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November 16, 2006


prefer not to say

V. interesting post.

Every time I hear Catholics make the argument that homosexuality represents a "disordered desire" I always wonder what would happen if those same Catholics examined their current relationships to food.


prefer not to say, I've also thought about the different values Christians have with food versus sex. (If you held them to the same standards, I have to assume chewing sugarfree gum is basically the same as masturbating.) I assume it's because during most of Christianity's history, food was scarce enough for most people that over-indulging wasn't an issue, while even poor people can make sex :-)

I am pretty much a chronic dieter, for health reasons, but I honestly don't have shame around my appearance or eating habits. It bothers me that all of the other women I know talk about "being good" or "being bad" with reference to eating.

But I honestly think the issue is not so much about rejecting agency and pleasure-seeking as it is about only have one model of making choices. Our whole culture views agency along the lines of, I have a childish self (an id, or whatever you want to call it) who wants all kinds of naughty things (sex, food, extra sleep, a new dress, whatever) and an adult self (or conscience, or superego) who tries to control the naughty child self. You boss that child self around and tell it how it's being bad and maybe reward it for being good, and that's how you control your urges. Christianity seems to encourage this view, but it's pretty prevalent everywhere, I suspect.

I think a much healthier model is to acknowledge that we have many desires and that they sometimes conflict, and our task is to use our skills to make choices. Often our short-term and long-term desires conflict and that is especially tricky to handle, because our short-term desires feel so much more pressing. But it's still a matter of making choices. You can look back and see that you made a wrong choice (that is, one that in retrospect you wouldn't prefer to have made), but it's not because you were "bad."


Sorry for the serial posting, but I think the other problem with the adult/child view of your agency is that it leads to the "deserve" model of thinking. I was good today, so I deserve ice cream! I work so hard, I deserve to buy this thing I can't afford! (You have to reward yourself for "being good", after all.)

I choose to believe that every single person deserves every good thing. But our choices can't be about deserving - we have to make the choices that are best for us, taking into account our desires. Do I "deserve" a Mercedes? By my definition above, yes. But buying a Mercedes would make me worse off in the long run, so it's not in my interests to do it.

Saying that everyone deserves every good thing is completely equivalent, in my mind, to saying that the word "deserve" has absolutely no meaning. But I choose the more positive and affirming statement.


But at the same time, I am clear that there are few areas of life where it is more important to live out our egalitarian values than eating and sex. I am not advocating uncontrolled gluttony or destructive promiscuity.

I think this is a key point here, that people should be able to appreciate moderation - with respect to food, drink, sex, or anything else - without guilt. Pleasure often does come with penalties, particularly when taken to excess, and I think that needs to be understood; it's just that one shouldn't feel a sense of shame with every indulgence one partakes in.

In college, I knew students who were teetotalers, students who were borderline alcoholics, and students who were moderate drinkers, and it was my personal expereince that this was somewhat of an indicator of personality. The teetotalers and heavy drinkers (sometimes one became the other) both tended to view drinking as "being naughty" at some level, while the moderate drinkers didn't have any particular emotional attachment to the act of drinking per se. I imagine a similar dynamic applies here, and perhaps it ties into what Tam said about bossing around an inner child vs. just making informed, rational decisions.


This was one of the weirdest issues for me to wrap my head around when I moved from East-Central Europe to the West. Heaven knows my home country is extremely patriarchal, much more so than where I live now. But this is one thing that never, ever cropped up at home. Women, and men, ate just as much as they wanted, and they looked at Western TV depicting people starving themselves with a mixture of pity and bewilderment. The sweet feeling of fullness was not even considered a right, it was so normal.

This is probably changing now, especially in the more cosmopolitan capitals. But I wonder if this does not question the assumption that the phenomenon you describe has a simple link to patriarchy. I would have thought that it is a mixture of a consumerist and perfectionist culture with patriarchal attitudes that creates this effect. I wonder also how much of this is about trying to fulfill a classist ideal. Being trim and perfectly packaged is, after all, a costly pursuit: you generally have to be able to afford healthy food and opportunities to exercise (as well as a myriad of cosmetic products, good haircuts etc). And this would also support my Eastern European example, where, until recently, class divisions just were not the same.


I'm amazed that you could write a whole post (good post, by the way) about pleasure regarding food and sex and not note that it's likely that a lot of the sexual shame can be traced directly to the needs of various churches to control women's (and to a lesser degree, men's) bodies. One big reason fewer people masturbate in general is because they are browbeaten with the idea that some voyueristic god doesn't want them to...just as a for-instance.


I have to admit, I starve myself to be thin. But it's not because I want to be more attractive to men (actually, in my experience men find the curvier me more attractive), it's because I simply feel more powerful the more my body resembles a boy's. I can trace this back to childhood I suppose - puberty meant tons more restrictions, learning to "act like a girl", and unwanted sexual advances and inuendo - so maybe it's natural that a prepubescent-type body is the kind I would feel more comfortable in. I don't know if this is a motive for dieting that other women share, but I thought I'd throw it out there...


It's a classic one, Nico. Thank you for sharing it.


Intriguingly, I seem to remember an advert (I think it was for Muller yoghurt or something) which had the tagline "all this pleasure...but where's the pain?". The adverts were always reinforcing the idea that there must be pain to balance out the pleasure experienced.

This post really resonated with me. My mother grew up in a house with six sisters, no brothers, and they all share a policing attitude to female eating - indulging each other while delighting in the sinfulness, admonishing each other or denying themselves. I realised this when I
was trying to understand what makes my mother always speak to me about my weight. I used to wonder if it was tied into the Irish thing of food as hospitality (they're Irish Catholic) but that doesn't really explain why you can't treat yourself, too...
I always saw the self-denial while providing pleasure (cooking for others and watching them eat, as per your ex, or in my mother's and aunts' case, urging food onto the others as a 'treat' whilst not having any yourself but washing up instead) as an attempt for a strange kind of power.
I think the provision of food for others (care) is tied up with the discouse of mothering - self denial being somehow associated with the Good Mother.
Interestingly, I don't know if this is related, but my late grandmother on that side of the family always used to say to me when I was an adolescent, on the subject of Men, "Don't ever give the dog the bone, and he will keep chasing you forever". I knew somehow that she meant sex, although she never said that word...I found this advice confusing, to say the least - I always wondered, does that make marriage the dog-house?


Excellent, thought-provoking stuff. I can't tell you how glad it makes me to know that these issues are being discussed in classrooms and across the blogosphere. :-)


This whole idea of pleasure as being somehow evil...I've got a cousin who favors a perfume called "Indecence". Go figure. She also likes to whine about her weight (not that excessive) and one Christmas indicted the whole nation as a bunch of indolent sloths. Other cousin, fatter, doesn't seem to care.
Way back in the supposedly liberated 70's, the prevailing message was that it was just so cool to sleep around, but self-pleasuring was still suspect. One who dind't involve others in one's getting-off was selfish or immature. Boys were forgiven for a few years of it because of their supposedly stronger urges, but it was still thought of as kind of pathetic compared to having another person--even of the same gender. But to me it always seemed at least as immature to risk disease, unwanted parenthood, emotional havoc, etc.
I always hated the idea that pleasure was somehow bad; I thought it was a conspiracy by adults to torture us, the young, for some obscure reason of their own.
It wasn't just sex and food. I recall my mom looking down on my interest in getting a synthesizer and just experimenting in private, with no one else to hear; she implied that one only had a right to musical instruments if one was planning to play them for others some day. To me, this was a conspiracy against us introverts. Why couldn't she just be glad that I was considerate enough to keep my lack of talent to myself?
But it's sad to see adults still treating themselves as they were once treated when powerless. Especially a segment of the populace that has been struggling for equal rights for so long, in so many other areas. Seems to me that learning self-defense or some practical skill is a better reason to exercise one's body, and that a fit body would be better able to carry whatever weight was present.
I'm getting ready for the possibility of some lively discussions at the family table this Thanksgiving...


Hugo, you write:

"Bottom line: few students get to college without a considerable amount of shame surrounding their eating. Most, if not all, have incorporated specifically moral language to refer to their food habits. [...] as a feminist, few things make me sadder than to see so many of my students caught in that trap of oscillating between self-denial and indulgence, between bouts of puritanical pride in their own restriction and crushing guilt for giving into the basic desire to be sweetly, pleasurably, full."

I shall be interested in hearing you explore this meme as you progress in a vegan rule of life.

To tip my hand, I should admit that I ahve noted you have already admitted that "left to your own devices" you'd subsist on rice cakes and peanut butter, or some such. Thus, you make it clear you have a "tin ear" as regards the aesthetics of food (you're an "eat to live" not a "live to eat" person). It is a short step from that to a moralistic/puritanical relationship to food and eating. (Yes, I know, there are *delicious vegan dishes. I prepare and eat them because they are delicious. Same reason I prepare and eat grass-fed no-hormone beef steak.)

My momma made/makes the most amazing country southern food. and frowned/frowns at me for asking for seconds. and I'm male.



I really wish that Americans could take a few lessons from the French. Their attitude seems to be: pleasure is a good thing in itself. We (and I'm no exception) feel that pleasure must be earned somehow.


Nico: that's why I work out and wear clothing that restricts or hides my breasts -- when all the boys went through puberty they obtained a power and privilege that I missed out on by instead developing into a girl. Same motivation, different tactic.

Sarah P

Great article and well thought out... you might want to read this:

Cosmic Tap: The Haunting Myth of American Anorexia

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