Should you judge your roomie for consuming an entire pizza?
A quick disclaimer: I almost didn’t write this article. Though I had some ideas milling around in my head for a while, I also know that writers far more astute than I have covered nearly everything that could ever be written about food. However, after some deliberation, I decided this phenomenon in itself is probably a good starting point. Where do our ideas about food come from?
Let’s start with a quick and quite incomplete refresher on the Marxist concept of “commodity-exchange values.” Marx claims capitalism leads consumers and producers to stop evaluating the worth of items based on their “use-value,” that is, the value that reflects their ability to fulfill people’s needs and the labor that went into making them. Instead, they participate in a market in which they are required to equate certain items for each other. This then leads market participants to start relying on an inaccurate “commodity-exchange value,” a loose value based on personal appraisal versus facts of production. Consumers may begin to “fetishize” certain items, or favor them well above their use-value for personal reasons. For example, someone (ahem, me) might be willing to buy a handbag for far over its production cost just because of its brand name.
American conceptions of food are interesting because they include two completely contradictory fetishes affecting commodity-exchange value. First, there’s the “food as a social/entertainment” mechanism. Instead of tying food purely to its capacity to nourish, or even its taste, we may connect food to a desirable, carefree lifestyle. This is best represented by commercials portraying couples drinking Coke on the beach; children swinging while snacking on chicken nuggets; people eating chips at a party. We may want to pretend we’re above these advertising ploys, but really, we’re not — especially as college students. A great party or night with friends requires a very distinctive selection of food: typically sugar, pizza and other caloric bombs. And further, this does not just work in the positive. To reject unhealthy foods in a social setting is often to be criticized for vanity or rigidity. I’ve encountered this frequently enough at Rice: If I turn down dessert or food in general in social settings, I run the risk of being criticized or reprimanded. Thus, food is no longer “food” in its strict definition; rather, it has taken on a new identity as a socially acceptable form of entertainment and an essential medium for social connection.
Alternatively, we also commonly fetishize food in a health context. In this regard, which is notably leveraged by the diet industry, food is a device for achieving physical attractiveness and vitality, and thus (read between the lines), sex. If I eat this really expensive kale, I will eventually be able to woo the girl down the hall. Through this lens, food may also take on a very negative connotation: as a dangerous indulgence, jeopardizing one’s happiness and goals, that must be controlled, managed and restricted.
These constructs work against each other to create a profound sense of anxiety in both guys and girls. If I indulge myself, I am directing myself toward the carefree, social existence I want, but I am simultaneously destroying my chances at achieving the attractiveness and “health” I desire. I will not extrapolate so far as to say that this dichotomy is responsible for the development of eating disorders, but it certainly contributes to a deep, psychological tension over food. Every decision about food is fraught with guilt and anxiety. The piece of cake is not just food anymore, it’s a dessert with many different meanings layered over it — many of which we can contribute to big business and media, others which are just a product of our upbringings and social environments.
My solution to this problem is fantastical, and I realize that. However, perhaps at the very least, it’s worth shooting for. I propose we acknowledge the ideological notions we have about food and do our best to strip them away at mealtime. Further, we need to stop shaming and judging others who do not comply with the particular food ideology we hold. If your pal turns down pizza, leave him alone: He’s just not hungry. Don’t construe a larger meaning from a simple choice. Similarly, if you walk in on your roommate pounding down chocolate-covered peanuts like there’s no tomorrow, resist forming an opinion of the act. She’s either A) nourishing herself or B) stimulating her serotonin receptors. Neither motive is your business.
In other words, how we eat, what we eat and when we eat are questions that perhaps do not deserve the significance we place on them. The more frequently we stop forwarding a discourse that places so much power in our food, the less we will beat ourselves up about how we eat. At the end of the day, it’s just a piece of cake.
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