Shaping debate on religion in public life.

What have our Food and Bodies Become?

26 Sep 2017

In a culture of both food deprivation and obesity crises, Tina Hearn considers how we might better think about food and about our bodies.

In June, UNICEF published a report indicating that one in five children in the UK suffered from food insecurity and one in ten were severely food insecure. This means that amongst the world’s wealthiest nations, the UK has some of the highest levels of child hunger and deprivation. The TUC also recently released a report which revealed that one in eight working people were having to skip meals in order to make ends meet. The Trussell Trust, which is the largest, but by no means the only provider of emergency food, reported that it has distributed the highest ever volume of emergency food, i.e. more than one million food parcels. What we seem to be seeing here is an increasing alignment with the desperate conditions which Temple described when he reflected “the poor are not housed…nor the hungry fed.”

So why is this the case? A crucial factor is that our current economic model is broken, as signalled in a report issued by the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice. Key issues here include an economic and taxation system which is heavily oriented towards corporate well-being and welfare, facilitates the upward siphoning of wealth, produces widening inequalities and intensifies poverty. Changes in labour market and employment policies have decreased workers rights, creating downward pressure on bargaining power and in turn increasing insecurities for workers as manifest for example in the ‘gig economy.’ In addition, the cumulative effects of austerity policies which include long term public sector pay caps and welfare retrenchment have compounded these problems, and further rises in the levels of poverty and food insecurity are predicted for the near future.

You would think that there would be public outrage about such high levels of economic and in turn food insecurity, deprivation and hunger, but this is not the case. Indeed, public attitudes, which have traditionally formed an important source of resistance to circumstances such as these, seem to have hardened in relation to welfare and poverty. Could the way in which we think about food and in turn bodies provide some insights?

Arguably, dominant ways in which we think about and engage with food are anchored in and reflect the predicates of this broader system and, as such, contribute to consolidating its privatory tendencies. For example, the increasing intensity of work through the predominance of management techniques such as the audit culture, plus the acute pressures upon budgetary management presented by the intensities of low paid work, multiple jobs and poverty, have created pressures and demand for  processed food such as ready meals and take-aways, where the emphasis is upon speed, the instrumentalisation of food and the individualisation of eating practice.

Food is also individualistically and instrumentally inflected through the highly popular and often expensive craze for ‘super foods.’ Here the emphasis is upon cellular and tissue re-engineering of the individual body through the instruments of active constituents of foods such as flavonoids, biotics and enzymes. Practices such as these have aesthetic and ascetic inflections too. For example, they give rise to notions of virtuous eaters, i.e. aesthetically ideal, thin, lean bodies, and their corollaries sinful, unruly, often large bodies – comparison and competition are often key drivers here. Arguably individualism, responsibilisation and instrumentalism have become entrenched in the way in which we name and form our relations with food and so naturalised in our cultural catechism of food and bodies.  If you are unable to secure enough food, it is often construed as a matter of personal failure rather than public shame. So what are some of the ways in which we might think about food and bodies differently?

In her book ‘Fat Jesus’ Lisa Isherwood, with reference to the Songs of Solomon, argues that food and bodies can be inflected quite differently. Here food is mobilised to figure the inter-dependencies of human expressions of shared incarnated desire, sensuality and spirituality. Interestingly this is signed through the assertively affirmed beauty of the ‘comely’ body, rounded thighs and heaped belly of a generously enfleshed woman. In using this example, Isherwood underlines that food is relational and that the body is a site where creation is lived and sensed. She adds that a large body is a life lived as testament to the abundance of creation, thus affirming an inclusive and celebratory aesthetics with an emphasis upon voluptuousness of creation. There are echos here of Temple’s own orientation to food, which included affirmation of sensuality, family, sociality and bonding.

Hannah Bacon also highlights the relational and social dimensions of food as found in Sophia’s Banquet, where food is used to figure both an aesthetic and ascetics of openness, inclusion and sharing (Proverbs 8, 9), a stark contrast to the instrumental and utilitarian ethics which pervade individualistic, introspective forms of eating practices. Social eating is also generative of further ethical values such as inclusion, acceptance and mutual enjoyment – values which affirm a fertile and abundant openness. In her book ‘Fat Activism’ Charlotte Cooper also talks about food as a medium which can not only embody acceptance and inclusion, but can also be about fostering other forms of expression such as bonding, enjoyment and having fun, as well fostering political consciousness.

All of these examples signal both the possibility of and also the need for a shift in the way in which we think about and relate to our food and bodies. Arguably, just like our economic model, our current models of food and bodies are broken. There is a need for a different model which embraces sufficient and healthy food as fundamental to our humanity and also validates the integrity of all bodies, in particular those bodies which are currently defined as failures, for example bodies which are clinically and culturally defined as overweight or obese.

Tina’s forthcoming Temple Tract ‘Theology and the Politics of Flesh’ shares some further reflections on this challenge, which you’ll be able to read soon…

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