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Social media, privilege, and a poem

Updated: Jun 16, 2023


I often say that my best poems emerge at intersections. This one - perhaps not one of my best but more of a quick 'poetic sketch' - emerged at the intersection between a particular Instagram post that arrived on my feed as my train was pulling into a station, and 'Some Day': a poem here attributed to poet Deryn Rees-Jones.


These boards have recently appeared on Merseyrail stations, without any apparent explanation that I can see, or any that I have been able to find online either. They appear to be about the war in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian refugees that we are now hosting here in the UK. Each board contains a poem in (I'm assuming) Ukrainian with a Ukrainian name attached, a photograph, and a poem in English by an English poet. I'm guessing by their similarities in form that the English poems are translations from the Ukrainian, and that the poems are about, or somehow inspired by, the photographs.


There occurred for me a kind of collision. I was scrolling through my usual @uturnhealthuk Instagram feed consisting of a lot of people telling me how easy it is to eat watermelon for breakfast or to drink celery juice (two things I do not find easy at all). Quite a lot of them seem to live in very sunny places, be very thin, and wear a lot of bikinis.


Perhaps I simply need to follow a few new and different people, but something else also needs to be said.


Social media lies. Social media tells us everything is fine when everything is not fine. Social media tells us we can have the world, when the reality for a lot of us is much more of a struggle, and that struggle is real. What we don't see, when someone tells us how easy it is to drink celery juice, is the privilege that means that in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis they (like me, I have to admit) can still afford a juicer, a phone, and celery, which is a moderately expensive food on a per-calorie basis because it contains almost no calories at all.


The association between overweight and obesity, and poverty, is quite clear. The celery juice is only a mediating factor in the relationship between social and financial privilege and thinness, and conversely, poor dietary quality is what mediates the relationship between poverty and fatness. We focus on body size too much and forget that for many people this is only a proxy for access to necessary phytonutrients: phytonutrients that are necessary for the proper functioning of our human biological systems, which is one definition of health that I find quite helpful. People who are overweight or obese (and I say this as someone who is definitely fatter than I should be) are people who are, in some senses, starving.


Access is an interesting word. Access is not just about affordability, or whether one lives near a nice market. Access is about education, culture, skills, social support, mental health and something called agency. Agency is a word that describes a person’s ability to initiate and sustain change in their lives, and in the lives of their families, friends, communities and world. In general, someone who lives in a residential home has less agency than a solvent twenty-something fresh out of university.


The people posting these kinds of things (hang on a minute... I post these kinds of things too... sometimes...) are, in general, people who have never experienced significant poverty, abuse, discrimination, oppression, or war. The people who have experienced or are experiencing these things are generally not busy posting their dinner on social media. I'm making a sweeping generalisation, I know, but a broad one worth keeping in mind if you, like me, ever find that this seemingly endless stream of food-happiness has a markedly bad effect on your mental health, somewhat akin to wanting to hurl your phone in front of an oncoming train.


Okay so here's my poem. After I wrote it I had a lovely conversation on Instagram with a woman (@rawplantkitchen) who posts beautiful pictures of beautiful raw food that she shares at her local potlucks, and I was able to say to her that what I want to do with my business is to help a lot of people to get better, not a few people to get perfect. Maybe I’m revealing my politics more than I should here, but I’ve worked in the NHS all my adult life and despite its problems, at heart I still believe in the basic principle it stands for. I want to make low fat, high-raw, plant-based possible, and a recognised and realistic target for everybody. That means for refugees and people in residential homes just as much as it does the solvent twenty-something, and that is because low fat, high raw, plant-based is our birthright and the most fundamental pivot around which all other aspects of health revolve. Get the diet right and a lot of things we thought were serious health problems will disappear.


Since I began to think about this there has been a shift: yes, I want to offer a commercial service for people who know they want it and know they can pay for it, and that might be an important initial avenue for the collection of evidence, but I also want to make a low fat, high raw, plant-based programme available for all those who need it (and that includes all the people who don’t know they need it - they just know they are sick) in every NHS trust in the UK.


And in the meantime, if you are a social media influencer of any size or sort, please keep the food happiness coming (we need you!) and remember that you are not responsible for other people's reactions to it, which always says more about them than it does about you.



Fight


It is not as easy as simply

eating more raw.

It is not as easy as eating

melon for breakfast

and salad for tea because

when the planes enter your dreams

and the pink mouths of babies

are filled with spit and fire,

so you have to take what you can get

while privilege cries in the distance

‘give me all your money for

my badge of authority

and then it will be easy like

it’s easy for me’, well

all I can tell you is the fight is real

and that you have to keep on fighting

for yourself and for your children and for

the woman sat on the pavement

with her paper cup.

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