Twitter Jokes About Food Allergy: the Trouble with Disease Disrespect

in Managing Allergies, Your Stories
Writer Hannah Lank has a serious problem with food allergy jokes.Photo: Hannah Lank

On Twitter, I’ve been noticing some food allergy ‘jokes’ popping up on my feed. As a young adult, I can take a joke, and I’m not someone who would be described as “over-sensitive.”

But here’s the thing: I have never heard a funny food allergy joke in my entire life. This is because I find it hard to laugh at ‘jokes’ made by people who don’t have food allergies and whose ignorance is what is most obvious in their so-called humor.

I’d ask those without allergies: Can you imagine if a trace amount of a food – an invisible amount – got into a restaurant meal you ordered, and that was enough to put you in the hospital or even kill you? Tell me, where the humor is in that?

In the past month, I’ve found two tweets that went viral particularly unsettling.

The first, which received over 140,000 likes, referenced the dark, 2009 fantasy film Coraline. “Unpopular opinion: Coraline is one of the best movies ever and the people who are scared of it are the people allergic to peanuts, weak a** kids,” read the tweet, whose author since removed it.

Food Allergy Jokes are Bullying

The problem with this kind of tweet, if it isn’t obvious, is that it’s a form of food allergy bullying, a type of bullying that is commonly encountered by children dealing with food allergies.

I experienced food allergy bullying at different times in my childhood. Once, my neighborhood friends filled my mailbox with peanuts, one of my allergens, because they thought it would be funny. They were very young at the time, pre-elementary school, and didn’t understand that a food they all enjoyed and that was left out for the squirrels was one that could cause me to have a serious allergic reaction. As is often the case with food allergy ‘jokes,’ the prank originated out of ignorance.

Food allergy bullying is never funny. It’s not funny when someone waves a peanut butter sandwich in your face or puts cheese down your shirt. It’s also not funny when people share food allergy ‘jokes’ online.

Online especially, these kinds of comments spread misinformation: children who have food allergies aren’t weak, as that Twitter user suggested, they’re the same as other kids except they can’t eat certain foods. Having a food allergy is not something within anyone’s control, and people with food allergies can do everything people without food allergies do. The film Coraline had nothing to do with food allergies, there was no need to single out the condition to make a joke.

Shrimp in Makeup Mockery

The other Twitter exchange I’ll mention presents a more complex example of the spread of misinformation about food allergies. It began with a tweet that got more than 119,000 likes: “I’m at Sephora and the makeup artist asked this woman if she was allergic to anything and she said, “shrimp.””

This was followed by a second tweet, likely responding to some of the comments the tweeter had been getting. It read: “Hmm if you don’t think this is funny then you are … probably allergic to shrimp!!!!!!!!!”

Admittedly, I can understand how this scenario could come across as funny. To the uninitiated, it probably seems obvious that makeup would not contain food allergens. As if! And that’s the trouble with assumptions. Often, they’re wrong.

In fact, many makeup and skincare products actually do contain allergens such as nuts or shellfish, wheat, soy or dairy derivatives. So I appreciate that the Sephora makeup artist asked her client about her allergies.

The symptoms of an allergic reaction can manifest topically if the substance someone is allergic to is applied on the skin, even without being consumed. For example, my massage therapist was thankful when I told her I was allergic to nuts, as she often uses almond oil on clients.

Allergens are known to pop up in unexpected places, even the makeup counter. Dealing with food allergies isn’t just something to be vigilant about at mealtime – it is truly 24/7. Since many makeup products do contain shellfish derivatives, the client at Sephora did the right thing in disclosing her allergies. Such disclosure is always the right thing to do, regardless of whether or not you think your allergies are relevant to the situation.

Spreading Seeds of Doubt

Yet the response to the makeup counter tweet was mostly online hilarity. I worry about how such tweets can influence people’s opinions and responses to food allergies. If a service industry employee – whether a waiter, cook, masseuse or makeup artist – thinks it’s just ‘funny’ that I’m informing them of my food allergies, then precautions may not be taken. The risk of an allergic reaction then increases significantly.

If someone tells you that they have a food allergy, the most appropriate reaction is to listen, ask questions if you are unclear, and respond. Managing food allergies is a serious business, so please give that respect. Managing is a lot easier with allies around!

Related Reading:
Opinion: The Dark Side of the Relentless Food Allergy ‘Humor’
Enough is Enough With the Food Allergy ‘Jokes’
Staring Down the Food Allergy Bully, In a Way That Wins
Taking On Allergy Bullying Parent Handout
Spotting Food Allergy Bullying and Actions to Take