This post is the second part of a two-part series. Read Part I here.
In my previous discussion of the language associated with women’s eating habits, I mostly left aside the problem of weight. Weight, and certainly obesity, was hardly a concern in the Middle Ages, whereas I do not think that it would be controversial to suggest that fatness in the modern era is viewed as nothing less than a moral weakness, a failure of self-control. This viewpoint that is emphasized by weight-loss programs on television, in magazines, etc. But this is another matter that deserves a full discussion, which I cannot offer today. Rather, I would like to suggest that gluttony as a moral concern has shifted in meaning between the Middle Ages and the modern era, building on the fact that in medieval Europe, gluttony was an explicitly religious problem, a cardinal sin, even when separated from the related issues of libido and lust.
Despite the intense moralization of alimentary behavior in the Middle Ages, medieval writers often refused constrictive, moralized models of food and eating. Hildegard of Bingen, in her manual of natural medicine, the Physica (twelfth century), recommends different foods that help feed and diminish sexual desire, in order to balance the body rather than to suppress its needs. Outside of medical and moral contexts, food possessed a highly symbolic aspect, both in terms of its sacred significance (bread and wine) and its social side, when it was used in ritual feasts as spectacle, theatre, and mark of social rank. Beautiful “entremets” were designed to move, cry, emit smoke, change colors, glow or flame, and imitate other foods and even living animals. The eating of these between-course dishes was entirely secondary. Practical manuals like the fourteenth-century Ménagier de Paris (written by an older husband for his young wife) give advice on buying and preparing the best available food, in order to feed honored guests and cure sick people. The author of the Ménagier does not trouble himself to warn his bride about the morality of meat-eating, but rather focuses on imparting the necessary knowledge for obtaining and preparing the best available products: for maximizing the value and enjoyment of food.
Today, the moral aspect of food is far more insidious than its medieval counterpart. Gluttony is rarely, if ever, treated as a religious sin. Gluttony as a moral problem, as I have suggested in my prior post, has migrated from the consumption of food to the appearance of the body. Once again, it does not seem to matter what or how much one eats as long as one is thin. Gluttony, in the form of fat, has become a cultural sin. The morality of alimentation is coded in the language women use to talk about food and their bodies. And if this is originally a problem for heterosexual women, the language of sin that is attached to food has also entered the lexicon of all women, and of men as well.
How can we move away from this dated and moralized model of talking about food? How can we divorce food from morality, and break the chain of links between “badness” or sin, food, and sexuality? Anyone can refuse to patronize businesses that use this kind of matrix in their advertising. This is certainly an important step. Men and women can remember that what you eat bears no significant relationship to sexual appetites (or sexuality), and that while food might be a symbol for sex, it is little more than that. However, I think that women need most of all to recognize that the language they (we) use to talk about diet (and diets) is not neutral. There is nothing “good” or “bad” about choosing or rejecting foods, although such choices may affect long-term health. We can remove the words “good” and “bad” from the vocabulary we use to talk about eating. We can ignore pseudo-medical discourse that denies the integrity of female subjectivity and desires. Heterosexual women can refuse to feed themselves according to a kind of internalized male gaze that tells them that they must eat certain things in front of (in the eyes of) men in order to win their respect or sexual attraction. Further, we can entirely change the model of how food is talked about and portrayed, and focus on the sensual and social aspects of good food and food shared together, all that is positive about alimentary behavior and rituals. We can all, men and women alike, focus on feeding the body for pleasure, health, and energy (as this article does), rather than constantly relating food to the body’s appearance. To collapse eating into a molding of the body as sexual machine and sexual object does nothing to make food better, and a lot to diminish the possibilities of pleasure and sociability. And finally, learning better ways to talk about food and eating may contribute significantly to the privileging of female subjecthood over objecthood.
I think that it will also be necessary to question what we mean when we talk about “health” in relation to the medical establishment, and how modern ideas of “nature” affect our perceptions of food, “health,” and “healthy eating.” But this is also a discussion for another time. For now, I will close simply by saying, “Bon appétit.”
Stefanie Goyette is completing a doctoral thesis on the Old French fabliaux in relation to medieval religious and medical culture. Her thesis is structured around the theme of bodies: bodies living, dead, and resurrected, as well as bodies of and as language. Outside of her thesis, she is interested Latin exempla, and in the relationships between dietetic texts, bestiaries, and vernacular, secular literature. She also works in cinema studies, specifically on twentieth- and twenty-first century French female filmmakers. Both her work on medieval literature and her explorations of film most often center on the body and its relationship to language.