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Occupy Food

So. Farwell then, Occupy London? There’s nothing like writing a (relatively) topical blog to remind you of how fast news develops. When I began thinking about this post, the protestors at Occupy London outside St Paul’s had lost their appeal against their eviction. It seemed that this wing of the occupy movement had gone the same way as Occupy Wall Street when Zuccotti Park was cleared. But now the campers have found a new, fifth spot, still in the City of London: Roman House, an empty building in the Barbican.

I visited Occupy London in December last year. I had arranged to attend a drawing class presented by Baduade (this is her account of it, with some of our contributions) and was hopelessly early, so I decided to visit two of the protest’s other sites, in Finsbury Square and in the abandoned UBS building in Sun Street – now rechristened the Bank of Ideas. I was struck by the social and ideological complexity of the protest. Not only did the protestors represent a variety of opinions, but were a varied group of people who had decided to camp for different reasons. Laurie Penny’s recent article on Occupy London sums this up particularly well:

The people who live full or part-time in the camps can now be divided into roughly three categories: those who were homeless before the occupations, those who will shortly be homeless, and those who merely look homeless. Three months of sleeping in tents, washing in the bathrooms of nearby cafes and working around-the-clock to run a kitchen feeding thousands with no running water and little electricity will transform even the most fresh-faced student into a jittering bundle of aching limbs and paranoia.

In his account of a night spent at the St Paul’s camp, James Macintyre noted a class difference between the sites, with more middle-class protestors choosing to settle at Finsbury Park – the site which produces The Occupied Times. My experience certainly bore this out: as I arrived at the Finsbury Park welcome tent, the girl supervising it bounded up to me and exclaimed in tones which would cheer any elocution teacher, ‘oh I love your badges!’.

Part of the appeal of the camp, commented Macintyre, particularly for homeless people, is that it has a kitchen which provides food for free:

The campers, a multi-ethnic mix, are fed in the soup kitchen by volunteers, including several part-time chefs; they say they feed up to 1,500 people a day, most of whom are just around the camp during the day. The volunteers’ chief concerns are the need for more donations of vegetables, and the lack of storage facilities for meat, rather than the evils of global capitalism.

The same was true at Zuccotti Park which developed a reputation for the quality of the cuisine which its cooks – some of them professional chefs – prepared. In fact, the kitchen’s output proved to be so popular that overworked and apparently ‘underappreciated’ volunteers temporarily refused to make food. Indeed, there were even some reports that Occupy Wall Street decided to limit the kitchen’s output because of the numbers of homeless people the protest was attracting.

Whatever the politics of feeding so many protestors may have been, Occupy Wall Street’s achievements are worth celebrating: its kitchen relied entirely on donations, meaning that meal planning was almost impossible and relied on cooks’ inventiveness and ability to think quickly. Also, the kitchen was not allowed to use any form of open flame.

The kitchen at the St Paul’s protest was as heroic, and reminded me of the cooking done at the Climate Camps a few years ago (and I think that there’s more to be said about the overlap between the Climate Camp movement and Occupy London): using mainly donated produce and almost always vegan – a practical choice in terms of storage and dietary requirements – food was prepared using wood-fired rocket stoves and provided free to all people on the campsite. It was delicious – and I write this as one whose experiment with veganism lasted only a week.

In both cases, the food served at the camps was emblematic of the concerns and ideals of the protestors, as the New York Times described the Zuccotti Park protest:

The makeshift kitchen has fed thousands of protesters each day. Along the way, it has developed a cuisine not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement itself: free-form, eclectic, improvisatory and contradictory.

Requests for food go out on Twitter and various Web sites sympathetic to the protesters. And somehow, in spontaneous waves, day after day, the food pours in. The donations are received with enthusiasm, even when they are not precisely what the troops might have desired.

Robert Strype, 29, a protester from the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., area who was wearing a T-shirt that expressed his displeasure with Monsanto, said that anger about practices like factory farming and the genetic modification of vegetables was one of the factors that had roused him and some of his fellow occupiers. ‘Food plays a huge part in this movement,’ he said. ‘Because people are tired of being fed poison.’

Of all the various manifestations of the occupy movement – from the recent Occupy Nigeria, to Occupy Art and Occupy History (my favourite, obviously) – one of the most persistent has been Occupy Food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it began in the United States. The Occupy movement was produced by the inequalities of Obama’s America, and no country on earth has as powerful a food industry as the US. Whereas it’s an exaggeration to refer to Big Food in South Africa or Argentina, this is certainly not the case for America. As Strype makes the point, Americans ‘are tired of being fed poison.’

But the idea has had a worldwide resonance, despite the fact that ‘occupying food’ seems like an inherently illogical idea: how can you ‘occupy’ something which is so ubiquitous? The organisers of the first Occupied Food protest at the re-named Zucchini Park explained:

We started Occupy Big Food because we thought it was really important to bring the discussion of food to what is happening at Occupy Wall Street. The goals of OWS and OBF are totally aligned — we are against the corporate takeover of our food system.

The Occupy Food rally was followed a month later by a farmers’ march to Occupy Wall Street to ‘to ‘fight and expose corporate control of the food supply.’ Willie Nelson – yes, for it was he – writing in his capacity as the President of Farm Aid, urged his readers to Occupy the Food System:

From seed to plate, our food system is now even more concentrated than our banking system. Most economic sectors have concentration ratios hovering around 40%, meaning that the top four firms in the industry control 40% of the market. Anything beyond this level is considered ‘highly concentrated,’ where experts believe competition is severely threatened and market abuses are likely to occur.

Many key agricultural markets like soybeans and beef exceed the 40% threshold, meaning the seeds and inputs that farmers need to grow our crops come from just a handful of companies. Ninety-three per cent of soybeans and 80% of corn grown in the United States are under the control of just one company. … Today, three companies process more than 70% of beef in the U.S.; four companies dominate close to 60% of the pork and chicken markets.

In an article for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott elaborated on Nelson’s point. Firstly, the food system is dominated by a handful of very big businesses, whose reach is global: Monsanto has a virtual monopoly of the world’s seed supply; only four companies – including Cargill (which begs the question why the World Food Programme sees fit to do business with it) – control the grain trade; and Walmart’s reach is extending around the world.

Secondly, the size of these businesses allows them unprecedented power over the whole food chain. In an effort to drive down prices, farmers and suppliers are put out of business, wages plummet, standards of animal welfare decline steeply, and the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other poisons increases.

Thirdly, the growing involvement of hedge funds and banks in the commodities market – which now includes food commodities – has led to concern that speculation on wheat, maize, and other staples is driving up the price of food. The best known example of this occurred two years ago when hedge fund Armajaro bought up Ghana’s total cocoa crop – about 7% of global production – causing a 150% rise in cocoa prices and many Ghanaian farmers to go out of business. Several economists have drawn a link between high food prices and the origins of the Arab Spring.

Finally, the relationship between food companies and governments can be uncomfortably close. In the United States, intense lobbying from the food, agriculture, and beverage industries has caused already light regulation to crumble. In the UK, a collection of food companies – including PepsiCo and Mars – advise the government on how to curb obesity and have formulated a programme which helps to swell their profits.

In other words, the food system is controlled by too few organisations. A lack of regulation of both industry and the economic system has driven up prices, contributed to a decline in the quality of food, and undermined job security, animal welfare, and ethical farming practices. On its own, this is enough to compel us to occupy the food system by growing our own food, supporting small farmers and producers, lobbying supermarkets to stock sustainable and ethically-produced food, and taking action against the cosy relationship between business and government.

But beyond this, there are few more potent indicators of inequality than access to food. The Occupy movement came to prominence partly because of, as my friend Seb commented, one of the best slogans in history: ‘we are the 99%’. It’s catchy and, most importantly, accurate (even if it may be the case that we’re actually the 99.9%). We know that the poorer people are, the poorer their diets are. In extreme cases, they simply can’t afford food, and starve and suffer from extreme malnutrition. But for most of the 99%, good, fresh, ‘whole’ food – the food that the shrinking middle classes can afford to buy from Woolworths, Waitrose, and Trader Joe’s – is simply too expensive, or too far away. They rely instead on heavily processed food.

As a recent report published by the World Health Organisation indicates, obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases are now as much a problem in the developing world as they are in the developed. This is partly the result of prosperity – the new middle classes crave McDonald’s burgers and Coca Cola as indicators of status – but mainly because of shifts in eating patterns caused by high food prices and the greater availability of cheap, processed proteins and non-foods.

In an extract from his new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, Paul Mason responds to critics who argue that the Occupy movement – and, indeed, the other protests which dominated the news in 2010 and 2011 – had few clearly defined goals and viable alternatives to the social and political status quo. Referring to Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class (1980), he explains:

parts of the book now bear rereading, in particular Gorz’s definition of revolution: taking power implies taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice capable of bypassing and superseding it through the development of an alternative network of relations. By this definition we are in the middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the 20th century.

If this is so, the occupy movement signals a beginning in a shift in our understanding of how power should work in society, and particularly as regards inequality.

We are the 99%. And we demand to eat well too.


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

Buying Power

In between lecturing, glowering at undergraduates, marking, marking some more, doing research, and marking, I help out with the Right2Know Campaign. Launched about a year ago, Right2Know represents a coalition of individuals, civil society organisations, and community groups who are concerned about the Protection of State Information Bill.

We believe that the Secrecy Bill – as R2K prefers to call it – will undermine all South Africans’ right to access government information, something which is guaranteed by Section 32 of our Bill of Rights. The Secrecy Bill will allow government officials in any ‘organ of state’ – an unpleasant image – or, in other words, any department, parastatal, agency, or institution which is associated with the state, to classify information deemed to be sensitive and potentially threatening to national security. In effect, this means that the Natal Shark Board, the Algoa Bus Company, and even the Johannesburg Zoo would be able to classify information.

Also, the Bill doesn’t include a public interest clause, and the penalties which it seeks to introduce for the leaking of classified information are ludicrously high. Whistle blowers face up to twenty-five years imprisonment. I don’t object to legislation which controls access to potentially dangerous information – like the plans for Koeberg or Pollsmoor – but Right2Know is deeply concerned that this Bill will make secrecy, rather than openness, the default position within government. This Bill will have a chilling effect on the media, but it’ll also impact on ordinary people’s ability to hold the state to account.

The campaign has had a significant impact on this piece of legislation. The Bill as it stands now isn’t nearly as draconian as its earliest incarnation last year, and the ANC has now withdrawn the Bill from Parliament altogether. (We do worry, though, about the process of ‘public consultation’ which the ANC is about to begin.)

But I think that our greatest achievement has been mobilising popular opinion against a law the implications of which are not immediately obvious. We’ve managed to get people to march against the Bill, and to pack public information sessions and community meetings. I think that this is partly because the campaign has been fairly successful in causing the ruling party to change its mind. Right2Know has shown how the gathering of ordinary people in large numbers around a particular cause can make a difference.

Although the Occupy movement shows that when people feel strongly enough about an issue, they’ll take part in protests even if they know that the chances of success are pretty slim, it’s still difficult to counter criticism that there’s no point to being politically engaged because effecting change is really difficult. I think that it’s partly for this reason that so many campaigning organisations turn to consumer activism as a way of encouraging people to take action on particular issues: it’s easier to shift buying habits in the name of a cause and it requires less commitment than other forms of protest. Also, it’s proven to be relatively successful. Consumer activism hits companies where it hurts: their profits. Last year’s Greenpeace campaign to persuade Nestle not to use rainforest products caused the food giant to announce that it would not engage in ecologically harmful practises in Indonesia.

Consumer activism around food has existed for as long as the idea of the consumer – rather than the customer. I’ve written before about the link between the rise of the American food industry and its increasing use of advertising to promote branded products during the late nineteenth century, and the construction of ‘consumers’. Customers bought oats from the grocer’s bin because they ate porridge for breakfast. Consumers chose Quaker Oats from a range of other brands because they identified with the values associated with that particular product.

One of the effects of the industrialisation of food production – indeed, of the food chain – was a heightened incidence of food adulteration. We know that for centuries shopkeepers and grocers added bulk to make their products to make them go further: adding ground up chalk to flour, water to milk or vinegar, sand to sugar, and dried leaves to tea. The difference was that as more food was produced in factories and it became more difficult to monitor this production, the adulteration of food occurred on a mass scale. In both Britain and the United States, concern about the purity of food grew over the course of the nineteenth century, and with very good reason.

In 1820, Frederick Accum, a German chemist living in London, published A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons in which he detailed the extent to which British food producers used harmful – and even potentially deadly – substances to increase the volume and weight of their products, and also improve their appearance. Lead, copper, and mercury salts were used to make adulterated tea and coffee darker, bread whiter, and sweets and jellies more colourful. Thirty years later – and after Accum had fled back to Germany after the furore caused by his book – another group of British scientists found that adulteration was the norm, rather than the exception, in food manufacturing.

One of these, Arthur Hill Hassall, worked as the chief analyst for the gloriously-titled Analytical Sanitary Commission, and he went to work methodically analysing the composition of a range of medicines and manufactured food products. Between 1851 and 1854, Hassall identified alum in bread, and iron, lead and mercury compounds in cayenne pepper, copper salts in bottled fruit and pickles, and Venetian red in sauces, potted meats, and fish. He published his findings in The Lancet, and the public outcry that resulted from his work was partly behind the passing of the first Food Adulteration Act in 1860.

In Britain, efforts to curb the adulteration of food were driven largely by scientists and politicians. Consumer outrage was important in that it encouraged food producers to comply with new regulations around additives, but this was not a consumer-driven campaign. It was, though, in the United States, where the pure food movement was the first manifestation of consumer activism on a national scale. The size, influence, and political clout of the American food industry needed a concerted challenge in order to change.

Americans had been aware of a drop in the quality of manufactured food since the middle of the nineteenth century – and understood that this was connected to the fact that food was being processed in factories. As one popular rhyme put it:

Mary had a little lamb, / And when she saw it sicken, / She shipped it off to Packingtown, / And now it’s labelled chicken.

The first people to mobilise against food adulteration were middle-class women in the 1870s. Well-off and well-educated white American women were involved in a range of philanthropic and reform movements during the final decades of the nineteenth century – a period known as the Progressive Era in American historiography. The global temperance movement – which campaigned for the tighter regulation of alcohol sales – was run almost entirely by middle-class ladies who justified their engagement with politics on the grounds that this was an issue relevant mainly to women – and particularly poor women. Similarly, American women agitated for the regulation of the food industry because supplying households with food was the concern of diligent wives and mothers. Even if many women involved with the temperance and other movements eventually became active in women’s franchise organisations, these campaigns were politically and, to some extent, socially, conservative. They were also locally driven, and emerged out of existing social clubs, improvement societies, and charities.

As in Britain, studies carried out by health boards and medical societies found that the contamination of processed food was rife: flour contained ground rice, plaster of paris, grits, and sand; bread contained copper sulphate and ashes; butter contained copper; cheese contained mercury salts; and lard contained caustic lime, and alum. Cayenne pepper was adulterated with red lead and iron oxide; mustard with lead chromate and lime sulphate; and vinegar with sulphuric, hydrochloric, and pyroligneous acids, and burnt sugar. Nice.

These campaigns were grounded in a belief that the food producers had become so powerful that the American government needed to step in to protect consumers from them. Even if several states did enact food purity legislation, it became clear that the food industry needed to be regulated on a national industry, and a campaign led by the Ladies’ Home Journal and Colliers’ and supported by home economists and others argued for the introduction of a federal law, similar to that in the UK.

Surprisingly, food companies were in favour of this legislation. Not only would it simplify the increasingly complex and contradictory rules operating in different states, but they lobbied the American government to write a law which suited their business interests. In fact, Heinz and other organisations actually benefitted from the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906: they advertised their products – which Heinz sold in clear glass bottles to demonstrate their purity – as being the safer, healthier, and purer alternative to the unbranded products sold by small, local grocers. Heinz, regulated by the American government, was the wholesome choice.

I don’t want to detract from the achievement of the pure food campaigners, but, ironically, their efforts to curb the excesses of the American food industry actually had the effect of strengthening these big processors. So I think that this example of consumer activism is instructive. It’s certainly true that as consumers our ability to withhold or redirect our buying power can cause change, and we should exploit this. But this only works in times of plenty. We’ve seen how sales of organic produce have dropped globally during the recession. Eating ethically is an expensive business.

More importantly, though, consumer activism doesn’t cause us to question the fact that we act – and are seen by our governments – primarily as consumers, rather than citizens. Secondly, it doesn’t interrogate why buying things is believed to be so important: it doesn’t consider consumerism itself. There is mounting evidence to indicate that rampant consumerism does not make for happy societies, and that we need to buy and waste less for the good of our planet.

I was struck recently by a comment made by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor wear range Patagonia, in an interview with The Ecologist: ‘There is no doubt that we’re not going to save the world by buying organic food and clothes – it will be by buying less.’ Consumer activism can only go so far in causing change. We need to question consumerism itself.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914 (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1999).

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

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Nancy F. Koehn, ‘Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century: Making Markets for Processed Food,’ The Business History Review, vol. 73, no. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 349-393.

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

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

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).

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