We have a food problem in America. We cannot seem to decide whether food is a thing to bow before and worship with Super-Size fries or an unclean thing, something to expel from the body like a poison. Should we celebrate it in raucous festivals in red-and-yellow temples, or should we fear it with a violent asceticism?
Like some ancient cult, we are dominated by mystic fears about food. Don’t touch this (it has sugar). Don’t eat that (it has artificial sweeteners). Our “diets” are no better than focused taboos. “Carbs are bad,” “Stay away from fats.” A hundred thousand priests with a hundred thousand rituals have arisen to meet our needs to worship Thinness, the wasting of human bodies, ever chanting that it is healthy. Doctors and nutritionists and psychologists all attempt to describe how to appease the vengeful god. Pious to a god that hates pleasure, we have drained enjoyment from eating like blood from a slaughtered animal.
The ancient and terrible god Molech demanded that his devotees make their children “pass through the fire,” throwing their infants into the welcoming arms of his red-hot idol. One million of our women have been burned by the fire of anorexia. Though we don’t use wood, we offer our young by the fires fueled by glucose, consuming their bodies no less than literal flames; though our fires are secret, they are no less lethal than our ancient forbears'. And according to the ancient tradition, Moloch hungers for the flesh of the most beautiful among us. By ferocious irony, our richest are made to literally starve themselves to death. Millions more are secret followers, mingling guilt with every meal. Women especially are burdened with a perpetual shame, reminded always by the most devoted ascetics on billboards and movies that they are not thin enough.
But our madness has two faces. In this very same society, we also cannot stop eating. One in three Americans is obese. Not just “overweight;” obese. Obesity has spread like a plague of the soul, born out of the South, leaving no corner of the country untouched. The map looks like some zombie outbreak. I wish that, like zombies, we really did hunger for brains; maybe then we’d be able to stop and think. Largely because of this plague, ours may be the first generation in the modern era that will not live longer lives than our parents; the advancement of public sanitation, vaccinations and antibiotics will be reversed by this new kind of blight.
There are two idols before whom we worship, sometimes on the same day. One demands our surrender to pleasure, the other to our body. One worshipper pays homage to food by eating the flesh of creatures raised in horror before golden arches; another worships food by violent asceticism, rejecting pleasure entirely for fear and guilt, and making a carrot stick a meal. Diet Coke has become a symbol of our duality. We lust for the short-term pleasure of sweetness, but fear the consequences of eating. So we eat that which does not satisfy and drink that which does not fill.