On outrage, Twitter and food-shaming

I still love Twitter. Every few months or so, there’ll be a rash of articles about how it’s haemorrhaging users and is dying a feeble, protracted death, in the manner of Beth from Little Women. And the criticisms are usually spot-on. Despite various tweaks and algorithm changes, it still lacks an “edit Tweet” function – which is mental, when you consider that it’s the writer’s social media channel of choice, and if you tell a  bunch of writers they can’t fix a typo, they start to gnash their teeth and claw at their faces until you distract them with wine. It’s also unspeakably terrible at dealing with abuse, leaving those who are being trolled to either tackle their bullies themselves, or quit the platform entirely.

But it’s clinging on, and I don’t see anything replacing it in the near future. The concept is just too good. Bursts of text and links, snapshots of lives and work, moments of collective joy and sadness. During a Bake-Off final, a political earthquake, or a particularly pacy episode of The Archers, Twitter is the place to be. On election nights and in the aftershocks of ill-placed referendums, it really comes into its own. You can wallow in the echo chamber, like Eeyore in the rain, or you can spoil for a fight with someone whose opinion fills you with hissing, cat-spittle outrage.

And therein lies the thing with Twitter. It deals in outrage. Its currency is indignation, its favourite game is “who can be the most offended?”

Around midday on Wednesday, Kirstie Allsopp tweeted this:

Predictably, and certainly not wrongly, everyone lost their shit.


I have no desire to defend Allsopp (I’m about to stick the knife in myself), but first things first, for the Twitter users among us: we have all tweeted something arsey and judgemental at some point, haven’t we? I do it all the time. It is hard to resist the urge to tweet a pithy, scathing comment when it pops into your head fully-formed; trying to shoehorn a glib observation into 140 characters is catnip to the linguistically-inclined.

And don’t forget, if you’re a woman who has a strong opinion and you voice it on Twitter, you are responsible for everything catching fire and the crumbling of civilisation. That’s just how it is. Donald  Trump can womble his way to the final stages of the US presidential election while saying hideous, gasp-inducing stuff without being laughed out of the running and into an institution for the terminally unteachable, but women get threatened with rape and death if they suggest extreme things, such as having an historical female figure on a banknote.

OK, I’m going to switch the Feminist Klaxon off for a bit. Because Allsopp trampled over a really raw nerve, and while I don’t know her personally, her subsequent tweets suggest she has no idea what she’s wandered into.

Food choices and eating habits are incredibly personal things, and it’s stomach-churningly awful to feel you’re being watched or scrutinised over what you put in your mouth. I remember going through a phase as a kid where I was paranoid about choking, and so could barely eat because every swallow racked me with anxiety. My parents tried to help, but lost patience pretty quickly, so mealtimes became torturous because I felt I was being watched, and judged. Cut to maybe ten years later, and this time, I just wanted to be thin. It was easier to disguise this; who can argue when their teenage daughter says she wants to eat more veg and do more exercise? I got a bit obsessive for a while, but a well-timed bout of food-poisoning actually put a stop to my pursuit of visible bones. When you can’t even keep water down, you start fantasising about all the food you’ll eat when you can finally keep it inside you for more than half an hour.

And cut to ten years later again and here we are – I love food and cooking, down to my not-so-visible bones. I can’t eat bread at lunch time any more (if I do, I spend all afternoon wanting to nap), but other than that, me and food are A-OK. I have my weaknesses  (cheese, chocolate, coffee – if it triggers a migraine, I love it, which is problematic) but I love vegetables, would happily live on tomatoes and avocado if someone would let me, and hardly ever get take-out or go out for dinner. Which sounds boring, but one of my favourite places in the world is stood over the hob, glass of wine in hand, babbling nonsense at DB as we make a big batch of something and argue about the correct amount of chilli oil/oregano/salt. He seasons generously, and he is right. And the cooking itself is therapeutic; it is hard to be anxious when you’re chopping garlic, or zesting lemons, or creaming butter and sugar together with all the arm-strength you can muster. Cooking requires calm focus; the kitchen, for all its knives and fire and ironware, is a safe place.

It’s not OK to single out someone for their choice of breakfast, however much you might think they’re wrong. You have no idea what else is going on in their life, and in any case, one of the joys of being a grown adult is that you are in control of what you eat. And unless you are a doctor, a dietician or a worried partner/close family member, what other people eat is simply none of your business. Remember that Tumblr, Women Who Eat On Tubes? Its creator called it “art” but everyone else called it creepy, weird and sexist.

We’re in such a weird place with food at the moment. I can’t tell you how boring it is to know that Joe Wicks is currently occupying spots #1 and #2 of the non-fiction best-sellers in the UK. I don’t want to get into the whole ‘clean eating’ thing – at least, not again – but my friend Hannah took a hysterically funny, totally bang-on look at it recently, should you need a recap.

And for Allsopp to drag the NHS into it is self-righteousness of the first order. The whole point of the NHS is that it’s there for you no matter who you are. If you need medical help, it doesn’t matter if you’re fat, thin, old, young, poor, rich – they will try and fix you. Founded on an old-fashioned notion that sometimes we must do good, right, selfless things, it’s an institution that accepts humans are breakable – US comedian Rob Delaney summed it up beautifully: “Having an NHS is an acknowledgment that our bodies are falling apart and betraying us at this moment. And you are not punished for that.” If it wasn’t common knowledge that the NHS is being crippled by the Conservative government, I’d be a lot more willing to hear Allsopp out. Look at the way junior doctors have been treated over the last year or so. Look at the state of mental health provision. What the NHS needs most of all is more money. No amount of salad is going to change that.

And if the NHS did cease to exist tomorrow, make no mistake, we wouldn’t be getting it back anytime soon. I just don’t think we’d have it in us to invent it again. We’d want to, certainly, and perhaps we’d try, but if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that we’re not as nice as we thought we were. I’m not convinced that enough people – or crucially, the right people – would see the benefit of providing a service that’s free at the point of use, doesn’t discriminate, and treats humans as though they’re all equally deserving of care and dignity.

We should, undoubtedly, be doing more about obesity and unhealthy lifestyles, and the government has recently come under well-deserved fire for deciding not to restrict junk food advertising. However, “celebrities” like Allsopp and Jamie Oliver can bang on about it until the cows come home, but nothing’s going to change without an education strategy. A lot of the “junk food” problem comes down to convenience, I think, and also cost – the idea that it’s expensive to eat healthily won’t go away. Why not get kids cooking simple, inexpensive meals in schools? Promote cooking from scratch, enlist the help of people like Jack Monroe (whatever you think of their politics, their recipes are reasonably straightforward, innovative and affordable, which is more than you can say for a lot of famous cooks). Who hasn’t, in their early years, been totally transfixed by the way you can put a tin of creamy-yellow batter into the oven, and less than half an hour later, pull out a perfect golden sponge? Introduce children to the magic of turning raw ingredients into something delicious when they’re young, and they’ll be set for life.

You don’t change attitudes by being lofty and flippant. Allsopp may think some people’s breakfast choices are “genuinely terrifying” but frankly, the scariest thing I can see here is her refusal to acknowledge that her sweeping statement is lofty, flippant, and so very flawed.

Man, I need a biscuit after that.

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