When people hear about my food allergies and severe gluten intolerance I often get looked at like I'm some kind of alien. It often provokes questions about my lifestyle and I'm happy to oblige in their education on the seriousness of these issues. Sometimes it leads them to say, "Wow I had no idea. I admire you for having to deal with all that." Other times it has the opposite effect. "So you SERIOUSLY can't even touch it? I think you're overreacting." "No wonder you're so thin, you can't eat anything." "Oh I try to avoid gluten too, but it doesn't really bother me. I mean it doesn't really hurt you."
As an adult I can be confident in knowing my condition is real no matter what anyone else thinks. (I also have an amazing fiancee who will vouch for that from personal expereince.) I'm very much ok with bringing my own food places, having to carefully select a restaurant when dining out, and not eating if I don't think my food is safe. It's become a part of my everyday life and my normal. As a child however, I can remember this being a pretty tough thing to deal with. Let me take you back to my 4th grade self.
I was so excited that I had successfully completed the poetry challenge in my class. I dutifully memorized a new poem every month to earn a bright, shiny gold star on the classroom chart. The prize was a special lunch celebration at the local pizzeria. It was now June and myself along with my other successful classmates were headed to our special lunch celebration. My mom had prepared me with what to tell the waiter and I had had plenty of experience communicating my dietary needs since I had been doing this for about 2 years at the time. My teacher made sure to tell the waiter that I had food allergies and to speak to me directly about what I could eat. "I'll have to garden salad with no tomatoes or croutons with tuna and just oil and vinegar on the side." I was met with the look that says, "Umm I don't speak Chinese and I have no idea what you said." So I gently repeated my order again except this time the waiter questioned me saying "Do you want the tuna or the salad?" I very timidly explained that I just wanted a salad with tuna in the salad but the waiter only grew angrier at my request. Now a knot was building in my stomach, my teacher looked very frazzled and it felt like the whole room was staring at me. I think I settled on just some lettuce after being so stressed out about my food order. I was feeling embarrassed, different, and totally overwhelmed. I no longer wanted recognition for memorizing my poem, I just wanted to be home.
Children are easily impressionable and are very receptive to the feedback they receive. When those with food allergies and other special dietary needs are made fun of, harassed, or made the but of a joke they are being told that their situation is not serious and they should be embarrassed about it. This can lead to self-confidence issues, feelings of depression, anger, and loneliness. As someone who experienced this first hand, I can say its all true. There are still days when I struggle with the way I have to eat and feel the need to apologize for my dietary needs. This is why when I saw the NASCAR AD calling those who need to be gluten free "soft" I became infuriated. I wondered how many young, impressionable children who have celiac disease or severe gluten intolerance would see this ad and think to themselves that they were less of a person because of how they had to eat. I was happy to see that Gluten Dude's petition got such an overwhelming response and made NBC change the ad to remove the gluten line. But here's my question, why was it even there in the first place?
As a nation, we need to take charge of what we define "funny" to be and set the example for our young children. Would you rather raise a child who loves themself and is confident in who they are or a child who is so fraught with anxiety and worry that they feel deflated? I know for myself I want to raise my kids to be confident, caring, and kind. I don't want them to feel bad about their food choices if they have a condition that requires them to eat "differently." I don't want them to have anxiety about going out to eat or worrying what people will think of them. I want my child to grow up in a tolerant, accepting world. How about you?
This week I challenge you to do 1 thing to help this cause. Maybe you tell your student that they are truly amazing at math. Maybe you choose not to participate in the office gossip. Maybe you stop apologizing for being your best self. Whatever you decide know that every little effort helps. Let's band together and create a world where different is normal.
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