Sunday, 6 January 2013

Obesity and Sin

In a piece ostensibly concerned with body image, Giles Fraser has an interesting comment about the relationship between food and sin, how the consumption of excess calories has become strangely moralised in recent discourse. He writes:


It fascinates me that so much religious language is purloined into the lexicography of dieting. Calories are sinful. Eating fatty food is giving in to temptation. Why do we create such a pathology of desire? It's all such nonsense. If anything, the incarnational nature of Christianity should point in the direction of human beings being more comfortable in their own skins and with their own physicality. Yet what great Renaissance artist would dare to depict a fat Christ? Which is odd given that his critics regularly denounced him as a glutton.

He goes on to describe the popular Channel 4 show How To Look Good Naked as "an instrument of torture, every bit as self-flagellating as the Christian mortification of the flesh." At first sight, there's an important distinction to be drawn here: whereas Christian asceticism was supposedly concerned with renunciation of worldly things and a turning towards the transcendent, punishing the body because it was the body, dieting might be said to be propelled by vanity, at the very least by a this-worldly desire to perfect the physical. The end of modern dieting and exercise regimes is in the here and now: in improved self-esteem, in better sexual prospects, in healthier and longer life. All things that the medieval Christian ascetics would have despised.

But I don't think that's enough. Let's go back to Fraser's fascinating suggestion of an overweight Jesus. It's certainly an intriguing iconographic possibility - the only fat Jesus I can recall seeing was in Jerry Springer the Opera. No-one ever accused Prince Gautama of over-indulgence, after all: the whole point, indeed, was that (unlike Jesus, who is depicted as having been born poor) the founder of Buddhism renounced worldly wealth to become a wandering teacher and ascetic. Yet most, though not all, representations of the Buddha depict him as being distinctly on the tubby side. Perhaps the crucifixion is responsible for the iconography of a slim Jesus: to be specific, the very shape of the cross is gaunt; at a basic level it's easier and more natural to draw a thin man hanging from one than a fat man. A fat man on a cross would look fairly ridiculous. Certainly by the Renaissance emaciation was a distinct theme of Christian art, as seen most famously in Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece.

But the earliest depictions of Jesus were not crucifixions. Instead he was shown as Hermes or Apollo, a young and handsome god - no ascetic, indeed, but answering to both classical and modern ideas of physical perfection. So perhaps we should blame the ancient Greeks and their cult of masculine beauty. (Did they have any fat gods? Dionysus was often shown accompanied by a tipsy Falstaffian figure known as Silenus, but I don't think he entirely counts.)

Either way, we can't really blame Jesus for Christian asceticism. But it started too early in Christian history for Fraser to be able to absolve the Church of responsibility. Gregory the Great told the story of a nun who became possessed by a demon when she sinfully ate a lettuce, and Catholicism continues to revere as saints men and women who would today be diagnosed as anorexic. Yesterday, for example, was the feast day of St Paula, a 4th century Roman aristocrat who, after being widowed, "lived a life of severe penance and mortification" and "considered it a misfortune to see the poor being relieved by anyone else’s food". Paula also refused ever to take a bath, which her admirers saw as evidence of her great holiness - though to those who had to encounter her it probably just seemed anti-social. Again we see in ascetic practices a turning away from the body, a hatred of flesh as flesh, which is quite different from the body-hatred we see today, which involves a hatred merely of the particular body which one happens to inhabit. Both, of course, might be regarded as psychologically unhealthy states.

All that said, the use of theological language to describe overindulgence in food is telling, as Fraser is right to point out. He might have added that the language of health-scare isn't just one of personal morality - it also does a nice line in apocalyptic, with the "obesity timebomb" and suchlike standing in for Armageddon. Even more significant is the double-edged psychology involved: it leads to self-hatred in those who don't possess socially approved body shapes, while those who do are able to feel morally superior, to pity, shun and belittle the less virtuous or less fortunate.

It doesn't stop with food, of course: the language of sin and guilt is equally used of other behaviours such as smoking, drinking or carbon consumption. Fraser thinks that "mass culture has generated a debilitating asymmetry between our biological givenness and our cultural expectations of beauty." But this is mainly a consequence of the replacement of religion by health. People used to turn to doctors only when they were actually sick and go to church every week. Now, for vast swathes of the population, religion is just for weddings and funerals, or just for funerals, while the medical establishment with its demographic targets, mass screening programmes and ubiquitous lifestyle advice has taken over the role of the priesthood. Turn up at the doctor with an ingrowing toenail and in all likelihood you'll be interrogated about your alcohol consumption. And then given a penance. It's like going to confession.

It's no coincidence that today's politicians see all these "sins" as things about which they ought to lecture the population, or even to legislate, as we saw yesterday with Labour's Andy Burnham wanting to regulate the sugar content of Kellogg's Frosties. Brendan O'Neill (along with Mr Puddlecote) finds it remarkable that politicians should concern themselves with such essentially private matters as what people eat. He suggests that if a minister or shadow minister "did something like this a few decades ago... People would be bamboozled. They'd think the minister was mad." Perhaps so, although postwar British governments continued with rationing for longer than was strictly necessary. But if that same minister had claimed that what people did in their own bedrooms (and with whom) was the business of the government he would have found a considerable degree of support. It was ministers who believed that people's sex lives were their own affair, like Roy Jenkins, who got a rough ride in the press.

The fact is that politicians have always seen advantage in moralistic finger-wagging, but the subjects of that finger-wagging change. The morality of health - in which smoking, drinking and being fat are seen as personal failings, like being unemployed - has largely replaced the morality of sex*. And moralism this clearly is, although politicians tend to disguise this (perhaps even from themselves) by advancing utilitarian arguments about the cost to the NHS of all the binge-drinking obese smokers. Bourgeois moralism, one might add, given how these "sinners" are usually conceptualised as lower-class Wayne and Waynetta Slobs. Where once politicians promoted the moral agenda of bishops, and feared the church's power, nowadays they defer to the BMA and are all but openly contemptuous of ecclesiastics.

*Apart from pornography and prostitution, obviously.