Part I: A Dessert Tray Fit for Herod
One day, in the far-off future, archeologists will come across the remnants of the Statue of Liberty. Nearby, they’ll dig up a Sphinx, and further north, a pirate ship. The archeologists may well wonder what civilization they’ve found. Yet the scene they’ll be diggin’ won’t be civilization, exactly – it will be the remains of Las Vegas.
On the outskirts of today’s Vegas, sagebrush dots the dry nothingness like Don King clones buried up to their hairlines in dirt. The fastest expanding suburb in the US is rapidly encroaching into this Nevada nothingness, but Vegas could send its suburban tendrils out for many decades to come before it makes a dent in the surrounding desert. From the air, the red plain surrounding the gambling Mecca resembles Mars. Looking down, you realize why this was long a choice spot for the military to drop bombs - and the mob to dump bodies. The off-world setting makes Vegas itself seem like a geographical non-sequitur, a seam of fool’s gold running through the US defence department’s sandbox.
Las Vegas, even in its latest, mob-free incarnation, is an Oz for the Deadly Spins. It’s here we find excess in all its red-blooded, corporate-branded, all-American glory. Figuring prominently in the mix is food. Retreating into the MGM Grand Hotel one sun-baked afternoon, my friends and I discover the buffet. If the sophisticated traveller can ignore the decor (a Wizard of Oz theme filtered through a Chuck E. Cheese sensibility, with a Mafia housewife’s colour scheme) the MGM Grand’s offerings look very appealing.
Inside the mammoth buffet area, I come upon a sneeze guard converging to a vanishing point at the other end of the room. Heaped into great stainless steel sarcophagi are immense portions of everything your palate could desire: lobster, crab, prawns, beef Wellington, filet mignon. For dessert there is chocolate mousse, cheesecake, blackforest cake and every imaginable form of confection. There is so much culinary overkill on display it beggars description and put the muscle on metaphors. Since I’m not gambling while I’m here, I figure I should maximize my vacation dollar by eating as much as I can. I’ve never won a pie-eating contest before, or anything of that sort. In fact, I’ve never attempted a damn-the-torpedoes act of gluttony before this. I’m in the right place for the challenge it seems. I fill my plate and chow down. I fill it again. I return for dessert. And more dessert. And then a third trip for dessert. My friends are amused, then mildly horrified, at how much is disappearing down my cakehole. So what? The only thing I’m gambling with on this trip is my cholesterol level.
Gluttony. Of all the original deadly sins, it’s the one that hardly seems deadly at all, at least in the spiritual sense. Yet Pope Gregory the Great certainly didn't take gluttony for granted. He had no doubt it was a deadly sin. In fact, it was Gregory who put it on the list we use today.
“Superbia, ira, invidia, avaritia, acedia, gula, luxuria.” Gregory compiled that list 1,400 years ago. Pride, or superbia in Latin, heads the list, followed by envy, anger, avarice and sloth. These are all sins of the spirit, of the mind, the soul: the true or higher self. Gluttony, or gula in Latin, is near the end, next to lust. These are the carnal sins of the flesh, the body: of matter or the lower self. Gluttony may not head the list, but that doesn't mean Pope Gregory thought it a minor player on his hit parade of sin.
To Catholic clerics, carnality meant a focus on bodily desires that displaced spiritual concerns. Gregory would have blown his miter over the MGM Grand's seafood buffet, an abomination if there ever was one. For how can anyone properly contemplate Higher Things with a dessert tray fit for Herod taunting them?
“The belly, when it is not restrained, destroys the virtues of the soul,” Gregory wrote. “It is not food, but the desire for food that is the cause of damnation.” And damned if I didn’t feel great after my third dessert. Finishing up from my buffet binge, I loosened my belt and rose from the table, but only with some effort. My friends and I amble past the slot machines in the MGM Grand, where the scene is Gary Larsen by way of B.F. Skinner, with the beer-bellied and helmet-haired working the levers like lab rats. Stumbling out into the harsh Vegas sunlight, we aim ourselves onto Las Vegas Boulevard. My friends walk normally, but with my belly distended to middle-era Elvis proportions, the only form of locomotion I can manage is a modified gallumph. It pains me to put one leg in front of the other.
Outside the Mirage Hotel, we stop to admire a large bust of famed animal trainers Siegfried and Roy, one of whom became a chew toy during his last tiger-taming routine. As I waddle on, it occurs to me that Vegas isn’t so much a middle-class Rome as it is the Vatican City of secularism, where the big payoff is promised for this life rather than the next.
But back to the official, papal take on gluttony: as Gregory said, it was not food per se that concerned him, it was the desire for it. Not surprisingly for a medieval cleric, he got a bit carried away in his assessment of the risks:
“It is plain to all that lust springs from gluttony, when in the distribution of the members the genitals appear placed beneath the belly. And hence when the one is inordinately pampered, the other is doubtless excited to wantonness.”
Undoubtedly! Gregory, with little more than work of the ancient Roman physician Galen as a guide (the pope’s carnal experiences presumably made for a pretty slim volume), imagined a fearsome alliance between the gastrointestinal tract and the genitals - a Praetorian guard of the flesh.
Yet it would be wrong to disregard the excesses of Catholic theology without considering their historical roots. The Essenes and the Gnostics, along with other precursors to what would later become Christianity, emerged under the shadow of the Roman Empire. These Judaic sects would have known of the excesses of the Imperial City, of the bread and circuses meant to bribe a reckless, fickle mob. The citizens in Rome were amused to death daily with spectacles that outdid today’s Vegas, at least in brutality. So in some ways the mortification of the flesh, and the retreat into contemplation, were a natural course for the early Christians to take. If the personal has always been the political, this abnegation of the senses, and their religious equation with sin, allowed Christians to oppose Rome - but without the messy and highly dangerous route of overtly political acts.
Today, gluttony stands in a entirely different position in popular culture. There is such a superabundance of food available, along with an endless repetition of advertising for it, that we rarely think of gluttony outside a secular context, or as a culturally problematic state of mind, like greed and anger. Yet, with calorie-laden fast-food guaranteeing sumo-sized bodies, the North American diet has never been worse. Desire for food - especially bad food - is pushed at every available opportunity by advertisers. Over the next decade, at least three million Canadians are expected to develop Type 2 diabetes, a lifestyle disease preventable by good nutrition and physical exercise. In the US, obesity is now second only to smoking as a cause of mortality.
At the same time, the idea of overeating as sin persists, pushed by the multibillion-dollar diet industry, and the thin-is-in fashion scene. Sin has become spin. Not since the time of Gregory have our attitudes toward eating, food and the human body been more contradictory and ambivalent. And never before has our bipolar culture been more profitable to the economic engine.
Part II: FROM REMINGTONS TO DINNER PLATES
In Oliver Stone’s masterful film Heaven and Earth, a Vietnamese woman meets and marries a US navy seal played by Tommy Lee Jones. When she returns with him to his hometown, she is overwhelmed by the scale of wealth and opportunity. In one scene, she wears an awestruck look as she stands before a towering supermarket display of frozen food.
Although you’d be hard-pressed to find a North American shopper who’d consider the grocery store a place of worship, Stone’s film ably captures the immigrant’s near-religious reaction to our modern temples to consumption. (Back in the eighties, Russian “refuseniks” arriving on the US East Coast were said to make pilgrimages to supermarkets to see the amazing displays of food.)
In the 1830s, temperance preacher Sylvester Graham (for whom Graham wafers were named) warned that gluttony, rather than hunger, was the greatest dietary evil threatening mankind. Graham obviously drew heavily on Christianity’s seven deadly sins, in a historical era of relatively great abundance of food. Starvation has never been much of a threat in the New World; that is, not until the self-inflicted miseries of modern-day eating disorders.
After the US civil war, Remingtons were exchanged for dinner plates, and a spree of conspicuous consumption began. Looking well fed, even rotund, was a sign of success, wealth and prosperity. Books on health for women had titles like How to Be Plump. The contradictory attitudes of the time foreshadowed the extreme ambivalence about food and diet found in the North American culture of today.
A pattern of little exercise and poor diet has today’s North Americans ballooning in size. We are now the fattest people on the planet, and the global export of fast-food franchises is ensuring that obesity is a growing problem in places it’s never been seen before, such as China.
Yet, at no time in history has more money been spent on diets, low-fat and sugar-free foods, slimming pills, and aerobic equipment and fitness programs. Weight-fluctuating North Americans contemplate their waistlines obsessively, and flagellate their conscience in between snacks. Never before have we been so obsessed with the cult of thinness, and so repelled by our own bodies.
Though it may seem pretty lightweight as a sin per se, gluttony is the Deadly Spin par excellence. It can kill. Obesity and physical inactivity costs Canada an estimated $3.1 billion annually, and leads to the death of about 21,000 Canadians per year. In Graham’s time, unless you were a slave or a criminal, you were first and foremost a citizen - a word connoting community and civic engagement. In today’s world of hypercapitalism, you are first and foremost a consumer, a word that connotes passive absorption, and disengagement from communal activities other than shopping. (The flipside of being a consumer is being an excreter, but this term isn’t likely to catch on in advertising circles.)
So how did we get to this strange place of fear and loathing over our own bodies? How did gluttony, a straightforward sin in the time of Pope Gregory, get spun into its present schizoid state? On one hand we’re told by advertisers to “eat this, eat that;” and then on the other hand told “be healthy, don’t eat that.”
“Unlike any time in history, we are exposed to an environment where food is widely available, heavily promoted, available at low cost - and it tastes good,” says Prof. Kelly Brownell, from the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, in a BBC interview. He adds that much of the $36 billion a year spent on advertising in the US targets children.” The average child in the US sees 10,000 food advertisements annually on television alone and 95 percent of these are for one of the four types of junk food: dense calories and fat, fast foods, sugar-coated cereals and candy. And that’s 10,000 messages from the best minds in advertising to convince children to eat foods that are bad for them.”
In his book Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser tracks the child-focused marketing of gluttony in alarming detail. One-quarter of US children are now considered obese, and there are now children six to 10 years old dying of heart attacks. Along with the emergence of Type 2 diabetes among children, previously only seen in adults, this translates into a new health-care crisis. Schlosser demonstrates how effective advertising has been in drawing kids into the fast-food world. Inducements that have little or nothing to do with the food are part of the pitch. With their marketing tie-ins to blockbuster films and cartoon characters and an endless source of action figures and playthings, McDonald’s and Burger King have become the biggest purveyor of toys in the world.
“Eating habits you develop as a child are with you for the rest of your life,” he writes. “Fast food companies know this, and that’s one of the reasons they so carefully and aggressively market to children. And they’re trying to create brand loyalty in children as young as two, three and four years old.”
The flip side of market-driven gluttony is market-driven anorexia, with its epicentre in the fashion industry. Skeletal runway models set the visual standard for bingeing teenage girls and the high-society “social x-rays” who’ve “starved themselves to perfection,” in author Tom Wolfe’s words. The starved look has infected Hollywood, where legions of starlets from television and film have sculpted themselves into so-called “lollipops”: tiny, children-sized bodies topped with adult-sized heads. The most memorable lollipop moment was during the 1998 Emmy Awards, when actress Calista Flockheart appeared in a backless gown, revealing a dorsal expanse resembling the underside of a crab.
The collateral damage in women’s bodies and lives are the flip side of the obesity crisis, but the origins are the same: a relationship with food that is so distorted by marketing persuasion that life itself is under threat. Anorexics and bulimics aren’t in danger from arteriosclerosis or Type 2 diabetes, as the obese are; but they can stop menstruating and lose their fertility entirely. Osteoporosis, heart damage and kidney damage can also be the result in severe cases of anorexia.
Obviously, the fairy tales we tell ourselves through advertising and media play a major role here. The distortion of the eating impulse is fed by hypercapitalism’s drive to maximize profit at any social cost. Dollars can be extracted most profitably by maintaining an advertising regime of mixed messages, creating a schizoid cultural climate, which keeps consumers coming and going.
As an example of this, in a 2002 New York Times article, fashion editor Kate Betts says she “owes Renee Zellweger an apology.”
“Over a year ago, as the editor of a fashion magazine, I pulled her picture off the cover of an issue at the last minute, swapping it for a photo of a lanky swan in a whiff of Dior chiffon.”
Zellweger was too fat. Which in fashion industry newspeak, means outside the range of skeletal. The rumour on the street was that Zellweger had put on 30 pounds for her role as the hard-living Bridget Jones in the film of the same name. Her publicist said the total weight gain was closer to eight pounds. “The final tally was revised down to two,” writes Betts.
“Just a measly two pounds,” Betts recalls of the decision she made with her staff. “We went back and forth like a couple of short-weighting wholesalers haggling over a shipment of turkeys.” In the end, even “after several thousand dollars worth of airbrushing,” Betts decided there “was no hiding the truth” - that truth being that Zellweger resembled a healthy human female in her late twenties (hard to fix even with Photoshop). “It’s not in anyone’s best interest to publish these,” she recalls saying of the photos.
Bett’s article is something of a mea culpa, blaming the fashion industry for perpetuating the beauty myth, while dodging personal responsibility for endorsing it during her tenure in the fashion industry media. The most she can summon up is an acknowledgement that she “did feel bad” about the magazine cover decision. In a predictable finale to the story, a razor-thin model took Zellweger’s place on the magazine cover. Photogenic wraiths such as these, often hooked on cigarettes and laxatives, continue to get heavy rotation as role models for young women. Gluttony has been spun so wildly in advertising and popular culture, who wouldn’t be dizzy from all the mixed messages? Certainly not some Zellweger-look-alike in the Canadian heartland, heading from the Weight-Watchers meeting to the drive-through window of the fast-food joint, and madly wolfing down an Happy Meal, to ensure her hunger pains fade back into robust self-loathing.
The wheels of the gluttony industry are greased with animal fat and slick PR. It may seem sometimes that our Huxleyan social engineers dream of creating the perfect consumer - the one who won’t be satisfied until the planet itself is chewed up and barfed back out. Yet there are hopeful signs that consumers are tiring of a steady diet of bad health and mixed messages, and that consciousness is changing. Sales of fast food are down, and the lollipop look is less fashionable now than it was a few years ago. McDonald’s ceased offering a super sized option for its meals after the documentary Supersize Me premiered at The Sundance Film Festival. And with the practices of factory farming becoming public knowledge, we are relearning the truth of the old saw - we are what we eat.