Throughout history, the global aristocracy has faced only one task more daunting than that of achieving prosperity: the eternal struggle to stand undoubtedly separate from the impoverished, and consequently, to subordinate them. And they have made this separation very clear with the use and abuse of outward signs of wealth. Yet one of the most popular symbols of status centuries ago has slowly slipped into the realm of unspeakable humiliation. Obesity had been the ultimate expression of riches; the poor were lucky to get their hands on bread and water let alone the extravagance that blessed the tables of the nobility each night. Why now is near-anorexia the utmost manifestation of glamour? When did the likes of Lillian Russell, who was known and admired for her hearty appetite, ample body . . . and challenging, fleshly arresting beauty, become merely fat in the eyes of Western culture? (Bordo 141). Maybe one person changed the world, or maybe Hollywood is to blame, but it is clear that people are fearful of obesity to the point of altering how they convey their authority and fame, yet they never base their fear on the health risks associated with being overweight. In Panopticism, Michele Foucault explores the history of discipline and the strength derived from control of the masses, and as the guiding force behind hunger and weight, food has become an example of this institution of power that both controls and dehumanizes society.
[...] A body can take more indulgence than it can take neglect, and advertisements still entice society into absolute subordination under food to the point of establishing guidelines for eating disorders (Bordo 165). Like any form of panopticism, one chooses to enter the system. Prison is for those who break the law and school is for those who wish to be educated. Yet food is not for those who wish to be fed. It has even lost its original purpose, its identity, its symbolic representation of wealth, because those can afford to be eating well are dieting—and hungry—most of the time” (142). [...]
[...] All that matters to Louise is that the person she loves thinks she should diet, and that means it must be the right thing to do. The division between the public and private sphere factors twice into any decision to diet in very contradictory means. Managers, waiters, drunk men at the bar: one may only encounter these faces once, and never see them again. Any initial fear of being deemed unworthy by these foreign eyes dissipates with time. But the opinions of family and neighbors, friends and co-workers, can badger a conscience forever. [...]
[...] Yet now there is another more compelling force that controls society. Like the non-victims of the plague years, the slender men and women who stood on the brink of social upheaval were watched just as closely, if not more closely so, than their corpulent counterparts. To fall from grace is a larger crime than to have never been there at all. It was a more efficient, more complete method of control, disciplining continuously, even when the disciplined were breaching no social decree, than to only focus on those already lost to the anarchy known as fat. [...]
[...] She will still obey their command because “restriction and denial of hunger [are] central features of the construction of femininity,” and to be seen eating more than she should is enough to shame her grandchildren (Bordo 166). So she sits down to dinner consoled by a false belief that salad tastes better than chocolate cake anyway, reduced to a brainwashed, subhuman level of her formerly free self. Yet who decides what is acceptable and what is not? If the restaurant patrons did not have some preconceived knowledge of the rights and wrongs of mealtime, they would not have knowledge of their responsibility to look on in disgust. [...]
[...] And the Panopticon thrives on the guilt as well, for it is the guilt that keeps the people in line, keeps them willing to be controlled. The consequences of uprooting routine outweigh the dangers of submitting fully to an institution of food, the dangers of diets and eating disorders. It is the Panopticon that merged the public and private acts of eating, that entwined work and consumption into dependent pieces of the same puzzle, that established the guilt that keeps society relying on the system that forced it into that position to begin with. [...]
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