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By Diane Cole
The Religion of Thinness
Tell me what you dream about when you dream about food, and I'll bet it won't be my dream—and not only because, as the French say, one person's poisson (fish) is another's poison. (In French and English, the spellings and literal meanings of the word poison are the same.) In what we eat, why we eat, and how we eat, contemporary culture has added any number of new ways to define what's toxic versus what's tonic.
How did serving dinner become so complicated? Three new books, each taking a unique approach, address the increasingly fraught meaning of our menu choices, posing perplexing questions for everyone's inner (and actual) household chef: if we are what we eat, can we judge our ethics by the food we don't or won't eat? Can we weigh our values (and ourselves) according to what we consume? Is it conscious eating, or obsessive thinking, when you can't sit down to dinner without evaluating the toll on your cholesterol, the impact on the environment, and the effect on your body-image, of each fruit, veggie, carb, and protein? And why, when I go to the gym, do I feel almost hypnotically drawn to the elliptical machine directly in front of the TV tuned to a cooking show?
Perhaps we're no less obsessed with food than our survival-oriented hunter-gatherer predecessors were. We save tons of time grocery-shopping instead of going into the wild to spear a mammoth, but given the ever-growing market for food-oriented books and TV shows, I wonder whether we aren't spending that extra time obsessing, not always productively, about food in other ways.
Theologian and therapist Michelle Lelwica bolsters this perception with a provocative book, The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers behind Women's Obsession with Food and Weight. She believes that our culture has deified thinness, with dieting, calorie-counting, and aerobic exercise our chief rituals of worship. Like any religion, she says, this one provides adherents with an ultimate purpose (thinness), a mythical promise and belief (a perfect body brings a perfect life), moral rules (primarily about "good" versus "bad" foods), and community and sense of oneness with large numbers of like-minded dieters. And it's insidious, she believes, functioning as a modern-day equivalent to the traditional religions that Marx termed the opium of the people. "Faith in thinness does direct our attention away from what's really happening in our lives and the world around us, and fixates our energies on some hoped-for salvation in the future—when we are thinner," she writes. "What's more, this particular way of evading our problems is both socially acceptable and rewarded."
In fact, weekend mornings are prime times for Weight Watchers gatherings and exercise classes at gyms. In many communities, you'll find more congregants engaged in those activities than at church or synagogue. Lelwica devotes half the book to criticizing—justly, though repetitiously—the synthetic, all-pervasive influence of media images and advertising slogans that sell thinness 24/7, and she takes care to detail self-help strategies to break away from food obsessions.
She effectively makes the health case that, yes, you can be too thin, endangering your life. However, with our overly sedentary population in the midst of an obesity epidemic, I wish she'd spent time on the ever-lengthening list of health benefits that medical research reveals can come from maintaining a reasonable weight and from engaging in physical activity.
Perhaps she feels that it's more important for readers to focus on rechanneling old obsessions, rather than discovering new goals to obsess about. She urges readers to replace brittle materialistic values with a different, more mindful, more "spiritual" ethic, which may make nonbelievers balk. A more important point she makes is that we need to learn to have faith in ourselves, not an artificial ideal.
As the title suggests, Lelwica addresses her book primarily to women, but men, too, fall prey to eating obsessions, and in journalist Frank Bruni's food memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, readers will find multiple examples of the ritualistic dieting behavior described by Lelwica. Bruni's book serves up an aspect of food-as-religious-experience that Lelwica overlooks: the bliss of tucking into a well-prepared meal.