Everybody in the world, in every culture, has known that overeating was bad for you. From the ancient Greeks to the modern age, we have been told to be moderate in our eating. In the Judeo-Christian tradition of which our society was supposedly founded and to which we Americans give so much lip service (pardon the pun), overeating wasn't just bad for you, it was bad, period. As in morally wrong.This is so sweeping and misguided, it's difficult to know where to start.
In just the last thirty years, we've trashed those thousands of years of civilized tradition. In our new consume-consume-consume-and-consume-some-more culture, gluttony isn't a sin, it's a virtue. We're encouraged to eat, and eat more, and eat a big dessert on top of that. (p. 17)
First, the idea that "everybody in the world, in every culture" has "known that overating was bad for you" is simply a narrow, myopic, woefully simplistic view of history. It's also largely incorrect. If we were to make the kind of crude generalizations about historical conceptions of gluttony Spurlock makes, history would indicate Spurlock has it backwards.
To the extent that restraint was encouraged, it was due more to the scarcity of food than to health concerns. For a long time, gorging on your food supply simply wasn't prudent, given that it meant you likely wouldn't have anything to eat when winter came. If you were part of a community, gorging meant you were taking more than your share.
But among and within societies where food abounded, indulgence was well-practiced, and well-celebrated. The Romans loved their women curvy, and were famous gluttons. Vasts swaths of Western culture have found girth a sign of wealth and vigor, not sin and illness. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, plump women with wide hips and a generous bosom were the epitome of beauty -- Rubens' nudes would have today's BMI-fascists apoplectic. Even as late as the 1800s, artisitc depictions of female beauty were generously proportioned.
Even throughout the first half of the 20th century, the picture of female beauty was round, curvy, and voluptuous -- what we today would probably straddle the overweight-obese threshhold on the BMI. Think Betty Grable, Mae West, or Clara Bow.
Spurlock not only botched his history, he botched the present, too. Contrary to his claim that social perssures today encourage obesity, it's only been in the last 40 years or so that Kate Moss, Twiggy, and Paulina Porzikova became standards of feminine beauty. It's also only in the last 40 years that bulimia and anorexia have become epidemic among teen and adolescent girls and, increasingly, among boys as well. Purging, starving, and scarfing down suppositories aren't exactly sympomatic of teens striving to fit in with a society that encourages gluttony.
Yes, we have more food choices as consumers than we ever have. But the idea that that is somehow indiciative of a licenscious attitude toward gluttony is preposterous. It's the result of our prosperity, and of social changes (more women in the workforce, for example) that call for cheap food quickly prepared.
Fat isn't encouraged today, it's loathed. If fat were chic, diet books wouldn't dominate the bestseller lists. Obesity wouldn't pervade the headlines. And each time I write about obesity, I wouldn't get email from people who tell how they're fine with government intervention into the refrigerator, because they find fat people repulsive, and they're tired of looking at them. L.A. Times reporter David Shaw writes in his book The Pleasure Police:
In recent years, the peasure police, as the pleasure police have gained ascendancy, that message has been no-so-subtly transmogrified from "You can" to "You should" -- or even "You must." More than ever, fat people are shunned and ridiculed, and anyone seen eating a large meal--or just, God forbid, a steak -- is made to feel stupid, if not downright suicidal. If you don't exercise enthusiastically and more or less constantly--if you don't think fitness is next to godliness--you're made to feel like a moral imbecile.Spurlock seems to confuse the availability and abundance of food with the moral "okay" from society to scarf down as much of it as we can as quickly as we can. That's just not true. Prosperity gives us lots of choices. It doesn't tell us to choose them all. Or only the worst ones.
Today's society treats fat people with contempt. That's why so many of them want to get thin. Atain, it's why diet books do so well (Spurlock's fiancee just released her own vegan diet book on the heels of the popularity of Super Size Me). Of course, diets almost always fail (at a 90-95% clip, by most accounts). And repeatedly trying and failing to diet does much worse things to your health than remaining at a steady weight, even a heavy one. There's some evidence that it isn't being heavy that's unhealthy, it's the constant yo-yo dieting heavy people undertake in response to social pressures to get thin. You could make a good case that all this encouragement aimed at getting fat people thin not only isn't good for them, it may well be killing them.
The one period in history that did embrace the anti-gluttony attitude Spurlock finds "civilized" is Victorian-era England. Robert Clark writes of Victorian prudishness in his biography of James Beard:
"Stoutness, once symbolic of plenty and success, was increasingly viewed as a sign of excess, ill health, sloth, and a lack of self-control. Regulation of the body--through Houdini-like stunts, marathon fasts, and bizarre dietary cults--was a running theme of late Victorian and early-twentieth-century life."Sound familiar? David Shaw adds:
It is no coincidence that repression of the appetite for food occured at a time when social forces also conspired in the repression of other appetites. In this, Victorians emulated the original Puritans, who insisted that man's appetite--any appetite--was his enemy, an ungodly force to be restrained, controlled and denied; bodily pleasure, whether taken between the lips or between the legs, was to be avoided at all costs.Shaw also quotes social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, who writes in her book Fasting Girls:
Over and over again, in all the popular literature of the Victorian period, good women distances themselves from the act of eating.Is this really the "civilized" society Spurlock laments has passed us by? Frankly, I'm kinda' glad it's gone.
To be hungry, in an sense, was a social faux pas. Denial became a form of moral certitude, and refusal of attractive foods a means of advancing in the moral hierarchy.
But I fear it's coming back, thanks to people like Spurlock, and in particular the nutrition activists he relies upon in the endnotes of his book. There's more than a nugget of Victorianism in today's busybodies who work to patrol our personal lives for bad habits. I think we're entering a kind of neo-Victorian age. This new brand of self-righteous piety crosses ideological lines. The left, generally under public health auspices, gets its dander up over issues like obesity and tobacco -- bad habits we typically associated with red-staters. The right, moved by moral outrage, wants to crack down on sexual licentiousness and recreational drug use, stereoytypically more common in blue states and urban areas. Both emphasis piety and restraint or pleasure and satiety. Both want to protect us from ourselves, from what they perceive to be the negative excesses of the pursuit of pleasure.
In fact, you might even say that today's prigs are worse than the Victorians. Today, they're ready to (or already have) used the state to suppress habits they find repugnant. The Victorians at least mostly relied on only shame.