Column

Mythologies

7 May 2019

Do you remember being five years old and making yourself sick on too much chocolate? Remember learning for the first time that there is such a thing as too much? It must have seemed like such a strange idea before that moment, that you could have too much of anything. We were born needing.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favourite (2018) is ostensibly about power, but even more so about appetite. Queen Anne is transfixing. She wants cake, sex, affection, fine dresses. On a certain level, she wants respect but more than that she wants comfort. She wants to be enough. The film frames Anne as a morbidly tragic figure. She has lost 17 babies, and so seeks to numb her grief with food, sex and attention. The audience is both thrilled and horrified by the scale of her need.

Anne is a lesser-known Queen. If someone has heard of her, the fact they are most likely to know about her is that she was morbidly obese and suffered from gout. The historical obsession with her body belies a fascination with the female body as a site of contradiction. There’s something puritanical about the way we survey bodies — especially fat, female ones. Pleasure is grotesque when viewed from this angle. We feel that we ought to be repenting for something.

Excess and appetite are no longer status symbols. The ultra-rich are more likely to define themselves by their self-control, the way they can wield their bodies and time to productive and disciplined ends. No pleasure can be worthwhile in and of itself, all goods are instrumental to work and profit. The upper class are far less likely than they once were to define themselves by their feasts.

This contradiction between performative displays of discipline and performative displays of consumption has reconciled itself by creating food that exists purely for its aesthetic qualities. Instagram food. Food that is not a meal but rather a spectacle. It usually involves gold leaf — or glitter — usually a substance that isn’t generally considered edible. It turns something mundane into an event, an experience that is only available to a privileged few. You lined up for it. You travelled to Japan for it. It is food as a commodity, the point is not to eat it but to acquire and document it.

It is axiomatic to say that one’s worldview will appear on their plate. It is a matter of ethics, access, taste, culture, hang-ups, desires and longings. Inscribed in this quotidian daily activity is an attempt to reconcile our highest and lowest impulses. I want to save the planet and I want a whole plate of cheese and I don’t know how to have it both ways. I want to go out and share a meal and I want to stay in saving my money. The contradictions in my beliefs appear before me, three times a day. To spend $10 on a donut that was baked to be photographed belies a different set of priorities than to spend 50 cents on a donut from your local Vietnamese bakery. More and more of our daily activities are converted into labour. Even eating is something that can be performed, consumed literally, and then again as an image.

Do you remember learning for the first time that your body is something you must control? That you must live a certain contradiction? That you must control your figure and you must avoid the appearance of vanity?

I was changing out of my gym clothes last week when another girl came up to me to let me know that “all body types are welcome” in the class. I had not realised, lying on my back and pushing my head and shoulders up towards the ceiling, that my body might be something in need of special inclusion. Perhaps it is not so strange that we have been sold something to do with our food other than eating it.

Is it wrong to want? I do not want to shame someone for their hunger. Perhaps my discomfort with food-as-spectacle comes from the same puritanical discomfort that historians and courtiers felt towards Queen Anne, a desire to treat the body as a metaphor containing within the vices and virtues of a nation. Can a cake ever just be a cake? A body just a body? Let us forgive our appetites. Eat up.


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