Interview anyone these days about food and no matter what their gastronomic predilections, chances are they will speak of them with a fervor bordering on religiosity. The vegan preaches her diet -- nay, lifestyle in the truest sense of the word: it is not just food but an overarching style of life -- with a proselytizing zeal reserved in earlier times for Christian missionaries in Africa. The low-carb Paleo follower punctuates his scientific claims with rhapsodic sermons about miracles although the results skew more towards reappearing abdominal muscles than healing leprosy. Consider the last time you were "preached" to about your diet. I'm betting it was fairly recent.
It seems almost impossible for people to talk about their food without invoking a larger meaning. I do not know anyone for whom food is simply sustenance. And perhaps it has always been this way; a cellular mechanism designed for survival in lean times. The colloquial term for this is food porn. And our infatuation with it is growing. If the proliferation of food blogs is any indication, then food has become the new sex and our obsession with regulating food, the new national religion.
Mary Eberstadt of the Stanford-based think tank the Hoover Institute, has noticed this change but in addition to the deifying of food she adds the secularization of that other great appetite: sex. In an interesting switch, food and sex have completely reversed their roles in society. And all within only a matter of two generations.
Think of it: what if humans were given access to limitless food and sex. The bottomless cup of hedonism, if you will. What does common sense dictate that we would do? Most would think we would become unrestrained in both areas, succumbing with equal glee to both gluttony and promiscuity. Yet for the first time in history we have a very large society in exactly this situation and the answer is not what anyone expected.
Eberstadt illustrates her point by using the example of Betty, a 1950's housewife, and her contemporary granddaughter Jennifer summing up their attitudes by saying, "Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse."
There are many implications stemming from such a startling conclusion but one in particular has been weighing heavily on my mind: the idea of fat discrimination. While Eberstadt refrains from moralizing, I cannot help myself. If food is the new sex, meaning in the sense that our society has constructed strict mores about its consumption, followed by swift repercussions when those mores are broken, then publicly pillorying fat people is the modern equivalent of sending away a pregnant teen until her shame resolves itself. There is a new scarlet letter in town: it's spelled XXL.
Take this picture currently making the Internet rounds:
I've come across this picture in at least 4 different occasions this weekend, each time under an increasingly insulting heading. It first showed up on Reddit under "If a single image ever stood for a generation..." and getting progressively worse as it made its way through various social media before ending up in the geek-chic clearing house of "cool" Google recommends, officially jumping the shark before it was even 48 hours cold.
What makes it so compelling? Certainly not that it is a picture of two obese people on a motorized scooter. Nothing inherently humorous is happening in the picture. But it certainly has the ability to garner attention. This, my friends, is the modern equivalent of the stocks. We have put this couple in the public eye, allowing the citizenry to bombard them with verbal stones as a punishment for their crime. Take some of the following comments, for example:
"There are three cows in this picture!" Immediately followed by, "Hey! Hey! Don't insult bovines that way!"
"One word: Forklift"
"How do they f***?" Rejoinder: "Hopefully they don't." And the final crack: "They get mixed up with whose boob is whose."
"Fake! -notice lack of BIG GULP cup holders -notice lack of Beef Jerky wrappers in fat folds -notice buildings and cow not leaning into their gravitational pull."
And last but not least a plethora of Yo Mamma jokes, middle-school style.
So what is their crime? Being fat? Rather, being caught being fat. These people symbolize to our strangely moralistic-about-food society the sluts of gluttony. Not only can they not temper their appetites but they have the nerve to go out in public and flaunt their food-whorishness on a scooter. Picture instead of two heavies on a bike, a pregnant woman sans wedding ring. Would we ridicule her in such a manner? Would we teach our children to make jokes about her? The thought is absurd. Such a woman today would be entirely unremarkable -- unless of course she managed to pop out eight babies at one time in addition to her other six. We mock them because we are so afraid of becoming them. And we fear them because being fat has become the worst sin you can commit today.
Which is worse these days: Being called fat or whore? If magazines are any indication, every woman in America would rather be known for being promiscuous than being a porker. Praise be to Nelly Furtado for making that distinction into a catchy little tune so we can all internalize it.
Happy Eating Disorder Awareness Week everyone!
Follow Charlotte Hilton Andersen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CharlotteGFE