The Obsessive Self

I recently experimented with a diet/exercise monitoring website called ‘myfitnesspal.com’. It is well enough constructed for most people’s needs. It would not be very useful for someone trying to lose an extra 1% of bodyfat, or get themselves from a 4 minute mile to a 3.8 minute mile. But then it isn’t designed for extremely precise, high-focus athletes, it’s designed for people who are new to tracking their dietary intake. Charts for calories burned by exercise are highly general, foods are tracked primarily by the nutrition guides on the label, etc.
I really only did it for a few weeks to get myself to pay a little more attention to what I eat. My sugar intake was a tad high, but then I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so it wasn’t in the nebulous ‘danger zone’. And my exercise has dropped off in recent years, but I’m nowhere near immobile, and my job involves quite a bit of walking, so really it was more fine tuning than truly making any lifestyle changes.
In the spirit of full disclosure I should say I was wary of getting too involved with the site, or truly constructing my own ‘program’. As someone with a past punctuated with eating disorders and obsessive over-exercise, I knew I could cue a neurotic episode and I was not interested in returning to my 3 hour daily calisthenics and weightlifting marathons from my early 20s. I miss my six-pack, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t miss the perpetual soreness, the testosterone induced rages, the acne, or eating a medium supreme pizza for lunch and still being hungry.
A Cognitive/Behavioral/Social science friend recently posted a May 28th 2013 article from sociologyinfocus.com by Ami Stearns discussing the “Quantified Self” conference that some guys from Wired Magazine have created. The basic concept is that with all the ‘monitoring’ programs and websites and digital devices available to the average early-adopter these days, you can “Know Yourself Through Numbers” (the movement’s motto). She summarizes their ideas as, “Users can track and quantify everyday activities, whether it’s calories burned, miles run, television consumed, quality of REM sleep achieved, sonnet lines penned, or ovulation cycles estimated.” In a weird way, it’s an inversion of the Sociological Imagination that C Wright Mills discussed in his writings. Mills suggested that Sociology allowed one to begin to view the relationship of individual actions to the wider society, to view activity within context.
The Quantified Self is the opposite of that kind of CBS training, it’s knowing the numbers but with a sample size so small that it’s impossible to relate to anything larger. Social pressures become invisible because the origin’s of ideas like ‘too much sugar’ are impossible to question. Stearns drew a connection from the Quantified Self to Foucault’s analogy of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon as a model of social behavior-enforcement. Bentham proposed a prison without doors, where every cell is visible from a central guard post. The guards can look down on the prisoners, even shoot them, but the prisoners cannot see the guards. The prisoners become essentially self-policing because they never know when they’re being watched, or what the consequences of transgression might be.
Foucault’s simile had many critics. Margaret Mead proposed a direct contradiction of his ideas whereby we are trained from birth to behave a certain way so that by adulthood the behaviors become automatic. It’s not that we’re self-policing so much as acting unacceptably just doesn’t occur to us.
And then there’s the Quantified Self. It’s some part panopticon, the website can see you but you can’t see the programmer. And some part Mead, it says you’re eating too much sugar and you don’t know why you know that sugar is bad but you do so it’s probably right.
What bothers about all this is not that people are paying attention to stuff. Historically, even at our most obsessive we pale in comparison to say the Ancient Greeks or Romans. Heck, the Romans were so obsessive that they could only enter a house with their right foot first lest they curse themselves and everybody inside. Our word for evil intent, ‘sinister’, comes from the Roman word for ‘left’, sinistra. Screw how many steps you take, you have to know what foot you set down first thing out of bed. Of course, that depends on if you got up from the ‘right’ side of the bed in the first place.
We’ve always tried to find ways to control our universe by controlling ourselves. What does bother me is the compartmentalization. Vitamin B12 was only chemically identified 50 years ago, and yet there is no shortage of books on exactly how to eat so you live to be 100. How can they be sure? Henry VIII obsessively ate according to the ‘humor’ theory of internal balance between blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. We still have some of those concepts trapped in our lexicon as well, if someone is ‘sanguine’ they’re cheerful. Blood was the humor of passion, to be sanguine is to be ‘full of blood’. The detail there is that what lead to ‘blood letting’ was the same concepts, that the blood content of the body was too high and needed to be drained. Yeah, that worked…
So I see a post on Facebook not too long ago by Jeff Novick on June 3rd 2013 from the website “Forks Over Knives” that discusses whether a totally veggie based diet contains all the proteins necessary for human nutrition. What surprised me was so many ‘layman’ replies that argued back and forth about whether the article was bullshit. Several people referenced the “Paleo Diet” which is a joke perpetuated by people who think the Flintstones was a biography. But regardless of whether one thinks ‘cavemen’ ate 5 lbs of mammoth every night, no one mentioned that he had to walk about 20 miles to hunt the thing down in the first place so the mammoth could have been made of lard and frosting and the guy would still be healthier than most of the people playing on the interwebs these days.
Christina Warinner did a TED talk video at OU not too long ago debunking the Paleo Diet, she happens to be an anthropologist/archaeologist so it’s kinda in her wheel house. But even she didn’t really play up that your average pre-industrial human was walking around 10 miles a day. Even Herman Pontzer’s team who recently studied a Tanzanian tribe and published their findings in PLoS ONE journal found the men walked an average of 7 miles a day. Even if their calorie intake to output ratio was the same as yours or mine, they’re moving around a hell of a lot more.
Which gets me to the heart of all this: Why isn’t food, food? Morgan Spurlock did an info-tainment movie called “SuperSize Me” where he ate nothing but McDonald’s food for a month. His health suffered. As a corollary British journalists Giles Coren and Sue Perkins did a series called “The Supersizers Go” where they ate the diet of various periods of history. Remember Henry VIII? They hated that period. You can find the video on YouTube, it’s all about how they had things like sweetened fish with pepper because that combination was balanced humor-wise. As a side note, after a horse riding accident Henry had a broken foot that never healed and stank of rot for the rest of his life. Apparently, his diet wasn’t so great.
When my friend posted the article about legumes and complete proteins a debate immediately ensued on his FB page about amino acid balancing, lysine, iron, and B vitamins. Funny thing, not a one of the people posting was an MD, an Anthropologist, a Biological Chemist. I asked the very simple, “So… Do people still eat food because it tastes good and they want to share a meal with friends and family, or is that not a thing anymore?” And the first reply was, “You eat to stay alive and healthy. Everything else is just a bonus.”
It seems to me we haven’t made ‘diet’ the panopticon, we haven’t made ‘doctors’ the panopticon, we haven’t even made ‘nutrition’ the panopticon, we’ve made FOOD the panopticon. Careful, it’s watching you.
Michael Polin, who is quick to say that he is not a nutrition expert, has written several books on eating. He boils all diets everywhere down to three basic rules: Eat food (by which he means food in its raw or as close to raw as possible form), not too much (don’t eat to overfullness), mostly plants. That’s it, three rules that are consistent through most every diet he’s studied. Again and again he makes the point that people who are some of the healthiest on earth have no idea what ‘nutrition’ is, they eat because they’re hungry, the eat because their family is visiting, they eat for a variety of reasons, but it’s almost never because they’re trying to keep their Omega 3 levels stable.
The Romans were some of the most superstitious people in history. When they tried to conquer what is now England they burned out the oak trees to take away the Druid’s magic. Not kidding. They divided the universe into themselves (people), and everything else (peasants, slaves, barbarians, fish…). And to prove their ‘education’, their superiority, their enlightenment, they held gladiatorial games that still disgust us 2000 years later. Hitler was totally obsessed with his diet and exercise and health, and that guy had some seriously wacky ideas about purity. Google that shit, it was like he was crazy or something. Pol Pot put all of Cambodia on diet restrictions.
I’m not saying that Dr Atkins or Dr. Di Pasquale was or is trying to bring about the Fourth Reicht, or the next Killing Fields. But in their book “Good Omens”, a satirical look at the Biblical story of the second coming of Jesus, Terry Pratchet and Neil Giaman characterize the Horseman Famine as having been on earth the whole time as a diet guru. As they put it, he carries out his function in a variety of ways: nouvelle cuisine (the sort that consists of “a string bean, a pea, and a sliver of chicken breast, aesthetically arranged on a square china plate, invented the last time he’d been in Paris; Diet fads (“D-Plan Dieting: Slim Yourself Beautiful, the book was called; The Diet Book of the Century!”; And new foods (“indistinguishable from any other except for … the nutritional content, which was roughly equivalent to that of a Sony Walkman. It didn’t matter how much you ate, you lost weight. … And hair. And skin tone. And, if you ate enough of it long enough, vital signs).” One of the future ventures that Famine never gets to try is a new diet food that has the same nutrient value but 10x the fat, so you gain weight as you waste away. The irony was the fun part for him.
Famine is eventually destroyed, but the prologue to his story, to the Horsemen’s story, is the line “They’ve gone back to where they came from, where they’ve always been, the minds of man.” Diet and movement are fundamental, alcohol is a choice, driving is a choice, even sex is basically a choice, but stop eating and you die, period. So when someone is talking about food and movement they’re talking about your existence. Don’t be 22 year old me, don’t see every meal as a threat, don’t fear the pleasure of a cheese cake, or the pleasure of Brussels sprouts for that matter (prepared properly they’re fantastic!). Because the minute it’s something to be afraid of, or feel guilty about, it’s fetishized. And eating a cheese cake becomes a ‘reward’ or a ‘slip’, or a ‘survival bonus’. It’s a cheese cake. I’m gonna be what the neo-pagan community calls a ‘fluffy’ for just a moment, someone who seems to deny that bad things exist, and say just live.
The BBC Radio 4 recently ran a radio program called “Constant Cravings”. Hosted by Sally Marlow, an addiction specialist, the show discussed whether one can become ‘addicted’ to food. A cognitive psychologist on the show makes the point that the longer you obsess about the food, the more that obsession becomes the addiction. Neurology has known for quite some time that neural pathways form to a great extent by what behavior we repeat. Your brain doesn’t do things because it’s programmed to nearly as much as it is programmed to try and then when you finally get it right the connections that don’t help are removed. Emotional programming is a type of behavior, and once it’s in place it’s very hard to break. The compulsion is born of the obsession, the obsession is born of the pressure to be obsessed.
I am not an MD, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I am an Anthropologist. I’ve definitely learned that the most depression prone societies are the ones where they think you’re supposed to be depressed. That somehow self-criticism is a natural state. The Romans were kinda nutz. Hitler was kinda nutz. Pol Pot was kinda nutz. And all of them were obsessed with food.
So, how to not be obsessed? Reduce the conditions. If everything has an ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ variable that must be codified at every stage, the very act of considering the meal becomes habituated to obsession and extensive critical analysis. Like a Roman wondering ‘Did I step into this room properly?’ to the point that their very language became suffused with meaning and implications of that question, we think about every slice of bread, every drop of maple syrup. Sorry, every ‘carb’.
Keep it simple. Eat, move, and breathe. That’s it, eat, move, and breathe. Polin has three rules, so let’s take these groups and see what we get. Go outside, share a hot meal, and make sure it’s good food with plenty of liquids. And maybe it’s okay if you got to talking and forgot to journal that extra potato chip into your pedometer/calorie counter/exercise timer.
BBC Radio program “The Naked Scientist” recently interviewed a man who helped to build a program that purports to interpret your ‘personality’ by scanning your FB ‘likes’. He said something that some could interpret as chilling, that if you don’t like the reading their program gives you for your personality summary then you should change how and what you post and ‘like’. At first even I was startled at the suggestion that we should camouflage something of ourselves even on our own pages. But that’s just it, they’re not ‘our’ pages, they’re owned and operated by a corporation and companies already admit to using people’s profiles when considering them for hiring. He’s not saying to lie about yourself to yourself, which is how it could sound. He’s saying to craft your image. If you know you’re going to be examined, if you know you’re in a panopticon of sorts, change what they see by changing how you see yourself.

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The Piebald One

The Dark Fool dances like a harlequin, like a rabbit in a field when no one is watching. His diamonds are so deep they’re embedded in his very skin. He spirals and hops and he makes jokes that hide and reveal more and less than he knows. Here he records some of what plays in his mind, his own little mark upon the stones, like those who came before and have left us with as many questions as answers. Oh, and there’s gonna be a lot of sarcasm, some irony, and way more than enough absurdity to go around.

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