On willpower, sex, and why New Yorkers are such puritans about what they eat for dinner.

Pretty lady, delicious burger.

Pretty lady, delicious burger.

I was pointed to this amazing essay in Policy Review by (surprise, surprise) David Brooks, who awarded it one of his annual Sidney Awards for the best magazine essays of the year. Brooks, you’ve done it again!

In “Is Food the New Sex?” Mary Eberstadt explores how over the past 50 years, “the moral poles of sex and food have been reversed.” In other words, we used to think food was a matter of personal preference – eat what you want! – whereas sexual behavior was bound by a set of commonly held moral values; now we think the opposite. We’re puritans about food and pagans about sex. It’s the kind of argument that is so totally and intuitively correct that I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself, or that it hasn’t always existed.

The piece is long but every word is worth reading. Eberstadt compares Internet porn to junk food (consumed furtively and easily, and “disdained by those who believe they have access to more authentic experience or ‘healthier’ options”), observes that “schismatic differences about food have taken the place of schismatic differences about faith,” and discusses Kant’s categorical imperative as it relates to refined sugars and red meat.

It’s hard to choose one bit to excerpt, but here’s a good one:

Many people who wouldn’t be caught dead with an extra ten pounds — or eating a hamburger, or wearing real leather — tend to be laissez-faire in matters of sex. In fact, just observing the world as it is, one is tempted to say that the more vehement people are about the morality of their food choices, the more hands-off they believe the rest of the world should be about sex. What were the circumstances the last time you heard or used the word “guilt” — in conjunction with sin as traditionally conceived? Or with having eaten something verboten and not having gone to the gym?

It’s true, right? I know many strident puritans about one or the other – you know who you are – and yet very few who would dare “judge” someone else on both issues.

Eberstadt says that’s no coincidence, and that our increasing self-righteousness about food is a channeling of our long-nurtured, recently abandoned instincts for self-righteousness about sex. She concludes that “the rules being drawn around food receive some force from the fact that people are uncomfortable with how far the sexual revolution has gone — and not knowing what to do about it, they turn for increasing consolation to mining morality out of what they eat.”

That takeaway reminded me Jonah Lehrer’s piece about New Year’s resolutions in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. A whopping 88% of resolutions eventually fail, he writes, because, essentially, our brains have an extremely limited capacity for self-control. The expectation that we can curb our excess spending AND our excess eating, for example, is unrealistic. Our feeble brains can’t handle so much strain all in on January. One experiment he cites asked one group of students to memorize a 7-digit number, and another to memorize just two digits. The first group was significantly less able to resist eating a piece of chocolate cake at the end of the experiment. Lehrer writes: “Willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.”

So I wonder if that’s true not just of individuals, but also of moral culture – our collective prefrontal cortex. If we’re busy bottling up our sexual urges, we’re too weak to deny ourselves license to eat what we want. And then when society shifts and we decide to restrict our food intake to only the most ethically and nutritionally pure, we’ve got to indulge our collective hunger elsewhere. Or maybe it’s the other way around: When we decide to let it all hang out sexually, we have to focus our scolding instinct elsewhere.

Chicken/egg or egg/chicken (all free-range and antibiotic free, of course). Either way, New York City is Exhibit A. On sex, New Yorkers are a bunch of free-love libertines compared to the rest of the country. When it comes to food, we’re all fire and brimstone.

No matter that old-timers lament the de-sexing of Manhattan: We’re still the national capital of sexual freedom, choice, and, yes, excess. And we’re also some of the most ridiculous puritans about our food. The city has banned trans fats, the department of health harangues subway riders about drinking soda, and the mayor has publicly declared war on salt. Fast-food restaurants are required to list calorie counts on their menus. Manhattan is the thinnest county in the state. Jonathan Safran Foer lectures us about meat consumption from Brooklyn, while the New York Times churns out conventional-wisdom-making articles on what we should and shouldn’t eat. Upscale menus note the origin of every precious egg and spice on their menu, and the farmer’s market is the place to be seen on weekends. New Yorkers care deeply about skinniness, about exercise, about fat counts and factory farming and carbs and new restaurants and CSAs. Some of that’s healthy and some disordered, some of it’s some of it’s progressive and some merely trendy.

You may not agree with the way Eberstadt draws the line between sex and food — especially her very pointed last line, which I won’t give away here — but the piece is nonetheless an unforgettable read. As for me, I see the benefits of mild moralizing about both food and sex. I’d expound on that, but I’ve got to run: I want to get to Chipotle before the line gets too long.

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6 responses to “On willpower, sex, and why New Yorkers are such puritans about what they eat for dinner.

  1. I read somewhere that — shocking — Manhattan is the thinnest county in the nation, not just the state. Not bad.

  2. I enjoy being skinny and having promiscuous sex. But apparently that should be assumed since I live in New York.

  3. Tennessee, that reminds me of that line from Annie Hall: “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.” Now go back to your arugula and your whores.

  4. Huh. I often compare food to sex, usually when someone is openly judging me for my lack of culinary adventurousness. (I’m sorry, but no, I will not eat something called “offal,” for example, no matter how expensive it is, and nobody has the right to judge that openly – even if I am quietly judging them in my head for eating things I wouldn’t give to a stray dog.) Food, music, and sex are private and personal tastes that cannot be openly judged. Also, while I’m at it!: it is not possible for a person’s taste in food to be “racist,” just to get that one out there!

  5. Lindsay, that is interesting. Maybe you’re at the forefront of an urban-populist backlash re: the new food snobbery. I like it! I wish your taste in desserts wasn’t so heterosexist, however.

  6. It’s a fantastic essay. I like the suggestion at the end that it’s all kind of arbitrary. It implies that humans have a biological need to parse some aspect of their existence in morally freighted ways – but whether it is sex or food or, I dunno, real estate or kinship is kind of irrelevant.

    In some societies you find somewhat relaxed attitudes towards sex and few food taboos, but incredibly elaborate cosmologies and beliefs in witchcraft. Or so Margaret Mead might have us believe.

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