For something that is meant to offer freedom and happiness, dieting sure has a habit of making prisoners of startling numbers of people.
With it now being 200 years since the abolition of slavery in Britain, a move which strangled the great wave of Afro-American stolen people into the New World and started the countdown towards the eventual outlawing of US slavery itself, perhaps now is the time to take proper stock of the real reasons behind this more modern scourge.
Whilst no-one should take the metaphor too far and fully equate the visceral agonies of slavery with the emotional imprisonment of lifelong food issues (that would be an insult to those who suffered and died in a foreign land), neither should we ignore the pain and indignity of self-image distress.
And the fact very much remains that dieting is not a simple choice or a self-elected misery for which individuals can simply assume full responsibility for the cause, or hence full responsibility for the cure. Knowledge and techniques are in the this case a prerequisite for freedom.
Historians may forever argue about which came more forcibly first, a sense that non-European races were inherently inferior, or whether economic forces, driving an insatiable desire for cheap new labour, in turn drove the dehumanisation.
Whatever, just as big themes of social theory resonate through the heart of slavery, so classical and modern social theories underlie current food despair.
Cultural power, as in racial dominance, are at the root of the slavery, along with economic power, as in the Marxist analysis that capital will develop its own ways, means and methods wherever opportunity can be sensed. There is always the fear that utility will trample humanity.
But that model of analysis obviously doesn’t fit neatly alone over the top of the current obesity crisis and the interwoven existence with dieting. What forces are at play and how to do go about recognising them, so that the unhappily food and image obsessed can regain their mental and bodily poise and equilibrium, freed of fatness obsessions and bodily fat itself?
One could argue that it is the power of gender domination at play. It is true that for centuries women have been greatly pressurised by the male view of optimal female beauty and sexuality. But surely this still cannot be the entire picture after the accumulation of several decades of female re-balancing of the gender scales? Indeed, it is very clear that not only obesity but also the associated failed dieting are becoming almost as much male as female issues. There are obviously gender power issues still in play but we need to look further afield for a fuller picture.
Social theory in the last thirty or so years has been taking a far closer look at culture itself through the lens of consumption and consumerism and these perspectives perhaps have much to inform a better understanding of obesity and weight loss issues.
Researcher and theorist Pierre Bourdieu developed a post-Marxist theory which linked aesthetic taste to class positioning. Through his notion of cultural capital, there are always options across every segment of the social spectrum. In the case of dieting, there is everything from ludicrously expensive celebrity colonic irrigationists, through to the tackiest fad diets in supermarket tabloid papers. You can spend a fortune or virtually nothing, yet still dieting has you trapped.
There is a sense with Bourdieu’s work which echoes the Frankfurt School theorists of earlier decades, namely that cultural aspiration is a game of fixed boundaries and it is unlikely to provide any deep or lasting satisfaction. Dieting may be seen as a cultural artifact. It has become so controversial and contested because it is a cultural construction which intrudes onto the altogether more concrete territory of physical health – and because, on this very clearly lit territory, it has abjectly failed in its stated intentions.
This is one of the key viewpoints which dieters can learn to take. Our attitudes towards food and eating and dieting, whatever might be said or written, rarely have simple life-sustaining nutrition as their primary purpose. Class, gender, culture and power are inevitably wrapped over just about every mouthful we put, or don’t put, into our mouths.
Those who wish to achieve permanent, painless and natural weight control would do well to launch their own, individual campaigns against the enslavement of dieting. It doesn’t take hundreds of years of struggle and violence. All that is required is a simple, clear and ever so satisfying shift of perspective. The big difference this time round is that otherwise it is ourselves who are being enslaved.
By Malcolm Evans