Culture Ethics Opinion

Are you too proud of your ‘natural’ lifestyle?

Wendi Harris shops for organic cleaning products at Clover's Natural Market on Jan. 27, 2010. Photo courtesy KOMUnews via Flickr Creative Commons.

A study conducted at Loyola University and published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that people primed to think about healthy and organic foods — which are “often marketed with moral terms (e.g., Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance)” — tended to be, well, meaner: less generous, more judgmental, apparently because in choosing organic they already felt so much better about themselves and their choices that they didn’t need to be, well, nice.

 Wendi Harris shops for organic cleaning products at Clover's Natural Market on Jan. 27, 2010. Photo courtesy KOMUnews via Flickr Creative Commons.

Wendi Harris shops for organic cleaning products at Clover’s Natural Market on Jan. 27, 2010. Photo courtesy KOMUnews via Flickr Creative Commons.

Apparently there’s truth behind that old New Yorker cartoon, wherein one couple, waving to another couple as they drive away, dismiss them as “sweet, but a little too ‘more organic than thou.'”

The late humorist David Rakoff once suggested that foodie culture — even the kind that’s supposedly about triumphing over environmental degradation caused by factory farming — is often a narcissistic exercise in which the object of celebration is the eater’s own specially honed tastes:

“It takes an exceptionally fine tongue and palate, you must admit, to appreciate a dessert of a single date. One so very different from the cratered, preservative-strafed mouths of the masses.”

Food is just one area in which those ‘in the know’ can separate themselves from ‘the masses.’ On ‘natural lifestyle’ blogs, this kind of superiority and self-righteousness pervades and reeks of privilege: “we don’t vaccinate, we don’t medicate, we don’t eat [long list of normal and even generally-regarded-as-healthy-foods], we homebirth, we go barefoot…” and so on.

“Well,” my friend said after reading one such list, “isn’t she lucky?”

I knew instantly what she meant. While I certainly sympathize with concerns over chemicals and additives in our food, with the degradation of the environment, with the overprescribing of antibiotics and the soaring who so proudly adhere to ‘natural’ lifestyles are the very thing that make a flourishing, healthy life possible for so many people.

How many babies and moms wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for safe cesareans and antibiotics? How many babies and children of a hundred years ago died in infancy because vaccinations and antibiotics weren’t around? It’s telling — and chilling — to notice how relatively few people with serious disabilities survive in countries too resource-poor for medical advances that could save their lives and allow them to flourish.

It’s ‘natural’ for a polio victim to sit in the dust, begging, as I saw often enough in Malawi, but it’s anything but ideal.

And it’s easy to be proudly non-vaccinating, non-medicating, home-birthing and barefoot when you live in a place where, thanks to vaccinations, medications, modern hospitals and modern sanitation, the means of saving your life, or that of your children, is never far away, and you’re unlikely to acquire hookworms from walking around barefoot or giardia from drinking a raw green smoothie.

So, no, I don’t have much patience with the “more organic than thou” attitude, or any idealization of a ‘natural’ life, particularly when the adherents of such a lifestyle don’t realize the privilege that such a lifestyle implies — and that, strictly speaking, it’s anything but natural. Natural, after all, is stinking to high heaven and losing most of your teeth by the time you’re thirty, among other things.

An alternative to this might be gratitude for the good things that scientific and medical advances have done, and a humble awareness of the ever-present human proclivity for despoiling even the most Edenic of situations.

{Note:  In retrospect, and seeing this post through the eyes of others, I can see that it would’ve been helpful to note that I, myself, have been guilty of judging others based on their lifestyle choices, and of being self-righteous and smug about my own choices. And so, as with so many of my writings, this critique is a critique from within; of haughtiness not merely in others, but in me.}

About the author

Rachel Marie Stone

Rachel Marie Stone is the author of "Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food" and a book about Jesus for children called "The Unexpected Way."


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  • You sure do lump multiple entire sections of lifestyle and our economy together without much reason or evidence.

    Regardless of feelings toward a lifestyle of organic food, reduced plastic and carbon footprint, and a shift in reliance from exclusively Western medicine to a more balanced approach – these are beneficial to the individual and the world. It really isn’t up for reasonable debate that these things are beneficial.

    I know a LOT of people who you would seem to lump into some holier-than-group of elitist treehuggers, but the vast majority are just smart people who want to avoid pesticides, herbicides, hormones, artificial colors and flavors, BPA, PVC, and all the petroleum products in personal care products.

    As for the medical component, a previous trend in America for an over-reliance (and almost exclusive reliance) on Western medicine was almost definitely not good for individual or aggregate health. People should not shun either general approach to healing and wellness – people should be equally open to surgery and medications as they are meditation and natural herbs. People should be open to homebirths, but if the mother needs a hospital or C-section, then so be it.

    As for the anti-vaccine idiots, well, those people are both dumb and dangerous. All evidence has shown that vaccines are beneficial to the individual and the human race. And unlike almost all other lifestyle choices, this one does affect everyone. One rotten apple can and will spoil the whole Earth. As a teacher, I think vaccines should be mandatory – without any exception for any reason – for public school. But to take it one step further to rope in the private school kids, make it mandatory to get your IRS refund. That will fix the problem.

  • I’m also a “smart [person] who want[s] to avoid pesticides, herbicides, hormones, artificial colors and flavors, BPA, PVC, and all the petroleum products in personal care products.” I just try not to be a self-righteous asshat about it.

  • It’s amazing how you completely miss the point of what she’s saying and also provide a glaring example of it.

  • LMAO!!! That was wonderful.

    Luckily, I put my coffee down before I read that. Otherwise I would be cleaning it off my monitor in a spit take.

  • I think your point is right on, Rachel, that we in more privileged positions must not forget that it is our very privilege that allows us more “lifestyle” options than so many in this world; however, I also think that Rinehart makes a fair point. Lumping together several different “lifestyle choice” groups makes for a more tenuous argument. The person who chooses to use a hopefully more eco-friendly cleaning product, is not necessarily the same person who chooses not to vaccinate his or her children. I also agree with Rinehart that probably the majority of people trying to live a more “natural” (or eco-friendly) life are not particularly self-righteous about it, and in fact are very well aware of their own privilege and are humbled by it. My experience is that by and large, people are making choices that they hope will benefit not only themselves, but also the planet as a whole (human and non-human animals included). It is usually these same people who are trying to make thoughtful consumer and lifestyle choices who also make at least some effort to contribute directly or indirectly to positive changes in the lives of people in the developing world. I think probably most of us are guilty of not making enough effort in that respect. My concern is that your tone and your generalizing risks alienating the very people who sympathize with your greater point.

  • I certainly don’t think all or even most folks who are trying to live eco-friendly are particularly self righteous about it. I certainly hope that I am not, for example, and I certainly count myself among those trying to live eco-friendly. I just see uncomfortable trends — perhaps actually perpetuated by green-washing adverts — that encourage us to consume certain products because they will make us better people, help others in need, etc., and it often seems unwarranted and a bit over-the-top. I can accept that this argument is tenuous, still I persist in thinking there is, always and in all directions, a great need for grace and for leeway. I can certainly sympathize with those who are experimenting with different lifestyle practices to feel better; it’s hard for me to deal with, for example, judging people who are obese when poverty is one of the biggest predictors of obesity, or demonizing antibiotics when they save so many lives…

  • I also think that it can go both ways, with people who just don’t care about eco-friendly living mocking those who have serious concerns.

  • I should have included in the original post that this is a critique from within. I have been guilty of judging others for feeding their kids crappy food I regard as poisonous. Grace, grace, and more grace — and gratitude for the good things that technology HAS given us — is what I aim at, imperfectly.

  • Methinks the post is about pride, not organic food, and should be read as such.

    Let’s face it: Feeling smug & superior over one’s lifestyle choices is easy to do, and we all need to check ourselves on this score. Whatever the issue, it is all too easy to either feel superior or be perceived as feeling so.

    For example, we have lived without a TV for about 15 years now, and I have learned to avoid mentioning this because when I do people get strangely defensive, as though viewed them as uncultured morons for watching TV.

    Generally I don’t think this way, but since I am so often the most literate person in the room (I work among many non-readers) I have at times found myself feeling just a bit smug. I certainly don’t want that to happen, but occasionally it does, and I have to bring it to Jesus it right away.

    When riding my motorcycle I always give the traditional wave to other riders, only to be often snubbed by some of them because I am not riding the “correct” brand.

    Now I find that rude and arrogant, yes, but how O, how quickly can I find myself thinking of them as boors whose taste is clearly not as refined as mine, because surely everyone knows that those of us who favor classic British iron are far more sophisticated than they are, especially since we’re not all fat and we dress more like hipsters than cartoon pirates, and…

    You get the idea.

    It’s a weed that grows in all of us, no matter what the issue.

    Can people be full of themselves with regard to health food and related choices? Absolutely. They wouldn’t be human otherwise.

    Self-righteousness is never pretty.

  • I’m kind of wishing I could turn this into its own post, Dad. Have I mentioned I’m glad you’re my Dad?

  • before laying into “anti-vaccine idiots” as one person put it, some of us are anti-vaccine because we almost died from one. on good friday when i was 19, i spent all day and all night alternating between vomiting my guts out on an already empty stomach and laying in a fetal position because i couldn’t handle the horrible pain and cramping all over my body. my doctor made a house call, and pronounced that i should not ever have a vaccine (which he had administered friday morning) again, just in case.

    so, you better believe i’m not vaccinating my children. i can’t put a child through the excruciating pain i went through, and i don’t think i could handle the panic i saw in my parents’ faces. that doesn’t make me an idiot. it means i understand some things are genetic.

    we could use more openness and less snap judgment.

  • For what it’s worth, here’s another take on vaccinations.

    In the winter of 1976 I was at Minot AFB, and, along with all the personnel on base, was given the swine flu vaccination. As I recall, they vaccinated all of us within 2 days.

    Like many, I was miserably sick for about two days afterwards. My best friend was also sickened by the vaccine, although as severely as I was.

    When it was all over he said, “Man, if the shot makes you this sick, imagine what the damn bug itself would do to you!”

    A couple of days later I found out.

    I received a letter from my brother, then in basic training at Ft. Dix, telling me of the young recruit there who had died of swine flu, which of course is why Uncle Sam had vaccinated us all.

    Many years later I read about the 1918 epidemic, and how it affected the U.S. Army, and understood the government’s actions all the more. Apparently the strain of flu that had killed the soldier at Ft. Dix was very similar to the one that had killed so many in 1918.

    Around that time I also found out that my maternal grandmother had very nearly died from the 1918 flu.

    My buddies and I felt like crap for a couple of days, but have been fine ever since. Private David Lewis died.

    As for me and my house, we’ll take the shot.

  • Then you aren’t an anti-vaccine idiot – you are someone with a legitimate contraindication 🙂

  • Thank you for more clarification, Rachel, and thanks to your dad for sharing his experiences.

  • Which doesnt give a reasonable excuse for not having children vaccinated. just for having more care in getting them.

    If vomiting and cramps are bad, it pales in comparison to being dead or lethally endangering others. Dad gave a great example of how that plays out

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