Eating yourself: We consume identity through food?
Food for thought
It was one of the pioneers of French gastronomy writing, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who penned the now famous observation:
‘Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.’
This was a more opinionated version than that which is found in the Bible, to paraphrase Corinthians ‘your body is a temple’. On the other side of the world Buddha was providing similar advice: ‘keep the body in good health’. This insight presents as a human truism; it is reasonable to surmise that from the beginning of time, primordial man would have been able to link good food with health (I know this does not reconcile evolution with the current obesity epidemic).
Importantly, there is a difference between recognising that what you eat is what you are and that what you eat constructs who you are. We symbolically consume identity through our food and drink choices – more specifically, by what we don’t eat or drink.
Eating is an intensely personal act. What we eat communicates to others our beliefs, cultural and social backgrounds and experiences. In the western world, testament to how we think about who we are, increasingly we join fashionable dietary tribes, where we temporarily graze within before moving onto greener fields. Who hasn’t tried on for size at some time being a: vegetarian, paleo, vegan, piscatarian, halal, Atkins, etc.; or my favourites, those that just hold their knife and fork high and find momentary solace in being a flexitarian?
All of these dietary choices have something in common; they are all opposed to being an omnivore. As apes, even very civilized ones, we are omnivores. In its broadest term, an omnivore will eat anything. Uniquely perhaps amongst animals, while we can digest the two main food groups (animals and/or plants), we have choice. All of the dietary-tribes above are defined by their rejection of some aspect of ‘everything’. There are many reasons why we exclude foods from our diet, from basic health needs to deep cultural and religious beliefs.
What is interesting is the role that food plays in constructing our identities. This is across psychological, anthropological thinking, and also semiotically, in how the meaning is expressed. Something that all humans share is also something that we use to differentiate ourselves on a daily basis.
‘Food is our common ground, a universal experience’.
Different ways of cooking the topic
It’s easy to think when reviewing literature on eating that there are too many chefs in the kitchen. Many disciplines have their leading thinkers in the subject area and there is a tantalising array of papers to look at. With this in mind, I’m going to stick to some of the papers that are more topical to what I’m currently looking at. Even a quick and cursory exploration is useful to contextualise how food relates to identity.
Food is a highly condensed social fact
Thinking through Food
It is elementary that food is more than something alimentary. Semioticians have likened the use of food in society and culture to language. As Roland Barthes, suggests
‘When he (modern consumer) buys an item of food, consumes it, or services it, modern man does not manipulate a simple object in a purely transitive fashion; this item of foods sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies’.
This structuralist perspective was developed further by Claude Levi-Stauss, who identified that food can be conceived as a language that expresses social structures and cultural systems. He posits that food “must not only be good to eat, but also good to think (with)”. I have discussed some of his influential approaches in the preceding post.
As early as 1899, Thorstein Veblen in his work ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ noted that food connotes class and privilege. Subsequent studies have painted this picture in deeper relief. The sociologist Norbert Elias identified the symbolic meaning of foods performing a significant role in determining social power and status relationships. Likewise, Pierre Bourdieu has suggested that social stratification and class are defined by taste. In an influential series of works Mary Douglas has looked at food as eating codes that define an individual’s place within a society and serve to actively maintain social order.
We find that the structure of society closely correlates to the nature of status foods:
Ethnographic research has revealed that an emphasis on quantity of food and elaboration of common staples is found mostly in societies without strong social stratification, while an emphasis on quality and style is characteristic of societies with institutionalized forms of social ranking. In the former context the consumption of luxury foods is used primarily to create or enhance social bonds, in the latter to create or enhance exclusivity and distance.
Jack Goody provides further insight about the social organisation of food. He has been able to illustrate that societies where there is little lifestyle difference between members, special occasions are characterised by the quantity of food. In comparison, in hierarchical societies where you tend to find sub-cultures, it is typical to find quality and foreignness in food as the differentiators of status.
A characteristic of societies with social equality is that there tends to be a more equitable distribution of food. It was the improved availability of food that was the main driver of the evolution of haute cuisine and fine dining, as the upper-echelons of society moved to further differentiate themselves from the masses. High status foods are characterised by rarity, cost, labour time, prominence of animal proteins and non-nutritional meanings and associations. At the same time there was shift towards individuality and the separation of classes, which resulted in eating innovations such as tables and cutlery.
This presents another paradox in how different cultures perceive eaters. Body image, in relation to food, is a way of creating more social meaning. Where there was a shift away from status-meals defined by quantity, in cultures where there is an abundance of food thinness is associated with privilege and status. Whereas, we find that in societies where food is scarce, there is the perception that being overweight is a status marker.
Political use of Consumption
‘Food can be used to mark and create relations of equality, intimacy or solidarity or, instead, to uphold relations signalling rank, distance or segmentation. This can be illustrated by looking at the use of food to communicate different types of class through consumption’.
The differences in class were brilliantly highlighted and exploited in this Australian Meat Pie advertisement
Another example of this was in the broadcast on NPR’s ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell me’. Where the hosts of the show comment on a shared insight to NPR’s audience:
PETER SAGAL “But first, great news: according to a new study, listeners to NPR News are better informed than people who get their news anywhere else. This is true. They asked everyone a series of questions about things, and NPR listeners got more of the questions right than say cable TV news watchers. Of course, the questions were a little slanted”.
KASELL: “To the best of your knowledge, which wine pairs best with a Prius?”
Adrienne Lehrer discussed how this symbolism is co-opted by politicians to bolster their ‘working man’ appeal. This has left the American voters with a quadrennial entertainment watching potential leaders of the free world struggle with some of the messiest foods that are even called ‘sliders’. Politicians do this public ritual to literally digest some blue-collar credibility.
Pierre Bourdieu makes the observation that ‘Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’. He points to the denial of ‘lower’ forms affirms those that have ‘taste’: ‘That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences’. Politicians can step into the majority’s lives by sharing this daily bread and breaking these codes by stepping off the culinary podium.
This concept of food being a social marker of class is not limited to the western cultures; it is also present in eastern cultures. Food:
“… was elevated at an early period [in China] from necessity to art, from sustenance to elegance; the subsequent high cultural status assured that food would remain a key ingredient in the language and structure of literature and art”.
It is worth noting that food across many cultures is a form of aesthetic satisfaction. Speaking to all of our senses, food words have become powerful metaphors in how we think about the world. Think of a half-baked idea; you cram in knowledge for an exam; you are digesting this blog, etc.
Ethnic and Cultural Symbolism of Food
Sidney Mintz has shown how these symbolic meanings change with different cultural, ethnic and class considerations. Food, geography or place and identity are intertwined from a symbolic perspective. Wenying Xu makes the important perspective that food is one of the ways that we engage with, and understand, other cultures:
‘’Food operates as one of the key cultural signs that structure people’s identities and their concepts of others’.
Bell and Valentine go into this definition in more detail, stating that national identity is linked to food:
“The history of any nation’s diet is the history of the nation itself, with food fashion, fads and fancies mapping episodes of colonialism and migration, trade and exploration, cultural exchange and boundary making”
Ethnographically we find that ethnic identities are expressed and maintained through dietary choices. The food that we eat can strengthen ties to your ethnicity on a day-to-day basis and it can also reflexively reinforce a sense of identity when you are in another culture. English seeking fish and chips in Greece, Australians hunting for Vegemite on Toast in Asia, and Americans looking for burgers everywhere, are examples of this identity reinforcement on holidays. While I’m focusing on food here, coffee, tea and alcohol are also used in similar ways.
While not a focus here, it should be noted that in the fluid global world of exchanged culinary traditions, foods are constantly reimagined and reinvented to suit the local culture. Often these can be cultural definitions; consider the similarities and difference between the croque–monsieur to a toasted sandwich; a meat pie to a beef wellington; or Japanese tempura to Portuguese battered fish. You don’t have to be the originator of a concept just to have a unique version that bonds a group of people. Consider the Cronut as a recent invention that speaks to NYC but blends donuts and croissants from different cultures, unified in a glaze of American sugar.
The Geopolitics of Consumption
“The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves.”
Food can also speak to a political identity on a cultural level. Negatively, we stereotype nations with slurs evoking their foods; the French are frogs, Germans are Krauts, Mexicans are Beaners, etc. However, we also hold in high reverence the influence of cuisines from around the world and what they contribute to the global table.
The presence of McDonalds in Moscow is symbolic on a broader scale, representative of the ‘triumph of capitalism over communism’
Noting that America’s recent thaw in relations with Vietnam has led to ‘A McDonald’s doorman gesture during the opening ceremony of the country’s first McDonald’s restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City on February 8, 2014’.
How has individual consumption changed?
“Identity can be defined as the individual’s identification and belongingness to particular social groups on the basis of differences socially sanctioned as significant”
In a more global world, cultural and ethnic boundaries are increasingly becoming more permeable. Food in particular is available in more ethnic diversity. Here, Anthony Giddens has suggested that food should move from a consumption model at a social group to one that reflects the individual consumption:
A paradox seems to emerge from this debate: it appears to conclude that diets become more different at the same time that they become more similar. One way of reading this paradox is the shift from ‘model’ to ‘style’. While ‘consumption model’ is a concept that refers to a social group (a community, a nation), style refers to the individual behaviour. The individual, in his/her food consumption behaviour, loses any reference to any objective belonging, to a family, a social group, a class, a community. He/she is driven only by his/her subjective choice, of an ideological, hedonistic nature. Style choices are negotiated among a diversity of options, in a plurality of contexts and authorities (Giddens 1991: 5)
This speaks to the societal shift from social classes that are defined by birth or later the type of job you have, to a post-industrial society where individuals are defined by ideology or by what they consume. This thinking is related to what Ulrich Beck defines as the individualisation process of reflexive modernity.
The reflexivity of modern social life consists in the fact that social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character . . . only in the era of modernity is the revision of convention radicalised to apply (in principle) to all aspects of human life. . . . (Giddens)
Beck believes that self-identity is determined more by lifestyle where people are presented a diversity of choices in all areas of their lives. Beck’s conception is that the self is not a passive identity that is determined by external influences. The self is a reflexive project sustained through the routine development and sustainment of a coherent narrative of self-identity: our biographies (Giddens). Scott Lash identifies that in this context ‘individuals must innovate rules in a bricolage of their own identities’. However, while we are more likely to identify ourselves as being individuals, as creative as we get, it is our social interaction that regulates this sense of identity. Identity without context is meaningless.
The current foodie culture and diversity of foods in western cultures has made food a much more democratic facet of modern societies. As a style, it is something that consumers are increasingly food-literate and empowered to comment on. As the food critic, Frank Bruni observes
“Food is an aspect of culture that, because everyone necessarily participates in it to some degree, is more egalitarian than, say, ballet, or opera, or even theatre. It’s easier and less intimidating to join the fray and weigh in with an opinion”
Contributing to this are the swathe of entry points into the world of food for the modern consumer: celebrity and contestant cooking shows, foodie magazines, websites and food festivals. Here everyone is invited to voyeuristically or personally participate in a range of foods that we might never eat. Like sports, you don’t have to play to be a member of the club.
Monkeys eat anything?
Food choices are central to the evolution of humans from apes. One of the most useful perspectives here was proposed by Claude Fischler, who introduced the concept of the ‘incorporation principle’. He starts by defining that humans are biologically omnivores. Being an omnivore is a paradox, in that we need novelty and are driven to explore new foods, but are also fearful and reluctant to try new foods because they represent a risk.
The ‘incorporation principle’ is defined:
‘To incorporate a food is, in both real and imaginary terms, to incorporate all or some of its properties: we become what we eat. Incorporation is a foundation for identity’.
Furthermore, on a broader level:
‘Thus, not only does the eater incorporate the properties of food, but, symmetrically, it can be said that the absorption of a food incorporates the eater into a culinary system and therefore into the group which practises it, unless it irremediably excludes him.
Food taboos, a favourite theme in anthropology, operate at this level: in order for a species to be defined as taboo, it must have been already implicitly classified as food. If the forbidden food were not edible, there would be no point in forbidding it’.
The incorporation principle is another way of saying: who you are, is what you eat.
When we consider the social role of food, it is important that societies do influence and teach us what we can and can’t eat: ‘‘social factors may be particularly important in influencing the development of preferences for foods’ (Rogers and Blundell). An example of social food taboos was documented by Mary Douglas who detailed the taboos and social factors that influence the preparation of meat in the Bible that differentiates the ‘people of the book’.
“Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.”
Food choices for an individual are not fixed, naturally they develop and change over time; they are informed by many different personal preferences, resources, identity needs and socio-cultural factors. One of the prominent trends of modern western societies is the shift towards ethical consumption in the form of artisan, organic, local etc.
Our food is safer and our diets are more diverse than ever before; production methods are becoming increasingly sustainable, clean and efficient; and we are constantly becoming better at protecting biodiversity.
Bisogni, et al. have suggested here that diet and identity are mutually constitutive. However, an ethical issue arises from the contradiction in the continued success of industrialised food economies of societies to also achieve the individual goal of ‘ethical’ shopping. However, while many consumers’ mindsets might project into this way of thinking, this is not supported by what is selling in the marketplace. Mass produced food is selling very well.
These are muddied waters though. When big retail chains are selling organic products, this line is becoming increasingly blurred and confused, leading some to question if there are really ‘alternative’ ways of eating.
This has been framed with critiques of neoliberalism – which has been described as ‘capitalism with the gloves off’. Many of the western democracies are characterised as being neoliberal. Neoliberal governments by definition have been consistently retreating from the basic needs provisioning and regulation of some areas; correspondingly corporations and NGO’s have been filling the gaps.
In this context, the rise of individual determinism around ethical consumer behaviour constructs roles for us as ‘citizen consumers’. Here we have the ‘freedom’ to vote with our money; to balance the competing ideologies of self-interested consumerism with social and ecological citizenship. There is a dissonance when we are not in balance here. Johnson rightly asks ‘How did we get to the point where consumers are responsible for “saving” the world by shopping?’
Slavoj Žižek’s has framed this type of behaviour as a ‘pseudoactivity’ where our behaviour is not to ensure change but to ensure that the status quo is maintained; it’s a way of postponing the moment when we really have to think about doing something. He suggests this, like other behaviour such as recycling, are just ways of restitution for our collective crimes.
Reflecting on this Discussion
“Food makes the eater: it is therefore natural that the eater should try to make himself by eating”
It is relatively easy to see there is a degree of consensus that food is more than something that fuels and sustains us. Food is important for constructing and sustaining our identities, social boundaries and cultural differentiation. Moving forward, the interesting thing to keep an eye on is our use of food as reflexive behaviour to changes in society and culture. New trends and subcultures are likely to arise as we continue to experiment collectively with our own individual identity recipes.
If we are eating ourselves into identity, an exploration of one of the oldest food taboos is informative to end on. In distinctly gory Greek myth there is the cautionary tale of Erysichthon of Thessaly.
A king of Thessaly ordered Demeter’s entire grove of trees to be cut down and in the process, one of her dryads (guardian spirit) was killed in the felling. Demeter responded to the Dryads curse by entreating Limos (the Greek version of famine) to plague him. The more he ate the hungrier he got. In the end he eats himself through hunger.
Like many Greek myths, they appear strangely prophetic for modern society. Many of our contemporary ‘ethical’ shopping behaviours are to construct a vision of ourselves, as Erysichthon, before the grove was cut down. We are obsessed with the pre-modern past in contemporary culture. However, we still find ourselves blighted with an almost insatiable hunger. Perhaps a concern is that Žižek is right and we are the pseudoactivity of consuming ‘ethical’ choices, which is not a meaningful to solution to modern consumption contradictions. We fear empty calories in a healthy diet; perhaps for our identity projects we fear empty-symbolism just as much. It is hard to construct identity on illusions.
Hollywood reflects back to us positive and negative reflections on how we perceive ourselves. Following the discussion that food is as much about the consumption of meaning as nutrition, it is informative that we fine Zombies everywhere as themes in literature, movies and TV.
Zombies are the antithesis of the entire premise of this blog – you are what you eat. As Zombies, you don’t die, you exist dehumanised; you lose your freedom, personal sovereignty, individuality, existing in alienation as a parody of the modern condition, indiscriminately consuming with no purpose. A thought for food.
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