Tuesday, February 12, 2013

We Must Eat!

It’s a little over a century since obesity was invented, and an even shorter span of time – beginning at the end of the second World War – since it has started its gradual rise into one of the defining conditions of our time. Steeped as most developed countries are nowadays in the talk of epidemic, it can be tempting to forget not only that undernourishment still affects billions worldwide, but also that until not so very long ago it was the only thing that dieticians everywhere ever worried about. So when you come across a document from the time before the ultra-replete present, such as this book published in Australia as late as 1943, the first thing that strikes you is that injunction: we must eat.

Granted, the title misrepresents the book’s argument somewhat. What the author – one Lilian Fraser-Smith – seeks to impart here is general knowledge about nutrition and the principles of a complete and varied diet. The emphasis however is firmly on giving in to one’s appetite as opposed to moderating it. The only excess that the author frowns upon concerns the abuse of refined sugars to the exclusion of the other food groups. But fats – oh, there is nothing wrong with those. And if you happen to over-indulge, you shouldn’t worry because
whenever we eat more calories than we use, our bodies turn the surplus into fat and stow it away as a reserve which may be drawn upon in time of need.

Ponder this sentence a little bit, if you will. When was the last time you heard this kind of advice? Did you ever? I don’t think I have, whereas I recall reading multiple times sentences like the following:
To be overweight means only a few pounds more than the ideal.
And wondering why then being overweight is such a problem, if it is even a problem, seeing that it has been recently found that
people who are overweight are less likely to die in any given period than people of normal [read: ideal] weight.
In the same article an epidemiologist by the name of Mercedes Carnethon is nonetheless quoted as saying that
you'd hate to have the message get out there that it's good to be overweight,
seemingly for the sole reason that you must be overweight at some point in your life in order to become obese – which strikes me as some powerfully circular thinking. And so I hark a little for the days when we were told that the fat stored by our bodies is a reserve, as opposed to a silent killer.

Not that I’m a total sceptic, mind. When I say that obesity was ‘invented’, all I mean is that it didn’t exist as a medical condition until the twentieth century. I may have reservations about how the issue is treated and divulged through the media, but I am in no position to doubt its magnitude either, specifically in terms of the incidence of cardiovascular disease or type-2 diabetes in ever-younger sectors of the population. What interests me is the discourse concerning the morality of eating. ‘We must eat!’ is a stark imperative, but you’ll find equally peremptory injunctions – or gentler but just as unforgiving advice – in the self-help section of your bookshop or library, amongst the forests of books dedicated to diets and dieting. Public health intersects with its privatised double here: your own obesity, or that of your children, becomes an absolute concern in light of the great epidemic and its frightening repercussions. Therefore it doesn’t matter if you are, say, fat but fit: the relationship between weight and health in your individual body – neatly divorced from any and all issues relating to self-image and the dominant sexual aesthetics propagated through the same media channels – must be plotted on the same graph as everybody else’s. You are not what you eat, but your BMI, whether or not it correlates to your actual health and well-being.

And if you happen to have children – oh joy – you get to worry twice: about your own body shape and about theirs, since we know that parents are to blame for child obesity, therefore for the social problem in its entirety. Here is the concept subtly expressed in stock-picture form.

From this
When we say parents, of course, we mean the mother. This is as clear to the photographer who took that picture as it was for Fraser-Smith, for whom the task of preparing meals and ensuring harmonious mealtimes is off-handedly devolved to ‘Mummy’. Epidemiologists, too, when building a tool designed to predict whether a child might have weight problems as a teenager, have found the profession of the mother (but not that of the father, or the postman, or anybody else) to be statistically significant, therefore in the model it goes. This ‘objective’ sexism – framed as a mere reflection of contemporary social realities – helps to ensure that obesity always be understood within the context of individuals and families, never of society or the economy, let alone of vague notions such as ideology.

Compare then this paragraph in We Must Eat!:
The more tempting foods are, and the hungrier we feel, the warmer is the welcome that awaits them, the more completely and easily are they digested. If we are tired or worried or cross, if we have our meals amidst ugliness and strife, if we eat too quickly, all these lessen the flow of juice and make digestion difficult and slow. When we are at peace with ourselves and the world, when we dine in good company and the meal looks and smells and tastes delicious, then the whole digestive system sets to work with a right good will
with today’s advice on the family eating at the dinner table and the virtues of mealtimes lasting longer, as if recapturing an idealised image of the domesticity of yore were an inherently health-giving value (you could be gulping high-fructose corn syrup by the pint, but so long as the whole family is sitting around the table…) In this respect then there is very little progress to measure or substantial difference to speak of between We Must Eat! and today’s givers of advice. In either case a good diet is a mark of moral excellence. And so when Fraser-Smith notes that
[a]n anaemic child is pale, listless, easily tired, handicapped, not the lad or the lass you find at the top of the class, in the teams or in any other place where quick thinking and steady effort are needed.
This is matched, amongst countless similar examples, by the contemporary expert’s rejoinder that
[c]hildren regularly presenting with inadequate or inappropriate meals should have notes sent home re-emphasising the health message.

Articles covering the obesity epidemic typically include estimates of the financial price borne by the nation in increased healthcare costs and lost productivity, but I think that it is other, deeper undercurrents which lead to the very strongly held notion that we owe it to somebody other than ourselves to be healthy. And if we do, then the health we can read – or that we think we can read – in the shape of our bodies is the one that can be most easily be subject to reciprocal surveillance and control. The spirit of that arresting title, then – we must eat! – survives intact in the present, even if the letter has changed (it might have become: we must eat less! Or: we must eat better!). It is still about producing more perfect bodies: in the interest of a more efficient use of shared resources, or Capital’s need for able citizens, or aesthetic decorum, or never quite explicitly agreed-upon social norms, but hardly ever a subjective, intimately felt sense of well-being. For that would require asking a radically different set of questions.

Lilian Fraser-Smith, We Must Eat! - Food Values for Children. Melbourne and Sydney, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1943.


Robyn said...

So, I'm thinking that a book published during World War II would mention that it's ok to have excess body fat for use in times of need, because during the war there were food shortages. But since then, it's only ever been a time of plenty. There are no periods of need to use up that excess fat, so the excess grows and grows. It's a symptom of modern life.

Giovanni Tiso said...

To a point: the author specifically mentions war as a time of possible peak shortages (with reference to the blockade in Britain - Australia's food supply was safer), but insists that her advice applies regardless. It's more that struggling to get enough food had been the norm in all of human history up to that point. We (some countries at any rate) are the exception. Still, all in all, I think it doesn't quite explain why being overweight is now seen as a wholly bad thing, and never as the body building up an energy reserve. Surely the physiology hasn't changed.

Olwyn said...

I think that since the seventies, eating has been incrementally overtaking sex as the primary venue for puritanical zeal. Instead of twitching our net curtains over the neighbours'love affairs, we now twitch them over their pizza deliveries. Instead of lying back and thinking of England, we now nibble on our undressed salad and think of our BMI, while watching Nigella lasciviously pouring ganache over a sponge cake. And the diet of the poor is subject to at least as much mean-spirited speculation as their sex lives. This may not be because there is more food about, but because consumption has become the default centre of life's meaning;the dreary God of Nietzsche's last man.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Rather. I've often thought that "food porn" is a tautology.

Megan Clayton said...

The more tempting foods are, mother, and the
hungrier we feel, the warmer is the welcome that
awaits them, mother, the more completely and easily
are they digested.

If we are tired or worried or cross, mother, if we have
our meals amidst ugliness and strife, if we eat too
quickly, mother, all these lessen the flow of juice and
make digestion difficult and slow.

(When we are obese with ourselves and the world,
when we dine, obese, in obese company and the
meal looks and smells and tastes obese, then the
whole obese system sets to work with a right obese will.)