Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Fat of the Land

Well, it's the first day of autumn, 2005. A good time for another long, meandering post, don't you think?

I was up early this morning, and went for a short bike ride in the pre-dawn light; a deer, a fox, and a couple of raccoons crossed my path, as the sky slowly turned a lighter and lighter shade of blue and pink. This is a great time of year: it gets me thinking about the harvest, good food on the table, a sense of the land wrapping things up for another season. All that, plus fat. Unfortunately, it's hard not to think about that when I'm out sweating on my bike. I'm 6'2", and I'm tipping the scales at just under 230 lbs. For years after I reached my full height, I was fairly slim--I stayed at 185 lbs. for most of my undergraduate career, maybe maxing out around 195. Then came marriage and graduate school and the dissertation, and suddenly I'd put on twenty pounds. And despite numerous half-hearted plans to reverse the trend, there's been a slow but steady increase ever since. No, I'm not particularly overweight or out of shape, but I've definitely grown a gut.

I've never really been tempted to hit the gym, submit to a fierce diet regime, and turn myself into a physical Adonis (assuming I even could)--I don't want to work that hard. (Not to dismiss the example of those who do--like an old friend of mine who has gone in just a few years from being heavier than I to being a competitive marathon-runner.) Plus, I suspect that many of the pressures which get brought to bear on those who aspire to "fitness" are, as Hugo Schwyzer smartly put it, "less about health and more about attempting to conform to an unrealistic beauty standard." Still, I don't like how I look, mainly because it is manifestly the case that I'm not living as lightly (literally) as I could be. And that's become increasingly important to me over the last few years: living simply and ethically, which among other things puts a big question mark over many of our activities and life choices (including how one uses or abuses one's body, as well as what one puts into it).

This probably sounds like just more of my usual leftist communitarian shtick, and it is partly that: I'm hardly immune to all the condemnations of fast food, SUVs, mini-mansions, suburban sprawl, capitalism, or America itself out there which frame themselves as attacks upon the costs and crudities of bigness and overconsumption. (I recently gave a favorable presentation to a faculty group here at WIU on Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation; I'll try to get a post about that up in a day or two.) And let's be honest--a lot of those sorts of critiques are driven by an elitist disdain, or the mad desire to be one of those wealthy, informed, superior, beautiful people who get to look down all the rest of the McDonald's-patronizing proles out there. Many ugly or at least wholly irrelevant sentiments can get wrapped up in the criticism of fatness, sentiments that Daniel Ben-Ami does a good job exposing in this article. Not that I agree with his rejection of the anti-overconsumption line of thought, not the least reason for which being his failure to actually engage any of the more serious arguments out there attacking how so many of eat, buy, and live. Instead, Ben-Ami is content to simply affirm that, well, of course all consumption is good, because all consumption reflects the desire to improve oneself materially and enjoy the benefits thereof, and who could possibly be against an increase of material wealth in the world, especially amongst the world's poor? That, dare I say, doesn't come close to touching on the real issue....which is what makes all the more interesting that he does get to the heart of the matter in a casual aside that deserves a lot more thought than he gives it:

"[A] key part of the reason [for the popularity of the anti-overconsumption argument] is the institutionalisation of the idea that there is no alternative to the market. Capitalism, in one form or another, is seen as the only realistic way of organising society. In terms of political debate there is what Thomas Frank, a liberal social commentator, describes as 'the systematic erasure of the economic.' In other words, cultural matters are open for debate but fundamental economic questions are not....Matters related to the sphere of consumption are [thus] open to debate. This includes not just the literal act of consumption itself but related questions such as brands and identity....In contrast, the productive sphere is seen as fixed. This is not just a technical question of the manufacturing process for, say, semiconductors or plasma screen televisions. It means that the possibility of developing a qualitatively better economy is denied. Humanity's creative potential, including the possibility of transcending the limits of the market, is banished from discussion."

For Ben-Ami, this just means that we need to shake off our doldrums and get fascinated again with the "productive" side of the equation again. Bring back supply-side economics--we need to concentrate on growth, on making everyone just as fat as Americans are! But what it suggests to me is the possibility that the argument about "fatness" often gets weighed down with condescending and unwarranted judgments exactly because those who criticize consumption are themselves committed to fixed economic perspective: they can only think of themselves as consumers, and so all there is to do is complain about all those other (lousy, low-class, overweight, irresponsible, trashy) consumers out there who haven't figured out the right way to spend their money or time, the right foods to put into their bodies so to maximize bodily outputs. As long as that is the only frame of reference available, then of course the debate won't go anywhere: if the protesters outside the McDonald's restaurant are nothing but (upper-class, well-educated, oh-so-enlightened) consumers themselves, trying to get the patrons inside to get with the program, well, it won't surprise me to see the Big Mac win every time.

Fortunately, that's not the only frame of reference available. If one turns away from the idea that one is expected to be contributing to the "right" parts of the economy by making the "right" choices, and instead reconsiders the economic sphere in light of entirely different, not necessarily consumptive and choice-driven priorities, then it becomes possible to makes certain critiques without necessarily falling into exclusive or condescending language. A friend of mine recently returned from France, and like so many who visit that country, was impressed at how healthy and fit the people he met were, how there seemed to be an inverse relationship between how little the French obsessed about food and looks, and how well they ate and appeared. Sure, his observations are just anecdotal, but they're also quite common, and the explanations behind those observations are probably not any less true for being commonplace: the stereotypical Frenchman or Frenchwoman eats more slowly and walks more; it takes longer to get things done, and the things done take up more time than most Americans are willing to accept. Put in more theoretical terms, one might say that they move bodily through a more circumscribed world, where more foods are local, more daily routines and circumscribed, and diets and habits have an organic connection (or, at least, far more organic than is the case for the average American city-dweller) to the natural limits of things. They see something else beyond the food and the road, that's all. The French may be among the world's foremost "fat American"-bashers, but it's quite possible that, when one gets down to fundamentals, most of them aren't doing so just because they think we all ought to change our diets: perhaps it has more to do with an amazement at the narrow, locked-in way (more food, faster food, more diets, faster diets, etc.) in which we approach the whole matter of consumption in the first place.

This needn't be cast in American/anti-American terms. Might it not be the case that, at least on some level, those all around who live healthily aren't doing so solely because they want to make themselves into a certain sort of person (with the tight stomach and firm abs), but because they genuinely find a certain kind of joy and empowerment in constraining and disciplining themselves? Of course it is--just listen to any long-distance runner or biker talk about the groove they fall into, how they find a deep reward in being able to relate to and feel their body in a way that has nothing to do with consumptive inputs and productive outputs. And, if you listen carefully enough, you'll find the same sort of language coming from fine chefs and fans of good food all across the country. For them, the point is to get away from the one-meal-follows-another-routine: by tuning (and therefore limiting) their minds and bodies to meals and ingredients that can't be reduced to quick, mass-produced fuel, they can consume (often luxuriously!) without losing sight of everything else food can be. I don't mean to collapse all this to a single theoretical observation, but I think it's compelling nonetheless: in my experience, people who are really close to, really appreciate, and loving indulge in the bounty of the world around us are rarely poster children for gluttony; similarly, the truly healthy people are rarely those who viciously hit the gym after every (thoughtless) lunch meal, trying to cut themselves a perfect body before rushing back to work. Good food and good health require a much simpler submission to the rhythms of the world, at least to some degree; I don't know if you could really get away with calling that an "economic" question, but I do suspect that refusing to acknowledge the pace of one's own personal economy is a sure way to fail to enjoy all that one's body allows. And as one's personal economy is at least partly a function of the larger, public one....well, I guess this comes back to the "American way of life" (or at least the rather hyped-up version of which that has dominated the public imagination for many decades now) after all. In the abstract, it seems so hard to imagine that we can and should re-assess how we manage our pace and presence in the world; when confronted with distant examples--like the French--the tendency is to insist (like the good "realists" we imagine ourselves to be) that those who resist the lure of the cheap and compact and quick are fooling themselves: that the traditional French diet (which is arguably in decline anyway!) is nothing more than "trick[ing oneself] into experiencing what is actually self-denial as a kind of pleasure." Heavy word there, "trick." It assumes that there's some falsehood lurking around. But doesn't that beg the question? Why is the pleasure that one can find in such alternative construals of the modern world necessarily false?

Last weekend we went out to visit a small Amish community near Macomb. They're farmers and carpenters; they run a local grocery store and sell some baked goods. Nothing special. But we've been lucky enough to find, through them and other local organic farmers, suppliers for a lot of our meat and vegetables; we're taking baby steps towards becoming more sensitive consumers. (Part of this is a return to something I grew up with, a topic I also need to blog about soon.) The Amish and other small farmers we've met around here are hardly svelte; they probably don't work out much. Some of them have guts that put mine to shame. But they look pretty fit too. And why shouldn't they be? The harvest is coming in; they're enjoying the fruits of their labors (literally, in some cases). They work hard, and eat pretty well, and live a life which, as any economist could tell them, they probably ought to have abandoned long ago--that is, assuming they want to get ahead in life. Thankfully, not many of them do: or at least, they don't accept that such "getting" ought to involve getting away from a more landed (in every sense) way of life which provides with them with more than enough to get fat on. That's a fatness, one might say, that you could be proud of.

(More here, if you're actually still interested.)


Anonymous said...

Wow, that's quite a lot of thought (I haven't read the "extra" yet, but I may).

Anyway, in addition to the Amish, other non-elite groups in America are also uncomfortable with the "work-hard/play-hard" mindset of cosmopolitian America. I'm thinking of small-town Maine, for example.

Otherwise, you may be interested in the Mutualist Blog . The author, Kevin Carson, focuses a lot on our economic organization, the role of the state in that organization, and how we think of our selves to fit into that system. I think you'd appreciate some of the stuff he writes. 

Posted by Adam

Anonymous said...


Posted by Anonymous

Anonymous said...

Lots of food for thought (pardon the pun) here. I was recently re-reading part of Christopher Lasch's True and Only Heaven  and was struck by how he contrasts the ethos of the American elite - cosmopolitan, restless, mobile, ambitious, workaholic - with the ethos of the working and lower-middle class, which focuses more on values like solidarity, community and a sense of limits. He contrasts progressivist "optimism," which thinks that every day, every way things are getting better (or would if the right people were in charge), with the more chastened value of "hope" - which affirms the goodness of being in spite of its limitations and disappointments.

Lasch, as you no doubt know, thought that the environmental situation, among other things, called for a return to a kind of "ethic of limits" and a turn away from the view that we can live in a world of limitless material progress and increased consumption for all (in fact, I think the author of the Spiked article you linked to mentioned Lasch, but failed to grapple with his argument).

On a more personal note, my wife and I became "demi"-vegetarians almost two years ago from a mixture of ethical, environmental and health reasons. And I've noticed that as a result of that decision we've been forced to pay more attention to the food we eat and we're more likely to stay at home preparing a meal made from wholesome ingredients than to go out to a fancy restaurant (eating out, I've noticed, is one of the acceptable forms of conspicious consumption among relatively affluent yet otherwise "enlightened" liberal folk - another way of proving one's superiority to the red-state masses perhaps?).

Another thought is that traditionally religious folk have all but abandoned any sense of asceticism. I'm not talking about the relentless punishment of the self (which seems to characterize many in the professional classes with their "work hard, play hard" lifestyle), but rather a sense of the rythyms of fast and feast that were long a part of Christian culture (and which, I suspect, find their analogues in other traditions). I wonder if that might be part of recovering a saner lifestyle? 

Posted by Lee

Anonymous said...


I've never been to Maine, but I don't you're right. There are likely many groups of people throughout America that content themselves with a slower pace of life, tied to more local concerns and means of production. (And thanks for the link recommendation--I'm not at all a libertarian, yet Kevin Carson's blog really touches on a lot of vital subjects, some that I probably need to learn a good deal more about.)


Thanks, as always, for the excellent comment. I'm a huge fan of Lasch, and you're right that his analysis of the difference between "hope" and "optimism" are quite relevant here. I think there's something very true to the idea that one can only be "hopeful" in connection to a world of grounded possibilities, whereas if all options are theoretically open (you can do anything you want with your body!) then all you've got are either mindless nostrums about "progress" vs. complete despair. The more humble diet that you and your wife have adopted is a good example of that--you find joy in working with what you have (these limits, stuff available in this season), rather than making joy contingent upon whatever kinds of "havings" you can plausibly achieve. The Caelem et Terra folks talk about this a lot. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

Maybe it is just Philly, but the "fancy" resturants here like Fork and White Dog have been leaders in the slow food, sustainable agriculture, and equitable food distribution movements (the latter tries to ensure that healthy, fresh food is available in all neighborhoods of the city, not just the rich ones. When I eat out, I'm not thumbing my nose at the red states, I'm sticking it to a guy who wants to turn another working family farm into a sprawl subdivision.  

Posted by David Salmanson

Anonymous said...

David, that's a good point. It kind of fits with the discussion of gluttony that I posted at Times and Seasons as a complement to this one--the point being, "gluttony" isn't about one's girth, per se, but about how one approaches food and drink and the pleasure of the earth. Are you exclusive or abusive in the way you consume things (for instance, do you demand that your environment supply you with whatever you want, whenever you want it, expense and environmental damage be damned)? Or do you genuinely appreciate the bounty of things for what they are? Of course, originally there was a clear Christian cast to this argument, but the principle can be expressed in secular terms as well. A lot of the best restaurants understand this; they understand the damage which the gluttony that fast food represents, and they want to get away from it, by re-emphasizing the fresh, the local, the subtle. At least, that's the conclusion I came to after having thought about my meal at Charlie Trotter's  for a long time. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox