Food and sex have shifted roles over the past fifty or so years, argues Mary Eberstadt in a fascinating essay at Policy Review. Once, social stigma condemned extra-marital philandering. Sex was a serious ethical issue, with serious personal and social consequences. Food, however, was something with few, if any, moral implications. Particularly for a generation with memories of the Depression, one was simply glad to have food at all.
Now these appetites have swapped moral codes. Food is the new sex. With growing awareness of genetic modification, pesticide use, industrialized breeding, and the fossil fuels required to transport fresh produce, how and what we eat have ostensibly become of moral import-particularly in liberal circles. Many firmly believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to consume, that the world would be a better place if we were a bit more mindful about the way we eat. Food “often attracts a level of metaphysical attentiveness suggestive of the sex of yesterday,” Eberstadt argues. Following the likes of foodies, proselytizing vegans, and the proponents of Macrobiotics, food is becoming perceived as formational, not only in producing health, but oddly, character and spiritual health. You are what you eat, apparently, in more ways than one.
When it comes to sex, however, we are surprisingly laissez-faire. In a post liberation age, sex has become a matter of personal preference, as long it’s consensual. As for consequences, technological advances have given us birth control, safer abortions-and the courts will give us no fault divorces. Reproductive independence has made sex seemingly without consequences. The morality of sex common fifty years ago just isn’t part of the landscape anymore.
Why the shift, then? Eberstadt postulates that “the rules being drawn around food receive some force from the fact that people are uncomfortable with how far the sexual revolution has gone – and not knowing what to do about it, they turn for increasing consolation to mining morality out of what they eat.” Society, she argues, imposes certain norms for self-protection, and these “mutate and move on, sometimes in curious guises.”
This may be the case, but this reversal seems to have largely happened among the cultural elite-those privileged enough to have discriminating palates and able to purchase from the organic aisle.
There is nothing amiss in being a bit more mindful about our food. We should care for our bodies the best we can. We are incarnate beings; our bodies matter. It also seems wise to support efforts to conserve and sustain our natural resources. However, there are those-especially in this economy-who still struggle for their daily (Wonder)bread. And they are grateful for it. Furthermore, some have taken the idea of food mindfulness to strange heights far removed from common sense.
Food’s recent link to spiritual health is particularly peculiar. Dietary laws are no stranger to religion, of course, but as Eberstat notes, never before has any religion put so much emphasis in contemplating the food itself:
Throughout history, practically no one devoted this much time to matters of food as ideas (as opposed to, say, time spent gathering the stuff). Still less does it appear to have occurred to people that dietary schools could be untethered from a larger metaphysical and moral worldview. Observant Jews and Muslims, among others, have had strict dietary laws from their faiths’ inception; but that is just it – their laws told believers what to do with food when they got it, rather than inviting them to dwell on food as a thing in itself. Like the Adventists, who speak of their vegetarianism as being “harmony with the Creator,” or like the Catholics with their itinerant Lenten and other obligations, these previous dietary laws were clearly designed to enhance religion – not replace it.
Dwelling on food in this way suggests a certain kind of luxury and smells rather like narcissism. There is a point at which someone may become too discriminating-the phrase “picky eater” comes to mind. There is a danger and an absurdity in becoming so fixated on food. As C.S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity: “There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.”
Upon reflection, it is really quite bizarre that this (occasionally extreme) level of mindfulness has not extended to sex. If what we do with our bodies matters, should we not only eat thoughtfully, but conduct our sexual lives thoughtfully as well? Sex is arguably as formational, if not more so, than eating well and responsibly. As Judeo-Christian ethics assume (and statistics and social science confirm), sex has social and soulish implications, and should not be indiscriminate. Sex is not simply a matter of personal preference-whether we like it or not, it has moral implications. Eating well, however, is simply a matter of common sense.
*Photo provided by Flickr. ‘