A few weeks ago, I bought a women’s health book on the suggestion of a dear colleague. I was excited to dig into the wealth of information that this book shares, and it did not disappoint. Not completely. Understanding my endocrine system and the ways in which my diet affects my hormones was incredibly helpful. The diet changes and recommendations were great, and I have incorporated some of them slowly within my financial capacity. I feel the changes from adding some supplements and shifting some foods while removing others that I knew were harming me, so I have since recommended the book to many of my acquaintances so they too can add another tool to their healing journeys. Midway through my reading of the book, I put it down and realized that it was lacking the very same thing that other books, authors, and websites lack as well: cultural relevance. They are written by white women for white women.
Something that I’ve learned from my midwifery practice is that I have to meet people where they are. This concept allows me to serve birthing people appropriately by modifying recommendation based on their particular reality. Well-meaning advice can be perceived as inaccessible at best and condescending at worst. As a person who has the privilege of being a first generation woman of color with college education and a post-graduate professional diploma, I know that I can access most food and supplement recommendations from white women health books because I know where to go. Yet, when I visit my local neighborhood grocery store, I am made aware that seeking healthy food options for both a college educated person and a person with some high school or less are difficult if they stay local.
I asked myself, as I searched through the wilting dark leafy greens, the more-than-acceptable bruised & rotting fruit, and the soon-expiring salad mixes, how is anyone in my community supposed to find healthier food attractive when it looks like it’s rotting? Or worse, what is a person who wants to eat better supposed to do if the options in their neighborhood are subpar? The stores I go for better quality produce like Trader Joe’s are more than 30 mins away. I am personally willing to make that trip weekly but when I stop to think about the people who live in my community and what I know about people, if it’s not readily accessible, the chances of following the recommendations start to decrease. It is important to also address that low-income communities tend to be obesogenic environments where fast food and liquor stores are more abundant than health food stores and more attractive than the poor selection of fresh food. This is a food justice issue. Food justice, according to Just Food, is communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food.
In the same vein, the recommendations are not culturally appropriate. It is insulting to me when I notice that many of my cultural foods are absent from health food conversations. I was not surprised when there was no mention of platanos, yucca, guineo, bacalao, for example. I know that many of the foods that are staples in my Afro-Dominican diet are full of nutrition – platanos are an excellent source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium, yucca is a good source of energy, etc. I begin to then think of all the various ethnic groups that make up my community and other low-income communities, also observing that they have their own cultural foods. It is both short-sighted and oppressive to erase cultural foods and replace them with foods that may be incompatible with someone’s diet.
Furthermore, many of us have a emotional link to our cultural foods. Some people who struggle with their weight understand that emotional eating is one of the habits many of us struggle with – we end up eating or overeating because it is how we respond to our emotions. If we take that a step further, we can also find it difficult to stop eating cultural foods because they make us feel connected to our homelands, remind us of our immigrant family members as well as family that stayed behind, and is served when we are with family. In the same breath, these books do not compassionately address the ostracization that can occur when a person rejects their cultural foods. Food is very personal, and some of us cannot risk offending mothers and grandmothers because of our diets. Though at time it is necessary for our health and well-being, it is not realistic to suggest that we reject our grandmother’s food constantly without support for how to navigate these types of situations. There is also evidence that eating as close as possible to the way our ancestors ate is more beneficial health-wise for us. Thus, these health books do not take into account cultural incompatibility, by excluding foods that are actually healthy for one ethnic group and recommending foods that may not agree with that person’s constitution or cultural background. This is not to say that we should only restrict our eating habits to just our cultural food – that would also be erroneous, as some foods can aid in better nutrition regardless. This does speak to the nature of colonization and how it often erases and devalues a colonized people’s culture.
Another way these white women’s health books fall short is lack of context and a life course perspective. It is not enough to speak about patriarchy and the for-profit health care system of this country when describing the underlying reasons for why women are sick or why their hormones are out of wack. There is little context provided that describes why marginalized people (Black and Latino being my own personal focus) eat the foods they eat, why some ethnic groups mistrust the doctor, the ways in which intergenerational and current stress related to race & class affect health and viable treatments for conditions that disproportionately affect certain groups of people (i.e hypertension in Black people, diabetes in Latinos, etc.). As a result of lacking a culturally and politically relevant analysis on health and wellness, the recommendations fall short for the average individual. Writing health books without such analysis insinuates that a white middle class person is the default profile, and feeds the idea that all bodies need the same type of food to be well.
To address these gaps that have been found in most mainstream health food advice, there are various individuals and organizations that do work to both address food justice and speak from a culturally relevant place (I also included books specific to Black and Latina women):
- The BLK ProjeK’s South Bronx Mobile Market
- Mama Tanya’s Kitchen
- Woke Foods
- Queen Afua
- Just Foods
- The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves
- Soul Fire Farm
- South Bronx Farmer’s Market
- Hasta Los Banos Te Curan!
- Sembrando Y Sanando En Puerto Rico/Sowing Fields and Healing in Puerto Rico: Tradiciones Y Visiones Para UN Futuro Verde/Traditions and Visions for a Green Future
- Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability
More work has to be done to cultivate healthier communities. Self-help books are useful but fall short of having political and cultural analysis that can be relevant to larger groups of people who are struggling with colonization-induced illnesses. I know that as I continue on my wellness path, I will continue to be conscious of who is excluded from the conversation and topic of books and health food topic.