Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Sky's the Limit

Falstaff: Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?

Prince Henry: Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun herself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

Henry IV

Courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily (again), I see Mary Eberstadt's review of the curious cultural trajectories of food and sex over the past few decades. For the first time in human history, Western societies have offered virtually unlimited access to those two primal goods to most of their populations. Her review is lengthy but interesting (I was going to write fascinating or even titillating, but I don't want to wax immoderate here). Think of it as an edgily romantic runup to Valentine's Day.

As she notes, throughout most of human history food consumption was limited by natural scarcity (and by harsh social punishments of theft), while sex was constrained by biological deterrents (like kids, and syphilis) and social sanctions. Beginning around the 1960's, thanks to technological advances and liberalizing attitudes, all of these barriers started to give way. How have we handled this unprecedented access?

Gluttony was of course one of the seven cardinal sins, but post-medieval societies didn't get too worked up about obesity, which was rare and, if anything, a sign of economic prosperity (the reverse is true now, as obesity is inversely correlated with rising socioeconomic status, not least because the relatively poor are more likely to consume cheap and concentrated calories and less likely to have access to safe and convenient exercise options).

As many have noted, the obesity epidemic is the classic disease of civilization, in which cheap and abundant food meets evolutionary tendencies to store fat for next year's famine. What is surprising, as Eberstadt notes, is the advent of remarkably puritanical attitudes about food choice and body weight over the past few decades. I would suppose this represents a confluence of three factors (in addition to the status factor just mentioned): the mainstreaming of animal rights concerns, an increasing awareness of environmental impacts of food production, and the ever more apparent price tag of food and other behavioral choices (since the health care system is always shifting costs in some way, my neighbor's Big Mac could wind up being my insurance premium).

Eberstadt has an alternative and intriguing notion, although I'm not sure I buy it. As food has acquired more moralistic connotations, sex as we all know has generally done precisely the opposite over the past half century. Eberstadt seems to suggest that as the sexual revolution has continued to careen widely, most recently into an explosion of Internet pornography, we may be transferring some of our (currently politically incorrect) anxieties about sex onto food. That is, we feel a "natural" need to rein in our impulses, and in the current cultural climate it is easiest to do this with diet. It's an intriguing idea, even if just speculative psychobabble on her part; perhaps some kind of hard-wired self-restraint can be culturally bypassed only for a while or only at a price.

Eberstadt also cites a body of research showing the allegedly deleterious effects of pornography and more lenient sexual habits in general. Some of it seems questionable; for instance, when she argues that married folks have better financial and health outcomes than singles, this obviously doesn't show that marriage was the causative factor rather than mere correlate. She is more convincing when discussing the effects of the sexual revolution upon children, mediated not least by the predominance of divorce. So go sow some wild oats, then procreate--in that order (just as stereotypes are often true, cliches became cliches for a reason).


Retriever said...

good post. These might interest you:


Also Caroline Knapp, Drinking, A Love Story

and especially her book Appetites, Why Women Want

Without trivializing addiction to drugs and alcohol by applying the term to greed and gluttony lightly (as with the morons who say they are addicted to chocolate cake with a Diet Coke chaser), you cannot understand what is happening with obesity today without some attention to addiction. The common thread is disordered appetites. Are these caused by an increase in certain types of personality and mood disorders? Why do most female alcoholics and addicts have histories of abuse and/or eating disorders so often? Why, when psychologically evaluating candidates for bariatric surgery (tummy staple) are over 50% found to have major psychological issues (usually previously unaddressed). Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I don't like cheesy titles like Fat is a Feminist issue. Anyway, I have a male kid heading towards obesity (autistic aggression is generally managed by shrinks here with atypicals). But I do think the psychological aspects of the obesity epidemic are more interesting than revolting food like McDonalds, and are also intertwined with addiction. Food for thought....

Anonymous said...

I don't think the hyperconsciousness of restricted and ethical food consumption is a self-moderating reaction against the lawlessness of sexual freedom in all its accepted excessive permuations. Given the satisfaction of basic needs, society is evolving to become more morally sophisticated: globalisation and awareness of consequences beyond personal desire/needs/taste considerations means archaic moral tenets that only offer 'it's wrong/bad just because'--like sex outside marriage--as an injunction against doing something that is not inherently harmful are immature and obselete.

We have more freedom and choice to construct and reconstruct our own moral spheres in reagrds to food and sex-- we don't need/desire blanket dictates to formulate a way of living for us based on control. It's all about the hedonistic pursuit of reasoned excess in as much as it doesn't cause harm first to the others and then to ourselves -- sounds like a plan, but with a margin of error given humans are skewed towards imperfection, sometimes to a pathological degree...but you get that with life.

Excess in moderation vivifies, moderation in excess nullifies.

SO it's ok to poison yourself with immoderation every now and again, as long as you maintain an overall moral homeostasis (according to your own definition).

'There's probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life' rather than:
'thou shalt not...' just because apparently someone said so...

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to speculate. I wonder if a survey of moral attitudes about sex and moral attitudes about food would find an inverse relationship?