Wednesday, March 4, 2009

All-Consuming Desires

In her Feb/Mar 2009 feature article for the Stanford University Hoover Institution publication Policy Review, research fellow Mary Eberstadt makes some fascinating observations about the two great appetites at the root of most American neuroses: food and sex. The article describes a fictional archetype of a 1950s housewife, Betty, and her modern granddaughter, Jennifer, in order to contrast the rapid migration of morality codes from sex to food: "In just over 50 years, in other words — not for everyone, of course, but for a great many people, and for an especially large portion of sophisticated people — the moral poles of sex and food have been reversed. Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law of some kind; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse." She goes on to observe that, "Many people who wouldn’t be caught dead with an extra ten pounds — or eating a hamburger, or wearing real leather — tend to be laissez-faire in matters of sex. In fact, just observing the world as it is, one is tempted to say that the more vehement people are about the morality of their food choices, themore hands-off they believe the rest of the world should be about sex. What were the circumstances the last time you heard or used the word “guilt” — in conjunction with sin as traditionally conceived? Or with having eaten something verboten and not having gone to the gym?"

The transfer of restrictive morality codes from sex to food in American culture have created and intensified some fascinating disordered responses these dictates, especially in young people, including a few I'd like to explore: dieting behaviors and the epidemic of Internet porn usage. To me, these are two sides of the same coin - dieting and other disordered eating behaviors represent an extreme response to moral judgments about food consumption and its relationship to the body's appearance, and porn points to an intense reaction to the overwhelming sexual smorgasboard available for consumption without stigma. Instead of cloaking themselves in the language of sexual purity and chastity as their grandmothers might have, women who use disordered eating and dieting behaviors prove to themselves and others their worth and virtue, resisting the "temptation" of transgressive substances like sugar and fat. And rather than explore the freedoms and fantasies allowed for by the sexual revolution by pursuing their own experience of physical pleasure with another live human being, men, many of whom still profess faith to traditional family values, consume pornography online, indulging the very appetite they presume to suppress. In fact, a new nationwide study of anonymised credit-card receipts from a major online adult entertainment provider, Harvard Business School professor Benjamin Edelmen found that the states that consume the most porn tend to be more conservative and religious than states with lower levels of consumption. The key difference between these twin responses is that, for most women, the shift of morality codes from sex to food means that there are significant consequences to succumbing to food temptations: gaining weight, losing control of one's body shape, receiving praise for weight lost and heaping disdain on weight gain, and losing the return on our significant investment of time and money into our bodies, as body image is the coin of the realm in a culture where food morality rules. For men, even those who profess the most conservative beliefs in their social contexts, an unlimited amount and variety of pornography is available online at any time, from anywhere, with no actual interaction with the people involved with the sex acts required. The transfer of moral opprobrium from sex to food has provided for a gap in perceived consequences where porn and hypocrisy flourish, as the anonymity of porn removes all of the social reprecussions that would come from a previous indiscretion such as cheating on one's wife or visiting a prostitute. So, women must now control our waistlines instead of our chastity belts, and men can indulge their sweet tooth for hot lesbian action without their wives leaving them. All of this attests to the power of stigma and guilt in shaping our responses to our desires - wherever morality codes shift, so goes our behavior. We are truly simple creatures, to shy away from the stick of cultural opprobrium for food choices and lurch for the carrot of fantasies fulfilled without consequences.

To close, a quote from the article from C.S. Lewis: “There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.”

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