I recently returned from four months living and studying in Irkutsk, a large, beautiful city in Eastern Siberia. Since I usually live and study in Ohio, it was quite a change. The most striking thing about travel is how you end up learning more about the place you left than the place you’re in. There were lots of cultural quirks that I didn’t even realize were uniquely American until they were suddenly gone. This was the case with the Siberian attitude toward food.
American food guilt is so pervasive, it almost never occurred to me that there could be a world without it. Just a glance at About-Face’s “food and eating” category reveals a complex relationship full of moral judgments. Magazine tips and advertisements advise us on how to eat more healthily, often for the purpose of losing weight. If we “eat well” (and look thin to prove it), we get to be superheroes. On the other hand, we need a weight-loss robot or a gaggle of teenagers to shame us when we don’t toe the line.
In Siberia, that entire culture of guilt and fear surrounding food simply does not exist. I am not a cultural anthropologist, but I believe the main reason is simply that the Siberian winter is too cold to diet through. In Irkutsk in January, it’s typical for the weather to reach -40ºF, and Irkutsk is considered one of the milder and more livable cities in the region. On one of my first days there, my host grandmother told me, “Eat up—the calories disappear in the cold.” I laughed, thinking it was a joke, the way an American friend might say “The calories don’t count if you eat it off someone else’s plate,” or “A cookie doesn’t count if you eat a piece of celery afterwards.” As it turned out, she was serious—and correct.
Throughout the winter, I ate less “healthily” than I had in years. I slathered butter on thick slices of black bread and melted cheese over pasta. I scooped sour cream onto cooked cabbage and ate mountains of potatoes fried in oil. Russian food is heavy, fatty, and greasy, and yet I lost weight because it was just so cold. I was constantly hungry, and that heavy food was the only way to get enough sustenance.
And not a single person ever made me feel bad about it. My host parents would tell me, “This tastes better with more sour cream.” They gave me big portions and encouraged me to eat more. I’m not thin, so I usually live in dread of the judgmental “Should you really be eating so much?” In Siberia, people were more likely to express concern that I wasn’t eating enough. In fact, my distaste for sugar and sweet things inspired nothing but confusion in my friends and family. (“You need to eat at least three spoonfuls of sugar a day,” a teacher told me gravely.)
Now that I’m back in the States, I’m still much more comfortable with food than when I left, but I can’t help but notice the food shame culture even more. In America, we often feel we have to justify unhealthy choices, saying, “Oh, I’ll have a cookie, but I worked out earlier so I deserve it.” In Siberia, if you like food, then you eat it, no questions asked. Not only was this a huge relief, but I can’t help but think that it’s easier to make healthy choices when no one is scrutinizing you. Imagine if the only reason you might choose an apple instead of potato chips isn’t that you’d feel guilty and ashamed for eating “wrong,” but because you’re making a personal choice for your own health. And that if you choose the potato chips anyway, no one would think anything of it. Isn’t that an idea worth exploring?