Hadley Freeman: if the cavemen did it or ate it, it’s got to be good for you


Like “identity” and “empowerment”, “natural” has become one of those modern-day buzzwords that seems suddenly ubiquitous and increasingly meaningless. In order to maintain your “natural lifestyle”, you need to follow a “natural diet”, adhere to “natural parenting” and have a “natural exercise regime”, to name just a few concepts that have been naturalised.

And why not? After all, it’s such a tempting word: “natural” – as in getting back to nature, and rejecting all the horrible modern chemicals and chaos that make us so stressed/fat/wheat intolerant (delete as personally appropriate).

We are living through an intriguing period of romanticism, one that tips eagerly into primitivism. In the Romantic era, people glorified the medieval period; today, we look further back for life guidance. If the cavemen did it or ate it, then it’s good for you, because that’s how nature intended.

“Natural diet” refers to the current vogue for super-healthy eating, in which anything processed is viewed as akin to poison. The theory is that the modern food industry is full of terrible toxins, and has divorced us from the joys of the land (and, worse, made us fat). “Return to the hunter-gatherer style of eating” its supporters urge, with special praise heaped on bone broth, presumably because the emphasis on “bone” makes it sound a bit caveman-y.

But while bones are big in the natural diet, logic is not. After all, the original hunter-gatherers rarely lived beyond 20, and many of the foods eaten on these diets – juiced vegetables, chia seed puddings – are barely recognisable today, let alone to cavemen. My local healthfood store sells a range of overpriced “Paleo foods” – including not raw mastodon meat, but chocolate granola. True, that does sound like something Fred Flintstone might have eaten, but I’m not sure he’s the Paleo icon this movement has in mind.

Then there’s “natural parenting”, which encompasses everything from pain-relief-free birth to attachment parenting to advocating breastfeeding with a passion bordering on the maniacal (aka “lactivism”). Natural parenting is very much in vogue, and its followers are fond of making vague references to how anthropology supports its teachings, as this is how ancient tribespeople raised their kids – except those who were busy dying in childbirth. The theory here is that for too long the modern patriarchal medical establishment tried to regiment childbirth and motherhood, as natural parenting returns the power to the mother (while simultaneously insisting that she utterly subsume herself to her baby). There’s a fine line between celebrating a woman for her female qualities and reducing her to them.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the natural trend is how much it reinforces gender stereotypes. Fitness bootcamps aimed explicitly at men promise to train them like “primal warriors”, using backpacks filled with rocks. Meanwhile, young women can make an absurdly retro career for themselves as “natural diet bloggers”, posing prettily for photos on Instagram with plates of healthy food. It’s a barely updated version of those 1950s photos of lipsticked women holding a piping hot meal in front of their new oven.

Natural diet bloggers, who are almost universally female, insist all meals must be made from scratch, from often hard-to-find and expensive ingredients. Convenience foods – for so long a lifesaver for working mothers – are akin to crystal meth. It’s been decades since women have been expected to devote so much time to food in order to achieve a lifestyle ideal, one that leaves no space for actual work.

Similarly, although attachment parenting is now associated with a certain hippyish, liberal sort of mother, it was actually coined by a pair of evangelical Christians, William and Martha Sears, who saw it as a means to encourage women to give up work and devote themselves to motherhood “in the way God designed”. After all, while it’s true that hydrogenated fats probably didn’t exist in ancient times, neither did feminism.
People have been sentimental about earlier eras for as long as there have been earlier eras to sentimentalise. But this particular sentimentality has little to do with a desire to improve the modern era, let alone to genuinely relive the past. Not even someone daft enough to discuss “bone broth” wants to return to Palaeolithic times. Instead, it’s a bizarre backlash against feminism, replete with men lugging rocks around and women reduced to salad eaters and babyfeeders. Who knew the modern era would look so retrograde?

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