Perhaps everyone—perhaps even most children—knew this before I did, but the marshmallow is not a vegetarian food. I only found out a few years ago (I am a nearly-27-year-old adult woman) when I made s’mores brownies, which I had always considered to be my best and maybe my only recipe, and brought them to my friend’s house. I’m a vegetarian and had been one for three or four years by then, but Tara had been one since 16. (She was always edgier than me, ahead of the game with lifestyle choices and asymmetrical haircuts.) Among vegetarians and vegans there is an authority hierarchy and, from Most Ethically Pure to Least, it goes something like this: 1) vegans, 2) strict vegetarians, ranked by number of years lived as a vegetarian, 3) pescatarians, and 4) people who call themselves “mostly vegetarian” but still eat meat once or twice a week. (Even within these there is ample room for subtler power plays; a strict vegetarian who eats a lot of kale and quinoa and endives or whatever ranks higher than a strict vegetarian like me, who eats carbs.) Tara and I were both 2s, but she’s a better one. At least, I thought I was a 2, until Tara asked me, “Didn’t you know marshmallows have gelatin in them?” and I said, “No, I didn’t.” I asked her to remind me what that was again (she said “horse hooves,” I think for maximum effect, but it can be any number of animal byproducts). And then I ate a s’mores brownie anyway. This doesn’t make me a 4, or even a 3, really, but I think that it makes me a very low 2. It makes me a cheater.
It’s weird, but we congratulate some people and criticize others for eating the exact same thing. It just depends.
“Cheating” is now a concept that is fully built into our cultural understanding of what it means to be on a diet. Cheating on one’s diet is even encouraged, in some cases. Dr. Oz recommends a cheating plan called, very creatively I think, “Fat-urday,” which allows people on his diet to eat what they want (within reason) on Saturdays only. On Fat-urdays alone may you be free and happy. Fat-urdays alone get you through all the days that keep their normal names. The idea is that a free day gives you something to look forward to and keeps you from going crazy from endlessly denying yourself everything delicious. This is not irrational. But in a more philosophical sense, isn’t a sanctioned cheat day logically flawed? If the rules for a program you’ve submitted yourself to include a day or two on which you can eat whatever you want, isn’t that technically not “cheating” at all? Isn’t that just part of the diet? I would like to consider myself a strict vegetarian. I make no exceptions for gravy, though it nearly kills me every Thanksgiving. I won’t touch chicken broth even though vegetable broth—at least the store-bought variety—tastes, at best, like pea-flavored water. But on a brownie, or between two graham crackers for a heady string of weeks in the middle of every summer, I will eat marshmallows. So maybe I am not a strict vegetarian, but something else altogether.
Sometimes, on TV especially, women will refer to their decision to eat something with sugar or fat in it as “being bad.” This is because we aren’t really supposed to want food, and if we do, we’re definitely not supposed to be obvious about it. We’re supposed to have a complex relationship with food, and it’s supposed to be a distant one. A favorite sitcom joke is that women will never order dessert at a restaurant but will instead urge their boyfriends to get one. Then, they’ll wolf down half or more of whatever it is their boyfriends ordered. There are a lot of retrograde, sex-specific sitcom tropes creaking along, painfully but persistently, and most of them are probably a lot worse than this thing about women and the desserts they won’t order. But this one, if only for how glaringly obvious it makes the fundamental lack of understanding among whichever guys made the show, has always struck me as the saddest.
When I was a freshman in high school my best friend at the time stopped eating and was eventually hospitalized. She was released around the date of my 15th birthday. On the night my parents took me out to dinner to celebrate, I called her to see if she wanted to come over to my house for cherry pie, which is what my mother always made for me in lieu of cake. I didn’t say, directly, “You don’t have to eat it,” but I said something to that effect. Maybe “You can just hang out.” It’s hard to know what to say at 15, and I think it’d be just as hard now, but it didn’t feel right to rush her. But she said it was OK, that she should, that she was going to have to work at this. When my mom held the knife over the pan to measure out the slice she wanted, my friend repeated “a little less” until the sliver of pie that was left was half an inch across. She didn’t finish it, but it was obvious she was really trying, and I was proud. It’s weird, but we congratulate some people and criticize others (sometimes openly, sometimes not) for eating the exact same thing. It just depends.
Cheating on a diet implies wrongdoing, just like it does everywhere else. It means there are outlawed foods you’ve decided to eat anyway. If we’re not OK with it, the name makes sense. But if we are—and it seems, increasingly, that we are, at least in a controlled sense and maybe with a derogatory-yet-kicky label attached to the day on which we do it—why keep calling it that? It seems undeniable that it must mean eating what you want is “being bad.” It may also be true that calling it “cheating” is the only way we currently know how to quit counting for a day. I gave myself marshmallows because I worry enough (and not even that much, not like many people I know, but certainly enough) about everything else. Constantly monitoring what we eat is exhausting, but who, with fortune enough to have more than enough to eat, knows how to stop? And if we did, what would people say?