Saturday, March 16, 2013

Our Appetites, Our Selves

Americans consider themselves to be sexually liberated. They are willing to try just about anything that looks like sex and would never, ever deny anyone access to an earthly garden of sensual delights.

Better yet, Americans believe that indulging their sexual appetites, without any regard for the human beings attached to those appetites is good for their mental health.

Perhaps that’s why so many of our sexual liberated brethren and sisters need their psychotropic medication.

Of course, if sex is medicine it isn’t really sex. Thus, it isn’t really satisfying. Everyone should know by now that overexposure to pornography—what could be more liberating?—desensitizes people to sexual stimuli.

Culturally speaking, the anything-goes attitude toward sex is really a sign of cultural decadence. No one much cares what you and yours do between the sheets, but if you choose to exhibit it in public, you will at once undermine your character and numb yourself to sexual pleasure.

Of course, our current infatuation with sex is anything but a step beyond Puritanism. I consider it a counterphobic reaction to the fear of sex.

A counterphobia occurs when, for example, a man who is afraid of heights becomes a mountain climber. Perhaps he is hoping to overcome his fear by embracing it, but he might also be trying to convince himself and everyone else that he is not afraid.

Wikipedia describes what happens when you have a countephobia about sex:

Sex is a key area for counterphobic activity, sometimes powering hypersexuality in people who are actually afraid of the objects they believe they love. Adolescents, fearing sex play, may jump over to a kind of spurious full sexuality;adults may overvalue sex to cover an unconscious fear of the harm it may do. Such a counterphobic approach may indeed be socially celebrated in a postmodern vision of sex as gymnastic performance or hygiene, fuelled by what Ken Wilbur described as "an exuberant and fearless shallowness".

So, fearing sexual and being hypersexual are not so different. The same seems to apply to the way we deal with our other great appetite: hunger.

While insisting that we indulge our sexual appetites, we also demand that we not indulge our alimentary appetites. Naturally, this causes us to overeat. Somehow or other this obsession with healthy eating has made us the most obese nation on earth.

The devil is not in the details; he's in the fat.

Those who promote the virtue of alimentary abstinence insist that we must all avoid any food that contains fat. If you eat the least globule of fat the food police will descend on you and shame you.

The self-righteous prigs who cringe at New York’s mayor for shaming teenage pregnancy will do everything in their power to keep you away from an egg yolk. They are undeterred by the fact that egg yolks are not so bad for you.

Ron Rosenbaum summarizes the problem in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Something deeper than concern for nutrition and cholesterol is going on here. You don't have to be a Freudian (I'm not) to see in the antifat crusade a cowering fear of sexuality. The evil of oral pleasure as Satan's tool of seduction, dating back to Eve, is deeply embedded in American culture. Recall Cotton Mather's denunciation of the hell-bound wickedness of the pleasures of the flesh and his call for self-mortification (anticipating today's egg-white omelets).

I myself have never eaten an egg-white omelet, but I suspect that Rosenbaum’s description is entirely accurate:

Still worse is the ninth circle of food hell to which the fat-phobic ninnies have consigned us: egg-white omelets. Is life worth prolonging for a few (alleged) extra months if said life has been spent enduring the repellent slabs of gluey, pasty albumen that so many self-congratulatory "health conscious" types consider to be a sign of their sanity? They want to purge themselves of dietary sin. I just want to purge.

As I said, all this obsessing over fat globules has turned us in the most obese nation on earth. But then, as people put on more weight, professional fat-shamers insist that we must all reduce our diets to grass and twigs.

But, Michael Moss made an important discovery. When it comes to controlling appetite, Moss found, nothing works well as satisfying food. The more tasty your meal the less of it you are likely to consume.

Rosenbaum is on the case:

In other words, sensory satiety is our friend. VoilĂ ! The foods that best hit that sweet spot and "overwhelm the brain" with pleasure are high-quality fatty foods. They discourage us from overeating. A modest serving of short ribs or Peking duck will be both deeply pleasurable and self-limiting. As the brain swoons into insensate delight, you won't have to gorge a still-craving cortex with mediocre sensations. "Sensory-specific satiety" makes a slam-dunk case (it's science!) for eating reasonable servings of superbly satisfying fatty foods.

Of course, Rosenbaum is not recommending that we all go out and gorge ourselves on big Macs. He recommends more savory substitutes, like roast goose, short ribs and clotted cream. Throw in a few fruits and vegetables and you have it made. 

One needs also to mention, if only in passing, that most human beings have always consumed food as a part of a group ritual. Normally, we eat with family and friends and combine the act of consumption with the social niceties that confirm our membership in a group. It probably helps digesting too.

Besides, communal meals tend to be balanced, even to the point where they include fat.

Unfortunately, our new foodist religion is making us malnourished. One understands that dieting is beneficial for some people, but one must also understand that limiting your consumption of certain foods is also going to deprive you of nutrients.

In place of ritual meals that affirm our membership in groups, we now follow strict dietary codes that affirm our membership in cults. Many of them come down to us from religions. Only now we follow the diet without being part of the religion. Instead, we belong to a virtual cult.


Anonymous said...

We're created to love people and use things.

In our decadent society, we love things and use people.

How's it going?


Stuart Schneiderman said...

well said...

LordSomber said...

I bring this up all the time, but C.S. Lewis considered food fastidiousness a form of Gluttony...

Dennis said...

A commentary that goes right along"

DrTorch said...

Nice piece. Makes me wonder if this affects the poor. Are they stuck in a situation where they cannot (will not?) readily find sensory-sating foods?

Is this yet another consequence of the war on poverty? After all, that's where the nation's obesity is (it's not among the elite foodies).

And likewise for the two-income families that was pushed on US society? Are indulging in fast food and Little Debbies b/c there's no-one preparing savory dishes that satisfy?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree on all points... Rosenbaum made clear that when he was talking abut fatty foods he was talking about wholesome food, not junk. It is strange indeed that for all the talk about fruits and vegetables, poor people still consume far too much junk food and are becoming obese for as much.

On the one hand the government insists that they eat fat-free foods in schools. But then they must feel deprived because they go out and overcompensate by eating fat-laden foods that are really junk... and that probably contain too much sodium.