Eating: Thinking about Bodily Practices, Pt. 1 by Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsI am currently preparing to teach a course on bioethics in the fall. I plan on combining some common, secular materials on biomedical ethics with some theological material and some feminist readings. After all, in a course that centers around practices related to the body, birth, and death, there seems ample opportunity to introduce feminist themes. Some feminist perspective, of course, is typical, like when we will discuss abortion and contraception. (Or at least it is common in my courses where try to present multiple sides of an issue.) Anything related to conception, pregnancy, and birth is easily understood as a “women’s issue” and therefore something that feminists address. I’ve discussed abortion and contraception in previous posts on this forum.

However, I realized in going through readings for this course that I have not focused much on other practices related to the body in my scholarship or personal reflection. Specifically, I have not connected them to theological principles or feminist convictions. Perhaps not everything concerning the body is directly relevant to feminism. But I am sure if I thought about it, I would be able to make the connections. We are physical creatures and the feminist movement generally affirms recognizing our embodiment.

So I decided to use this as an opportunity to think through some ideas and learn from you in this community of readers, contributors, and commenters. Over the next few months, I plan to discuss the ways I am becoming more intentional about connecting habits surrounding the body to feminist and religious concerns. I’ll start with food since I do put quite a bit of thought into my diet, but not from a theological perspective.

Do feminism and religion have anything to do with what I eat?

I do not belong to a religious tradition that has rules about keeping a kosher or vegetarian diet. As a Christian in central Texas, it seems that the only religious expectation for me regarding food is that I contribute a dish to the various potluck meals my church and other religious groups host! (I’m only joking a little bit.) This means food is connected to hospitality, which is important to Christians in Texas. And bread and wine/grape juice are the central elements of communion, which is a ritual I observe every one or two months. So food is not completely irrelevant to my religious practice, but it is not central. To be completely honest, the most direct connection in my life is through prayer, either in saying grace (a prayer offered before consuming a meal) or the occasional prayer in which I ask God to help me make healthy food choices.

I do recognize that the choice of what I eat is connected to ethical concerns, so the principles I use to guide my decisions in this areacould be more intentionally related to feminism and religion. My concerns about animal welfare, environmental degradation, and food modification could be grounded in a Christian concern about care of God’s creation and humanity’s role to faithfully protect it.

My preference for buying organic food from local farms does have something to do with concern for my neighbors. I want them to be able to make a living while being environmentally responsible. But I also support them because I am suspicious of what the large corporations do to the food that is supposed to nourish us. I know there is more I can do to be theologically reflective about this.

As a feminist, I could think more deeply about how food is involved in concerns about gender justice. I know that many women around the world (and men and children too) are negatively impacted by farming, harvesting, and fishing practices. They are harmed by the damage done to local ecosystems and economies. I confess that this is one of those issues that seems too big for me to understand, too complex for my actions to make a difference. I would appreciate your suggestions for resources that might point me in the right direction so that I could become more knowledgeable and take the appropriate actions.

I am barely scratching the surface here. I would love to hear more about the connections you have made between feminism, religion, and food.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Body, Christianity, consumerism, Eco-systems, Ecojustice, Embodiment, environment, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Food, General, Prayer

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5 replies

  1. When it comes to my religion and food, I notice the connection the most (and this is a bit like a hammer to the head) during Ramadan, our month of fasting. Muslims take in no food or drink from sun-up to sun down, but you can eat and drink as much as you like at night. Since Ramadan this year will be during the month of July, in the Northern Hemisphere, these are very long days.

    Christians used to have much stricter rules about fasting during Lent, but it seems like that is now restricted to religious orders?

    Many religions use fasting as a part of religious practice and meditation. To be perfectly honest, fasting is not something I want to do, it is something I do only to please God.

    From a bioethics point of view, a lot of people tell me, “That’s not healthy! You’ll get dehydrated!”. Well, I think they forget there are a lot of people in the world who don’t have access to clean drinking water and we underestimate the human body’s ability to withstand starvation conditions. However, there is an issue with people who need to take medication on 12 hour or less cycles. From a theological standpoint they should not fast, but some older people are stubborn about this and insist on making their fast.

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    • Yes, you make an excellent point about fasting being a practice that makes the connection between food and religion clear. There are many Christians (who are not a part of religious orders who do fast, but it is not nearly as much a universally practiced phenomenon as the fast that Muslims engage in during Ramadan.

      I have fasted before but was resentful of it, so I appreciate your honesty and devotion in stating that you do it to please God. I think this is where I felt the utility in my few fasting experiences. While I felt that discipline and obedience pleases God, the “optional” character of fasting in the Christian circles I inhabit make me question why that specific practice is worthwhile.

      You’ve given me much to reflect upon. Thank you.

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  2. Elise, my goodness, food IS religion. It is THE most primal need of humans and has guided our lives from the beginning of time. Deities were worshipped because they could bring food, beginning with the first Goddess whose bounty kept people alive. Every single religion has developed ceremonies around food. Jews are known to be fanatical about it (and that is not a criticism); Japanese tea ceremonies are so lovely; Christians share the bread and wine of Christ. Most religions espouse a benediction of some sort just prior to or after a meal. The list goes on and on.

    And food is directly tied to feminism. In ancient times, the work of the women in planting crops and preparing food was every bit as important as the men’s job of killing game. Sadly, our mechanized world has trivialized the importance of women’s work with canned and frozen and boxed everything. Also, in early times, the Goddess was the original deity because of her connection to procreation and food generation. Now that factories produce most of the food, that connection is harder to see.

    Our food choices, even now, tell so much about our religious beliefs, e.g., how we select the food, how we prepare it, what sorts of prayers we offer. A Buddhist does not eat like a Christian.

    I am sure that others could add a great deal more, but you get the idea.

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    • MaryAnn, I appreciate your directness! There is so much I do not see because of our mechanized world that you have very clearly pointed to. The way the Divine provides (or withholds?) our crops is critical. Thank you.

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  3. Dear Elise,
    Thank you for your post. You ask some core questions. I explore related questions of body and practice in my book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ ( WJKP, 2010). You may be particularly interested in the pregnancy chapter (I have chapters on rape, pregnancy, and motherhood as windows into more generalized embodied experience) in which I surface the embodied poetics of interdependence. That poetics traces itself through the food chain and may connect to some of your concerns.
    Blessings in your work.
    Peace,
    Marcia Mount Shoop

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