Now that we have overcome sexual repression, we have developed a neurotic relationship with food. Not just a neurotic relationship, but a neurotically religious and spiritual relationship with it.
We believe that we are what we eat and that eating grass and twigs does not merely put us in closer touch with nature, but is better for our bodies.
Most religions have rules about what to consume and what not to consume, when and where. But, we no longer believe in such superstitions. We are all proud to be atheists. As for the spiritual experiences that religion provides and that atheism does not provide—see William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience—we practice food rituals anyway. Only, they are missing any reference to religion. Or better, they are devoid of any reference to Western religions.
Do our sexually uninhibited ways have something to do with our obsessions with dieting and with eating healthy? Does one the appetite for food have anything to do with the appetite for carnal relations?
We do know, for example, that people who suffer depression can lose both of their appetites. And we also know, as Julian Baggini explains in the Guardian that in British culture food that tastes good is generally considered to be bad for you… that is, sinful.
Of course, sexuality in the abstract does not mean anything. Not all sexual relations are created equal. Not all pleasures are the same. When Freud talks about freedom from sexual repression he is trying, I have suggested elsewhere, to make the world safe for adultery.
When we talk about overcoming sexual repression and being open and honest and shameless about it, we are really showing off our cultural decadence.
For some it might be the best they can do. In truth, it does not mean that we are not repressed. It means that we are disconnected from other people. Thus, that we see sexuality in terms of the pursuit of pleasure, any kind of pleasure, anywhere, anyhow, with whomever.
It might be pleasurable, but, disconnected from a meaningful social relationship, sexuality—for women, especially—is not very satisfying. And this is true regardless of how pleasurable it is.
Of course, no one really knows this, so people—especially women—try to cure themselves with food. They diet. They deprive themselves of foods that taste especially good, on the grounds that if it tastes good, it must be bad for you. In some cases, people assume that if it tastes bad, it must be good medicine.
Of course, it is not limited to women and does not merely reflect sexual anxiety or even shame. Men too try to assert their moral superiority by adopting diets that are supposedly medicinal. It is no longer about nourishing your body, but curing what ails you. But it is also a way to show the world that your body is pure for having undergone a cleanse.
True enough, some religions impose dietary restrictions. In many cases these arose because certain foods had been known to be too dangerous to eat.
So, people are using food to cleanse and purify the body. Perhaps they are punishing their bodies for tempting them to do things that they might not want to do. Perhaps they are trying to cleanse and control their sinful impulses.
We also now insist on organic food, on clean and natural food, food that is unadulterated by any chemical, by anything that would damage our pure bodies. So, we want to return to a more natural state, a more pre-industrial state, when people lived off the land and off the grid. And when their life expectancy was 42.
No one gives much thought to the fact that without mechanized agriculture and even pesticides the crops would die out… killed by various microbial enemies… and people would starve. Does anyone else recall the Great Famine that descended on Mao’s China in the early 1960s, when around 35 million people starved to death?
Are you consoled by the fact that the starving people of China did not have mechanized agriculture or pesticides or irrigation systems-- thus, no way to deal with the drought?
So, many of us, especially women, routinely repress their appetites, the better to purify their bodies and their souls. Yet, as I have often suggested, the problem is not so much with food as it is with other people.
The more relevant problem, the one that the food theorists tend systematically to ignore, is eating alone. Human beings are social animals. We are made to eat with others, in company. When we do so, we eat better, more balanced meals and we affirm our social being. We overcome our tendencies to be narcissistically self-absorbed.
When we eat with others, we do not use food to medicate our solitude and anomie.
Most psycho theorizing about food detaches consumption from its social context. This leaves you alone in a fight with your appetite. The result is eating disorders.
You might beat it down your appetite and become perfectly anorexic. You might give in to temptation and become bulimic.
Then again, you might use diet and exercise to sculpt your body, to achieve a perfect form, one that has transcendent aesthetic value. But, once you reach aesthetic perfection and make your body a work of art you will discover that works of art are made to be seen and not touched. For all I know, that may ultimately be the point.
And then there are the dietary restrictions. Not the ones imposed by an organized religion, but the ones encouraged by cults. When you invite someone for dinner these days you are more than likely to hear that they can only eat this and can never eat that. They need a special diet, one that differs from what anyone else eats. In some cases they cannot even sit at a table in the presence of someone who is eating, say, a pork chop or trout.
They are using their diet to impose their moral superiority on everyone else. Of course, setting yourself above all others, making your food preferences something that you have the right to impose on others, affirms your specialness and uniqueness. And it will most likely ensure that you are invited to fewer dinner parties.
As everyone knows, the best approach to eating is eating with other people, and eating a balanced diet. People who try to control their diets too strictly can easily deprive themselves of essential nutrients. They will eat a lot of food but still feel hungry … because they are eating nutritionally unbalanced meals.