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When a sin becomes a cultural obsession

Published: 19th July 2012 12:02 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th July 2012 12:02 AM   |  A+A-

Researching visuals for a textbook I came upon a remarkable computer-generated painting: a whole bull made up of fruits, vegetables and grain. The article it supported said that any pound of flesh from that animal was made up of gallons of water and heaps of vegetable and mineral wealth. Nothing was said about the morals of coveting a juicy steak or a mince-pie. We were only asked to reflect on the drain on Nature’s resources if we were meat-eaters. The message was about the ethics of environment. I think there was some murmur in the background about how healthy or otherwise tastes that sought flesh for dinner were but no word about how the practice of eating too heartily was morally dangerous and an offense against not just starving populaces but also god.

Most people today believe that overeating is not an offence against heaven but against health, beauty, self-management and any loss of control in this department leads to a version of Purgatory on Earth: obesity and shapeless clothes because one’s ability to wear the latest clothes or look fashionably slim is a mark of how close one can hope to get to paradise-in-a-mall. Unlike some of the other sins — pride, sloth, lust, etc all of which can be hidden, the results of gluttony are things that would be visible to all. Even advertisements and employment situations discriminate against the well-padded.

The first objection to overeating is that the worship of the senses in general and taste in particular will turn our attention away from matters sacred to the shrine of the tongue. As anyone who has been on a diet for reasons of health or purse can testify it is very easy to begin dreaming about food and becoming depressed when you deprive yourself of your favourite foods or things you’ve grown used to. There is just eight ounces of coffee between a raging temper and an equanimous individual ready to take on the world at 5 am. The second objection is that overindulgence in food generally weakens will and resistance making one more vulnerable to other and more dangerous failings.

Today few people seriously believe that eating more than we need to stay alive is a profound moral failure. It is quite a long while since eating too well, too frequently and too expensively was seen as a sin against the gods. Two things happened almost simultaneously: gluttony ceased to be counted as a sin and, food and all related subjects (weight loss, nutrition etc) became cultural obsessions and very much part of the popular imagination. ‘Eat Your Way to Health’ is the least of the titles on sale in the sections on self-improvement seen in book sections. It is even more important than insomnia, managing your temper or reviving a shaky marriage. Eating is not just valorised but glamorised, with the well-heeled moving from one restaurant to another and sampling every eating house down the street. Strange to think that there was a time when this instinct used to be called gluttony.

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