Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Anthony Bourdain and the Cult to Wellness

I am not sure that we want to make Anthony Bourdain the human argument against the cult of wellness, but Jenai Engelhard chooses him… and who are we to argue.

In truth, Engelhard has written an excellent essay on our cult-like obsession with wellness. She argues, cogently and correctly, that we no longer make eating a social ritual, involving other people in a convivial atmosphere. We have transformed the act of eating into a spiritual experience, one in which our body is a temple. Bourdain rejected the “temple” metaphor and declared the body to be an amusement park.

When it’s you and other people eating together, the experience is social. If it’s you and your food, involved in a sacred purification ritual, the experience is religious. We have come to dread contaminating our sacred bodies, to the point where we no longer care about whether or not anyone else is involved in the experience of eating. Or better, whether we are eating alone or in company. In truth, the cult to wellness makes eating with other people nearly impossible.

As I said, Engelhard offers a fine analysis:

The cult of wellness commands: Thou shalt not contaminate the sacred body. We are told to avoid what is ‘toxic’ and ingest only what is ‘clean,’ even as definitions of ‘clean’ continue to shift and vary. To stave off disease and aging, we must learn not only what to eat, but also how and when. We must eat at appropriate times of day, and in the right combinations and ratios, to ensure optimal circadian rhythms and the proper balance of gut bacteria, among other things. To regularly consider each of these factors is a full-time job, and one that is nearly incompatible with eating with other people. This is because eating is now less of a social bonding ritual than a solitary religious rite. In this current framework, food has the power to cleanse, purify, and redeem—and with that power comes an enormous capacity for error and a crushing accountability.

Surely, there’s a kernel of truth in the cult to wellness. What we eat matters. It does have an effect on health. The cult to wellness is merely too much of a good thing… an extreme position that turns the act of eating into a religious rite. Dare we ask how many wellness cult followers count themselves as true believing atheists. We dare not.

Engelhard continues:

Although evidence is clear that nutrition is inherently medicinal, the current thinking has taken it a step further to suggest that diet represents a way to control for every possibility of disease, or even general unease.

The wellness cult has a goal in mind: to live to 100. Now, that’s something we all want to do. I recall my psychoanalyst, on one of his better days, explaining in a lecture that most of us would really rather not live forever. Think about it.

Anyway, now we want to live to be 100, filled up with superfoods, practicing positive thinking:

Another manifestation of the crass pursuit of health is the ‘Live to 100’ movement, in which the body is a battleground on which we fight disease with antioxidants, superfoods, positive thinking, and the like. If we consume the ‘right’ things and avoid the ‘wrong’ things (and it is never self-evident which is more crucial), then we can postpone death, or at the very least, die peacefully in a state of relative vibrancy. Centenarians and super-centenarians around the world are scrutinized in an attempt to identify their secrets. In this modern mythology, the hero is the person who manages to live to a hundred with all mental faculties intact and the ability to run a decent marathon, prolonging her own mortality by skirting the infinite number of things that can go awry.

To Engelhard, it has all the trappings of a religious mania. About that she is certainly correct. One recalls that during the Middle Ages a number of young woman, in search of corporeal purity and spiritual ecstasy, undertook to starve themselves. Their experience is recounted in Rudolph Bell’s book: Holy Anorexia.

Yet, despite these reasonable objections, something within me rebels against a health culture that has developed its own mythological structure bordering on religious mania. Wellness culture says: pursue health and wholeness and you will be long-lived upon the earth; but it eliminates a fundamental question: to what end? Indeed, there will still be one.

She continues, quoting Bourdain, to note that we should refocus, away from the morsels of kale and toward the people who are sitting around the table.

Bourdain would say: focus on the people around the table, wherever on the planet that table is, and eat what you are damn well served. Savor the company of people whose lives and backgrounds are unimaginably different from yours. In short, prefer people to the pursuit of that otherworldly glow, the attempt to lengthen your telomeres, and the dubious ‘achievement’ of living to be 110.

Naturally, the other question that immediately comes to mind is this: are the followers of the wellness cult quite as fastidious with sexual practices? Does their worship of the human body include sexual purification? We can only wonder.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

What is striking about this and so many other stories is the insidious impact of single-issue activism. It’s ruining our culture. Food is no longer for fellowship, it’s simply fuel.

Whether it’s SCOTUS’ 1972 abortion fiat that’s led to the Kavanaugh circus, or homosexual activism changing the definition of marriage, or feminism putting women in special forces units, single-issue activism is the “cure” in search of a “disease.” And marijuana now makes everything in life better, but you’re a social pariah if you smoke tobacco. Something is just wrong about what’s pushed onto our national psyche. Bourdain rightly points that we gather at the dinner table to connect about all we are as humans, while we have this media culture captivated with all we are not. Bourdain’s admonishment reminds me of Desmond Morris’ observation that people eating alone look down. I’ve come to see this as true, which informs me that there’s something unnatural about it.

More and more people seem to know a lot about one thing, and how their singular pursuit is the right/best thing for you. Yet so many can’t seem to help themselves in social situations... their passion applies to everything.

And I question whether those studying the centegenarians really want to know the keys longevity. There was a French supercentegenarian who still smoked, drank wine and ate cheese. Her philosophy: life is to be enjoyed. Think researchers were interested in HER???

I’ve had seven friends I can think of who were vegans, vegetarians, exercise addicts, deep intestinal cleansers and earnest marathon runners. These “Magnificent Seven” died or were incapacitated by disease, heart attack or stroke before they were 70 years of age. They gave voluminous unsolicited advice. One — a stroke victim who ran 34 marathons and is now drooling and confined to a wheelchair — continues to tell me what’s wrong with my diet/exercise habits. I still love him, but parts of the conversation are so tedious. And take a deep breath and try to tell an exercise addict that something ain’t right with their lifestyle. Perhaps I will end up like they all have, but I will have enjoyed my life. I have lots of people and pursuits I thoroughly enjoy.

I’ve come to the conclusion that obsessive-compulsive pursuits are unhealthy. Weaponize such people through a nonprofit or foundation, and you get the insufferable activist. It is not healthy to make a career out of being a high-pressure, monomaniacal blowhard.

I’d rather be who I am today (with all my gastro-somatic imperfections) than end up like Caitlyn Jenner, the $100 million cause clebre. Bruce Jenner was the Olympic gold medal decathlete in 1976 — the highest peak of athletic performance. Got him on a box of Wheaties. Yet I think 90%+ of us would agree that something is terribly wrong.

Anonymous said...

"something is terribly wrong"

Yes, it is the artist formerly known as 'deadly virus' disease resurfacing.

Apparently there is no cure. This becomes obvious once you read studies on visual development of cats, the brain relies on input pseudo-external to the vat it happens to rest in. This may sound particularly insane, unfortunately what I say is true. Control information, teach insanity from birth via information. The cat is a simplified example.

Sam L. said...

The "one true thing thou must do" is replaced by the next "one true thing thou must do" and so on and so forth, world without end, Amen.

Anonymous said...

Double standards of culture and society are often seen amplified in the "mentally deranged" (perhaps) that cannot handle the "good for me but not for thee" mentality that pervades everything.

A good case study is the "I F**k Dogs" girl, "Whitney Wisconsin", supposedly recently arrested for the robotic mimicry of the degeneracy most of us have become desensitized to that is all around us.

What made her different is that she took the behaviors advertised to girls like her and brought them out of the confined simulation "safe space" and into the real world, an act of total terror, and our qwets cannot have any of that.

A robot was programmed.. and they got what they programmed for. What did they expect would happen?

Ares Olympus said...

The advice that we should use meal time for socializing is clearly good advice, but on the other side almost "unamerican" with our desire for utility, efficiency, and speed. Many people will say they don't even have time for themselves to eat, much less turning it into a social ritual. The "slow food movement" is one attempted counterbalance. But perhaps there's a perfectionism there as well, and perhaps one social meal a week is better than none.

The church I attend has food after the service nearly every week, and regular potlucks, and you learn there's informal cliques and the currency of connection is to know people well enough to remember things about them to break the ice again next time you meet. It does seem women are more interested in that personal connection game, while other topics like theological or other impersonal discussions are more likely when there's more men together.

At my Toastmaster meeting, we've discuss having food for our social time, but I admit as a club officer, I seem to be too busy making sure everything is ready for the educational meeting to enjoy relaxing and chatting much less eating. This week one member, a Nutritionist PhD student, talked about gut bacteria, and the wide variety of species as well as a wide diversity between people, and greatly affect our health. I think I first discovered this when I had antibiotics maybe when I was 26, and had new digestive issues for the next year, and only later learned it was because it also killed off the good bacteria. So we're all not just human but a whole zoo of species working together.