Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Dieting as a Form of Identity and Autobiography

I would like to take the time to write a more reflective post on my experience with gluten-free dieting. I undertook this blog, not just to assist with my final year research project, but also because I wanted to document a stage in my life. So in a sense this blog exists as a form of autobiography. The general conception of a biography begins with ones birth and might end toward the end of life, or at ones death. But in actuality biographies tell stories of life, they might describe a few interesting years, document an era of greatness, or simply present it entirely, from start to finish.

We don’t commonly equate diets with biographies, we usually think of them as quick ways to lose weight, or sub narratives in our lives’ greater story. However inconsequential diets might seem in the scheme of things, they do mark our lives.

For many, diets hold great significance with regards to their personal identity. Religious beliefs are enmeshed in dieting, such as Halal in Islam, or Kosher in Judaism. Ethical beliefs also lead people to become vegans or vegetarian.

Though I have never held a single dietary pattern for my entire life, I have personally found that each time I undergo a diet it is for a different series of reasons, and tends to mark a different period personally for myself. Reasons can be physical or health related, like the time I stopped eating sugar to lose weight or dairy to clear my skin. Reasons for dieting can also be mental and emotional, like the times I stopped drinking coffee because it made me nervous, or when I became vegan at the age of 11, after being horrified by a PETA pamphlet. Regardless of motive, the diet you undertake will define a deep need within yourself to control your consumption patterns.

People go on gluten free diets for a host of reasons. Though not backed by nutritional science, many Americans and Canadians think that this diet is healthier for them. Others have claimed a heightened mental clarity when they remove gluten from their diet. A friend of mine who took up the diet suffered from severe acne, after going gluten-free his face became spot-free. Severely allergic individuals have complained of eczema outbreaks and bloating. Celiac patients become sick to the point that they sometimes can’t get out of bed and lay weak for days.

For someone like myself, taking on a gluten-free diet is only temporary. After all, even if I did unknowingly have a slight allergy to gluten, it hasn’t impeded my life in any noticeable ways. However, undertaking the diet, especially inside of Hong Kong, where assistive resources are limited, certainly has caused some trouble. Social relations are strained, and the lack of gluten free options has at times left me rather starving, willing to eat just about anything that doesn’t contain gluten, be it healthy or not. I would not chose to continue this diet here for any longer than I have to, it is simply too extreme of a hassle.

Others unlike myself will continue to avoid gluten for their entire lives. For them the diet has nothing to do with novelty and curiousness, their bodies simply cannot function with gluten inside.

So how would I define this gluten free dietary stage of my life? Let me start by considering the personal motives, which led me to do this. Before moving to Hong Kong, I was rather unaware of gluten free eating. I have an Uncle with celiac in Pennsylvania. Though I had witnessed the discomforts of his disease, I didn’t see him that often growing up, so the condition lay removed from my everyday life.

Upon arriving to Hong Kong I began to meet new people with celiac. One close friend in particular shaped my perspective on what it was to live gluten-free. He developed an extreme digestive disorder a few years after moving here; I spent time with him and his partner nearly every day. His partner took the time to cook for him, and make delicious gluten-free concoctions. They were both enthralled with the diet, and I suppose also the sense of empowerment they felt preparing and consuming the meals.

I learned a lot about the diet from these two over the course of that year, so much so that I thought it would be great to contribute what I learned toward my final year thesis. So for me taking this diet has represented the cumulative learning process I have undergone for well over a year.

In this year I didn’t just learn about the diet, I learned people’s life stories, explored nooks and crannies of the city, gained friendships and partook in many adventures. But these experiences were always from an outsider perspective.

Going gluten free myself has led me to understand the inner perspective of these individuals. For me this story is just a page in my life, for others it's the whole book. Going gluten free in Hong Kong has let me see myself, the city, and those around me in a different light; a segment of my life has thus been memorialized through undertaking this diet. In this sense, my blog acts an autobiography, documenting a particular phase in my life, shaped by a dietary shift.

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