Food, sex and the American obsession with purity


Is food the new sex?

That’s the question that Mary Eberstadt asked in her 2009 paper in Policy Review. Today, when sexual license is embraced and even glorified, eating is becoming encumbered with ever more rules. Or as Eberstadt notes, our society has gone from sexually puritanical and licentious about food, to sexually licentious and puritanical about food.

For example:

…[L]et us imagine some broad features of the world seen through two different sets of eyes: a hypothetical 30-year-old housewife from 1958 named Betty, and her hypothetical granddaughter Jennifer, of the same age, today.

Betty is the stereotypical late 1950’s housewife. She cooks from cans, jars, and even serves frozen dinners. The only fresh vegetable that she serves is baked potato. Betty also has stereotypical moral views. Sex is appropriate only within marriage, and she believes strongly in the religious and social sanctions that penalize those who digress from that value.

The contrast with her granddaughter is remarkable:

… Jennifer is adamantly opposed to eating red meat or endangered fish… She also buys “organic” in the belief that it is better both for her and for the animals raised in that way, even though the products are markedly more expensive than those from the local grocery store…

Most important of all, however, is the difference in moral attitude separating Betty and Jennifer on the matter of food. Jennifer feels that there is a right and wrong about these options that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer. She does not exactly condemn those who believe otherwise, but she doesn’t understand why they do, either. And she certainly thinks the world would be a better place if more people evaluated their food choices as she does. She even proselytizes on occasion when she can.

Jennifer’s view of sex is also radically different from that of her grandmother:

Jennifer, unlike Betty, thinks that falling in love creates its own demands and generally trumps other considerations …  A consistent thinker in this respect, she also accepts the consequences of her libertarian convictions about sex. She is … agnostic on the question of whether any particular parental arrangements seem best for children…

Most important, once again, is the difference in moral attitude between the two women on this subject of sex. Betty feels that there is a right and wrong about sexual choices that transcends any individual act, and Jennifer … does not…

Have we transmuted Betty’s convictions about sexual purity to Jennifer’s convictions about food purity?

The parallels extend further. Just as moral purity was viewed as a key to deeply longed for religious salvation, food purity is viewed as the key to our contemporary longed for salvation, a long life free of disease.

There have always been rules around food purity, of course, from religious restrictions to vegetarianism, but those rules have multiplied to embrace organic food, to include fears of genetically modified food (GMOs) and to insisting that the cure to various unexplained ills like autism lie in ever more bizarre restriction diets.

Simply put, many people believe that they can eat their way to preventing and curing disease. And our obsession with purity goes beyond what adults eat to a near religious conviction that breast milk is both preventive and curative for diseases ranging from whooping cough to cancer and everything in between.

The American obsession with purity has expanded to an obsession with purity of the entire body (with the notable exception of sexual purity). Just as religious acolytes in earlier time purified their bodies for worship by asceticism, fasting and scourging, contemporary Americans “purify” their bodies with unmedicated childbirth, vaccine refusal, and cleanses that purportedly remove the “toxins” from their bloodstreams.

The irony is two-fold.

First, much of what is viewed as “pure” is actually contaminated or flat out dangerous.

Anti-vaxxers are obsessed with avoiding the “contaminants” in vaccines and thereby leave themselves wide open to infection with deadly microorganisms.

Natural childbirth advocates are obsessed with the purity of birth “unhindered” by interventions, thereby leaving their babies and themselves open to the far greater risk of death from childbirth itself.

And the only thing toxic in the bodies of most “cleanse” devotees is their gullibility and lack of basic knowledge of human physiology.

The second irony is even more trenchant.

It seems that environmental purity may lead to more disease, not less. A certain amount of “contamination” appears to be necessary for proper functioning of the immune system. Purity may, paradoxically, trigger auto-immune diseases.

Our society has gone from sexually puritanical and licentious about food, to sexually licentious and puritanical about food. That’s not a moral or a health advance. It simply reflects our desperate need for “rules” that supposedly protect us from dangers posed by life itself.