Food Porn and Obesity

Il faut manger pour vivre, et non pas vivre pour manger.
One must eat to live, and not live to eat.
L’Avare (The Miser)  1668, Act III, sc. i.

The proliferation of TV cooking shows, food travel diaries, competitive chef-ing, food documentaries and reality cook-offs poses questions beyond the relative cost of TV production.

Throw in food blogs and tiresome café conversations about diets, nutrition and weight loss and it is clear the most unhealthy aspect of modern food is the way it is corroding our culture, not our digestive tracts.

I appreciate good food. But far less than good company. And far less than scoffing any food at all after a day’s physical labour. When you’re truly hungry you just want to shovel, and the physical joy from that is substantial. No need for chemical gastronomy or faddish plate presentation.

But it is clear that for some people food, and discussion about it, fills an emotional need well beyond a basic physical or social need.

Possibly more than that. Watch and listen to a foodie woman engage with a King Island Cream or chocolate truffle and their response can be quasi-sexual. Nigella might be heavy-handedly flirtatious over food, but she has plenty of real life imitators. Food as comfort and food as quasi-sexual pleasure seem to dominate the approach of the food-fixated.

The fixation on eating as an activity, rather than undertaking an activity that just happens to make you hungry, suggests we have way too much time on our hands, and way too little that gives our time meaning.

Food consumption is a passive pastime. Watching TV or reading about food is a twice passive pastime. In the latter, centring attention on the image or implication of food, rather than the social act of dining, or the animal act of refuelling, is a type of fetish.

Certainly, the cook-as-artisan is different from the fetishising consumer. The acquisition of any active skill is always positive. There is something noble about the cook-as-host and the delivery of food pleasure to someone else. Particularly when the ‘gift’ is predominantly social. But that gift can still go beyond food-as-pleasure to the realm of food-as-value or food-pleasure-as-meaning.  And all too often, the artisan cook acquires culinary skill to indulge their own internal  fetishising consumer.

All this suggests that contemporary society’s food fixation and its conversational dominance is indicative of more than a passing fashion.

It’s not as if approaches to food have never been at issue before. Biblical, classical, medieval and Enlightenment writers – and no doubt writers of every other culture and era – have written reams on gluttony. Defending it, moralising about it, finding a balance, eschewing it altogether, placing it at the heart of being human, placing at the heart of a dark, animal nature.

It is true that civilisation is intimately connected to the amount of effort and concern that is given to our consumption of food. It is true too that often wowsers condemn the embrace of food-pleasure, simply because it is pleasure.

But contemporary society is different. We have substantially more capacity for overeating that is independent of taste and social engagement, or is driven by a need for food-pleasure to provide meaningful activity. We have substantially more capacity for passive consumption of food porn. The prevalence of both obesity and food-related leisure options is unprecedented. As is, by the way, our access to and consumption of pornography.

What food-porn and porn-porn have in common is the provision of a socially-isolated, fetishised experience of a pleasure that when engaged with in a healthy way is part of the essence of being human.

That we have declining levels of social capital, trust and engagement, increasing levels of people living alone, increased porn consumption, increased obesity and increased food porn consumption is all of a pattern. And it isn’t a good one.

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