“I wanna be able to eat spaghetti bolognese / And not feel bad about for days and days and days,” sings the British pop-star Lily Allen in her sarcastically named song “Everything’s Just Wonderful” (2006).
Allen’s song came to mind when I read this excerpt of the book How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. Moran wonders whether we have moral hang-ups about food:
Of all the overwhelming compulsions you can be ruined by, all of them have some potential for some perverted, self-destructive fascination—except eating.
Consider, for instance, Keith Richards, in his Glimmer Twins days—snorting, smoking, injecting, drinking. Everyone loves him! Even though, by any way we can calculate it, he would almost certainly have been a complete nightmare to be around—paranoid, shaky, unreliable and, a good part of the time, so deeply unconscious that the primary method of moving from one location to another would have been being dragged by the ankles—we still have a slight cultural frisson of “How cool!” when people get this messed up.
But imagine if instead he had started overeating and gotten really fat instead. If he’d really gotten into spaghetti Bolognese, say, or kept coming onstage holding foot-long meatball subs. Long, crazy, wired nights after gigs, in penthouses, nubile dollies scattered across the room, and Keith in the center, sprawled across a silk-draped emperor-size water bed, eating Doritos sandwiches.
If we’re talking about morality and food, we need to make a distinction between two trends. First, there is the new religion of food. Its adherents believe that eating vegan, vegetarian, organic, local, or insert your label of choice, is a morally good thing. It’s what Mary Eberstadt was talking about in her essay “Is Food the New Sex?”
Wavering in and out of vegetarianism, Jennifer is adamantly opposed to eating red meat or endangered fish. She is also opposed to industrialized breeding, genetically enhanced fruits and vegetables, and to pesticides and other artificial agents. She tries to minimize her dairy intake, and cooks tofu as much as possible. She also buys “organic” in the belief that it is better both for her and for the animals raised in that way, even though the products are markedly more expensive than those from the local grocery store. Her diet is heavy in all the ways that Betty’s was light: with fresh vegetables and fruits in particular. Jennifer has nothing but ice in her freezer, soymilk and various other items her grandmother wouldn’t have recognized in the refrigerator, and on the counter stands a vegetable juicer she feels she “ought” to use more.
Most important of all, however, is the difference in moral attitude separating Betty and Jennifer on the matter of food. Jennifer feels that there is a right and wrong about these options that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer. She does not exactly condemn those who believe otherwise, but she doesn’t understand why they do, either. And she certainly thinks the world would be a better place if more people evaluated their food choices as she does. She even proselytizes on occasion when she can.
This is an interesting phenomenon, but I don’t think it’s what Moran is talking about in her book excerpt. Even though Moran uses Keith Richards as an example, she is discussing a trend that is unique to women: This strange guilt-complex that we have about eating too much:
Why will women happily boast-moan about spending too much (“…and then my bank manager took my credit card and cut it in half with a sword!”), about drinking too much (“…and then I took my shoe off and threw it over the bus stop!”), and about working too hard (“…so tired I fell asleep on the control panel, and when I woke up, I realized I’d pressed the nuclear launch button! Again!”) but never, ever about eating too much? Why is unhappy eating the most pointlessly secret of miseries? It’s not like you can hide a six-Kit-Kats-a-day habit for very long.
Why would a woman keep “unhappy eating” a secret? Because she is ashamed that she just ate that whole pint of ice cream, or those three slices of cake, or that entire box of chocolates. Shame.
People feel shame when they think they’ve done something wrong. So what, exactly, has that woman done wrong by overeating? Eating too much violates principles of moderation and self-control, but that would apply to both men and women. And yet, women experience the food-shame trigger more intensely than men, based on my anecdotal experience. When I see men overeat, they feel bad for a while and try not to make the same mistake next time. When women overeat, they fall into emotional turmoil. They’ll say something like “Now I have to go work out for an hour to burn that off” because they “feel fat.” Women also connect food and emotions when they say they talk about “eating their feelings,” which is really a surrender of will to the emotions.
Some women resort to unhealthy habits, like bulimia, to deal with overeating. Still others just try to avoid the problem altogether by not eating at all–i.e., anorexia, which takes self-control about food to an extreme. Ninety percent of people with eating disorders in this country are women.
The question is why–why do women have this peculiarly visceral reaction to food and overeating?
Here are the next verses of that Lily Allen song I quoted above:
In the magazines they talk about weight loss
If I buy those jeans I can look like Kate Moss
Oh no, that’s not the life that I chose
But I guess that’s just the way that things go.
We live in an image-centric culture where people are judged by how they look, especially if those people are women. For women in the West, eating is tied to image. Image is defined by the media. The power of the Western media in affecting the dieting patterns of girls was revealed by a fascinating study conducted in the mid-nineties:
The British Medical Association revealed that anthropologist Anne Becker of Harvard Medical School, who worked thoroughly with the Fiji population, “has shown that exposure to western ideals of beauty have led to a high percentage of adolescents dieting within the last decade. It is hard to prove that it is exposure to TV images which have caused this change, although it is reasonable to assume that this is the case” (Jade). An extensive look into this study revealed that two groups of Fijian schoolgirls were interviewed and tested within a few weeks of their introduction to television in 1995 and then again in 1998. According to the study, “in 1995, the number of girls who self-induced vomiting to control their weight was zero. But three years after the introduction of television, that figure reached 11%” (Television). The study indicated that dieting had become the norm and that girls living in houses with a television set were “three times more likely to show symptoms of eating disorders.” Researchers have concluded that the prevalence of eating disorders in non-Western countries is lower than that of Western countries, but it seems to be increasing due to media consumption.
The beauty ideal of the Western media has set an impossible standard of thinness and fitness for women to live up to. Because the media is so pervasive, women mistake the Kate Moss ideal for the norm, and try to adjust their habits accordingly. When they overeat, they’re not just consuming too much food, they actually feel like they’re failing to live up to a standard of identity that they want to achieve, just like Catholics who don’t do the right thing are failing to live up to a standard of goodness that they want to achieve.
When Catholics err, they have to confess their sins to a priest. When overeaters err, Moran thinks they should also confess:
Coming into the office looking frazzled, sighing, “Man, I was on the pot roast last night like you wouldn’t believe. I had, like, POTATOES in my EYEBROWS by 10 p.m.”
Then people would be able to address your dysfunction as openly as they do all the others. They could reply, “Whoa, maybe you should calm it down for a bit, my friend. I am the same. I did a three-hour session on the microwave lasagna last night. Perhaps we should go out to the country for a bit. Clean up our acts.”
Sin, confession, redemption. Mary Eberstadt thinks we’ve become puritanical about food. Maybe we’ve become papists about it too.