You might already have seen Amy Schumer’s “I’m So Bad” skit, but if you haven’t, I’ll give you a quick recap. A group of friends sits around a table sharing stories about how much they’ve eaten recently, punctuating each anecdote with the phrase “I’m so bad!” The humor in these confessions is not the enormous amounts of food the women have consumed, but in the truly horrible contexts in which they did so.
“I was cyberbullying my niece on Instagram the other day,” Amy’s character says. “And I literally ate 15 mini muffins. I’m so bad!”
Her friend later counters, “Last week, after I took a smoke machine to the burn unit to see how they’d react, I ate so much General Tso’s they gave me his hat. It looks insane on me. I’m so bad!”
Every time I watch this skit, I find myself laughing. The characters’ actions may be extreme, but I can completely relate to the “I’m so bad!” mantra and the weight it carries in conversations with other women.
For me, it most often appears in the variation, “I’m trying to be good.”
Sitting at lunch the other day I commented on how delicious my co-worker’s salad looked.
“Yeah,” she said, “But look at your falafel! That looks delicious! Mine’s just…green.”
“Oh, well,” she sighed. “I’m trying to be good.”
At a birthday party, I offered someone a treat. “Would you like a donut?” I asked. “They’re homemade!”
“No thanks,” she said. “I’m trying to be good.”
At a restaurant after dinner, the waiter asked, “Can I interest you in the dessert menu?”
“I don’t think so,” my friend said. “I’m trying to be good.”
Through a cruel trick of language, moral integrity has become conflated with healthy eating to the point that our conversations about food carry undertones of guilt. We seem to have internalized the proverb, “You are what you eat.” Bad food equals bad behavior. Simple as that.
Except it’s not that simple. The question of what it really means to be good has a bit more depth to it than the choice between kale and ice cream. If you asked a random stranger on the street, they would probably say that being good involves things such as being kind, helping others, and telling the truth. You know, actual good things. In reality a person’s diet has exactly zero bearing on his or her worth as a person.
And yet on Easter Sunday, I heard someone exclaim, “I’ve been so good this week! I only ate two Cadbury Mini Eggs!” This person was thrilled that she had demonstrated the requisite self-control (eating, according to the nutrition label, 32 calories worth of Mini Eggs, and delicious calories at that) to consider herself a good person. I’m not sure what’s worse—the self-imposed guilt of her first three examples or this woman’s glee at her accomplishment.
In any case, this kind of exuberance is precisely what Amy Schumer’s skit mocks. Our eating habits ought to say far less about us than our choices about how we treat other people. Yet so many of us let food define who we are. Why is that?
For one thing, food is very immediate—it literally goes into our bodies. For another, it is a lot easier to worry about food than, say, poverty or global warming. Eat a salad and you’ve ticked the “good person” box for the day and can move on with your life. Alternatively, eat a cake the size of your face and spend the next several hours telling everyone you know how awful you feel, despite the fact that: a) you could afford to buy an entire cake; and b) it tasted amazing and you enjoyed every minute of eating it.
The “I’m so bad” and “I’m trying to be good” discourse displaces more productive discussions we could be having about real ethical concerns. So instead of reinforcing the idea that healthy food makes us better people and unhealthy food makes us worse, let’s change the conversation because unless you are hurting someone or something, you really aren’t so bad.