Friday, October 22, 2010

Fat is the new thin

My mom brought up a really good point in response to one of my other postings (via facebook). She remarked that perhaps one of the reasons why we consider some food as healthy and others as un-healthy may actually have something to do with the way food has been thought of historically. Which made me think of…

Back when worked as a youth pastor I remember several older people getting quite upset when they discovered that I used food as props for games that I would play with the kids. That was when Fear Factor and other such shows had just emerged and youth ministry was riffing on that theme – incorporating gross food challenges –etc. I remember this one very sincere older woman giving me quite the lecture about how what I was doing could be considered as wasting food. This was perfect unacceptable for her since she reminded me that there were many people around the world who were lacking food and that from her perspective food was too precious a commodity to waste. I can remember scoffing under my breath at her old-fashioned and narrow minded view point. There was no opportunity to talk to her about the kids of food we used – that I was pretty sure were really not that nutritious. But for her this was a big deal. There was an aura around food – it was revered almost. It was like the way I used food was contravening not just ethics of world hunger crisis but also that there was something intrinsically ‘holy’ about food. It occurs to me in retrospect that I had actually sinned in the way I had behaved. Her regard for food was obviously something deeply entrenched into the essence of her morality – what she thought was appropriate.

That brings me back to last night’s class. Dr. Ramp pointed out that somewhere around the 15th century a significant change occurred in people’s consumption of food. That was because society moved from a position of regular and imminent famine to a situation where famine in the western world was large not an issue. It was possible before this to demonstrate your power and prestige by throwing lavish feast were the object would be to gorge yourself as evidence of your great wealth. Actually Thorstein Veblen sort of talks about that when he talks about conspicuous consumption. (earlier post describing Veblen’s ideas) But Veblen basically goes on to suggest that conspicuous consumption may change in form (i.e. what is consumed to display your elite status) but it still remains a persistent characteristic of the way society seems to work.

So then the question must be asked: Could there be a way that food is used today that might be able to convey status? Obviously, with the $35 bottle of wine (in the earlier post) as opposed to the the $10 bottle one could display status. But that seems like a fairly insignificant distinction because unless the people you serve the expensive wine to can really appreciate the better stuff they might not have any clue that you spent more money on it. Or worse yet they might see your spending as foolish and your social status would therefore decrease. Its just too fragile a way to make that distinction. But what if you proclaim your status in more reliable ways, more conspicuous ways?

Given that food is relatively abundant (I mean in western cultures) and we are able to purchase almost any variety and quality of food we want at our local grocery store, how can we demonstrate our superior class? How about through thinner bodies? What if the size of your body ( how fat or thin it is) can somehow demonstrate your class? If feasts were the way in ancient days today that kind of gorging is seen as despicable (watch some of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution click on this link to see the video and fast forward to 6:00). It is possible then to have certain foods come to stand for ways of eating that are considered to be horrible and reproduce the idea of a lower class ‘the term white trash’ comes to mind. So the difference between chicken nuggets and chicken noodle soup may be about how these foods are imagined to pertain to one’s ability to gorge oneself and thereby lower their status. Since chicken nuggets are quick and the soup takes a while to produce there can be some easy distinctions made. So its almost like we are proving and disproving Veblen’s theory all at once. Can we say that the way to show your higher status is by demonstrating your willingness to avoid the fast foods and engage with the slow foods? Is it possible to say that our status can hang on our ability to reduce our intake of food? Is it possible that a thin body image might be the evidence of one’s ability to achieve higher status – through restraint? Does restraint become conspicuous? Is it any wonder that fat has come to mean all things negative? I mean a fat person then must be someone who can’t restrain him'/herself, right?

But then what about my friend who eats so much food everyday that almost my entire family could eat from what he digests daily – and he is still thin as a rail?

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