Health and Self-Denial — The (Coastal) American Ideology

October 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

As an undergrad, I took Deviance with Irv Zola, a wonderful man whose main research area was medical sociology. The two topics were related, he said. In his Medical course, he asked the students to keep health journals where they would make note of any health-related matters in their own lives. What he found was that students often framed their health in terms of morality. They got sick because they had done something wrong or had failed to do what was right.

I was reminded of this when I read this passage from Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay “Why I’m Giving Up on Preventative Care” (here).*

Most of my educated, middle-class friends . . . undertook exercise or yoga regimens; they filled their calendars with upcoming medical tests and exams; they boasted about their “good” and “bad” cholesterol counts, their heart rates and blood pressure. Mostly they understood the task of aging to be self-denial, especially in the realm of diet.

In matters of health, and especially food, we are puritanical moralists. If we stick to our vows of health-chastity, if we steadfastly resist temptation, we will be rewarded with eternal life, or at least very long life.

But who is “we”? Ehrenreich seems to think that it’s the people Joseph Henrich in 2009 (here) labeled as WEIRD — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.

In the health-conscious mind-set that has prevailed among the world’s affluent people for about four decades now, health is indistinguishable from virtue, tasty foods are “sinfully delicious,” while healthful foods may taste good enough to be advertised as “guilt-free.” Those seeking to compensate for a lapse undertake punitive measures like fasts, purges, or diets composed of different juices carefully sequenced throughout the day.

Even a quick glance around the country will tell you that in wide swaths of the geographical and social territory, this abstemious ethos has not taken root. For decades, some restaurants have advertised All You Can Eat. At Applebee’s (and lots of other places) when it comes to fatty fatty foods, gluttony is a virtue.

In other WEIRD cultures, even the cosmopolitan elite may not conflate pleasure and sin. Foods which in the US are “sinfully delicious” may be merely delicious elsewhere. France for instance. In a 2013 post (here) on “Guilty Pleasures,”  I compared the pastry scene in the Judd Apatow film “This is 40” with a similar scene in the the French film “Cousin Cousine.”

In both films, the overload of desserts is a guilty pleasure, but in the French movie the emphasis is almost entirely on the pleasure, while the American film focuses on the guilt. The French lovers slowly feed each other one dessert after another; the scene is almost erotic. But Pete and Debbie [in the American film] seem like children, giggling and trying to eat as much as they can before they get caught. Both scenes mingle sex and pastry, but in the French movie the common theme is sensuality; “This Is 40” plays both for laughs.

Unfortunately, I cannot find even a still shot from “Cousin Cousine,” but here is the scene from “This Is 40.”

The whole film in fact is an exposition of the mindset that Ehrenreich identifies. No sugar, no gluten, a personal trainer, less screen time, salads without dressing, tofu. In scene after scene the film shows how difficult it is to keep to this regime. That’s the basis for most of its humor. But neither the characters nor the film itself can abandon the notion that self-denial is the ideal.

* Ehrenreich’s essay appeared at Literary Hub in April 2018, but I just found it yesterday, probably via a Twitter link. I cannot remember what the tweet was about, nor do I have any idea why the essay appeared at LitHub, a Website devoted mostly to fiction, poetry, and literary criticism.

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