Where Does Your Diet Culture Show Up?
Perfectionism is everywhere, but I want it out of my garden.
As regular readers know by now, I am an unapologetic plant lady. Garden season is, for me, what I understand football season or insert-some-other-sport-here season to be to other people who understand how those games are played. In the off season (winter), I read gardening books and catalogues and make plans. Once the season arrives, I get very protective of my spring and summer weekends, especially May when all the big planting happens. Then I anxiously await the arrival of each phase – Tulips! Peonies! Poppies! Dahlias!— and document it extensively and text my mother almost daily with garden-related updates and questions. I share a lot of that documentation on Instagram and although you should absolutely not follow me for Expert Gardening Content, I am always happy to weigh in on why your hydrangea is struggling and whether there’s a better ground cover option than pachysandra (there is always a better ground cover option than pachysandra). Whenever I share photos of my garden on Instagram, I get asked where I stand on the question of natives.
A quick primer for non-gardeners: “Natives” refer to plants that are “part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem,” according to the National Resources Conservation Service, which adds: “Only plants found in this country before European settlement are considered to be native to the United States.” Many gardeners get even more specific (we might also say “rigid”): The darmera peltata I love for its giant umbrella-shaped leaves is native to the Pacific Northwest, but it’s certainly a stretch for me to claim it as a native when I grow it 3,000 miles away in New York. But the true opposite of a “native” plant is an “invasive” plant, meaning a plant that is both not native to your gardening region and which spreads aggressively, often crowding out the native plants trying to hang on. Where I live, that includes shrubs like barberry, forsythia and burning bush, as well as daylilies, and perennial weeds like artemisia and stilt grass.
There are a thousand excellent reasons to plant natives in your garden. They provide nectar, berries, and other food sources for native birds, bugs and animals. Milkweed, for example, is the only plant that endangered monarch caterpillars can eat. Native plants also tend to require less water and other resources once they get established. And big native trees like oaks help fight climate change by storing significant amounts of carbon dioxide. So let’s be clear: This piece is not intended to undermine the ecological value of native plantings. I am a big fan. Whenever I’m considering a new plant for my garden, I look at native options first. We have a giant sloping area of former lawn that we’ve given over completely to a natives-only meadow. I wander it daily to admire the birds, bees and yes monarchs that I now feel rather passionately committed to saving. I am That Mom who calls everyone over to spot a hummingbird moth on the bee balm.
But when I talk to other gardeners, especially in Facebook groups and other online gardener-gathering spots, I notice a certain obsessive fervor for natives that feels very…familiar. A few months ago, I asked my local gardening group a question about lilacs (which are not native, but also non-invasive and arguably a part of our horticultural heritage in the Northeast nonetheless) and got the “you know, you really should consider a native shrub instead…” lecture in response. People often issue this mandate to “plant natives!” without any nuance: Which native? Why? And will it actually thrive in my garden (which contains quite a lot of dry shade, arguably the toughest planting condition) or will it poke along and not really fill out or succumb to powdery mildew almost as soon as it blooms? A few months ago, in one particularly native-fervent Facebook group, I saw a thread debating the importance of choosing native houseplants. Houseplants are kept indoors where they cannot provide habitat, sequester any meaningful amount of carbon, or feed pollinators. But when commenters pointed that out, the original poster replied, “It just seems like we should be going native every chance we get. Why waste good money on bad plants?”
Oh, I thought. So there is a Houseplant Diet Mentality. And this is not a surprise. Because diet culture shows up everywhere.
When I say “diet culture,” I don’t mean that people are growing native plants to lose weight. I mean that the same anxieties that diet culture both creates and perpetuates show up in these other arenas. “I need to grow native houseplants” is the same perfectionism, the same all or nothing thinking, which drives dieters to adopt restrictive eating plans or elaborate workout routines that leave them feeling like failures when they prove unsustainable. The need to be a purist about native plantings has big wellness culture energy. There is a lot of reverential discussion of the medicinal value of different plants and a fetishization of the role these plants played in Indigenous communities. Indigenous gardeners and Black gardeners champion the use of natives too; but when bougie white ladies tell me to make a tincture of St. John’s Wort to treat adrenal fatigue, it lands differently.
We see a gardening diet mentality too in the widespread push to grow your own food. I’ve written before how Michael Pollan and other food movement writers linked eating local and organic to “fighting ob#sity.” Attaching a moral imperative to your kale and arugula plants makes you feel like a failure when you inevitably order takeout instead of harvesting and cooking all that food you grew yourself but perhaps turn out not to particularly enjoy. In 2020, I decided to stop growing vegetables we don’t eat and gave my raised beds over to flowers and never looked back. As I wrote in an essay for Real Simple:
This is an unpopular opinion among gardeners, because there is a lot of reverence right now around the rituals of growing your own food. Sun-ripened tomatoes taste best straight off the vine. Locally grown food, people say, is healthier for us and more sustainable for the planet. They may be right about the environmental benefits. But they talk much less about the amount of free labor—traditionally performed by women—that goes into growing a garden to feed a family of four. It’s not just tilling, planting, weeding, and watering. It’s also battling deer, groundhogs, and bunnies. It’s maintaining constant vigilance over berry bushes so you beat the birds to the fruit. And then it’s spending hours in a hot August kitchen, pickling, canning, and preserving your harvest.
Diet culture also loves to render domestic labor invisible; to downplay how hard it is to eat according to the inflexible rules of Paleo or Noom or whatever cleanse is trending on TikTok right now. Diet culture has taught us to place a moral value on meal prepping not because it makes your life easier (it does, sometimes) but because it lets you eat clean. This sets us up to embrace the labor of canning and preserving a garden harvest because we aren’t just doing it for thinness. We’ve tangled up thinness with getting back to nature, with saving the planet, with moral purity.
Here’s where you might say, OK, but planting natives or growing my own food really is good for the planet, in a way that most of diet culture clearly is not. If I garden, shouldn’t I be gardening ecologically whenever possible? If I don’t garden, wouldn’t I be a better person if I did? This again, is diet culture at work, because it’s turning a larger social issue into a matter of personal responsibility. One gardener alone cannot save the environment, just like one person dieting does not even begin to address “the ob*sity epidemic,” which actually isn’t an epidemic of fatness (people have always been fat; fat is not in and of itself a health issue) but rather an epidemic of poverty, of food access, of oppression, and of the many other social determinants that drive health outcomes.
Creating pockets of native plant refuge in private gardens, as I’ve done in my own yard, does have the potential to impact biodiversity. (See Doug Tallamy’s Homegrown National Park for more on this.) But we need huge, systemic, structural changes to solve the environmental crisis. We need local governments regulating our chemical and water usage, as well as planting goals. We need mandates for real estate developers to build subdivisions with less lawn and more meadow. Gardening is a wonderful thing to do if you enjoy it—and have the time and resources to pursue that enjoyment. (I could write an entire separate essay on the privilege embedded in gardening culture.) But you aren’t failing the planet if you don’t do it, or you don’t do it perfectly. When I posted about my approach to natives on Instagram, Christina Toms, a director of the California Native Plant Society chimed in: “I really appreciate how you celebrate natives as well as non-natives that are just FUN (like poppies!),” she said. “Native gardening doesn’t have to be a pure religion, and I wish more people understood this. Every little bit helps!”
This is not just about gardening. Diet culture shows up in our workout selfies, even when we think we aren’t exercising to lose weight. It also intersects with budgeting culture (and Dana is coming on the podcast soon, so stay tuned for more on that). As we’ve been entertaining more this summer, I’m realizing it’s diet culture showing up in my compulsion to have a perfectly clean house whenever people come over. Is there a more unrealistic and grueling standard to hold oneself to, especially while living with two small children and a very energetic dog? And yet everywhere we look in our culture, we find the expectation that we should be able to constantly achieve clean countertops, as Sara Louise Petersen puts it. And in my recent conversation with Julia Turshen, we talked about how divesting from diet culture has also caused each of us to reckon with our workaholism. “Growing up, the only appetite I was allowed to have was for success,” she told me. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about how true this has felt at times in my life. All of of these examples tie back to white supremacy in one way or another; we’re taught to be perfectionists, to seek external rules about the “right” way to do things, and to hold ourselves to certain norms and expectations because all of this reinforces the power of folks at the top of our cultural hierarchy. This prevents us from making real progress holding institutions accountable for change—because we are so quick to blame ourselves for not doing or being enough.
I don’t have a solution or a specific call to action for you on this. Often diet culture shows up in the subjects we’re deeply passionate about, and in places that otherwise bring us a lot of joy. I don’t think the answer is to quit gardening (or yo recklessly plant invasives though I will keep my well-behaved lilacs and poppies, thank you) or quit work we care about or need for financial stability and security. But it feels important to notice when perfectionism, guilt, restriction, and all-or-nothing thinking are creeping in and to question how necessary they are to the experience—and who they keep out of the experience, by setting the price of admission and participation so damn high.
It also feels important to say that your houseplants don’t have to be native and (unless you live in a desert and maybe even then) they will likely die if they are.
I so appreciate Amanda Lee’s story on Today’s Parent about her decision to stop putting her kids on diets. Use care if this is a fraught subject for you because it’s a very emotional read. But we need more parents saying out loud, “I did this, and I’ve learned and now I’m doing better.” (Also appreciate the Burnt Toast shout-out, of course!)
Also can’t stop thinking about Ijeoma Oluo’s newsletter on discovering her lactose intolerance, but even more crucially, understanding how trauma and food insecurity disconnected from her body.