The Dogma of Diet Culture

You never know from where you’ll get a new perspective on a project.  I’ve been reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen a long essay about, among other things, the massive changes in storytelling/communications in the 20th century by one of my favorite writers, Larry McMurtry.  As I was reading along, absorbing his ideas, I bumped into this, which is completely relevant to this blog:

“… food began to make a comeback, not, however, because it tasted good or was a pleasure to eat, but as a form, I believe, of theology.  Food came back to save you, packaged now by the health food industry, whose orthodoxies are as strict as those of any faith.  First and foremost, fat – or Satan – had to be driven out.  (Visit a supermarket in Brentwood, Santa Monica, or Beverly Hills, California, and you will soon see how successful this crusade has been:  you can walk until you drop without seeing any food that will admit to having fat in it.)  Food that was just plain good gave way to food that was good for you.  The suggestion that fat-free food will save you from death – perhaps not forever but certainly for a long time – is everywhere present in supermarkets … The supermarkets themselves are more and more like churches …”

[Apologies for the length of the quotation.  One of the reasons I like McMurtry is probably that he’s even more fearlessly liberal in his use of the comma than I am.  I part with him on the use of the Oxford comma, however.]

It’s important to remember that he wrote this about a decade ago, when “fat-free” was still the current diet dogma.  But replace “fat-free” with “organic” and take a walk through your local supermarket.  Of course, he’s correct.  “Right living” used to mean “God-fearing” or at least “church-going.”  Now it means you eat what media/ad culture tell you is the right way to eat.  And those who subscribe to current diet orthodoxy look down their noses at those who don’t follow the rules the same way the Church Lady (and those who inspired her) used to look down their noses at Satan’s minions.  Buying a bag of chips elicits the same kind of shame in some people that buying a fifth of whiskey used to in the Bible Belt.

That’s worrisome to me. I do include a strong element of my personal theology in my work to lose weight – it’s a form of good stewardship to take care of the equipment I’ve been given.  But the Publix shouldn’t be confused with church.  And I’m afraid it is, in exactly the way McMurtry describes.

Health – spiritual or physical – needs to be a matter of good sense and reasoned thinking, not of dogma.  Which makes both a lot harder, but infinitely more rewarding.




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