Identity–You Are What You Eat (Part V)

by Chunyan Song

What we eat and how we eat is part of the self-identity construction process that expresses and defines who we are. When we eat, we not only eat with our mouths for nutrition, but also to replenish our beliefs, mindsets, and social beings[1]. Look at the TV if you do not believe me. Advertisements on TV often portray masculine men, instead of women, eating big burgers and red meat. French cuisine is associated with “class and status”. Mexican tacos from a roadside food truck are associated with affordability and lower aesthetic tastes. Your diet defines you. You are what you eat, not only in terms of nutrition, but status as well.

Eager to assimilate to the great American Melting Pot, new immigrants deliberately changed their diets to include more American food such as hot dogs, burgers, and French fries. So when I was in graduate school, I religiously ate one Burger King Whopper Jr. Sandwich or a piece of pepperoni pizza at the campus cafeteria every day. They were inexpensive. They were American. When in America, eat as the Americans do. Once, an American lady acquaintance made a bland remark, in front of me, criticizing another immigrant I knew, “If she doesn’t like our food here, she should go back to where she belongs!” This remark gave me an immediate chill. I didn’t want to be looked at as another picky foreigner who only ate weird foreign food.

The American phenomenon of non-religious vegetarianism is complicated by the many different reasons why people voluntarily avoid meat. Overall, vegetarianism is inevitably tied up with questions of individual identity building. Animal rights vegetarians are concerned about “what is my place in relation to nature including animals on the planet?” Environmental vegetarians ask “what is my responsibility to the environment and to the future generation?”[2] Vegetarians who avoid meat for health reasons are concerned about meat contaminations due to the overall use of drugs on animals in large corporation farms. Their concerns are all legitimate. Reports on animal cruelty and antibiotic resistance in industrialized countries are well publicized by the media.

In western societies like the United States, the social desirability of a slender body also has huge implications to our eating patterns, especially among females[3]. Losing weight remains the No.1 item on the New Year’s resolution lists for so many Americans. Being overweight for the most part is a byproduct of food abundance. In countries where food is in shortage, people do not want to be thin. They want to be fat. My parents’ generation in China experienced famine and starvation in the 1950s and 1960s. The memories of having nothing to eat are still vivid and real. Even after so many years, and even when food is plentiful in China, they still greet each other with the same old-fashioned question “have you eaten yet?” For them, telling a friend “you have gained weight” is a sincere compliment rather than an insult. When I sent home photos of a ten-pound heavier myself during my first year in America, my parents were relieved and pleased. My mom told me over the phone that with my chubby cheeks and plump figure, I had never looked more beautiful. America had treated their daughter well.

The western ideology of capitalist economy and food production are spreading to the rest of the world quickly. GM rice is already sold in the Chinese market. A college friend’s father has been working on breeding a square-shaped watermelon for the sole purpose of easier transportation. MacDonald’s and Pizza Hut now make more money in Asia than in the United States. Everywhere you go, chain supermarkets are replacing local farmers’ markets. People in China and in most parts of the world elsewhere are becoming more distanced from their land and food, just like we do in America.


[1] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

[2] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

[3] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.



Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diet

2 thoughts on “Identity–You Are What You Eat (Part V)

  1. My grandparents and Kathy’s grandparents all lived from their gardens, to a large extent, throughout the summers. All I plant now are cherry tomatoes!

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