Friday, September 18, 2009

On the Fetishising of Food

I'm not proud of it, but on Wednesday I found myself watching free-to-air television in the middle of the afternoon. Those of you with, you know, "lives" may be unfamiliar with the soporific beast that is daytime television, but in my experience there are few phenomena quite so capable of dredging up ruminations on humanity and its myriad of shortcomings as this one. Ready, Steady, Cook, with its glittering array of TV "stars" relaying the best way to cook asparagus with an enthusiasm that asparagus should never inspire in a human being is cause enough for depression, but by the time that the preternaturally cheerful Ian Hewitson appeared on my television screen, enjoining me to appreciate "those oozing juices - ooo lovely!" from whatever dish he happened to be cooking that afternoon, I was ready to ask: "what the fuck is wrong with us?"

It's not just daytime television of course: Masterchef, a show devoted to judging people on the basis of dishes that the audience can neither smell nor taste, became one of the highest rating shows of all time, consigning a generation of men, women and children back into the kitchen to spend hours slaving over stoves under the guise of Epicurean exploration - weren't the conveniences of modern life supposed to have liberated us from this kind of domestic slavery decades ago? Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver - two men who have staked a career in berating people who can't cook properly - also generate high ratings, the former's ratings glory apparently not even hampered by endless reruns or poorly judged swipes at current affairs hosts. Food, apparently, makes for compelling television.

But then there's the flip side: a culture conscious of its status as one of the most obese in the world, where the contents of children's lunchboxes are debated in the halls of parliament and fast food restaurants are referred to with the same scathing condescension previously reserved only for tobacco companies. It is the same culture that's made Magda Szubanski's weight-loss front page news, and made shows like The Biggest Loser - where obese people are humiliated via a process of applied sadism into losing weight - ratings winners. We are obsessed with food, yet we're also feeling guilty about being obsessed with food. Food, once just a necessity of nature, has been transformed into an object fit for fetishising by our zealous cullinary puritanism and the consequent attempts to surpress appetites that are otherwise completely natural: food is the new sex.

Where we once became slim to make us more attractive to the opposite sex, we now become slim out of some deontological deference; the consequence of a culture in which obesity is increasingly seen to be a moral failure. Where once the puritans were writing in to complain about the sexual content on television whenever a nipple should happen to become exposed (which, of course, says far more about the sex-obsessed mind of the puritan than it does about the rest of us) the puritans are now writing in to complain about ads for food during kids programs, or about fast-food companies sponsoring sporting events. Where we once felt pangs of guilt for fantasising about a variety of sexual episodes in quite lurid and unnecessary detail*, we now feel pangs of guilt for fantasising about eating the kinds of foods that don't deliver the essential doses of omega 3 we need to keep our bodies healthy.

It is, of course, important to try to encourage people to eat properly and lose weight - the health of the nation depends on it. But we have to be careful about swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, where quite normal appetites for various types of foods become unhealthily surpressed. Just as sexual repression can lead to aberrant expressions of sexuality, is it not possible that gastronomic repression can lead to aberrant patterns of eating? Is that not, in some way, what we're aleady starting to see already within our weight-obsessed culture and its mid-afternoon cullinary porn?


*C'mon, don't play coy with me. We all know what you've been up to.

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