How Growing Up Working Class Affected My Relationship With Food

Photo: Getty Images.
A few weeks ago and for the first time in over 20 years, I bought, made and consumed an entire bowl of Angel Delight. Butterscotch Angel Delight, to be precise, with an entire jug of full fat milk. That might not seem like something that should warrant an article, but the whole episode struck me as significant for the shame and embarrassment that followed.
Angel Delight, for whatever reason, is one of those foods I’d considered unthinkable for years. Partly because it is obviously targeted at children, but then I’m a 29-year-old woman who also counts Pom Bears and Ribena among her weekly necessities, so it couldn’t have been that. Also, it wasn’t the contents, which while bad, are no worse than half the other unhealthy things I consume on a semi-regular basis including wine, vodka, cheese and chocolate.
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No, the certain nagging voice in the back of my head telling me Angel Delight was off limits came from somewhere else; somewhere deeper down, where bigger questions about my identity and my place in the world reside. It might sound grandiose but only now, 10 years after leaving home and finally having my own kitchen, am I able to reflect on all the ways that my diet has been shaped, for better or worse (but mostly worse), by the people I’ve encountered and the institutions I have been a part of. Only now, after periods of intense weight loss that have worried friends and family alternately, am I able to realise how class has also influenced my relationship to food. And only now, with enough hindsight and understanding, am I able to reflect on it all and to share the whole thing with you here.
I grew up as part of a working class family in Birmingham. My parents were both healthy and in spite of our limited financial resources, protected me from any sense of struggle and instilled in me an early love of vegetables and fruit. Of the many things they did for me, I am especially grateful for this and have been shocked to discover that many kids whose families were far better off, with far greater access to a wider range of healthy foods, wound up developing terrible eating habits.
My parents were also balanced. A real “cake if you eat all your greens, biscuits only after swimming” kind of family, which also instilled in me an appreciation for delayed gratification and is one reason, I think, that I have never been inclined towards addiction of any kind – drink and cigarettes I’ve always been able to take or leave. Our treats were never lavish but I do remember a few special occasions, like the time my mum treated me with a banana split covered in coloured sprinkles and chocolate sauce after I did well in a test. Food in this sense was a reward – for having worked hard and achieved something – and the same was true of the dinners, served up hot by whoever happened to get home earliest, for everyone at the end of a long, hard day. I think of these as halcyon days, when our relationship to food was at its best, its most healthy and certainly, its most balanced.
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At university though, I learned another meaning of food – as something unruly and wild that a person needed to develop a firm hold over. I was 18 and studying among people far more affluent than me who, tellingly, were also all very slim. Here’s the other prejudicial thing about Oxford and Cambridge that goes unreported in accounts of their dire track record for admitting working class people and POC: There are barely any fat people. Paunchy rugby-type lads occasionally but never obese people, and certainly, very few overweight women. You’ll hear fascistic arguments about fat people simply being less intelligent as evidenced in their eating habits, which are so flawed I can’t even begin to start correcting them here. Truth is, the middle to upper classes are a cult of slimness and a lithe, sinewy, erect body is one way of being able to pick each other out of a crowded room. Whether conscious or not, for the time I was studying at Oxford there was no escaping the fact that a certain vetting of ‘unhealthy’ or ‘overweight’ people had occurred, and the sheer level of neuroses that used to swirl around every dinnertime seemed to also explain why.
We were students and yet we had several chef de parties constructing our three-course meals every night. I was in heaven – or so I thought – until my peers started turning their noses up, scoffing at the quality of the food and rejecting whole meals. They were spoiled, sure, but there was something else at play – a fear of excess leading to a lack of control over their appearances. The same applied in the supermarket, when it was frowned upon to buy budget foods, or in the café, when my more affluent peers thought nothing of taking a chunk out of my sandwich or cake – something I’d looked forward to – on the assumption that none of us, in our right mind, would ever eat the whole thing.
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Being young I internalised these values, which only became more exaggerated the more time I spent with similarly affluent people after leaving university and entering the media bubble. I wasn’t a woman who ate Angel Delight after dinner anymore. In fact I didn’t eat anything after dinner. I barely even had dinner. Instead, I learned how to pace my day eating as little as possible and get through to evening, where alcohol at magazine and art parties numbed the sense of hunger. I was looking better than ever before, people told me. Finally the clothes I’d always felt I looked awkward in hung like they did on the models, whose white, blonde, middle class pedigree only seemed to become more pronounced throughout the 2010s (there were exceptions, but for some reason Joan Smalls and Jourdan Dunn seemed all the more exceptional than black models of the past, perhaps owing to just how ubiquitous the likes of Cara Delevingne and Georgia Jagger were).
I swapped cereal for chia seeds, bread for leaves and I became angry, irate, unpleasant to those around me until one day, forced by what seemed like anxiety and depression, I found myself seated in front of a therapist, who asked one, very simple question: Are you hungry?
Today I ask myself that question before making any big decisions, or acting on any of my feelings, and if the answer is yes, I feed myself. I feed myself whatever I want and if I start to notice my trousers getting a little tight, I consider going to the gym, safe in the knowledge that I’m beyond the judgment of people who I had nothing in common with in the first place besides proximity, and free, finally, to drown in a tub of delicious, sludge-coloured butterscotch Angel Delight without anyone passing comment.
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