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  • Emily Manny

Food Allergies in the Media

Recently I've been seeing a lot of posts about how food allergies are portrayed in the media. I found one Instagram post from @thealanapp that had some quotes from some of the big-name comedians, such as Jimmy Fallon in a Tonight Show skit, a Seth Meyers quote, and one by Louis C.K. Aside from that post, I'd also heard some similar quotes from comedian Jim Gaffigan as well. The quotes said things like "These masks don't make you look like a big sissy with a shellfish allergy," (Jimmy Fallon), "But maybe, if touching a nut kills you, you're supposed to die," (Louis C.K.), and "{People with food allergies} are all strapping razor-sharp EpiPens and they're not afraid to use them." (Seth Meyers). These quotes may seem like harmless jokes, but they are far from it.

Food allergies affect 32 million Americans, which is about 8% of the United States population. Over 200,000 people each year are sent to the emergency room for an allergic reaction, and allergic reactions cause from 150-200 deaths annually in the U.S. About 1 in 13 children are reported to have a food allergy.

Based on those statistics alone, it should be crystal-clear that food allergies are not something to joke about. They are dangerous and much more prevalent than many people might think. But there's even more to consider.

A person can develop an allergy at any point, and it can be suddenly and out of nowhere. A person can be allergic to any food, but the 9 most common allergens include wheat, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, eggs, and sesame. In some cases, an allergic reaction can be triggered by even the smallest trace of an allergen. Cross-contamination is a major concern for a lot of allergy sufferers, because even though a food may not directly contain an allergen, if it has come in contact with that allergen at any point, even just being prepared on the same surface, it can cause an allergic reaction.

If you can't tell from these facts, food allergies are extremely dangerous, risky, unpredictable, and scary. However, a lot of people don't believe that they are as serious as we say they are. Food allergy sufferers are often bullied and picked on for their allergies, threatened with their allergens, or their concerns are belittled or dismissed by people who label them as picky and high-maintenance. This is incredibly unfair and ignorant.

I have lived with food allergies since I was two years old. I have been through many ups and downs with them. I've been bullied and threatened with my allergen before, and it was extremely scary. I've had a handful of reactions over the years, even after taking every possible precaution. The most recent was in May of 2019. I had a piece of ice cream cake from an establishment that I had eaten from several times prior, and they were always very accommodating and careful. The employee who took the order told my aunt (who ordered the cake) that they would take all necessary precautions and reassured us that it was safe. Just the few small bites I took left me in the fetal position on my floor for several hours that day with horrible stomach pains, unable to move. I honestly wondered if I was going to die. Along with actual reactions and bullying, I've experienced exclusion from several elementary-school classroom activities and, in the words of Mad-Eye Moody, 'constant vigilance' with reading labels and checking every ingredient.

As someone who has experienced all of these things, it is incredibly frustrating when people who have no experience with food allergies make the kinds of jokes these comedians made. Stars and people in the media have a lot of influence over the general population. When people who don't have any exposure to food allergies hear these jokes, they develop the idea that food allergies are not serious and are just us being 'picky.' This is a harmful idea and can be very, very dangerous. This phenomenon is worsened by the fact that a lot of stars who do have food allergies don't speak up about them. One of my personal idols, Jessica Vosk, is a Broadway actress who also happens to have a severe peanut, tree nut, shellfish, and sesame allergy. She has spoken up about what it was like to play the role of Elphaba in the musical Wicked while managing severe food allergies. As a theatre lover myself, it was a really interesting article. (Link at bottom for anyone who would like to read.) I believe that if we had more of these well-known people talk about their allergies, we could erase some of the harmful and false myths around food allergies.

Not all portrayal of food allergies is bad. I recently read A Tale of Magic by Chris Colfer and found a great little snippet where a cook made sure to check that none of the characters had any food allergies or dietary restrictions before making them dinner. It's the simple things that make a big difference. Even this small, one-sentence mention made me feel so good because it was recognized that people like me exist, and should be taken into account.

If you have a food allergy, don't be afraid to speak out about it! Educate your friends, family, and peers about the severity of food allergies. Make sure people know that food allergies are not a joke.

Wishing everyone a safe and happy end of July!

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