Back when New Age ideas began to float about there also appeared a book by Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. How are these two things connected, you might ask? From the start it appeared to me that a lot of New Age ideas were at their core an effort to deny death. As if eating the right foods, meditating the right way, thinking the right thoughts, going to enough workshops would enable a person to avoid life’s inevitable end - death. And this project has continued with vigor in the years since.
It is February. Check out the covers for magazines aimed at women — Family Circle, Women’s Day, Redbook. Most years the February issue will feature rich chocolate desserts for Valentine’s Day — as lovingly photographed as fashions in Vogue. And in the same issue will be one or more articles about the best diet or some health issue requiring vigilance. It’s like food porn and exhortations to abstinence in the same issue. And women are always put in this position.
In a terrific book, Against Health, Metzl and Kirkland bring together essays from a variety of disciplines to explore how health has become a moral issue. They quote Ivan Ilyich:
“To hell with health,” he is reported to have said. “It is the most cherished and destructive certitude of the modern world. It is a most destructive addiction.” Illich did not mean that people need not seek relief from ailments and illnesses. Rather, he argued that American society promoted a definition of health based on an unattainable ideal, one that made no room for suffering, aging, dying, or other natural processes.
Kirkland, Anna (2010). Against Health NYU Press
One arena in which this push to the "unattainable ideal” Ilyich warned about is weight and body size. January and February also bring us seemingly endless commercials for Weight Watchers and NutriSystem and whatever other diet programs seek to capitalize on our anxieties about having indulged in the kinds of foods we see on the magazine covers — December magazines present the same food porn that February brings.
Any body which does not conform to the ideal --which in our time is what we see on magazine covers, in movies, on television ,in the 1000 or more images we see each day of impeccably made-up and coiffed slender athletic bodies — is an affront, a failure to successfully attain that perfect body. And the bigger the non-conforming body is the greater the failure and condemnation, often expressed as concerns about health. Which brings us back again to health as a moral issue with its disguised agenda of avoiding death.
In The Atlantic this month, Michelle Allison considers this very problem in her article, "Eating Toward Immortality”. She concludes:
This is why arguments about diet get so vicious, so quickly. You are not merely disputing facts, you are pitting your wild gamble to avoid death against someone else’s. You are poking at their life raft. But if their diet proves to be the One True Diet, yours must not be. If they are right, you are wrong. This is why diet culture seems so religious. People adhere to a dietary faith in the hope they will be saved. That if they’re good enough, pure enough in their eating, they can keep illness and mortality at bay. And the pursuit of life everlasting always requires a leap of faith.
To eat without restriction, on the other hand, is to risk being unclean, and to beat your own uncertain path. It is admitting your mortality, your limitations and messiness as a biological creature, while accepting the freedoms and pleasures of eating, and taking responsibility for choosing them.
Unclean, agnostic eating means taking your best stab in the dark, accepting that there is much we don’t know. But we do know that there is no One True Diet. There may be as many right ways to eat as there are people—none of whom can live forever, all of whom must make of eating and their lives some personal, temporary meaning.
Do take the time to read the whole piece.