EEighteen months ago I published a paper that was partly about food culture: discovering the existence of food culture, noticing it everywhere, and slowly trying to free myself from its traps. Outside the covers of my book, this process continues – and no matter how much effort I put in, I am also aware that my “choices” create an illusion of control. We’re all simmering in this soup. Some of us can taste it, some not so much – but we are all poached.
Since I started writing and speaking publicly on this subject, people seem to have become more attuned to the existence of a food culture. The term “food culture” is often taken for granted because it is so ubiquitous. I can’t help but wonder – if we’re all so versed in harmful ways that we attack our own bodies, why can’t I escape the meal-replacing shake ads? Why does Julie Goodwin still make a derogatory remark about her own body when attending a MasterChef? Challenge of cooking with the bottom three levels of the food pyramid? Why does the guy who dominated the non-fiction bestseller list with his extreme fasting program sell himself again on my screen Another program if the first was so effective?
Food culture is a belief system that values smallness and limitation, and bestows a sense of moral superiority and greater social capital on those who can “attain” and/or maintain the idealized body: thin, white, young. Such an ideal changes and has changed throughout history. Right now it’s all about being curvy a certain way – hourglass good, belly bad; rounded bottom good, soft arms bad. Food culture links health and height and emphasizes individual responsibility for both, rather than acknowledging the systemic things in all of our lives that contribute to our overall health. “Diets” as we see them today include rules, diets, restrictions and systems. In food culture, the body is seen as one hackable Object if only we could identify, target and obliterate the “problem”.
We stand by diets and their promises. It can be difficult to find community in the world – a damn island, me. Diets offered me a welcoming space and a set of shared interests and ideals. They provided a place for a kind of shared trauma. This was my family, my home. Dieting has long been my religion because faith doesn’t need reason (and suffers terribly from confirmation bias anyway). No, faith blossoms with warmth and hope and attention.
We would never live forever, but our beliefs about what could save us have changed.
Formerly – and for a long time – membership in a genuine religious community, doing good deeds and following religious rules was the ticket of entry. What we do now could save us later. Religious observers still find some comfort in the fact that following the rules makes sense of life’s chaotic chaos: if you’re good in the long run, you’ll be saved. Religious practice provides a buffer against the uncontrollability of the world, and if you do it right, do it hard enough, you can live forever in your chosen realm with other true believers. Be enchanted by the best, live forever in heaven or ascend to a higher life form. Observers also enjoy a sense of unwavering community. We’re hardwired to love rules and love rewards.
In Australia today we continue to move away from religious affiliation – we are a multicultural and multireligious society and the number of people reporting ‘no religion’ in the census has increased from less than 1% in 1966 to almost 40% a year 2021. I am “no religion” in camp, although I still eat fish on Good Friday because I like the occasion and tradition.
But even in a secular society, parts of traditional value systems remain.
The Protestant work ethic as a form of body hacking is perhaps the most widespread religious hangover in a society like ours, which has positioned food culture as one of its dominant thought systems. At first this ethos of hard work and self-denial was about redemption, but now it’s about performative morality and is of course tied to body control. The concept of self-denial is at the heart of the Protestant work ethic then and now – from which the saying “No pain, no gain” is derived. For something to be worthwhile, it has to hurt. In the case of weight loss, pain is the gateway to all the privileges unlocked by inhabiting the body ideal: Sweat is your fat crying, Pain is weakness leaving the body, Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.
In the 1830s, American temperance preacher Sylvester Graham gave his name to an overwhelmingly boring cookie (the graham cracker, now better known for being topped with chocolate and marshmallows to make s’mores) as a response to the world of “over-stimulating.” “Food Types and Groups. Among the things Graham found just too exciting for the human mind were “spices, meat, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and even yeast bread and spices.” All those poor weak spirits who are strengthened by bland food. All the pious togetherness of craving what is not allowed.
Rules once ingrained in religion have taken root within us as secular, self-imposed rules about “good” food and “bad” food, and therefore “good” bodies and “bad” bodies. We resist chaos and point to salvation; the why have shifted, but the moral imperative remains.
It feels easy to dismiss outdated food rules as archaic and arbitrary, but we continue to develop arbitrary rules that come and go.
William the Conqueror is said to have followed a liquid diet to lose weight. He was born in 1028. Lord Byron apparently fueled his poetry with little more than vinegar and water. Liquid diets grew in popularity as a weight loss tactic over the years, and in 1941 the Master Cleanse was launched to “detoxify” the body and mind – first “mobilizing” and then removing toxins. The Master Cleanse Liquid Diet still exists and prescribes a mixture of water, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup six times a day. Increased vitality, mental acuity and happiness are promised to the followers of the diet. They shrink their social circle on trips near bathrooms.
More recently there have been changes in the color and consistency of the liquids of choice. When low-calorie diets were all the rage, meal replacement shakes sold well. Now “diets” are falling out of favor, being replaced instead by an insidious brand of performative health: wellness.
Discover the gurus as always – count their followers, admire their uniform (for wellness, it’s floaty white and made of natural fibres), see the perfect control they project throughout their lives. Follow their dietary rules and think that maybe, maybe, this could be enough to stave off death if you just bring in enough warmth, hope, and attention.
fFor a while I weighed myself with a Wii Fit balance board, fooling myself into thinking that this “game” was very different from stepping on the scale in my bathroom. Each day I played started with getting on the board and seeing an animated depiction of me on my TV that swells or shrinks depending on what I’m reading. Next, a cheerful announcement of my “Wii Fit Age”: My cartoon image clapped or slumped in response depending on whether it gave me a number higher or lower than my actual age. My BMI appeared on the screen alongside a rating scale for my risk of going over (or under). This act was the beginning of the daily weigh-in and gave me a glimpse into the immediate effects of this gamification of my body control. If I could lower my Wii Fit age, maybe I could sit back and believe that I would live longer.
This daily ritual of getting on the balance board was my worldly prayer.
Dieting and wellness culture both wrestle with the sense of control that seems possible in religious fervor: certainty. Security. Calm.
We seem to be living in the midst of a storm of things out of our control right now – but maybe we always have.
Numerous critics have identified a connection between times of great political and social upheaval and a narrowing of the ideal of beauty – and with it associated forms of radical restriction and self-denial to enforce this ideal.
For the last two years we wore our masks and lamented our Covid pounds and started the diet on Monday by completing our 5k radius power walking. We’ve watched huge ditches in New York City take heaps of coffins, and we’ve perfected our banana bread. Deprived of our agency by world events, we sought certainty and power by turning to a system of rules that we can perfect, believing that proof of our mastery would come in our long lives. Establishing these rules is an essential coping mechanism.
We all make our way to the other side, distracted by our bodies and our unquestioned prejudices, hoping there is another side to be found. Perhaps pouring our power and faith into trivial body obsessions and the consequent failure of (impossible) diets is the price we pay for a sense of control and community in a world more uncertain than ever.