Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Women, Their Bodies and Food

What is it about women and their bodies? No one, least not I will pretend to understand these issues, so I will limit myself to some superficial reflections.

Women have been liberated. They have been liberated from patriarchal oppression. They have their own careers and their own incomes. They do not need men for much of anything, beyond an occasional donation of bodily fluids. They have embraced their sexuality by hooking up, by having friends-with-benefits and by being masters of blow jobs and masturbation.

We can stipulate the today’s modern liberated women have had more sex and more orgasms than their foremothers. Some have sexual skills that are nearly professional-grade. They know how to have sex like porn stars. One can only wonder how it happens that so many of them are more concerned with the food they put in their mouths than with the sexual organs they put in their mouths.

You’ve come a long way, baby?

Second-wave feminism began with a plaintive wail: women wanted to be respected for their minds, not objectified for their body parts. And yet, four decades later, women’s issues invariably involve the female body. In particular, the female reproductive anatomy. Constant conversations about abortion, about contraception, about infertility keep the male mind focused on female anatomy… all the time.

And yet, along with sexual liberation has come an obsession with what women are or are not putting in their bodies. No, not in that way or in that place. Raise your gaze for an instant and ask yourself how it happens that women are so preoccupied with what they put in their mouths, in what they allow to enter their digestive tracts. We might say that they are overly concerned with pure foods, with organic foods because they want to purify their flesh. But then, why do they think that they need to purify their flesh? Are they trying to control their lascivious longings?

To some women it might be a question of health and wellness. To others it might involve achieving a transcendent spiritual experience. And yet, in all cases, the craze over dieting, coupled with the current craze to cleanse, to rid the female body of all alien toxins— ask yourself how else a woman would be absorbing such proteins?—reminds us of religious rituals that purge, cleanse and purify the body.

As I said, I will not claim expertise on this issue. So we turn to an excellent article by Ruby Tandoh in Vice. Having tried it herself, Tandoh paints a picture of a woman who is struggling with her appetite. She wins the struggle, but loses for winning.

Tandoh describes a mental struggle that amounts to systematic and brutal repression. She wrings the pleasure out of eating but also makes her relationships with food prevail over her relationship with the people she is consuming food with. It is striking to see how she suppresses the messages her body is crying out to her.

In her words:

A few years ago, I found wellness. My body felt like a burden, and the food I ate didn't seem to energise me or push me on: it dulled my edges, left me foggy, soft and slow. So I made a change. I got rid of the chocolate bars, microwave meals and cakes. I read about plant-based diets, and stopped eating meat, fish, dairy, eggs and anything too processed. I heard tales about soy milk and hormones and toxicity, so I tried to cut that out too. Every dinnertime, I sat back in my seat and watched everyone else tuck into their meals, content in the knowledge that I couldn't eat, so wouldn't eat. I thought about food all day; I woke up at night thinking about sausage rolls, pizza, roast chicken with crisp, lemon-rubbed skin. Food friends and foes drew into two distinct camps in my mind, and I saw ill-health at every turn and in every mouthful. I became fearful and thin. I had found wellness. I was not well.

To the outside, this feels like body loathing. Was she trying to be a self-flagellating saint, punishing her body for its derelictions and its errant appetites? Where did she get the idea that her body was something to hurt in the interest of, let us be charitable, spiritual renewal?

Tandoh is British, but what she says must apply to a large number of American women. On the surface, women follow these diets in the name of nutrition:

From bone broth to spiralizing, gluten-free and raw food, to the ubiquity of Nutribullets, juice cleanses and avocado toast, this is a food culture centred now on what it claims to be nutrition. 

In one sense, it seems clear that these women are trying to purify themselves. But then, ask yourself this, why do women, more than men feel a need to purify their apparently-corrupted bodies? And why do they believe that they must suppress their bodies, repress their appetites? Don’t they like being women?

Some of the answers are obvious. Among their unique functions, women’s bodies are the primary source of nourishment for infants. Male bodies, not at all. I mention this lest you think that these women are completely self-centered. They are preparing to be mothers… but, they are not really allowed, certainly not when they are very young… to acknowledge the desire.

But, there is more to it. Tandoh also understands that women see food to be like medicine. They are not nourishing themselves; they are treating themselves. Food will cure what ails them, both physically and mentally. For women who have learned—where did they learn it?—to be uncomfortable in their bodies, nutrition was promising to let them feel great about their bodies?

Tandoh explains how panics over alimentary toxins justified the turn toward supposedly healthier diets:

As early as 1968, alarm began to spread about a potentially toxic ingredient smuggled into the food we love. It was declared responsible for symptoms ranging from migraine to upset stomachs, burning sensations, palpitations, numbness and weakness. Some began to avoid it personally, steering clear of restaurants where it might be lurking in the ingredients list, while others went further, pushing for it to be declared unsafe by food regulatory authorities. The panic came accompanied with medical studies, research by esteemed scientific journals and lobbying from high profile lawyers. The ingredient was connected by scientists, of varying levels of repute, with ADHD, diarrhoea, depression, acid reflux and obesity. It was an epiphany: finally an explanation for the cocktails of unsavoury symptoms that doctors had left undiagnosed in so many for so long.

So far, so familiar. The symptoms are just like those laid at the doorstep of gluten today: the bloating, sluggishness, weight gain and general ill health, the hyperbolic claims made for its toxicity, the money invested in (and profited from) the elimination of it from our diets. But this mystery trojan horse wasn't gluten at all. Forty years prior to the gluten panic, it was MSG at the heart of a looming public health disaster. The thing is, the myth of MSG sickness has since been thoroughly debunked. There was no illness. There was no need to overhaul health legislation or remove MSG from baby food. It was the power of panic.

The power of panic sounds an awful lot like mass hysteria.

In our supposedly secular world, where people have overcome the belief in God and are now all good little atheists, eating has a moral or spiritual dimension. You get your spirituality where you can.

(One notes, in passing, that for women sexual experience has a spiritual dimension that it lacks for most men.)

Tandoh explains:

So what if a few people needlessly spend a bit more and get nourished a bit less, chasing after a gluten-free miracle that may never come? That needn't affect the rest of us. Except it does. The language used in wellness circles doesn't just point to the ostensible effects of gluten on our health – it soars clear of dietary science and straight into another realm altogether. On popular wellness blogs, the gluten I've heard about is "evil", "poison", "contaminating" and "toxic". There's even a leading Australian gluten-free site called glutenisthedevil.com. This isn't just about nutrition, it's about morality, and when food becomes imbued with this kind of scandalising language, the dinner table becomes a minefield.

But, it is not merely physiological disorders. The new wellness, Tandoh points out, feels like a cure for eating disorders, too. You might ask yourself why so many women are teetering on the edge of eating disorders, why they are so fundamentally uncomfortable with being women, but I will leave that for another day and another time.

For now, note Tandoh’s point: the new crusade toward wellness might be contributing to the proliferation of eating disorders:

Wellness doesn't cause eating disorders. But when we advocate, and even insist upon, a diet so restrictive, moralising and inflexible, and market that diet to young women, and then dress it up as self-care: just how responsible is that? When I subscribed to wellness, it gave me the means to rationalise my food insecurities, whilst glossing over my fear of food with the respectable veneer of health-consciousness. My illness was hidden in plain sight, and what's more – it became some thing to be proud of.

Once a bulimic or an anorexic becomes proud of her eating disorder, treatment becomes that much more difficult. She feels that she has succeeded at something and has accomplished something. She does not even know that she is making herself sick and is damaging her body.

And, of course, the wellness crusade has happily been embraced by supermarkets:

But when wellness balloons beyond the individual, swelling from personal lifestyle choice to sweetheart of the diet industry bolstered by supermarkets who see kale, coconut oil and chia seeds as a great profit opportunity, that's a problem for all of us. When the pursuit of health becomes obsessive and fearful, that's not healthy. Still worse, it's becoming more and more clear that the wellness we chase might not even want us back.

Tandoh offers a way out of this madness:

There are infinite routes to good health outside of the dogmatism of wellness and clean eating. Reacquaint yourself with the sweet, heady scent of onions caramelising in butter. When your birthday rolls around, make your own cake, and hold tight to your right to treat yourself with that same kindness as often as you need it. Feel buoyed by the knowledge that food is on average safer, more plentiful and more nutritious than ever before in human history. Trust that your body knows what it needs, and when you get a hankering for chips, chocolate or courgette, look to that craving: the rumble of your belly is not a saboteur. Remember above all that you will be nourished not only by the food you eat, but by the pleasure you take in it.


David Foster said...

See Claire Berlinski's analysis of the phenomenon she calls 'Crop Worship', which she identifies as recurring periodically in France from about 650 AD through the present. It is driven in part by a superstitious fear of 'contamination, pollution, poison.'


Rob De Witt said...

I'm 71. As long as I can remember, women's magazines (unavoidable in supermarket checkout lanes) have simultaneously featured on their covers recipes and diets. Either women are crazy, or somebody (female) figured out how to pander to their deepest insecurities a long, long time ago.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Eating disorders are not oppressions. They're rooted in a desire for control.

The Leftist mind yearns for a return to the primitive, and boasts of a romantic lust for the wilderness. That's why they love to tell you about sipping exotic teas while listening to Bantu music after a rich Burmese dish, followed by Shinto meditations on kale. This just in: the primitive life is nasty, brutish and short. The wilderness needed to be tamed, as it featured too many dangers. The most brave of any tribe or society were those who recognized the need to protect the tribe from other primitive bandits, and tested themselves in the wilderness. Now we've packaged and consumerized it all, to the point of madness: organic, free-range, farm-to-table dog food. Leftist fads, curiosities and superstitions are rooted in snobbery, in search of some sophisticated understanding of "the secret knowledge." There is no secret knowledge.

Ares Olympus said...

IAC, I agree consumer marketing seems to make women (or apparently Leftist women), in particular, easy targets.

On the other hand, its confusing to me why people need to be considered elitist snobs for being against things like factory farming, or eating animals that were raised in conditions that the only way they stay alive long enough to make it to slaughter is to fill them with antibiotics.

But perhaps for every worthy outrage there's 100 common brutalities perhaps that we have to accept for being living beings who have to eat every day. There's no moral high ground.

I don't know about "secret knowledge", but I do imagine different experiences breed different types of awareness, and modern people growing up in boxes and separated from the natural world, and probably it does have to do with the difference between feeling "a part of nature" versus "above nature". If you're above nature, and you're in control, you can dismiss any suffering you cause on the world that doesn't threaten you personally.

I understand what you mean when you say eating disorders are rooted in a desire for control, but that sounds pretty oppressive to me, even when you're oppressing yourself.

Perhaps all food taboos contain religious grounds, and no different perhaps than our taboo against eating human flesh. So is it oppression, or a desire to control, a need for a sense of purity? We can say "There are things we shouldn't do" while that list of things is more about custom than objective truth.

Jonathan Haidt tried to explore our collective moral foundations and found Conservatives more interested in sanctity and purity, but this might not be true, rather liberals just are less aware of how this need manifests in their life, perhaps due to a lack of literalistic/absolute religion?
Haidt’s research reveals that liberals feel strongly about the first two dimensions — preventing harm and ensuring fairness — but often feel little, or even feel negatively, about the other three. Conservatives, on the other hand, are drawn to loyalty, authority and purity, which liberals tend to think of as backward or outdated. People on the right acknowledge the importance of harm prevention and fairness but not with quite the same energy or passion as those on the left.

It makes sense to me that our own "nature" as human beings is never exactly what we'd like it to be, and we cause our own trouvles with all the things we don't like about ourselves, or that make us stand out, or real moral complexities of living through the death of others while still having a conscience that can handle that.

It might be suppression is the greatest invention of civilization, and those who can best suppress their self-contradictions can live happy lives in relative ignorance, and those who fail this task this suffer more because of it.

So for the rest of us who don't suffer in the same way, its easy to just blame them for their irrationality and foolishness.

David Foster said...

This also relates to C S Lewis's expanded definition of gluttony: specifically, the gluttony of Delicacy:


Ares Olympus said...

David Foster, if you want to learn how to turn any sensitive soul seeking perfection into a confused neurotic mess, Lewis's Screwtape Letters delivers.

And its all fair game, as long as you become a Christian and confess all your imaginary sins, whether enjoying ice cream or refraining from ice cream, you'll be forgiven.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus, our voice of reason. "Imaginary sins," huh? Wow. Yes speak with a forked tongue.

Marsh said...

My husband likes me slender. Of course I watch what I put in my mouth.

Ares Olympus said...

IAC, even Stuart comments negatively about our "Guilt culture". I didn't imagine that.
In a normless culture, like ours, shaming is often be misapplied. Using shame as a way to punish people indiscriminately is not part of a shaming culture. It is part of a guilt culture.

To be more precise, in a guilt culture shame does not disappear. It becomes more intense and unmanageable.
Guilt cultures want you to feel guilty, for crimes and sins, real and imagined. Shame cultures are designed to ensure that you avoid feeling ashamed.

I don't know if I fully agree with Stuart, but I do see shame arises from public display of disapproved behavior, while a guilty conscience is an internalization of external authority that follows you everywhere, with no escape except projecting your sins onto others who appear more guilty so they can be mercilessly scapegoated instead of you.