As a food researcher, I spend a lot of my time thinking about food, and the place it holds within our material cultures. But thinking about food also means thinking about the body, and health, and my own place on the body-food-research juncture. This has worried me a lot over the years (and I am working on something longer about bodies/researchers/food/space) but I wanted to get some thoughts out here too. It’s a bit of a muddle still so bear with me.
The initial push for this post came from a conversation I had back in April with a fellow health-food researcher. We were (randomly) talking about our love of cake. She then told me an anecdote of how her department had held a cake sale for charity. It was a lovely affair, everyone purchasing and eating cake one afternoon. Most people had made the cake they brought in to sell (although some obviously did bring shop-bought ones). A person from another department commented that as health-food researchers, perhaps selling cake was not setting the best example. Perhaps they should be raising money another way (the commenter did not suggest exactly how – maybe we should do more 5km runs?) I had recently just made a wonderful almond cake to celebrate a new job and so we talked about the importance of celebrating with cake, and the loveliness of cake in general. But the conversation brought back all the anxieties I have over being a food researcher and eating cake.
As a health-food researcher I often wonder what my own body (and my eating habits) say about my health, and how research participants, other researchers, the community-at-large, perceive me when I am doing my research. My body is fat, lumpy in places, curvy in others. I run, but slowly (I am more yoga-swimmer type). When I choose to eat cake, or dessert, or crisps in a research setting, what does that say about me? What about when I eat them elsewhere? Often when you tell people you are doing food research they automatically assume you are researching ‘healthy food’. For example, in one school I worked in, teachers often commented on how healthy their own meals were, or that they didn’t eat unhealthily in front of me. Here is a field note from one lunchtime at a school I researched in:
The Year Five teachers are upstairs so I offer to make tea. When I return, the TA from Miss G’s class has come back from lunch at ASDA. She has brought back a container with two chocolate éclairs and two doughnuts – all filled with cream. She cuts them in half and offers them around. I take half a chocolate one. Mrs O declines. ‘Make sure you put that in your notes’ she laughs, ‘I abstained’.
Participants in food research projects can remain wary, worried about what you are writing about their eating habits, worried about the judgments you are making about them. (I wasn’t particularly interested in whether people were eating ‘healthily’ or not, I was just interested in what they were eating, where, when, with whom etc… I certainly wasn’t involved in promoting fruit and vegetable consumption.) But this field note made me think about the ways research on food is always situated within particular moments, and the way people react when they realise you are looking at food.
Food can help research too, through creating a common ground for both parties to work from, or by forming a closed group with secret habits, which Cairns (2013) writes about. For her, eating candies that the children she was researching with provided helped to redefine the usual rules of the space they were in, creating a separate environment that ultimately made her research participants feel like they belonged to something outside their normal school boundaries.
Self-consciousness around food works both ways, precisely because, as the cake anecdote suggests, food-health researchers are (potentially) held to a different standard than other people. I work in critical food studies rather than food/health promotion but the same set of judgments around research bodies exists there. How do we navigate our way around it? This is particularly important in an age where various people/media outlets/governments use phrases like ‘war on obesity’, and where we judge body healthfulness simply through appearance.
One way which seems logical is to continue to eat in ways that might jostle and brush against current thinking that is quite extreme. In other words, continue to eat cake occasionally. I have always made cake for celebrations. As far back as I can remember, I have baked cake. My sister bought me a sign that I have in my kitchen: ‘cake is for life, not just for birthdays’. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. There is always a reason for cake. Your personal preference might not be for cake, that is okay.
Another way is to question the assumptions others bring with them regarding how healthy you as the researcher are and to likewise question the judgments you are making about health in the research setting. Research environments are negotiated, challenging spaces. They are also spaces for conversations.
It is also possible that hyper-awareness of bodies and eating habits in a space belongs to you-as-researcher. Others may remain unaware of something you are hyperconscious about. Insecurities you hold may be aggravated in the research field. (Judgments about cake certainly don’t help that). If you are a new food researcher, paying attention to how you feel in your body in situations is important (Pink 2009), particularly if you realise (as I did) doing food research heightens your own insecurities around food and eating.
This is a complex topic and I think I have only just begun to peel away my layers of thinking. I leave you now to contemplate these ideas, possibly while eating this almond cake…
Makes one medium bundt tin
125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup golden granulated sugar
1/2 cup golden caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
200g spelt flour
pinch of salt
1/8tsp baking soda
1/2 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 180C and grease and flour your bundt tin. Beat the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy. Slowly add in the eggs, then the vanilla. In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda and almonds. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet in three goes, alternating with the buttermilk. Scoop the batter into the bundt tin and smooth the top with the back of a spatula. Bake for approximately 30 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool for 15 minutes before turning out of the bundt tin onto a wire rack.
Cairns, K. (2013). Ethnographic locations: the geographies of feminist post-structural ethnography. Ethnography and Education 8(3), pp. 323-337.
Pink, S. (2009). Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: Sage.