Hannah Craig, originally from Tennessee, currently lives in Cali, Colombia where she works for an agricultural research center that relates to food customs and habits around the world. Over our Skype call, I can hear a foreign language in the background. Probably her Italian roommate, and I muse over the many types of food that must be cooked in that kitchen.
Kyu Min, our mutual friend, referred me to Hannah because of her intellect and work around food. I couldn’t be happier to meet Hannah. We have a lot in common, but my favorite commonality is our shared approach to radiance.
*center Italics indicate questions I am pose to Hannah
What do you do to feel radiant?
Hannah: “I do a combination of things, alone and with others. I need to have a balance of those two. Alone, I do a lot of dancing and singing. Every time I sing out loud, it is exactly what I needed. I also like to go on long walks and concentrate on my surrounding sounds and sights. That is a form of meditation for me. I feel really radiant when I am connecting with others, listening intently to friends and being present in the interaction.
“Also, cooking for people and creating spaces that others can share. One of my most favorite things I have done as a human was create a space where people could share, openly, whatever they wished. This was when I was living in New Orleans and was close with Kyu Min. Here, we would share thoughts, read poems, sing a song, or just ask a question to the audience. There was visual art as well. To be a facilitator of those interactions makes me feel shinning and whole.”
Honestly, I could not agree more—especially the singing out loud.
What is one memory that is your most favorite?
Hannah: “Before the first one of those events that I hosted, I had a dream that I created an art exhibit. There were letters from different friends who express their love and appreciation for other friends. The people that the letters were written to came to the exhibit, not knowing that the letters would be there. I wanted to recreated the dream, so I had friends write letters to other friends. We hung them up around the backyard and had a party. I got so much personal happiness from taking an idea from a dream and turning it into real connection between people.”
Her comment blew me away. To take such a vivid dream and turn it into a reality takes a large amount of creativity. I am already feeling inspired. We delve into the main topic—and my favorite subject—food.
Hannah: “It’s really interested to see the full spectrum that food in your mind can take. In my work, I mainly think of food in an empirical way and at the macro level. But personally, I have a spiritual relationship with food. For me it’s about connection and experiences.”
What is your current relationship with food?
Hannah: “It’s been changing a lot over the past 7 to 8 years. I remember telling my mom that I wanted to become vegetarian when I was 12 or 13. I was vegetarian for most of my time through high school. It was the beginning of being able to think about societal structures beyond myself. At that age, I was starting to realize how I related to these larger systems. I didn’t like what I had seen and read about in the meat industry, particularly in the US. This was not a super deep relationship [with food and vegetarianism].
“I did it for a few years, and in college I became vegan. I was pretty strictly vegan for a few years. And now that I have a bit more distance from that, I don’t think it was a great relationship with food. And since then, I have transitioned into having a flexible relationship with food. When I cook for myself, I prefer to eat vegan. I feel better in body and the systems I am paying into with my purchase with a vegan diet. I try to make my purchases as local as possible to support whatever community I am living in at the time.”
On Wellness Culture
Hannah: “The mainstream wellness culture and classist vegan movement are not things that I want to be a part of. In addition to that, I have had many friends who have had troubled relationships with food and many who have experienced eating disorders. It has been an honor to witness their recoveries. And because of my insight into their experiences, I don’t want to have hard and fast rules surrounding food. Now, when there is food that is a gift, cultural experience, free, or a variety of situations, I eat it without questioning. I think it can get dangerous [to have hard rules around food]. This is especially true for me, as I grew up as a woman in a western society where so many images and thoughts are pushed on you. I just feel predisposed to channel a sense of control into food. So I want to make sure that this sense of control stays at bay by consciously staying very flexible with food.”
Freedom v. Tradition in Food
Sydney: “I think that’s really intelligent. What I find funny about food, from the North American/western perspective, is that we have such freedom around food. But with that freedom comes a great weight of responsibility. We have to be so conscious with how we feel about food because we can eat at any time and we can choose whatever style or diet we want. It can get very out-of-hand if we don’t place attention to it.
“But at the same time, we have a lot of impeding images from the media about ‘What is the best’– ideas about what we are supposed to look like, eat like, etc. We lack a central, monitoring tradition around food but we are still heavily influenced by our US food culture. And this can interfere with food exchanges in different cultures as well. We are not used to adopting cultural eating habits. We make up our own and then take that concoction wherever we go.”
Hannah: “Yes, and especially now that I am living abroad, I see a big difference. Someone just asked me yesterday, ‘What is your most United State-ian personality aspect?’ And my answer was food. Some of my favorite foods are very typically United States foods, like peanut butter. But, comparatively, my colleges and roommates have far more traditions that have been passed down through generations. They have ingrained eating practices. I do feel like my relationship with food is different from theirs. And probably a bit less grounded than my colleges from other places.”
Sydney: “I feel the same way, I feel a large weight of responsibility in regulating my eating practices because I don’t feel like I have the ingrained, guiding principles that people from other cultures do.”
Hannah: “It’s not like we don’t have these cultural practices or tendencies [in the US], but it’s just that they’re shifting. And I think there’s less of an emphasis on food principles than, for example, my roommate who’s from Italy.”
Sydney: “For her, food is probably second to a religion.”
Hannah: “Yeah, she takes it very seriously.”
We can’t help but laugh at this concept.
Taking Up Space
How do you think our concept of food as Americans—versus other cultures with more ingrained traditions– affects this broader idea of wellness?
Hannah: “The first thing that comes to mind is the oppressive version of wellness. I have become a lot more sensitive to this over the past year, reading a lot on the topic. There is such an overwhelmingly oppressive version of wellness in the US and the media. I think it is deceptive. And I think it is insidious to put a sense of obligation and morality on this concept of clean eating. It is also very classist. People who have access to these types of ingredients and recipes, to this type of relationship with food, are a small portion of the population. It is incredibly inaccessible and not even a worthwhile goal.
“Creating a mentality where you would have guilt for eating something because it is convenient and you are hungry– I think it is distracting us from caring about things that are a lot more profound and worthwhile. Deceptive is the best word I can think of. It is taking up space in people’s minds when they could be thinking about things that are so much more important. Having any type of negative feeling around food, or even just spending the amount of time and energy that people spend thinking about their physical wellness and food choices [are deceptive wastes of time and life energy].”
Sydney: “I see wellness as a concept like happiness, the more you think about it and the more you try to construct it, the worse and farther away the goal becomes. When we put wellness into such a narrow focus, when we focus on something like ‘clean eating’, exercising a certain amount at a certain time, and implementing all these micro-control mechanisms, we are working against ourselves. In reality, you are cutting yourself off from more impactful influences.
“Your community, for example, is a proven and time-tested source of profound physical and mental wellbeing. With a culture of dieting and food-control, we are cut off from social outings out of fear– fear of eating the wrong thing or missing tomorrow’s workout. Diet and ‘wellness’ culture riddle us with guilt, anxiety, and a sense of obligation. All of which takes away from ‘true wellness’– whatever that is. I do not think this concept of wellness is the culturally accepted norm of what we practice.”
Coping With These Messages
Hannah: “Yes, and I am not out of this bubble. I am steeped into this culture. I grew up in it—it is native to me. There is something I try to keep in mind when I find that I am being distracted by these contrived wellness thoughts. Thoughts like, ‘Oh, I could have made a better decision about this’ or ‘I haven’t exercised in the past couple days.’ Any thought on a wellness bias claim coming from the outside and that is not about me checking in with how I feel.
“When I have thoughts about these standards, I try to keep an image of a young child in my mind. Children are so naturally comfortable in their own bodies. They don’t have in mind an ideal or consider how people are perceiving them. Little kids have such a pure relationship with their bodies. I want to be able to keep aspects of that. And, if it’s possible, channel that sense of freedom and not caring. I try to replace negative thoughts with that. Unawareness, honestly, about my body and food.”
How is living in Colombia shaping this relationship with your body and food?
Hannah: “I would say it is a little bit complex. The other times that I have been in Latin America, I felt less narrow body images projected in media– from my perception. And that was beautiful and gave me a sense of freedom. After I had spent 6 months in Chile, I noticed I rarely saw posters or billboards on the street that had a narrowly defined sense of beauty or body. And I really enjoyed that. I was conscious that it was a positive thing.
“But here, specifically the city of Cali, there is a focus on fitness. And there is a culture of synthetic body alterations–not just surgeries but creams and all other products or services that alter your image. The city of Cali has a very high level of surgeries. There are a lot of advertisements and businesses relating to fitness, different gyms, and fitness communities. And for some people, maybe that is a positive thing in their lives and they can have a positive relationship with it. But it is not something that I want and it’s interesting to see how prevalent it is here.”
Why do you think fitness culture is prevalent in Cali, Colombia?
Hannah: “One thing I am going to throw out there is that I have a friend who is very interested in research that has been done on societal beauty standards as they relate to a country’s political climate. My friend is Venezuelan, and she has researched Venezuelan perceptions of beauty as they relate to the changing political situation in the country. From what I have learned from her, a relationship can be seen between increasingly impossible to obtain beauty standards and an intensifying political climate.”
Sydney: “That’s fascinating, my god.”
Hannah: “Here [in Cali], on a more anecdotal level, you do see people that have a lot of social capital mostly adhering to very high beauty standards. Sometimes these individuals have access to resources that enabled them to have these [sculpted] looks. It is beyond what any normal person has access to, but they are still featured so prominently in the media. Beyond this, I don’t feel like I have a clear idea of why the culture here in Cali has an intense fitness aspect to it.”
Wellness As Status
Sydney: “It sounds like a status thing. In the US, for example, we have huge wealth disparity. A huge wealth gap. And how someone looks is a big indicator of how wealthy they are. The wealthier you are, you not only have access to certain surgeries, but certain creams, foods, and exercises– all of which augment the way that you look. And it’s not that it’s ‘unhealthy’, because most of these people look ‘healthy’, but it’s not necessary by nature. If they were just left to their own devices, they wouldn’t look like that.
“That is what is irritating to me right now. I am living in San Francisco and I walk around a lot. About my day, I see women with full faces of makeup, dressed up to the T. Left to their own devices, they wouldn’t look like this. And if you stripped them out of all that material nonsense– even keeping in all the routines they do to ‘increase their beauty’ and ‘improve’ their looks– you’re left with a very different person. Men don’t walk around with a full face of makeup. They don’t have the same standard and constructed image placed upon them on such a daily basis.”
Left To Your Own Devices
Hannah: “Yes— and going back to what you said, ‘Left to their own devices they wouldn’t look like this.’ I have had this thought before, ‘What would I look like if I had never done anything to alter my appearance?’. Because, even though I have never done anything drastic to change my looks, I did have braces to alter my teeth. I wear sunscreen and I have whitening toothpaste. All these little things that add up. I wonder what I would like if I hadn’t done anything.”
Sydney: “So on a small scale, I experienced that. I lived in Ecuador for four months and then I traveled for three months through South America. And I have always known that I was raised with a very toxic idea of wellness and health. So, I have been trying to get over this idea. But while I was in South America, it went to an extreme. I embraced too much of a ‘laissez-faire’ practice, and I lost a little bit of my health and ‘my looks’.
“When I came back, people commented–to what I felt was a toxic degree– ‘Wow, your skin doesn’t look that great!’ or ‘You let your eyebrows grow out?’ And the fact I had ‘grown less attractive’, to a westerner’s perspective, is terrifying. Yet I had never felt more beautiful and calm in my spirit. I had never been happier and more enriched and enlightened. But when I came back, I had never felt worse about myself. I realized I no longer precisely fit these beauty standards because I had 8 months of not exposing myself to all these synthetic practices and potions.”
Hannah: “It is really wild. Because it creates a unique type of cognitive dissonance when you feel, internally, completely different than how you’re being perceived. Like in your example, where you felt like you had just been through an experience where you learned so much, you changed and grew and were exposed to all these different things. And the feedback was, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you like this?’”
Evaluations And Our Five Sense
Do you think our hyper-importance on looks makes it so we can’t ‘see’ [in the broader sense of the word] what people are actually like and what they’ve been through? Especially when we first and foremost look at image?
Hannah: “I think we live in a very visual culture and time. And I think that people forget that the way someone looks isn’t the only way to interpret how they’re doing. We have five senses, if not more. You can interpret someone’s wellness in a holistic concept, and in more ways than just a visual sense. And it’s always changing.”
Sydney: “I have never heard someone say that before, that we have five sense and we can interpret wellness with all those five sense. That is such a good point. I always think of smell. For me, smell is a big indicator of wellness. If someone smells nice and has good breath and a nice scent, I am hooked—of course, that is deeply manufactured as well. But the underlying concept– it makes sense why we are pulled in to use them as an evaluation of someone else.
“Someone’s scent, for example, if you are related to them then you are going to be put off by their mere smell and body odor. Where-as with a non-relative, that exact mechanism that deters you from a relative will draw you into a potential mate. This is the same visually, there are cues that indicate health. Like with women with wider hips, you are more likely to carry a healthy child. Yet we have taken all these natural instincts and cues and manufactured them into an unnatural standard, and call it wellness. And we argue that this manufactured product is beautiful. I would argue that it is not.”
Hannah: “Yes, me as well. One thing here that I am really enjoying with my friend group in Cali is that it is very common for someone to comment on someone’s vibes when you meet them. For example, I am texting a woman I met last week and she told me, ‘You transmit a really nice energy.’ And that kind of comment has come up so many times here. People, after meeting someone, reflect on what type of energy or vibes someone gives off. That is a new way for me to consider how I connect with someone or what I thought of them.
“And it is not visual–though maybe there is some visual aspect that goes into vibe sensing. I imagine it is a combination of all our senses. But I like this ‘vibes comment’ because it seems like a holistic way of evaluating how you connect with someone. And I haven’t sensed any dogmatism with the vibes evaluation. Like someone might say, ‘That person has bad vibes for me.’ But there is no implication that this holds true for everyone. It is a more of a comment that, ‘I don’t really connect with them that well.’ And there is an understanding that other people might and do connect well with this person.”
And when someone is evaluating your vibes, how do you feel when they say you give off good vibes?
Hannah: “When this woman said this to me, it was such a compliment. And I think the reason it feels like a compliment is because I understand she is taking in multiple facets of my personality in that evaluation. She is considering body language, word choice, actions… It feels like a more profound way to give feedback or a comment. It’s like, ‘You made me feel good. I felt good in your presence.’”
Sydney: “And isn’t that what we are all getting at? I want to make you feel good and you want to make me feel good. That, to me, is a genuine exchange.”
Hannah pauses, then asks if she can sidetrack the conversation. She had been reading my blog and exploring the definition of radiance. There is an element of it she is struggling with.
Hannah: “It’s about how I present myself to others. I grew up putting an emphasis on how others felt in interactions. I was taught that you always want to transfer as much positivity and openness to the person you are interacting with. And I think that is a beautiful principle. But as I got older and started thinking about the gender implications there, I often questioned if that idea is pushed upon women more. The idea that it is your obligation to make someone else feel good about themselves and the conversation that is occurring.
“I started to play around with that. And I think this is what most people call creating boundaries. I started to have less of an emphasis on, ‘I need to leave a conversation with this person feeling good.’ Because what if they are saying something that I am ideologically opposed to? Or what if that upsets me? I want to have the freedom and space to say and communicate that is against my principles. Or to say, ‘No!’
“A negative reaction needs to be able to exist when you’re communicating with another person. And I don’t think I have a clear solution [on how to be ‘radiant’ and make someone feel good in a conversation while sticking up for your beliefs.] I think you can hold both things in your mind. But it is something that I am questioning…..Is the mentality of wanting to be a radiance person for others at the loss of not speaking your mind and your truth?”
Sydney: “I am happy you brought this up. So, I have always been a confrontational person. I will get into arguments for anything if I believe in it. But during my time in South Carolina, I grew to believe this was wrong. I got super deep into, first, this idea of how a woman should be [in the South]. Then I delved into this ‘all love’ idea and meditation practice. I thought it was against meditation and against being a woman if I was to talk back—to be myself, basically. I tried out being more ‘agreeing’. [Really, I was trying to blend in and avoid criticism].”
Sydney: “But what I have come to realize is the fact that we are taught that arguing is negative. In reality, ‘arguing’ is a reaction. And setting up boundaries is incredibly healthy. It’s not even a positive or negative thing, you speaking your mind and setting limits are genuine reactions to what is being said and done around you. Doing otherwise is pretending or trying to fabricate a different way of being that is unnatural. We have been mistaught how to have interactions because it is not an argument, it’s a conversation. And when you are sticking up for what you believe in, the other person should equally be receiving it. Because if they aren’t receiving it [granting that you are presenting your points in an open manner] or if they are not respecting your boundaries, then it is on them. Within this space [of mutual respect and consideration], you can have a fruitful conversation.”
Hannah: “I agree that we have been taught that debate and disagreement are bad. And no matter what my opinion, I love it when someone disagrees. Or when someone wants to pick a hole in my idea and have a debate. I think it is how you grow and how you have opinions that are more inclusive and well-thought-out.”
Sydney: “Yes, and I think it opens our minds up and allows us to be more receptive to other people. In the US, we are not taught to negotiate well, we are not taught to debate. It is almost this idea that we are infringing on someone’s freedom if we disagree. We teach that we should be able to believe and say whatever we want without repercussions. Ok, you can say it, but I will say something back and that is equally okay. And we can have a conversation on what is being said. The hope within conversations is that we are changed from the interaction. Because we don’t live in a vacuum.
“Our words and interactions should have influence and they do have power. And that is the whole concept of radiance because I think radiance embodies this concept of charisma and openness. For example, Barak Obama wants you to feel good when you have a conversation with him. But he is going to stick up for what he believes in.”
Hannah: “Yeah! And even the idea that radiance would ‘have to be’ stereotypically deemed positive things– I think something that culturally we are becoming more awakened to is the power and beauty in anger. And especially for women. I think anger has been an emotion that has been suppressed. I see it all the time in my generation with climate change. The world has been inactive, and we have had the information. And now we are getting to a point that is truly dangerous. We have every right to be angry and want to pursue change. To suppress that anger is at a loss for everyone. We have all our emotions for a reason, and anger is a useful tool. I think learning how to leverage anger and use it for good– on an individual level and a societal level– is happening on a wider scale.”
Sydney: “And I think a problem is in these value judgments on emotions. Everything is deemed good or bad. But it doesn’t need to exist in this dichotomy. Emotions are a holistic concept because all of these emotions are useful and serve a purpose. Through tapping into all of them, at the right times, you become a complete person [who is in tune with your emotions]. This completeness is something I feel like I am lacking when I am not fully expressing myself. And I think mental health is super tied into all of this— [value judgments on emotions, wellness, food]. We are not going to ‘fix’ depression and all these mental anxieties solely through medication. They are equally physical manifestations in the mind, reactions to a misguided and suppressed environment.”
Hannah: “I think, in general, binaries are scary and violent things. There are very few things in the world that I can think of are truly binary. I can’t even think of one now.”
Nearing The End of Our Conversation, Hannah tells me that she likes this writing project and the intent behind it. In truth, it took a large amount of thought, Hardship, and vulnerability to even begin it. Her words offer me comfort.
Hannah: “It is so assuring and beautiful to see what happens when you shout out your wishes into the world. Overwhelmingly and consistently, we are proven wrong by any fears we may have on embarking on a new project or life event. And what comes back is just greater connection and learning.”
Sydney: “I think it is beautiful to be proven wrong.”
Hannah: “And yet we need to be reminded so often of that.”