I have been dealing with my food allergies a lot lately, and I want to know: Where are my superpowers?
Food restrictions are difficult to live with at the best of times because food restrictions divide people during a fundamental activity: eating together. Sharing food and drink, and even more so providing food for another person are deeply symbolic acts of bonding. Their widespread role in hospitality laws and rituals shows their importance. In some ways, food restrictions act as the inverse of hospitality practices.
I have long thought that this inversion of hospitality is one of the reasons religious food limitations carry so much significance. They delimit a population very powerfully; if we cannot share a meal, and welcome each other under our own laws of hospitality, then some of our basic ways of building relationships are out-of-bounds, which encourages one to stay with one’s own group. Similarly, in today’s world, it is a powerful thing to make ethical choices about one’s food; that’s why these choices become such a topic of debate.
The difference between allergies and the situation of religious or ethical food restrictions is that in both religious and ethical choices, the person making the choice feels that the choice is meaningful, and this feeling is reinforcement. The choice, and its social consequences, send a message, which is why it can be so contentious. Following through on the restrictions also sends a message to oneself: I am a member of this group, and not that; my choices and actions are in line with my intentions about such-and-such a concern, or whatever is important enough to limit one’s food.
It’s true that those feedback messages can devolve into smug self-righteousness, or looking down on other people, and that’s awful, but whether the self-image is a good thing or not, those feedback messages are part of the reinforcement that helps one make the food choices over and over again, and go through the effort of seeking out certain foods or avoiding others, of navigating the social landscape around eating. However graciously or ineptly one handles the situation, eating differently from those around you takes time, effort, and money, and concentrates social attention on oneself in a not necessarily pleasant way.
With food allergies or other medical restrictions, there’s no payoff, there’s no deeper message, and there’s no positive reinforcement that helps us keep going. This isn’t like the stories where the protagonist chooses to give up something in order to get other benefits, and it isn’t even like the stories where a protagonist has a hidden flaw that “pays for” the other great skills she has. It’s just a handicap, with no upside.
In other words, where are my superpowers? Don’t I even get superpowers in exchange for all the things I can’t eat, all the times when I am the odd one out, the problem child, the person who everybody else has to accommodate? I’m not even asking for a separate power for every allergy – just one little teeny power, maybe?
Most people have no idea how frustrating these issues can be, and it’s easy for someone inconvenienced by another’s restrictions to resent the restrictions and even the person herself. Believe me, no matter how annoyed you are, you have no idea how much I wish I could relieve you of the burden of dealing with my allergies.
Imagine how you feel when confronted with the most obnoxious type of person whose eating habits are exactly opposite yours. If that person followed you around all the time and interrupted you to criticize everything you think about putting in your mouth, you’d be pretty annoyed by that person, right? You’d get pretty unhappy about her interrupting your routine, disrupting the dinner party, making it difficult to socialize with others, and sometimes even simply to feed yourself.
Now imagine feeling that way about yourself instead of about someone else. I hate my food allergies; I hate that I have to bring them up, that I have to refuse food, and that when I eat practically anything I haven’t personally prepared from scratch I run a calculated risk, over and over and over again, three meals a day. I hate that when that risk goes wrong, I have reactions that impact other people’s lives as well as putting mine at risk. I hate being afraid during such a fundamental activity as eating. I find the allergies as annoying as you find that fictional fanatic. But the allergies are part of me; I can’t get away from them.
And I don’t get anything in return. I don’t get the inner glow of knowing that my choices are contributing to better lives for animals, or that I’m supporting fair trade, or even that my restrictions are connected to anyone or anything besides an accident of biology. I don’t even get cool x-ray vision to tell me when I’m encountering an allergen – I mean, Superman knows when kryptonite is around, right? It has the cool green glow! Allergens don’t glow. They just sit there waiting to ambush me while I’m just trying to have lunch, maybe with a friend, or reward myself for a good day with something delicious.
This harsh reality is why I was so ticked off about the lousy depiction of disabilities in the Percy Jackson novels. In those stories, Jackson and all the other Greek demi-gods have dyslexia because their brains are “wired” to read ancient Greek. Nobody talks about struggling with the day-to-day grind of these issues, because they’re really just a convenient shorthand to make our protagonist the kind of person who overcomes obstacles, which actually turn out to be the root of his superpowers. Another character’s apparent mobility disability is explained away in similar fashion; the wheelchair is just a disguise, you see, and apparently he never gets frustrated with it or anything. It never risks his life, either.
I live in the real world, where things like food allergies, not to mention my other medical issues, don’t come with a convenient side of superpowers that make it all seem worthwhile. They’re not a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make in exchange for something else. They don’t have a deeper meaning or the resonance of generations of cultural practice. They’re not a side detail that the narrator can handwave away by tweaking the plot to accommodate me. They regularly force me to make difficult choices between regular exposure to small but significant risks and limiting my behavior in ways that would completely disrupt my life. They’re just as painful and annoying as any other restrictive food requirements, without any redeeming sense of meaning.
I don’t even get superpowers. Except not dying. Or not spending the night in the hospital. Those are good things – don’t get me wrong – but for most people they’re the baseline, the assumed normal, rather than something that has to be fought for on a recurring basis.
So when you’re dealing with someone with food allergies, please take them seriously, do your very, very best to accommodate the person, and don’t make it more of a social issue than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the goal of keeping the person safe. Because we don’t get superpowers. And sometimes it gets really tiring.