The Religion of Food and Health

By Amanda Levitt

We have subscribed to this religion at some point. The belief that health can be interchanged with purity and make us closer to virtue solely based on the food we consume and the actions we take in our life. At the moment I’m taking a Women’s Lit class where all of the books thus far have focus on one main belief, remaining pure and virtuous is the most important thing a person can do in their life. Often this is talked about in relation to a women’s sexuality and virtue is meant with virginity in mind. Keep in mind that most of these novels were written in the late 1700s and now the idea that a women’s virtue relies on her ability to remain a virgin until marriage is not a commonly held belief within liberal circles, not that it doesn’t still exist today.

It always amazes me that people who reject the idea of religion will so fully support the idea that health is of supreme importance. We use the same idea with health that people often use with religion, that the healthier a person is the more pure they are. In some cases you don’t even have to be completely healthy, just trying to be healthy or doing something considered healthy will make you appear far superior to those that are living a deviant unhealthy lifestyle (whatever that means).

For a portion of last semester, until it got too cold, I would often ride my bike to class. I lived close enough that I could walk, but people always seemed to take notice of the fact that I rode my bike around campus. They would be shocked that I actually would ride my bike and tell me how healthy it is, even though I could have walked and would have if riding my bike wasn’t such a huge time saver. The fact that I actually have something that can be used to exercise with, gives people the illusion that I am trying to become less devious. In our culture we have so many different ways a person can see the relation to health and purity that is it often not even thought about in these terms.

The first place to start is with food; we learn from childhood that food that is often labeled as bad also comes with the belief that a person who eats that food is bad themselves. Eat a cupcake, and you are so bad! It is not surprising that the foods we consider to be morally unsound are the same foods that are often linked to fat bodies. The idea that if you eat those foods you become tainted or impure yourself and the opposite happens if you eat the good foods, you become more worthy of a person because you are trying to change.

The same thing can happen through the actions that we take, think of the newly engaged woman who decides to partake in the traditional pre-wedding weight loss ritual. The very act of losing weight for ‘health’ in reality it is to appear more virtuous on their wedding day, wearing white becomes a signifier that the bride is not only worthy but also morally sound for her new partner. Same goes for new years resolutions that make up for all of the devious things a person did the year before by becoming ‘healthy.’

When a person lives in a devious body the reactions by our culture is very similar to the reactions to a person who is sexually impure. Shame is often the first emotion, but after that the need to become morally sound is almost a compulsive act. The idea that a person should always be trying to become healthy, no matter their socioeconomic status or the way their life is, creates a dichotomy of pure or healthy individuals and impure or unhealthy individuals. When there is more than enough evidence that health cannot be easily defined by a set of characteristics or a body type the act of trying to attain health goes once again to this innate need to be morally sound.

What comes out acknowledging this kind of thinking? Knowing that no one is morally obligated to be ‘healthy’ and food or ones actions does not have moral value. Believing in the church of health does not make you a good person. Believing that everyone deserves their own personal autonomy would probably be an amazing step in the ‘good person’ direction. The very act of creating a body type or lifestyle that is considered ‘healthy’ is oppressive and misleading.

It also creates a society that is not actually worried about health but about being morally superior to those that inhabit fat bodies.


5 thoughts on “The Religion of Food and Health

  1. So spot on.

    In fact, if he were alive today, I believe Oscar Wilde’s infamous novel would be entitled The Refrigerator of Dorian Gray.

  2. Pingback: Five for Friday :: 18 February 2011 | Nourishing the Soul - A forum on body image and the effects of eating disorders

  3. “It also creates a society that is not actually worried about health but about being morally superior to those that inhabit fat bodies.”

    That sentence right there was the one that stuck with me. I think our obsession with feeling superior to others, whether it’s about weight, or parenting, or work–almost always reflects our own fear, rather than a genuine investment in the well-being of others.

    Thanks for this!

  4. Oh I love this! That whole air of moral superiority that goes with people who crow about their health, or how they “resist” the foods they deem “sinful” – it drives me up the wall.

Comments are closed.