Food, the Body and the Self

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Deborah Lupton

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    Acknowledgements

    This book was completed during a semester-long break from my usual teaching and administrative duties at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean, in the first half of 1995. I am grateful to the University for providing me with this time to engage in research and writing. During this period I spent some weeks as a visiting fellow at the MRC Medical Sociology Unit, University of Glasgow, and the Centre for the Body and Society, Deakin University, Geelong. I am grateful to the staff at both institutions for their kind hospitality (including the sharing of good food and wine) and stimulating discussions, particularly following seminars I gave on my food research. Thanks are due to research assistants Else Lackey, Jane McLean and Justine Lloyd who ably carried out interviews and focus group discussions. Gamini Colless deserves special thanks for his continuing support of my work.

    The book includes sections from two previously published articles: ‘Food, memory and meaning: the symbolic and social nature of food events’, published in The Sociological Review, 42(4), 664–85, 1994; and ‘ “A healthy lifestyle might be the death of you”: discourses on diet, cholesterol control and heart disease in the press and among the lay public’ (with S. Chapman), published in Sociology of Health and Illness, 17(4), 477–94, 1995.

  • Conclusion

    Throughout this book I have emphasized the strong link between food preferences and practices, the emotions, embodiment and subjectivity. The contingent and shifting nature of power relations and symbolic meanings around food and eating in relation to subjectivity and embodiment has been emphasized. I have argued that there is not an overarching power structure that delimits the meanings of food, for the discourses, embodied experiences and sensations through which such meanings are constructed, understood and lived are frequently conflicting, changing and contradictory: in other words, ‘the human world is open-ended and unstable’ (Shilling, 1993: 178).

    For example, as I have shown, there are distinct, and often contradictory associations around the common opposition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods in western cultures. ‘Good’ food tends to be associated with the nutritious and the healthy, with purity, nature, the rural, asceticism, moral righteousness, the family, work, self-control and discipline, the everyday, duty, the sacred and the spiritual, with adulthood. ‘Good’ food is bourgeois and refined; it has strongly feminine associations; it is solid, but also light; it is clean, it is associated with slimness and maternal love. ‘Good’ food is characterized by the emotions of pride, comfort and love and with feelings of warmth, contentment and security. However, it is also the source of frustration and anger in its associations with parental authority, the engulfing maternal body, denial. ‘Bad’ food is associated with illness and disease. It is routinely linked with the urban and artificiality, and with immorality. It is also associated with the carnivalesque, the grotesque, abundance, hedonism and release, with childishness and childhood, and with the profane. ‘Bad’ food is polluting and fattening; it is linked with the masculine and the working class; it is heavy and weighs down the body. The emotions that cohere around ‘bad’ food include pleasure, happiness and nostalgia, but also regret, anxiety and guilt. In between are the liminal foods that transgress boundaries. These foods are slimy, sticky or viscous, or come from categories that are not usually regarded as ‘food’. Liminal foods are therefore potentially dangerous, dirty and contaminating. They inspire revulsion but are also a source of pleasure because of their very power and status as ‘difficult’ or ‘dangerous’ foods.

    The supremely embodied and sensual nature of food and eating and the emotions they inspire are a primary source of struggle. Some discourses in some contexts dominate over others, but there are constant challenges to this dominance. Individuals, therefore, do not passively adopt discourses in relation to food and eating. On the contrary, as I have shown, they take up ascetic discourses of self-control at some times and in some contexts in their quest to achieve the ‘civilized body’ and resist or ignore them at other times in their desire to engage in the release offered by hedonism and sensual self-indulgence. The emotional aspects of food are important in understanding these responses. The role played by unconscious desires is also important to take into account, for preferences or distastes around food are not necessarily understood or articulated at a conscious level. While dominant discourses may be internalized and understood as vital to the project of the self at the level of the subjective conscious, the unconscious may be willing individuals to act differently: people often have ‘desires that they do not want to have’ (Donald, 1992: 94). As a result, ‘subjects are neither wholly governed by discourse nor fully capable of stepping out of discourse’ (Lupton, 1995: 137). Furthermore, at a different level of consciousness, the non-conscious or the ‘non-subjective’, food preferences may be acted upon in a totally unthinking way, as the products of acculturation and part of the habits of everyday life: Bourdieu's concept of the habitus partially explains this process. Subjectivity, therefore, is not over-determined by discourse; rather it is produced through discourse in interaction with embodied experience, the senses, memory, habit and the unconscious.

    Limiting one's food intake is an effective way both of demonstrating self-discipline and of working towards the idealized slim, long-living, youthful body that is so valued in western societies. It is a practice of the self that contributes towards establishing and maintaining a sense of self-control and achievement. A dietary regimen also serves towards a re-establishing of certainties around food, in a time in which many people have concerns about the ways in which food is processed and packaged. Given that ‘Quite literally, we know less and less what we are really eating’ (Fischler, 1988: 289), the adoption of a dietary regimen represents an attempt to alleviate anxiety, both around the nature of the food one eats, but also around one's subjectivity. In the face of this emphasis on self-control and ascetic denial, however, there are also the important meanings of food as contributing to the project of the self as knowledgable and neophilic consumer. Variety, novelty, abundance, innovation, self-indulgence and excitement in eating are desired and valued by many people as part of constructing and presenting the self. It is likely, therefore, that food and eating practices will continue to have a primary role in the development and maintenance of subjectivity, experienced through the body and the emotions. The discourses of rationality and asceticism will prevail as strategies of control, in continual and necessary tension with the discourses of hedonism and release. As long as food remains abundant and relatively easily available for most people living in western societies, it will continue to pose both a ‘problem’ for many people and constitute a major source of pleasure and self-indulgence.

    Appendix: Details of Research Strategies and Participants

    I used three methods of eliciting people's responses to, and experiences of, food and eating to collect the data described in this book. One research strategy adopted the technique of asking participants to write down memories about food. Between June 1992 and August 1993, four different groups of students studying humanities and social science courses at a Sydney university (three from an undergraduate group and the other from a post-graduate group), were asked to prepare a short (approximately one page) written memory on the topic of ‘food’. The purpose in this context was initially pedagogical, allowing the students an opportunity to experience the research method and at the same time explore the socially constructed nature of food and eating. The students were given a week's notice to prepare the memories. They were given a handout which outlined the ‘rules’ of memory-writing (derived from Kippax, 1990: 94) as follows: write a memory of a particular episode, action or event, in the third person, in as much detail as possible, including even ‘inconsequential’ or trivial detail (it may be helpful to think of a key image, sound, taste, smell, touch), but without importing interpretation, explanation or biography. The students came to their class the following week with their written memories, and were divided into groups of four or five participants to read each others' memories and discuss their similarities and differences. The students were predominantly female (fifty out of the total of sixty-three participants), and ranged in age from late adolescence and early twenties (the majority of the undergraduate class) to the forties and fifties (seven students). Their written memories were collected (with their permission) by me at the end of the discussion session. Table 1 gives demographic details of those students to whose memories I refer in this book.1

    Table 1 Authors of written memories referred to in the book
    Marie, 42 years old, full-time student, divorced, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Patrick, 30 years old, full-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Rohan, 20 years old, full-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Mauritian
    Melissa, 22 years old, full-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Mary, 41 years old, full-time student, married, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Janine, 21 years old, full-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Kristina, 26 years old, part-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Czech
    Jane, 29 years old, part-time student and school teacher, never married, Australian born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Barbara, 56 years old, part-time student and administrator, married, English-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Lesley, 26 years old, full-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Jacqui, 21 years old, full-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Greek
    Edward, 55 years old, part-time student and tutor, divorced, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Melinda, 20 years old, full-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Danielle, 19 years old, full-time student, never married, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Elaine, 47 years old, full-time student, married, English-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Sally, 45 years old, full-time student, divorced, Scots-born, parents Anglo-Celtic

    The point of this method of research is that it allows people to evoke experiences and feelings without being specifically directed by an interviewer. The process of recalling and writing down a memory serves to bring into focus the important social and emotive character of food events, and in broader terms highlights the complexity which underlies taste and preference choices related to everyday practices. When the topic of the memory remains general and the source of the memory is left to the participant rather than being consciously evoked by an interviewer there is a greater scope for heterogeneity of response. The analysis of memories about food serves to reveal the ways in which our memories of everyday life are socially constructed and patterned, to demonstrate that memories are not simply the subjective property of individuals but are part of a shared sociocultural experience (Crawford et al., 1992). Examining individuals' memories about food can therefore reveal aspects both about their own currently held preferences and dislikes and about shared experiences and symbolic meanings around food and eating at a cultural level.

    A second method of research I used involved carrying out individual semi-structured interviews about food preferences, which were audio-taped and transcribed. A total of 33 interviews were completed by four female interviewers (including myself) with people living in Sydney in 1994. The method of recruitment relied predominantly on purposive sampling, using the four interviewers' personal contacts. Attempts were made to interview a variety of people from different backgrounds and level of socio-economic privilege. Table 2 provides the demographic details of those people who participated in this phase of the research. Eighteen of the participants were male and 15 were female. Interviewees were asked to talk about their favourite and most detested foods; whether they thought there was such a thing as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ foods or dishes; which types of food they considered ‘healthy’ or ‘good for you’ and which not; which types of food they ate to lose weight and which they avoided for the same reason; memories they recalled about food and eating events from childhood or adulthood; whether they liked to try new foods; which foods they had tasted first as an adult; whether there had been any changes in the types of food they had eaten over their lifetime; whether they associated different types of food with particular times, places or people; whether they ever had any arguments about food with others; whether they themselves cooked and if they enjoyed it; whether they ate certain foods when in certain moods and whether they had any rituals around food.

    Table 2 Interview participants
    Brendan, 32 years old, university student, lives with female partner, no children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Constance, 45 years old, architect, lives with husband, has one son, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Ross, 45 years old, medical practitioner, lives with wife, has one son, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Sue, 29 years old, media researcher, never married, lives in group house, no children, New Zealand-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Anna, 24 years old, waitress, never married, lives in group house, no children, Australian-born, parents German
    Margaret, 49 years old, teacher, lives with husband, has two adult children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    David, 22 years old, shopfitter, never married, lives with parents, no children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Jurgen, 34 years old, cabinet maker, never married, lives with flat-mate, no children, German-born, parents German
    Karen, 24 years old, shop assistant, never married, lives with flat-mate, no children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Arthur, 60 years old, retired, lives with wife, has three adult children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Mike, 49 years old, marketing executive, lives with wife, has two adult children, English-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Bob, 63 years old, carpenter, lives with wife, has four adult children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Simon, 47 years old, solicitor, divorced, lives alone, has five children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Sonia, 44 years old, beauty adviser, lives with husband, has two children, English-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Costas, 27 years old, sales representative, lives with female partner, has two children, Cypriot-born, parents Cypriot
    Patricia, 56 years old, scientist, divorced, lives alone, has three adult children, Indian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Elena, 28 years old, optical dispenser, lives with husband, no children, Australian-born, parents Croatian
    Sandy, 41 years old, medical practitioner, lives with wife, has two children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Rose, 40 years old, shop manager, lives with husband, has three children, English-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Jonathan, 39 years old, academic, lives with female partner, no children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Kylie, 22 years old, public relations worker, never married, lives with parents, no children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Leonie, 51 years old, housemaid, divorced, lives alone, has two adult children, English-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Neil, 58 years old, salesman, lives with wife, has four adult children, English-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Peter, 53 years old, area company manager, lives with wife, has two adult children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    James, 27 years old, company manager, never married, lives in group house, no children, English-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Michelle, 18 years old, technical college student, lives with mother, no children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Paul, 33 years old, academic, lives with wife, no children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Rosemary, 45 years old, community worker, divorced, lives with daughter, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic
    Tony, 20 years old, technical college student, never married, lives with parents, no children, Australian-born, father Italian, mother Anglo-Celtic
    Raj, 29 years old, solicitor, lives with wife, no children, Australian-born, mother Sri Lankan, father Anglo-Celtic
    Gilbert, 45 years old, academic, never married, lives alone, no children, Czech-born, parents Czech
    Maria, 39 years old, house cleaner, lives with husband, has two children, Portuguese-born, parents Portuguese
    Sarah, 35 years old, solicitor, never married, lives alone, no children, Australian-born, parents Anglo-Celtic

    The third research strategy employed was more specifically focused at exploring people's responses to controversies related to diet and health, with a particular focus on the debate over the importance of controlling cholesterol, and the role played by the news media in constructing these controversies.2 A series of 12 semi-structured focus group discussions were carried out with people resident in Sydney in the first half of 1994. These discussions were also audio-taped and transcribed. Table 3 provides demographic details of the group members. Of the total of 49 people involved in the discussions, 31 were female and 18 were male. In order to facilitate participants' responses in a relaxed environment, the groups consisted largely of pre-established social networks: friends, relatives or workmates. The focus group discussions began with general questions on the relationship between health and lifestyle. Questions then focused more specifically on media coverage of health and diet. Each member of the group was given to read copies of three recent newspaper clippings which gave contradictory advice about the association between dietary intake of fats and cholesterol and health status. Participants were asked what they made of such news coverage and how they knew what was the ‘right’ thing to do (that is, what sorts of food one should be eating or not eating in the interests of health). Lastly, they were asked whom they thought they could ‘trust’ to get the ‘right’ advice about what to do to accomplish and maintain good health.

    Table 3 Focus group participants
    Group 1: female nurse, 21 years; female real estate property assistant, 45; male student, 20; female university student, 20; female university student, 22.
    Group 2: female hostess, 54; female shop manager, 56; female, retired, 77.
    Group 3: male student, 25; female teacher, 22; female teacher, 22; male sales manager, 22.
    Group 4: female receptionist, 46; female homeworker, 77; self-employed female, 39; female cashier, 50; female cashier, 41.
    Group 5: female clerk, 40; male investor, 43; female community worker, 45; male software duplicator, 30; female nurse, 23.
    Group 6: female secretary, 47; female accounts clerk, 51; female community nurse, 49.
    Group 7: female homeworker, 60; female homeworker, 70; female hairdresser, 55; female homeworker, 65.
    Group 8: female homeworker, 42; female nurse, 55; female shop assistant, 19; female hairdresser, 24.
    Group 9: female sales assistant, 29; female shop manager, 51; female patternmaker, 23.
    Group 10: male optical dispenser and fire fighter, 43; male truck driver, 21; male labourer, 42; male fire fighter, 38.
    Group 11: male employment officer, 28; male sales manager, 38; male teacher, 43; male financial analyst, 23; male business adviser, 29.
    Group 12: male promotions manager, 28; male customer relations worker, 49; male entertainment and promotions manager, 41; male public relations manager, 49.

    The written memories and the transcripts of the interviews and group discussions were analysed for the discourses that participants drew on to articulate their understandings and experiences of food and eating and to present themselves in that particular context. The concept of discourse is useful for analysing contested areas, for it acknowledges variability rather than consensus or consistency in the way that people represent phenomena, and accepts that individuals commonly use competing or contradictory as well as cohesive explanations in conversation, drawing upon various interpretive repertoires to perform different tasks and to present themselves in certain ways (Potter and Wetherell, 1987: 156). It is accepted in this method of analysis that the discourses articulated by participants in such research are produced from a pre-established stock of discourses already circulating in a culture. The choices people make in presenting their experiences and making sense of them reveal a hierarchy of discourses, and also demonstrate that there are conflicting and contradictory discourses.

    The use of language and discourse is therefore highly socially and spatially contextual. As Hermes (1993: 501) describes this approach, it has the advantage ‘of directly addressing the messy character of everyday talk, and, on the other hand, of stressing everyday creativity’. The transcripts were therefore treated as socially constructed texts, that is, they were not used as presentations of ‘true’ or ‘false’ versions of reality but as ‘situated narratives’, or displays of perspectives, belief systems, assumptions and moral forms (Silverman, 1993: 107–8; Tulloch and Lupton, 1994: 132).

    Notes

    1. All names of participants used in the book are pseudonyms.

    2. This study was funded by a National Heart Foundation project grant awarded to myself and Simon Chapman from the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Sydney.

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