On Sunday I returned from a lovely week long holiday on the Isle of Mull with my family and boyfriend. The time spent without sustainable wifi, with loved ones and in an isolated, empty part of the world are both the reason why I am slightly delayed in my writing and also in part its inspiration.
I always find myself at peace when walking outside, on my own or with someone I know very well. The sensation of absolute comfort, I realise, comes from the anonymity that these situations provide. When I am outside and not likely to see many people, and if when I do they are similarly bedraggled and decked out in a non-sexy waterproof, I don't really care about the impression I leave. On the other hand, my everyday life in the city means constant interaction with people, people, people, strangers or otherwise. Being under a constant societal gaze has more of an impact on me than it probably should: if I go about my day not feeling that I look my best I become shy, retiring and sometimes pissed off, desperate to get home and into my pyjamas ASAP even though I'm usually an outgoing person. The most ridiculous thing about this conundrum is I know that NO ONE CARES. No one is going to stop in the street and think 'my god look at that sweaty rushed mess of a person, her life must be a joke', because everyone is as deeply entrenched in their own bubble as I am. But this form of image-based social anxiety has got me thinking recently, particularly with regards to my focus on food. Consumer culture bombards us daily with advertising and social ideals, and this is at its most personal with regards to the body.
Diet pills, fast food, bikini adverts, clothing shops, beauty products, photoshopped front pages; even my short walk to work is choc-full of subtle subliminal messaging, telling me what sort of perfect form my life and body should take and what I need to buy in order to achieve that. Similarly, one scroll through Instagram, Twitter or Facebook provides endless images to compare ourselves to and, more disturbingly, the temptation to edit our pictures with filters and photoshop so we can 'compete' in the looks market. Furthermore, the way we look at our bodies can be reduced to nothing less than symbolic cannibalism, and this is where it gets interesting.
I know many people (myself included) particularly women but also men, who look at their body with shocking self criticism; 'my thighs are huge'; 'I have no waist'; 'I wish I had bigger boobs/a thigh gap/longer legs'. This reduction of the self to separate body parts is reminiscent of the dotted lines that are drawn on pigs or cows marking how they should be butchered: what shape and size the 'perfect cut' should be. Consumer culture goes so far that we view our own bodies as commodities to be devoured by others. This is why I only question myself when looking through the filter society has instilled in me, and am more at peace when away from its pressures. While I don't underestimate that many people want to look a certain way to feel good about themselves, that the 'certain way' is deemed as ideal in the first place is down to an image we are constantly sold, as blatantly marketed as branded sportswear and the lithe people who model them. I believe that one of the reasons people can become so obsessed by their bodies and by extension what they eat is that they care, deeply and disturbingly about how they relate to this image both in the mirror and under the gaze of others. Our image, how we look and what we choose to promote about ourselves in real life and on social media is all an impression created, manipulated and designed to be consumed, gobbled up by those who see it. Otherwise, why would we care about the shape of our thighs? Why would we edit pictures of ourselves and present someone who is to a certain extent untrue? With the exception of matters of health, most self loathing I encounter comes from an anxiety that we don't fit the mould, or come within the butcher's perfect dotted line.
While on holiday I read Margaret Atwood's crucial first novel, The Edible Woman. In the book, Atwood's protagonist Marian suffers from a subconscious anorexia, as her body rejects her mind's settling for a life of subordination and marriage by slowly limiting the food she can stomach. By the end of the novel, Marian cannot eat anything and her breaking point comes when she realises the person she has moulded herself into is not truly her, but someone to be consumed by her fiancé and society. Her retaliation to this is miraculously grotesque. She bakes a effigy of a woman out of cake, created for the sole purpose of being eaten. 'You look delicious,' she says to the cake, 'Very appetising. And that's what will happen to you; that's what you get for being food.' When her fiancé Peter shows up, she calls him out on his (albeit perhaps innocently unaware) bluff - '"You've been trying to destroy me, haven't you," she said. "You've been trying to assimilate me. But I've made you a substitute, something you'll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along isn't it? I'll get you a fork."' Peter, while obviously not wholly responsible for the expectations he harbours due to society, can nevertheless not stomach his tailor made woman. He leaves, and the real pièce de résistance comes when Marian takes the fork, suddenly hungry, and eats the cake herself. Symbolic cannibalism becomes a vehicle to restore self-control, rather than a cause of self hatred. The image of the woman eating the woman-cake, once more with an appetite, powerfully turns the consumed once more into the consumer and Marian retakes her agency and rejects society's measure of her through the trope of food.
This idea, that of both being your cake and eating it, is what I will explore in the second leg of this blog, coming soon. Alongside a cake recipe (of course) I will discuss how food can overturn what consumer society has taken from us. Nourishing our bodies in a healthy manner should be a positive way to look after and love yourself, not a trip into guilt-ridden angst. By recognising how our consumed image makes us alter what we in turn consume, literally, we can use food as a means to change the way we view ourselves and others. Our bodies should not be labelled as pre-judged chunks of meat, and from my experience forming a positive relationship with food can be an excellent way to stop butchering our self-esteem.