Since I was a kid, there has always been a myriad of rules surrounding food: what to eat; what not to eat; how to decline food and how to accept it; how to chew and other manners that one should abide by when eating. As I grew older, the learning never ceased. There were more rules to follow and there were rules that kept changing: what food makes you popular at lunchtime; what makes you fat and what makes you slim; what food you may order on a date; what food makes you run faster, jump higher, think better or endure for longer. Food contained the formulas to achieve your ideal self and the means to stay stuck in the rut of your actual self.
Society has transformed the simple ‘eat to live’ into a concoction of problems, solutions, disorders, cultural norms and prejudices. There is so much emphasis on food and eating in contemporary society that it has bred a new type of human; a self-loathing one. Food is fuel, but food has come to represent personality, popularity, wealth, philanthropy and success. Many of the meanings that have been attached to food have caused people to feel ashamed, repulsed or overly self-conscious about eating. On the flip side, people are judgmental, harsh and superficial.
For example, a skinny friend of mine from university always refused to eat in public. When he was hungry, he would search for an empty lecture room and he would sit alone to eat, not allowing any of his friends to sit with him. Overweight people often feel embarrassed eating in public, as they believe that everyone is judging them: ‘Eat fat boy, that’s why you look like that!’ The sad thing is that many people do think that. They neglect to acknowledge the many other reasons that make people the way they are: illnesses, depression, abusive relatives, trauma, stress, medication, genes, parents… Judgment is based on that which is only skin deep. At the same time, the perspective of what is overweight and what is perfect has become extremely warped. One of my friends phoned me two weeks ago, crying because some measurement chart declared that she was 5kg overweight. In my opinion, she has the perfect figure: tall, curvaceous but slim. Regardless, my opinion was pushed aside as ‘an act of being nice’ and she is currently starving herself in the belief that food is her greatest enemy.
The root of the problem however, is not food but society. For one, media (be it television, magazines or online sites) tend to personify beauty as that which is sleek, sultry and almost impossibly flawless. Men are often defined with small hips and big shoulders. Such imagery affects our perceptions of ourselves – we could never look as good as they do therefore we are ugly and inadequate. At university, I once happened to walk into a group of men talking about their bodies, their diets and their gym routines; one of the guys confessed that he would never take of his shirt or go out with a girl until he had obtained his six-pack.
A second problem is capitalism: food outlets are constantly advertising specials and forbidden delicacies that play on our desires, unperturbed about the negative affects that their food may have. Other products (such as weight lose pills and steroids) promise quick solutions to create the ideal physique. These products create the idea that there is definitely a problem with how we look and then claim to be able to solve them. However, while one cannot fully blame society for our own faults, it stands that people would be less obsessed with food and how they look if society had less of a focus on it. I for one, cannot think of a single function or rendezvous with family or friends that didn’t involve someone mentioning their weight; another person’s weight; the amount of calories in a specific food; or their new diet.
The concept of food is like religion: everyone has their own biases of what is right or wrong, determined by their own life experiences and teachings. Only they are right. Vegan activists bang down door after door, asserting that non-vegans bare the resemblance of cold-blooded murderers. Meat lovers greet them with a lamb on a spit and 500g spare ribs, mocking their resistance. Size-zero starvists belittle the size-large in contempt as if they were Quasimodo reincarnations; while the heavy weight champions poke at the pecs of their nerdy worshippers.
There is a war out there; a war over food and all damage is psychological.