All I wanted was a bottle of Chopin vodka.
When I arrived at the liquor store to grab a bottle and some ginger beer to make Moscow Mules for my parents, I found the Chopin shelf empty. I didn’t know what else to get, so I asked the man working at the store for help.
“Do you happen to know if there are any other vodkas here that aren’t made from grains with gluten?” I asked.
That’s when he gave me that look. Those of you who are gluten-free know that look. The one that says, “Oh, great. Another hypochondriac, fad-loving idiot.”
He tilted his head at me and said, “I’ll tell you which ones if you answer this question for me.”
I smiled. I don’t know why I smiled. I think I thought he was being friendly and might challenge me to a riddle. He seemed like a quirky guy and I’m a good sport, so I said sure. I’ve never gotten a riddle right once in my life, but I’ll usually venture a guess.
“People who are allergic to gluten are actually allergic to what?” he asked.
“Wheat, rye, and barley, mostly,” I said, feeling quite proud. If this was a riddle, it was an easy one, and it actually seemed like something he’d need to know to help me find the right vodka.
“That’s right. But I mean, what protein?” he asked with one evil eyebrow raised.
“I guess the gluten protein in the grain,” I said.
“Okay then, what are the two proteins that make up gluten?”
I scrunched up my face, trying to figure out exactly why he needed this information. Did he know which proteins were in which vodkas? Were there proteins in vodka in the first place?
“I don’t know,” I said honestly.
He cackled and mashed his lips together in a “gotcha” smirk. “And why do you think you need gluten-free vodka?” he asked, his glasses sliding down his nose, aimed at me.
“Because I’m a Celiac. I can’t have gluten,” I said as I picked up my phone and started googling “gluten free vodkas," wondering why I hadn’t just done that in the first place.
“If you are indeed a Celiac,” he said, tapping his fingertips together like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, “then why don’t you know what you’re actually allergic to?”
Oh, I get it! I thought, as a layer of shame-sweat covered face. He’s telling me I’m full of shit. He’s saying I’m an asshole for asking about gluten.
I don’t know why I didn’t just walk out of there, but if I’m being totally honest with myself, it’s because I’m terrified of upsetting men I don’t know. I don’t have this problem online, but in person I sometimes freeze when stared down by a man.
I wasn’t afraid he would hurt me, I was afraid he wouldn’t like me. I was afraid he would think I was a bitch if I didn’t laugh along with him. I was afraid he’d think I was lying.
I should have told him he had no right to judge me, and that his only job was to assist me in my purchase. I should have told him that unless he was interviewing me for a life insurance plan, asking questions about my medical history was rude, intrusive, and obnoxious as hell. I should’ve asked him when his last prostate exam was, just to show him how it felt.
“You know why I don’t know the names of the two proteins in gluten?” I should’ve yelled. “Because it’s been almost twenty years since I was diagnosed. Twenty years. That’s a full Bieber!”
But I didn’t. I looked down at my phone, fingers shaking, and discovered that Ciroc was also made without gluten-containing grains and grabbed a bottle, heading toward the cash register. I even said “thank you” to that asshole.
Later I told the story to a friend who said, “You know where he got that from, right? Jimmy Kimmel did that on his show a while ago. Asked people coming out of a yoga studio who claimed to be gluten-free what gluten was. None of them knew.”
That’s when the steam started pouring out of my ears. Not only had he humiliated me, he hadn’t even been original when he did it. He did it because some smug talk-show host thought he’d be clever by embarrassing people. People like me.
I don’t think this man’s intention was to hurt me, or to remind me of the year before my diagnosis that I spent incredibly sick. Back then I had so many people telling me I was crazy that I started to believe it. Celiac disease just wasn’t a thing 20 years ago. In fact, the doctor who diagnosed me called it "Non-Tropical Sprue."
My then-boyfriend thought I was starving myself, and he cried one night at four a.m., telling me he thought I was going to kill myself if I kept doing it. I actually started to wonder if I was starving myself and just didn’t know it.
But I wasn’t. I was a Celiac. I am a Celiac. And I’m good now. I have all my hair and some softness to my belly and my thighs, because I’m healthy and I’m happy and because now they make gluten-free doughnuts and really good bread that doesn’t come shrink-wrapped to a piece of cardboard and shipped via UPS like I used to have to eat. Now I get to buy my bread where you all buy yours, at the grocery store. Where they also have the doughnuts I can eat. I love doughnuts.
But I didn’t walk out of the liquor store in protest that day. Because I’ve been subtly told throughout my whole life not to make men feel bad, I let this man make me feel ashamed. Since I was 19, I’ve been told that I was weird because I can’t eat this one stupid thing. And almost 20 years later I put up with, humored, and even said “thank you” to a man who treated me like shit, who questioned my medical condition and my integrity.
I was raised by feminist parents, and my grandmother was in the first class of women to go to her college. She was brilliant and secretly bought Xerox stocks in the sixties when her husband became ill and she was worried for her financial future. I wasn’t taught to defer to the will of men, but society still tells me that my value lies in how much I’m liked by them. Every day, we’re told in both explicit and implicit ways not to challenge them or make men uncomfortable, to always laugh at their jokes and to never, ever be a bitch.
I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting against these instincts, but being gluten-shamed in a liquor store and not saying a word to challenge the guy was the moment I realized how deeply ingrained in me this pleasing bullshit is.
Believe whatever you want about the medical reality of gluten intolerance, but it’s time we all quit acting like we know more about someone’s body or health than they do. Not just the stupid jokes making fun of people who eat gluten-free food, but all intrusions into people’s private body choices. Your opinion on someone’s weight, diet, whether they breastfeed their child or anything else should be reserved for when they ask you directly for your thoughts.
And it’s also time for me to conquer my fear of upsetting men who feel bold enough to stand in front of me and make me feel ashamed.