Vani Hari and the Definition of Sexism | Vol. 2 / No. 23.2

Vani Hari, aka the "Food Babe." Photo: Charlotte Video Project, CC BY 3.0
Vani Hari, aka the “Food Babe.” Photo: Charlotte Video Project, CC BY 3.0

This week Elle tackles the difference between being criticized for being a woman and being criticized while being a woman. Vani Hari needs to learn this.

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There’s always a lot of controversy and complications when you’re talking about feminism and choice. At the basic level, feminism wants women to have the freedom to make any choice they want regarding their bodies, their lives, their jobs, their families, etc. But what a lot of people don’t take into consideration (or take into consideration in the wrong way) is that the freedom to make a choice and the freedom to make a choice without any consequences, critique, or consideration of others are not the same thing.

Sometimes the consequences that result from choices reveal sexist foundations of our social structure: a woman’s decision to have a family, for example, should not have negative consequences for her long-term employment, but it commonly does. This is a result of sexism, and should be addressed, as the people and structures who are enforcing that consequence are being sexist.

However, it’s a different issue entirely when a woman faces consequences for her decisions and then cries “sexism” because she doesn’t want to face those consequences. Calling Sarah Palin “Caribou Barbie” is sexist. Pointing out that Sarah Palin lied about her voting record when Sarah Palin lied about her voting record is not sexist. See the difference?

Being criticized for being a woman is sexist. Being criticized while being a woman is not.

Which is why when someone complains about being subjected to sexist attacks when they are not actually being targeted by a sexist attack, it muddies the water, and then neckbeards and red-pillers get to say things like “What, I’m not supposed to criticize you just because you’re a woman? That’s sexist!” And then I die a little bit inside, and someone has to either clap or bring me a Dr. Pepper to revive me. (Preferably the latter, I’m not Tinker Bell.)

I promise this rant has a point, and that point’s name is Vani Hari. Vani Hari is what happens when someone says (without a trace of irony) “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever,” not realizing that basically everything you eat is made of chemicals. Have you heard of sodium chloride or dihydrogen monoxide or glucose? Oh my god did you not go to school?

Vani Hari is better known as the “Food Babe” (because putting “Babe” after your name is a surefire way to make people take you seriously visit your website.) Hari’s basic business model seems to be 1: find a chemical in food, 2: create some kind of scare about said chemical with no scientific basis, 3: form a boycott until the company takes out or apologizes for the chemical that was not dangerous in the first place, and 4: …profit?

There are multiple problems with her book (whose name I won’t actually mention because I think it might give her power, like saying the name of he-who-shall-not-be-named. Also it probably makes her feel good to have her book talked about, and I don’t want to give her the satisfaction) starting with the fact that most of her assertions are just plain wrong, and ending with the fact that her health and diet tips sound remarkably like posts from pro-anorexia websites (did you know there are pro-anorexia websites? Today you learned something new), but there are people who are way more qualified than me taking her apart for her bad food advice. Instead, I’m going to follow the route of Kavin Senapathy and discuss Hari’s habit of accusing anyone who disagrees with her of being a corporate shill, a racist, or a sexist.

Specifically, I’m going to argue against the accusation that all of her detractors are sexists.

Now again, it can fundamentally suck to be a woman trying to be taken seriously, and women frequently are ignored or criticized simply for being a woman. I’m sure that Vani Hari has been attacked by at least some people simply for being a woman. You don’t have to wade far into the comments section of anything written by or about a woman to find someone using language that makes me want stab my (or someone else’s) eyes out. But Hari is equating all criticism as sexism, which is A, not true, and B, harmful to the overall cause of women trying to be taken seriously. (Also C, it’s just shoddy argument making. If you’re going to make outrageous claims, at least make them well. Take some pride in your work, for god’s sake.) Hari has a history of responding very poorly to criticism, equating all critics with “haters” and banning people from her Facebook page for minor offenses like “asking for her qualifications.” She also has a history of deciding that the best defense is a good offense, and the best offense is, well, to be offensive.

She takes whatever misogynistic, sexist criticism she has had in small doses and uses it to attack anyone who has criticized her work or her “findings.” As Senapathy explains, this is an act of deflection—it’s hard to continue criticizing someone when you’re getting called a sexist for doing so, and it moves the conversation away from Hari’s junk science and towards her junk accusations. These accusations are meant to silence and shame her critics—if they are criticizing her because the dislike her or hate her because she is a woman, then it implicitly legitimizes her “science” and discredits the people who are questioning her “facts.” Yet Hari never produces proof that the critics she is accusing of sexism have ever been sexist to her, just that they have criticized her. These two actions are not identical.

When women like Hari do things like this, it doesn’t just hurt her own cause, or her own ability to be believed. It hurts many, if not most women, especially women in science, and their ability to be believed.

It perpetuates the stereotype that women are emotionally fragile and cannot handle criticism.

It perpetuates the idea that women are harridans, carelessly throwing out accusations of sexism because we hate men.

Worst of all, it makes Hari the poster child for people claiming every complaint of sexism is a false one. A woman who accuses a critic of sexism when he or she actually is being sexist is suddenly forced to provide proof in triplicate—is she sure the critic was being sexist? What if her tiny lady brain just couldn’t understand the criticism? Is she sure she’s not just doing this for attention? Is she just trying to draw attention away from her stupid ideas?

Deflection tactics like Hari’s make it less likely that another woman’s accusation of sexism, which should be taken very seriously, will actually be treated seriously at all at some future date. Sexism, and especially sexism in the sciences, is a big problem. However, sexism isn’t Vani Hari’s problem. Facts are Vani Hari’s problem, and since she can’t really argue with her detractors, she makes accusations against them instead. Now where’s that Dr. Pepper? I feel the need to ingest some chemicals.

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Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not tackling institutional sexism while simultaneously bringing back words like “harridan,” she studies popular culture. 

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4 thoughts on “Vani Hari and the Definition of Sexism | Vol. 2 / No. 23.2

  1. Is “Caribou Barbie” really a *criticism*, though? As I see it, it’s a clever combination between cultural reference (to the doll), plus a reference to her professional attractiveness (which is fair to say about a former beauty pageant contestant, and not in a critical means), topped off with a light jab at her “country”-ness (which is also true and not necessarily a criticism).

    I won’t pretend that it’s not meant as an insult (or at least a sleight); but is an insult that REFERENCES gender (“she’s a silly woman” / “he’s a stupid man”) really sexist in the sense that it’s an ATTACK BECAUSE OF gender? (“she shouldn’t be president because she’s a woman”, for example… which is altogether different from “she shouldn’t be president because she’s an idiot”)

    1. Is Caribou Barbie a criticism? Well, it’s certainly demeaning her as a politician by likening her to a doll known only for its looks, so in that sense it’s critical. As for whether it’s sexist, my general rule of thumb is that if it’s not something you’d say of a man, or something you’d disproportionately say about a woman, then it qualifies. In this case, it’s using her status as a woman as a way to take away from her status as a politician, i a way that equates being female with being taken less seriously. You’re a lot less likely to see a male politician taken less seriously because he’s attractive. It’s not the most sexist thing I’ve ever heard, but I’d say it qualifies.

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