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Dangerous Bodies

On Saturday I was part of Cape Town’s SlutWalk. A local manifestation of a global movement which emerged in response to a Toronto policeman’s daft comments about rape and women’s ‘slutty’ choice of clothes in January this year, Cape Town’s SlutWalk was a resounding success. It was the most fun, friendly, and good natured march I’ve ever been on. According to the Mail & Guardian and – hurrah! – the Washington Post, about 2,000 people marched from Prestwich Memorial to Green Point stadium. I really was impressed by the numbers of men there, and by the range of ages represented by the marchers. (This is my report for FeministsSA.)

The posters were brilliant, and people came dressed in ball gowns, angel wings, bunny ears, leotards, jeans and t-shirts, fishnets and thigh-high boots, and (almost) nothing at all. In many ways, it was a typically Capetonian event: we gathered outside hip Truth Coffee beforehand, and the march began half an hour late. It was also overwhelmingly middle-class and, really, for an anti-rape protest to make any sense in Cape Town, it should have been in Khayelitsha or Manenberg.

But I don’t want to detract from the success of the event. In particular, I hope that it’ll prove to be the basis for a campaign against street harassment. SlutWalk is, inadvertently, a protest against the constant low-level harassment of women in public spaces. I was, though, deeply unsettled by the vitriol aimed at SlutWalk when it was announced that South African marches were in the offing. Commentators on SlutWalk Cape Town’s Facebook page accused the organisers of being irresponsible, stupid, and of contributing to – rather than solving – the problem of victim blaming.

If anything, those remarks demonstrated the extent to which women are still held responsible for rape. One particularly unpleasant contributor insisted that only one per cent of all reported rapes are ‘genuine’ – the rest, he alleged, are simply made up by women. What many of these angry men (and they were mainly men) had in common was a fear of a group of scantily-clad women marching together in public: a belief that the amount of naked flesh on display would have – alas undefined – catastrophic ramifications for the women on the march.

Another commentator explained that she opposed the event because she prefers women to ‘have a little mystery’ about them. Unfortunately, she didn’t specify if this was to be achieved by wearing false moustaches, speaking in strange foreign accents, or investing in trench coats.

Women’s bodies, argue the anti-Slutwalk brigade, need to be covered and contained. Because female nakedness is usually sexualised, it’s seen as excessive, dangerous, and disruptive. Clothing is, then, one way of controlling women in patriarchal societies. We are told to cover ourselves up for our own good – because our bodies exercise too powerful an influence over terminally suggestible, weak-willed men.

Food is another means of exercising control over women. As I’ve written in the past, the current vogue for cupcakes is partly the product of the fact that they are the acceptable face of feminine eating: they’re small, childlike (indeed, they’re children’s party food), and pretty – like the women who are supposed to eat them. (I should like to add, for the record, that after SlutWalk, my friends and I picnicked and feasted on cheesecake, samoosas, egg sandwiches, naartjies, as well as breast-shaped cupcakes.)

This link between women’s diet and the control of their bodies can be traced to the eighteenth century. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the influential Enlightenment physician George Cheyne (1671-1743), whose writing on health and eating was not only extraordinarily popular among the English upper classes, but was also partly responsible for a shift in the understanding of the ideal physical form during the 1750s. Partly as a result of Cheyne’s own obesity, he associated excess flesh with excessive behaviour and a kind of moral laxity. Whereas before, fleshiness had been a sign of good health, increasingly slimness was associated with physical and moral health, strength, and beauty.

Cheyne’s audience and the patients whom he treated at his fashionable practice in even more fashionable Bath, were primarily female. In a society where eating meat had long been associated with masculinity – and this had even deeper roots in the ancient humoral system which associated meat and spicy food with the blood, the most ‘manly’ of the four humors – Cheyne advocated the renunciation of all meat, and the adoption of a dairy-rich, vegetarian diet. Men, in other words, needed to eat like women.

During this period, the female body was slowly being reconceptualised as being more delicate – more easily upset – than the male body, and also ruled by the unpredictable emotions, rather than the rational, sober intellect. Although gendered, this emotions-intellect binary did not necessarily privilege the one over the other: the Romantic cult of sensibility celebrated the emotional and irrational, for example. But male and female bodies – or, more accurately, middle-class male and female bodies – needed to be fed differently.

Cheyne was unusual in his implacable opposition to meat-eating, but he and other physicians were united in the belief that a moderate diet was essential for good health – and this was particularly important for women. Cheyne became interested in the ‘nervous’ complaints which seemed to plague his female patients, and connected their diet to their psychological well-being. Essentially, the less women ate, the better. Anita Guerrini explains:

Cheyne’s audience, the aristocracy and new merchant class that frequented Bath, was also the audience for William Law’s exhortations in his popular devotional work A Serious Call (1728). He provided contrasting models of female character in the ‘maiden sisters’ Flavia and Miranda, who ‘have each of them two hundred pounds a year,’ a comfortable middle-class income. While Flavia spent her income on clothes, luxurious foods, sweetmeats, and entertainment, the ascetic Miranda ate only enough to keep herself alive and spent her income on charity. Miranda, said Law, ‘will never have her eyes swell with fatness, or pant under a heavy load of flesh;’ such excess flesh was not only morally depraved, it was physically disgusting. Cheyne’s patients, like the doctor himself, grew in spirit as they wasted in flesh.

During the 1720s, Catherine, the adolescent daughter of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was referred to Cheyne because of his specialisation in nutrition and nervous diseases. She suffered from loss of appetite, fainting, and chronic pain, and died in 1722 aged eighteen. Cheyne tried his best to treat her, but could not find a way of making her eat more.

This association of femininity – of physical and moral beauty – and not eating persisted into the nineteenth century and, I would suggest, into the present. Even though we have records which indicate that people, and particularly young women, have purposefully starved themselves to death since the Middle Ages and usually for religious reasons, anorexia nervosa was isolated as a specific ailment by William Withey Gull (1816-1890) in a paper he presented to the Clinical Society of London on 24 October 1873. He argued that this ‘peculiar form of disease occurring mostly in young women, and characterised by extreme emaciation’ was not a symptom of the catch-all feminine disorder ‘hysteria’, but a separate condition with its own symptoms and treatment.

As Joan Jacobs Brumberg notes, this identification of anorexia nervosa occurred within a wider cultural concern about the phenomenon of ‘fasting girls’: young, adolescent women who denied themselves food on religious grounds. Sarah Jacob from Wales claimed that her piety was such that she was able to live without eating.

Some British doctors regarded Sarah Jacob’s claim to total abstinence as a simple fraud and, therefore, an affront to science… Consequently, they called for a watch, with empirical standards, which deprived the girl of all food and, not surprisingly, killed her within 10 days because she was already severely undernourished. Some British doctors attributed Sarah Jacob’s condition to girlhood hysteria, provoked by religious enthusiasm and her celebrity status.

In other words, girls’ decision to starve themselves moved from the realm of religion or mysticism, to science and medicine. It was a disorder which could be described and treated. For example, the French psychiatrist Charles Lasegue (1816-1883) suggested that anorexia should be treated by examining the dynamics of middle-class family class. He

noted the difficult relation between anorectics and their parents but went on to elaborate how the girl obsessively pursued a peculiar and inadequate diet-such as pickled cucumbers in cafe au lait – despite the threats and entreaties of her anxious parents. ‘The family has but two methods at its service which it always exhausts,’ he wrote, ‘entreaties and menaces …. The delicacies of the table are multiplied in the hope of stimulating the appetite, but the more solicitude increases the more the appetite diminishes’.

This shift was due to the increasing medicalisation of the body, and also the secularisation of public life. By the 1870s, doctors exercised the same – or even more – authority as ministers. But what had not changed over the course of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the association of femininity with eating very little.

Anorexia is caused by a range of factors, but the connection of ideal femininities with eating a restricted diet only exacerbates the condition. As rape isn’t really about sex, so anorexia isn’t entirely about food: it’s a manifestation of (mainly, but not exclusively) women’s attempts to exercise control over their circumstances through their bodies. Because of the wider, cultural approval of feminine thinness and not eating, these starving young women receive a kind of affirmation for their self-denial.

It’s easy to talk glibly about encouraging a ‘positive attitude’ towards food and eating. We can only achieve this when we acknowledge that women’s bodies are still perceived as dangerous – as needing to be contained by their clothes, kept pure by a range of hygiene products, and made small through dieting and exercise. This is why we still need feminism. In South Africa – where the ANC Women’s League and Lulu Xingwana‘s Department of Women, Children, and Disabled Persons have shown a singular lack of enthusiasm for leading a feminist movement – I hope that SlutWalk represents the beginnings of a new, stronger feminism.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, ‘“Fasting Girls”: Reflections on Writing the History of Anorexia Nervosa,’ Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, vol. 50, no. 4/5, History and Research in Child Development (1985), pp. 93-104.

Anne Charlton, ‘Catherine Walpole (1703-22), an Eighteenth-Century Teenaged Patient: A Case Study from the Letters of the Physician George Cheyne (1671 or 73-1743),’ Journal of Medical Biography, vol. 18, no. 2 (May 2010), pp. 108-114.

Anita Guerrini, ‘The Hungry Soul: George Cheyne and the Construction of Femininity,’ Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, Constructions of Femininity (Spring, 1999), pp. 279-291.

Erin O’Connor, ‘Pictures of Health: Medical Photography and the Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa,’ Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 5, no. 4 (Apr., 1995), pp. 535-572.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, [2003] 2004).

Martha J. Reineke, ‘“This Is My Body”: Reflections on Abjection, Anorexia, and Medieval Women Mystics,’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 58, no. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp.245-265.

Edward Shorter, ‘The First Great Increase in Anorexia Nervosa,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 21, no. 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 69-96.

Other sources:

I. de Garine, Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993).

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 516-529.

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Susie Orbach, ‘Interpreting Starvation,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 133-139.

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Doris Wit, Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Temptations of the Flesh

I’ve had an explosively sneezy cold this week, but with bed rest and pain killers to help me to sleep, I’m almost well again. (Unfortunately, my Head of Department remains unconvinced by my theory that I’ve been suffering from a bad allergy to undergraduate lecturing.) I really don’t see the point of taking anti-cold medication. It certainly won’t get rid of the bug, and the only time I’ve ever taken tablets for a cold – just before a long flight home from Paris – I hallucinated so badly that I thought it best never to repeat the experience. Taking it easy, avoiding dehydration, and being generally sensible seem to work every time. I’ve also had a range of advice about what I should eat: vitamin C supplements, garlic, zinc, lemon, and ginger. I’ve managed to consume nearly all of these over the past few days (although not at the same time), and – who knows? – maybe they made a difference.

We know that our diet influences our health. We know that the better we eat, the stronger our immune systems are and the longer we’ll live. It’s for this reason that many seem to believe that it’s possible to eat ourselves well: that we can both prevent and cure illnesses by eating some things, and avoiding others. I was struck forcibly by the strength of this thinking when I saw that Gwyneth Paltrow wrote a recipe book partly because she believed that her father’s eating habits caused the cancer which killed him. No, I am not completely mad, and, yes, I do realise that, at best, Paltrow can be described as a ray of ‘demented sunshine’, but this is an enormously popular and influential woman who really does think that had her father eaten more brown rice, he wouldn’t have had cancer – or, at least, wouldn’t have died from it.

There’s a logic to this thinking: if we eat pure, wholesome food, then, surely, we should be healthy and strong. The problem is that it’s difficult to define what is ‘pure’, ‘wholesome’, and ‘good’ food. However much nutritionists may dress up their work as ‘science’, we don’t know precisely what diet is best for our health. In the past few weeks new studies have demonstrated that drinking eight glasses of water and eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day…will have very little effect on us at all. Oh, and vitamin supplements and probiotics are of dubious value too. It’s certain that we should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and lessen our intake of red meat and saturated fat, but everything else remains guesswork. That study about Omega 3 supplements and children’s brains? It was nonsense. As is the advice sprouted by Patrick Holford. So, no, drinking green tea and eating mung beans and quinoa will not stave off cancer. (Sorry.) The amazing people at Information is Beautiful have provided a helpful visualisation of the relative benefits of dietary supplements (see here for a bigger and pleasingly animated version):


Our ideas around healthy diets have changed over time, and are inflected by a range of factors, including current debates in science and medicine, the interests of industry and food lobbies, and religious belief. In his magnificent study Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (2003), Roy Porter traces a shift in thinking about health and eating during the mid-eighteenth century. He argues that during the early modern period, stoutness and eating heartily – if not in excess – were seen as signs of good health. In Britain, a taste for roast beef was also connected to support for an incipient national ‘English’ consciousness.

But from the 1750s onwards, physical beauty was associated more frequently with slimness. (Compare, for example, portraits by Rubens and Constable.) Enlightenment bodies needed also to be fed in restrained, rational ways. One of the most popular prophets of the new eating orthodoxy was the physician George Cheyne (1673-1743) who based his views on plain, wholesome eating on his own experience of being morbidly obese. In The English Malady (1733) he argued that ‘corpulence produced derangements of the digestive and nervous systems which impaired not only health but mental stability. … Excess of the flesh bred infirmities of the mind.’ Porter explains:

Cheyne’s call to medical moderation was, however, also an expression of a mystical Christian Platonism trained at the emancipation of the spirit – he can thus be thought of as recasting traditional Christian bodily anxieties into physiological and medical idioms. For Cheyne, the flesh was indeed the spirit’s prison house. Excessive flesh encumbered the spirit; burning it off emancipated it.

Following the teachings of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, he imagined prelapsarian bodies innocently feeding on ‘Paradisiacal Fruits’. After the Fall, the flesh of the newly carnivorous humans had been subjected to the laws of the corruption of matter. …his works aimed at recovering the purity of the prelapsarian body.

Cheyne recommended a vegetarian diet on the grounds that it most closely resembled that eaten in the Garden of Eden. It was, in other words, the diet of spiritual perfection. Much of the success of his writing was due also to rise of a vegetarian movement in Europe during the eighteenth century. These Enlightenment vegetarians argued that it was cruel to slaughter animals merely for food, and also believed that ‘greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.’

There has long been an association between corpulence and moral or spiritual laxity, and thinness with (self-) discipline. But what Cheyne advocated went further than this: he argued that rational individuals were partly responsible for their own ill-health because they could choose what they ate. Moreover, because he connected eating meat with sinfulness, deciding what to eat was also a moral choice.

Cheyne’s thinking proved to be remarkably durable. In the late nineteenth century, left-leaning social reformers promoted vegetarianism as the best example of ethical consumerism. Vegetarianism was healthy and it did not – they believed – cause the needless sacrifice of animals (although they didn’t address what happened to the bull calves and billy goats produced by lactating cows and nanny goats). In Sheila Rowbotham’s magnificent biography of the immensely influential socialist writer Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), she describes how Carpenter’s dictum of simple living took hold among the members of the Fellowship of the New Life, the forerunner of the Fabian Society. Carpenter agued for simple clothing, simple houses, and simple food:

Carpenter combined his evangelical call for a new lifestyle with an alternative moral economy. This recycled, self-sufficient praxis involved growing your own vegetables, keeping hens and using local not imported grain – American produce was forcing down British farmers’ prices.

But this met with some resistance. The physician and social reformer Havelock Ellis

protested against Carpenter’s advocacy of vegetarianism on the grounds that meat was a  ‘stimulant’. Ellis wanted to know why meat? Why not potatoes? Was not all food a stimulant?

I’m with Ellis on this one.

The food counterculture of the 1960s embraced vegetarianism and an enthusiasm for ‘whole foods’ as a manifestation of a way of living ethically and sustainably. Last week I discussed Melissa Coleman’s memoir of her childhood on her parents’ homestead in rural Maine during the early seventies. Her father, Eliot Coleman, is dubbed the father of the American organic movement, and he fed his growing family mainly from the garden he soon established. They supplemented their diet with bought-in grains, seeds, honey, nut butters, and oils, but were strictly vegetarian. Their role models, Helen and Scott Nearing, were highly critical of immoral ‘flesh eaters’. Their book, Living the Good Life (1954), which became the homesteading Bible, argued that it was possible to feed a family on produce grown organically. Again, the choice of what to eat was a moral one. Eliot and Sue Coleman believed that their diet guaranteed their good health:

Papa often quoted Scott’s sayings, ‘Health insurance is served with every meal.’ As Papa saw it, good food was the secret to longevity and well-being that would save him from the early death of his father. The healthily aging Nearings were living proof that a simple diet was the key.

But, as Melissa Coleman notes, this was not a diet that suited everyone. The family suffered from a lack of Vitamin B, and at times they simply didn’t eat enough. It also didn’t prevent Eliot from developing hyperthyroidism.

His heart seemed to beat too quickly in his chest, and he had a cold he couldn’t kick, despite gallons of rose-hip and raspberry juice. … He tried to make sense of things in his mind. Health insurance, he believed, was on the table at every meal. In other words, the best way to deal with illness was to invest in prevention – eating a good diet that kept the body healthy. … He’d read up on vitamins and minerals, learning which foods were highest in A, B, C, D, and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc. He drank rose-hip juice for vitamin C, ate garlic and Echinacea to build immunity, used peppermint and lemon balm tea to soothe the stomach, and used chamomile to calm the nerves, but perhaps all this wasn’t enough.

She concludes: ‘He never thought to question the vegetarian diet espoused by the Nearings.’

I don’t – obviously – want to suggest that vegetarianism is deadly. Rather, my point is that the choices we make about our diets are influenced as much – or even more – by a set of assumptions about morality, our responsibility for our health, and other beliefs as they are by information about the nutritional benefits of food. I am concerned by two aspects of this belief that we are somehow able to eat ourselves better. We need to acknowledge that what we eat will not prevent us from falling ill. Sickness is caused by many things, and although important, diet is not an overriding factor.

Secondly, it mystifies what is actually very simple. Michael Pollan writes:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

This won’t make terribly much money for nutritionists or the food industry, hence their interest in promoting things which, they suggest, will do miraculous things for our health. They almost certainly won’t. Unless you suffer from an ailment which needs to be treated with a special diet, deciding what to eat is not a complicated, mysterious process. No amount of goji berries will make you a healthier, happier, or better person.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Melissa Coleman, This Life is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone (New York: Harper, 2011).

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin [2003] 2004).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Philip Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2001).

Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1996).

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London: Harper Press, 2006).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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