Food and Sociality
The other day I was sitting in the car listening to talk radio while waiting for an off-campus meeting to start. The story that had sparked the calls was something to do with the government paying for lap band surgery. I don’t know whether they are going to or not as it was not the issue that I was interested in but rather the responses of the callers.
There were, of course, the standard callers who claimed that obesity was the result of over-eating, lack of exercise, poor personal discipline, etc., although the stories of most of the obese people who phoned in called these explanations into serious doubt. The caller who caught my attention though was an obese man who was brave enough to share his story. He admitted that by the very nature of his job, he was fairly sedentary through the day (hey, so am I and most of the people that I know), but he did try to exercise regularly. He had also tried just about every known diet and ate sensibly, and estimated that over the years he had lost about 500kg. In telling why he could not keep the weight off he explained that he likes to spend time with friends. He would lose weight, but through normal socialising it would gradually creep back on. His stunningly obvious, but frequently forgotten, point was that much of the social activity in our society involves food. As a normal, fairly sociable person, he found this particularly difficult.
And that is what got me, especially as I was sick at the time and had been for several days. And my ‘illness’ was self-induced, brought on by laziness and lack of discipline in the terms of the other callers. You see, I know that I should avoid carbohydrates. But have you ever noticed how much catering at social events is bread based? Go to most academic conferences and the catering staple is bread rolls and paninis. Quick sandwich lunches (my downfall on this occasion) are so much faster and easier to prepare than salads. I’ve recently become vegetarian as well and have found trying to get something to eat while I’m out very difficult. Food court, refecs, and coffee shop food is almost exclusively based around meat and carbohydrate.
Fortunately, whatever is bothering me isn’t serious and so most of the time I just take a calculated risk, knowing that I will be uncomfortable for a few days and provided I’m “good” will be right again a few days later. I want to socialise, I want to fit in, I don’t want to be “difficult” and have people feeling that they need to make special arrangements or give me special consideration, and so to maintain social relationships and enjoy the company of family and friends I eat what I know is bad for me.
Eating, for me and for the caller to the radio program, is not a purely individual matter, subject to purely individual decisions, or simply a matter of self-discipline or self-control; it is most frequently and sometimes overwhelmingly, a social activity and strongly influenced by social discourses. The advertisers know this. Advertisements for fast food invariably show young, attractive (and slim) people sharing good times with friends. Or happy families gathered around convenience meals, considerate of a busy mum and giving her a rest. Most of our major celebrations and gatherings with family and friends – Christmas, birthday parties, ‘Sunday lunch’ – are built around food. Yet public awareness campaigns and the discourses of health professionals and politicians (and the skinny, healthy, supposedly ‘moral’ majority) address people as though they were isolated individuals and emotions and decisions around food were totally within the realm of individual choice and control. Well, I choose to remain social. And maybe if these campaigns and the people behind them recognised the social element, we would all be a lot better off and perhaps collectively be able to devise ways for dealing with some of these issues.