By Gaya Nikolsky Who are you? No, let me rephrase that to avoid a complicated philosophical debate. What is your identity? Okay, although this question is also quite complex, as an anthropologist I do have more grip on it. Your social identity is who and what you are to other people. Often, at least when regarding identity as a more superficial construction, it would involve different labels that will tell the outside world something about you… Or so it seems. Let’s leave it at that for now: your social identity is what you are to other people and it usually involves aspects such as your gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, career, hobbies etc.
Depending on the social environment that you find yourself in, one part of your identity is more relevant than others. For example, asking a foreigner what country she is from makes more sense than asking someone you assume is local. In the same way, at an academic conference, you are more likely to ask someone about their research rather than about their sexuality or religion… So depending on the context, different parts of your identity are more relevant than others and with that, the meaning and importance that you give these certain identity parts changes in different situations.
In our somewhat superficial human way, we try to understand something about the person in front of us through the labels from which one’s identity consists. Or, to put it more anthropologically: what social structures the other person belongs to. Of course, social structures rise and fall. After the next war, revolution, or apocalypse, a system like the nation-state might fall. Then nobody will care about other people’s nationality and with that, national identity.
Just as existing social structures can change and disappear, so can new ones arise. Anthropology is a discipline with an inductive character. The way we explain the social reality around us, is by using those ‘labels’ for example that we find in that social reality and not ones that we come up with ourselves. Lately, more and more people have started using different eating habits and diets as an identity; the belonging to a certain social structure of people sharing the same eating habits.
Of course we have seen people following certain diets for thousands of years. For example, Jews who keep kosher or Hindus who do not eat beef. Yet the type of diets I am referring to are different. These are not tied to religion, tradition or coincidental circumstances. These diets are something a person internalizes and externalizes on her own: they are often tied to beliefs about health and ‘the correct way to eat’. People truly believe that the way they eat is good for themselves and at times even ‘the way to go’ to better the world around them (internalize). These people look for social groups that share those beliefs, they read about it, write about it, go to gatherings, share their experiences, and more (externalize).
I have heard people around me say that after they changed their diet, they’ve felt that their whole life had changed. It made their body healthier, it influenced their sleep patterns for the better, and improved their concentration. It was a change on a physical, mental and sometimes even spiritual level. A truly holistic experience, influencing many parts of one’s life.
Now, while I will not claim that this is or is not true, I would like to note that I have heard people with exact opposite diets claim the exact same things. In my own social circles, I have met people who follow many different diets: some only plant-based, others with meat as a main component. Irrespectively of the diet, I have heard similar narratives about the impact that their new diet had on their life. Even when I looked at scientific articles regarding healthy eating, I was able to find different articles that claim about very different diets to have beneficial effects on the health of people.
I have found myself pondering how it is possible that people who eat the exact opposite can tell the exact same story about the benefits of their diet. Of course I am not a biologist and I would not dare to rank one of these life changing diets higher than the others. Moreover, I believe that different diets suit different people. But total opposite diets that lead to the same experiences and results seems to be extreme for my dietary taste. I believe that there is more behind this than the health benefits of certain eating habits. There is also more behind this than a multi-million dollar industry selling dietary goods and health supplements. Though these factors might be of great influence on someone’s choice of a certain diet, the reason for its success should have an initial source of appeal from the people themselves.
Food is an important aspect of people’s life. It is a part of the everyday life, daily rituals and social engagement. Besides a mean to keeping us alive, we use meals and food as an opportunity for social interaction. Be it spending time with our family at dinner, having coffee with a colleague or drinks with friends, we use food as an excuse to interact with others. It is always around. This important aspect of our lives is also expressed by the many options of food that we have nowadays.
But maybe the availability of so many options of food might be getting to our heads. Its access is easy and the options are endless. This large amount of choices, both ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’, reduces our possibilities culturally-wise. We do not longer need a social or religious structure for our food. Food becomes more individualistic and has less boundaries.
This leads to the development of insecurities regarding the institution of food and this is where the new found diets come in! With their own agency they can now choose what they do and do not eat. Instead of a ritual or a habit that used to limit people’s choice of food, they can now choose their own limits. Food becomes a variable. You position yourself in the many options. Like many other parts of our identity, this is influenced by our background and surroundings. So maybe, just maybe, in a few decades, when you meet a new person, you will not ask them where they are from or what they do for a living, but – what they eat.
This blog previously appeared on the website of the Dutch anthropological association (ABV): antropologen.nl.
Gaya Nikolsky is bachelor student of Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit