The Politics of Privation
1. The Holodomor and Weaponization of Hunger
Any denial of basic needs can be a mechanism of control, abuse, or chaos. Food is the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs along with shelter, water, and rest. Given the human necessity for sustenance, starvation is recognized as a war crime under Swiss law—something to keep in mind while the invasion of Ukraine continues given Russia’s history of using famine as a method of warfare.
From 1932 to 1933 Stalin starved almost 4 million Ukrainian citizens to death:
The Ukrainian famine—known as the Holodomor, a combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “to inflict death”—by one estimate claimed the lives of 3.9 million people, about 13 percent of the population. And, unlike other famines in history caused by blight or drought, this was caused when a dictator wanted both to replace Ukraine’s small farms with state-run collectives and punish independence-minded Ukrainians who posed a threat to his totalitarian authority.
While this is an extreme historical example, Putin has shown he is willing to use any and all forms of aggression available no matter how depraved or evil. He is familiar with using starvation as a tool—facilitating and abetting Assad’s malnourishment of Syrian civilians by blocking aid to the region. Given these precedents and the possibility of escalation as Putin may get more desperate for victory in the face of greater Ukrainian resistance and stronger defense than he expected, the world should be prepared to see hunger used as a weapon again. The attacks on Ukraine are not happening in a vacuum and will affect all of us—there are also likely to be strains on global food supply chains resulting from the invasion.
Caveat: In no way do I intend to compare the plight of people in a war zone to the plight of people not in a war zone. I don’t want to be in the business of weighing suffering against suffering. But, running for recreation as others are running for their lives, I have been thinking a lot about how we intentionally deprive ourselves.
It feels gross to write about anything other than glory to Ukraine this week. It seems insignificant and weird to talk about something like nutrition and running as so many face peril. But war and masses of people potentially being denied food highlight the disconnect and privilege of American abundance.
Last week was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Terrible to consider and grapple with under normal circumstances, eating disorders are even more strange and disturbing phenomena to consider in the context of war breaking out. The human rights violation of using hunger in warfare lays bare a certain perversion in our culture that idolizes and rewards thinness—an idolatry that contributes to millions of Americans inflicting upon themselves a cruelty akin to torture under tyranny.
There is even more irony and dissonance in an amateur athlete’s self-deprivation—itself another peculiar symptom of American abundance that sits uneasily next to news from frontlines.
At its core, disordered eating is about personal control. Except it is not just a conflict against self, but a conflict against a culture of denial.
2. American Denial: The Limit Doesn’t Exist
Idolizing the individual’s ability to deny their basic needs is yet another American pastime—not just as it relates to food, but rest as well—re overworking and fetishizing hustle culture. When looking at America’s relationship with food and health, this culture yields extreme behavioral disorders: starving and binging.
Eating disorders have “exploded” during the pandemic. And obesity is a leading risk factor for more severe COVID infections. These are two faces of the same coin—both speak to abandonment by the American government. The former is a result of isolation and uncertainty as those in power left people to fend for themselves with inconsistent guidelines, keeping schools closed, and limited direct support. The latter is part of a deeper trend in American health and political disregard for citizen wellness.
There is something insidious in the sequence of events starting with Michelle Obama being mocked for years over her “Get Moving” campaign, followed by the election of an obese man disdainful of exercise and any kind of public health consciousness—only then for the virus to arrive amid backlash to government efforts to promote the most basic of health initiatives in the 10th most obese country in the world. And it was not just his disdain, but his conviction that health is a matter of genetics—entirely out of anyone’s control and pre-decided by fate—therefore shirking any responsibility of the community and society to protect or meet the needs of the vulnerable.
Instead of addressing the ignorance and failures of policy contributing to the national problem of obesity, activists have taken a different tact to fight the animosity faced by the overweight: radical acceptance. But we should be able to address both discrimination against people who are fat while also working to improve the conditions and circumstances that lead to binging. There has to be a way to address the ways obesity contributes to health vulnerabilities without blaming and shaming the individual.
Acceptance alone won’t fix the stigma of sizeism because it perpetuates the idea that America’s corrupted relationship with food, health, habits, and exercise is entirely the burden of the individual. It also works in shifting the conversation from one focused on finding solutions to denying there is a problem at all—thereby denying all the underlying problems causing it to begin with.
Obesity in America is in part a failure to implement policies to protect people that has been transmogrified into a moral failing of the individual. Radical acceptance takes the pressure off politicians to address real issues of accessibility, education, income inequality that limits the available time for those who work extra shifts could otherwise have to cook, limiting additives and food processing, and a multitude of other less easily quantified reasons contributing to America's failure to address overweightness.
We as a society are choosing to accept to treat the gross policy failures of COVID the same way by blaming individuals and the two fiascos are colliding and resulting in massive death tolls.
Leadership matters—just as bad roads are prohibitive to getting more people running, just as discrimination and harassment are prohibitive to getting more people running—and having someone openly denouncing exercise from the ultimate podium of authority in America is prohibitive to getting more people running.
3. Manna in the Desert
“Regularly eat food, even if you are not hungry. If you become hungry it is too late.” – From the unofficial strategy guide to the Speed Project
This week I crossed 250 miles so far for the year, halfway to my goal of 500 miles before the race. We’re a month out from heading to the desert and as the long runs get longer, nutrition starts to play a bigger role. There is an illusion among athletes that because you are burning so many calories you can eat anything you want, but it’s a false premise. Two axioms oft-repeated by coaches: “You can’t outrun a bad diet” and “abs are made in the kitchen.” What you consume matters.
Unfortunately, this awareness can slide very quickly into disordered habits of obsession, binging, and shame. I personally think anyone who was exposed to myfitnesspal or Weight Watchers before their prefrontal cortex was fully developed should be entitled to financial compensation as if they were exposed to asbestos.
After battling my own cycles of disordered eating for years as a student-athlete, there remains the constant lure of old dark habits. Personally, running as a practice and discipline has forced me to be more pragmatic than emotional about eating for fuel–rather than as a response to stress.
As always, Emily Dickinson said it best: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”
This week’s mileage:
A bonus link on running and military opsec: Data about exercise routes shared online by soldiers can be used to pinpoint overseas facilities.
Thanks for this article and perspective. It reminds me of Johann Hari's recent book, Stolen Focus. Highly recommend. He explores the vital resource of attention in depth, from personal, societal, and historical lenses.
"activists have taken a different tact" the word you are looking for here is tack--deriving from sailing (sailing across the wind in order to sail into the wind to your objective).
Sorry, I am an English teacher and my inner editor sometimes gets out of control.
That being said:
One of your more interesting observations here is how our culture turns societal/cultural/complex issues into issues of "personal responsibility."
1) Greatly simplifies the issue (because many cannot or do not wish to deal with the complexity);
2) Turns the simplified thing into a useful political tool;
3) Absolves those not actually engaged/involved in a direct sense of any responsibility/culpability.
Then we couple this with "radical acceptance." which then also absolves those who have problems of responsibility/agency.
I will be the first to admit that I do not live a healthy life. I eat far too many things that are bad for me. I do not get enough exercise. A big part of that is my fault (because I do have the money and time to eat better and exercise more).
There are too many people who do not have the time and money (which is another part of our larger problem).
Unless or until people and politicians are willing to engage with the reality of these things instead of fobbing them off through "personal responsibility" or "radical acceptance" I do not think we will make much progress.