And so the case remains that while one half of the world starves the other gladly packs on the pounds.
The corpulent noble comes to mind, englutting a dining table laid out by servants a third his weight. Of course this familiar caricature does little to represent Western health concerns, in a literal sense at least, for we populate a society in which those with the means of sustenance are starving themselves voluntarily--all in the name of their image. [Right: image by TheCulinaryGeek]
We live in a world where fat and thin are marks of virtue and vice, not simple indications of your health or financial status. We look upon fatness and see a lack of self-control, a preoccupation with lowly pleasures, and by extension a set of characteristics hardly conducive to the successful modern citizen. Thinness, on the other hand, lugs with it a number of favourable subtexts--restraint, empowerment, an ambition for pleasures beyond your simple kneejerk hedonism. Yes, it seems our hankering for slenderness is about more than just our physical image--it's about our overall character profile.
Could this be why we often prefer talking about health to actually being healthy? Take a bunch of avid dieters stationed around a patio table, sipping low-cal cocktails: they exchange dieting tips, boast weight loss, lament weight gain; and silently squabble over who among them is the most insecure, who is the most ambitious, and who is therefore the most diligent in their self-denial. These days it's not enough to simply be skinny, one must also possess the attached traits that entail an obsession with remaining so, or, even better, with shedding yet another three or four pounds. The female ideal--the slender, slight, and toned lady who doesn't lunch--is the epitome of modern asceticism as much as modern beauty. Her abstinence, self-discipline, and self-possession is coveted at least as much as her athletic figure.
This notion is hardly novel. Asceticism, the practice of abstaining from worldly pleasures, has been a religious fad for thousands of years. Let's consider the basic tenets of Christianity, for instance: you must abstain from gluttony, that is the overindulgence of food; from lust, that is the carnal pleasure of sex; and from pride, that is the ultimate satisfaction of being right all the time. These maxims can be seen in their extreme in the case of saints and other figureheads, most notably Saint Catherine of Siena whose severe fasting was revered an expression of divine virtue. Similar instances can be sought across worldly culture, from monks subsisting on bowls of rice to hermits spending their lives in seclusion. [Left: image by Lawrence OP]
Modern society's 'skinny attitude' can be most easily compared to chastity, another breed of asceticism imposed mostly upon women. Chastity can be understood as the freedom from sexual impurities--essentially the enjoyment of sex, an act intended only for procreation within same-sex marriage. Until recently a Western woman's chastity, her abstinence, was tantamount to her value as a human being; it was virtuous, fashionable, and indeed essential that she deny herself in such a way so to demonstrate her self-restraint. Outside the Western world, to varying degrees, this remains--a woman's abstinence suffices her claim to social standing.
In light of this does our throng of dieters seem all the different to a flock of eighteenth-century spinsters swooning over their purity? It's all about the denial of these 'worldly pleasures' everyone's so afraid of. The gist seems to be that enjoying worldly pleasures distracts you from what you should be focusing on: your spiritual health. By cutting ties and removing yourself from the 'physical world' you are, according to some, laid bare to greater things, i.e. inner peace, divine knowledge, and self-understanding. This is all well and good when you presuppose the existence of anything beyond our 'physical world,' but what of our burgeoning atheist society? What need has an atheist of these limitations?
The opposite of asceticism isn't overindulgence--it's the simple enjoyment of what this world has to offer. And what could be wrong with that once we pull Heaven, Nirvana, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it from the equation? If you don't believe life to be some sort of cosmic qualifying exam then you're well within your right to enjoy what pleasures you do believe in. Moderation is important, of course, but the idea that indulgence in pleasure somehow thwarts the 'big picture' is a religious concept, not a fundamental one. [Right: image by David Goehring]
So what must we say to our modern dieters? Be healthy, be moderate, feel good--but don't subscribe to this destructive culture of needless abstinence and self-denial. Worldly pleasures aren't evil, they're not ugly, and they're not uncool. We're human beings and that's great: we love stodgy desserts, lots of sex, and plenty of ludicrous comedy at the expense of others. It's asceticism we should be afraid of, not the world. Enjoy yourself.