Laurie Toby Edison

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21st Century Sin

We were delighted with the thoughtful comments to this post. We could (and may) write several blog entries based on them. One was started by Lynne Murray‘s comment that “dieting has become a minor religion in America,” although we are going in a somewhat different direction than she was pointing.

Her comment got us thinking about the morality of food. The world we live in seems to treat food very much like the Puritans treated sex: an obsessively present temptation which is simultaneously sinful and irresistible. Eating high-calorie food is the only thing that contemporary secular Americans call sinful.

And, of course, while you can give up sex, if you give up food you will die.

In Victorian morality, masturbation is done in secret. It is an irresistible act which carries with it the fear that you will, among other things, go blind. Going blind isn’t just an affliction on its own terms; it’s also the way that your sin is revealed to the rest of the world. In that context, sex is acceptable in marriage, which is why it is “better to marry than to burn.” If you abstain from sinful sex you will go to heaven and live forever.

In contemporary morality, secret eating is done with the fear that it will be revealed in weight. Gaining weight, like the fictional blindness or the very real “illegitimate” pregnancy, is the public revelation of sin. Being thin is a visible sign of virtue and, therefore, of salvation. If you eat sinlessly, the culture tells us, you will live forever: secular heaven on earth.

<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/food" rel="tag">food</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/sex" rel="tag">sex</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/diet" rel="tag">diet</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/religion" rel="tag">religion</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/Body+Impolitic" rel="tag">Body Impolitic</a><br />

8 Responses to “21st Century Sin”

  1. Pearl Says:

    Are you sure one wouldn’t have curtailed longevity without sex? ;-) But yes, I totally see the thin as proof of virtuous, trustworthiness, self-respect, strength and so on, even though someone overweight may have more muscle than a thin person or more virtue and diligence across the board in ways that are less visible at a glance. Interesting points raised.

  2. Patsy Nevins Says:

    Are you kidding about the curtailed longevity without sex, Pearl? I read that there are some idiot doctors who are actually trying to convince men that they should stop physical activity when they hit 50 in order to reduce their risk of prostate cancer. I expect they spend a lot of time hanging out with those who want to convince me that eating chocolate will hasten my demise, even though a nurse friend of mine shared a study with me which indicated that those of us who eat chocolate regularly live a year or two longer than those who don’t. I know what everyone means, though. I have spent my entire life hearing that thin people were stronger, more virtuous, had more self-discipline, etc. Yeah, right!

  3. Patsy Nevins Says:

    Sorry, I meant SEXUAL activity. My mind was fogged by some recent discussions with friends about the prevalent belief that enough exercise will keep us alive practically forever. Perhaps they should mention that to all the runners who drop dead while running when they are in their 40′s. That’s what I get for posting at 6:30 in the morning. :-)

  4. Dan'l Says:

    (Hunh. I hadn’t realized until just now that the replies here and on the LJ feed were separate!)

    While I agree (as usual) with most of this post, I think it’s important to remember that the “disguised food” is specifically Japanese — the cultural imperative there being “Men don’t like/eat sweets,” something we don’t have in the West.

    So while there is, yes, a religious aspect around not only dieting but exercise (how many times have you heard that execrable phrase, “My body is a temple?”), I don’t think it’s driving towards disguised food in this culture. Though I could be wrong!

  5. Laurie Says:

    Dan’l,

    I don’t think that we’re likely to be artfully disguising our food either. The Japanese food just got us thinking about food and gender.
    And as an artist it definitely has a surreal charm for me.

    Patsy and Pearl,

    It would be interesting if there were long term studies on the sexually happy and satisfied. I think there are some on long term religious celibacy,

    My favorite health food is dark chocolate with chiles.

  6. Dan'l Says:

    I don’t think that we’re likely to be artfully disguising our food either.

    It suddenly occurs to me, though, that there has been disguised food in American culture for some time — generally, in the form of practical joke products. Onion or hot-pepper chewing gum, for example. Also novelty candies — remember “candy cigarettes” and chocolate cigars? — designed to look, sometimes pretty realistically, like something other than candy. But, again, the motivation here is different, it’s a “novelty” rather than a way to sneak candy…

  7. Pearl Says:

    re: kidding
    yep, that’s what the ;-) (wink) is about.

    Whatever people want to eat, people build an argument to justify. People who don’t like coffee research for corraborating evidence against. People who like chocolate can mention only the corroborating evidence for. Same with smoking or citrus or anything. The data field is too complex. Vegan’s point at Japanese and say, look how little meat they eat and how long they live. race walkers point at Chinese mountain people and say, walking, that’s the key to longevity and heart health. It’s all very amusing but not logical. But then, we are not Vulcan, are we?

  8. Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » The Big Fat Carnival - First Edition! Says:

    [...] Body Impolitic: 21st Century Sin The world we live in seems to treat food very much like the Puritans treated sex: an obsessively present temptation which is simultaneously sinful and irresistible. Eating high-calorie food is the only thing that contemporary secular Americans call sinful. [...]

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