coast to Baltimore. 

Growing up, my mother taught me that a good meal had three parts: protein, starch, vegetable. The holy trinity of Southern cooking that could show itself in a bevy of ways. Fried fish, chicken, pork chops, potatoes, and onions are staples. 

Yet, when I arrived at my predominantly white and wealthy Southern liberal arts college, I struggled. In the first few weeks, I adjusted to having a roommate for the first time in my life (having a great one who understands boundaries and loves to nap helps). I also got adjusted to eating in a dining hall and navigating meal swipes. The transition from public school cafeteria and cartons of questionable chocolate milk to a dining hall menu featuring salmon with gochujang sauce and mushroom fennel was… interesting. In the beginning, the options seemed fancy and plentiful which, compared to the school-sponsored meals I’m used to, they  were. After a while, though, the meals became more boring. 

As I started getting used to these meals and my routine, campus conversation shifted to one focused on healthy foods, healthy eating, and exercise. Fun posters filled with bright colors and shapes notified the student body of events about diets and how to contact the campus nutritionist. When I showed up, however, all the foods I loved about Sunday dinner—all the Southern food I’d grown up on—seemed to be under attack. Discussions warned of the danger of carbs and fried foods while emphasizing green vegetables and drinking your weight in water. Suddenly, the meals I yearned for from home were deemed unnatural and gluttonous. 

Recommended: Reforming My Relationship With Food and Exercise

Food became the focus of campus efforts to address health. Little was done to discuss depression, anxiety, or the imposter syndrome plaguing first-generation students. The counseling center was overbooked, and no counselor specialized in addressing sex assault trauma, nor did any counselor specialize in caring for the needs of queer, trans, and non-binary students. As students and campus offices promoted “healthy” eating, we lacked major pieces of infrastructure to promote sustainable mental health habits. The messaging surrounding health was uneven and reinforced a fatphobic narrative around food, especially food often associated with Blackness—and, more specifically, the Southern African American experience—without effort to help students develop a holistic approach to physical, mental, and emotional health. 

Before long, I missed home. I longed for the comfort of my family’s small apartment and everything in it. I yearned for my mother’s food and loud voice amidst a new environment of quiet, Southern politeness. Baltimore felt worlds away from the small town I found myself in. There were no corner stores, buses ran few and far between, and everyone asked me about The Wire. Discomfort set in and before long it took its toll. By October of my first year, I suffered my first bout of pneumonia. 

I recovered, for the most part, but my understanding of health, and belonging, conflicted with my new environment. 

Soon, my voice, body, and personality became subject to public criticism alongside my diet. My voice was too loud. I had too much attitude. My directness quickly earned me the distinction of needing “sensitivity training.” Campus shifted from a happy-go-lucky first-year experience to the realization that the academy thrives on anti-Blackness. The mythical “bubble” that my peers cited as the division between us and the outside world was no bubble at all, but a space centering wealth, fatphobia, and anti-Blackness as perfection. The reality, however, was far from flawless. The demands of a “prestigious” institution lacking holistic wellness initiatives are compounded for first generation, low income, and disabled students who must seek outside resources. 

Focusing on healthy eating centered diet culture as a solution to a problem that green vegetables cannot fix. More acai bowls, smoothies, and granola cannot address a lack of mental health services. Twenty four hour access to the gym cannot solve income inequality. Being healthy in the academy means addressing economic, emotional, and mental health. Failing to address these concerns places a priority on thin, able-bodied, and desirable as synonyms for health. These standards emphasize the visual and place a burden on fat scholars to shrink themselves and their bodies to fit the mold of health and wellness constructed by white supremacy.

Recommended: Diet Culture and Weight Loss Programs Are A Scam

My safe haven on campus was among Black students and students of color. Through the chaos, Black women nurtured me. They taught me about picking class schedules and avoiding predatory partners. Their sisterhood pulled me off the ledge and into a loving community. Soon, we gathered around dinner tables together. Each of us doing our part to cook family dinners featuring pasta, seafood, chicken wings, and dessert overflowing with chocolate and whipped cream. This felt natural. No judgment or talk of keto diets. The space we built together revived me, sustained me and continues to push me forward. 

These family dinners are a new ritual. Far away from my mother’s cast iron and laughter, I am reminded of the magic of Black womanhood. In the words of Ntozake Shange, “Where there is a woman there is magic.” There was no mistaking our community. It was, and still is, here. 

Now, as a senior, I love cooking dinner with my friends-turned-sisters and inviting younger Black women, cultivating the brave space that Black women before us created. The goal is to lift as we climb. Together, we conquer the unconquerable. Family dinner is our time to cry, scream, and release the load of our everyday battles. There are no prerequisites. The only requirement is to show up as our full selves, and understand that this space is ours to claim. We eat. We laugh. We love. Our dinners are an oasis in the bubble.

Bry Reed is a writer and scholar from Baltimore, MD committed to writing about Black feminisms, literature, and how theory shows itself in our everyday lives. She is a freelancer who hopes to bring more Black feminist writing to the forefront of cultural criticism. You can find more of Bry’s work on her website: bryreed.com. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and Instagram @thebryreed.

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