Our Dichotomous Culture

I was reading the book "The Ancestor's Tale" by Richard Dawkins (an impressive tome in which the reader goes on a virtual time-travel back through evolution), and I stumbled across this little gem in the section known as "The Salamander's Tale," the excerpt of which has nothing to do with salamanders.*

"Many Western countries at present are suffering what is described as an epidemic of obesity. I seem to see evidence of this all around me, but I am not impressed by the preferred way of turning it into numbers. A percentage of the population is described as 'clinically obese.' Once again, the discontinuous mind insists on separating people out into the obese on one side of a line, the non-obese on the other. That is not the way real life works. Obesity is continuously distributed. You can measure how obese each individual is, and you can compute group statistics from such measurements. Counts of numbers of people who lie above some arbitrarily defined threshold of obesity are not illuminating, if only because they immediately prompt a demand for the threshold to be specified and maybe redefined...Nevertheless...our brains evolved in a world where most things do fall into discrete categories."

Dawkins' stance on size acceptance is really not the point here. Rather, it is the almost innate habit of humans to put essentially anything and everything into one of two categories.

Fat or thin.
Healthy or not.
Tall or short.
Dead or alive.
Rich or poor.
And so on.

Companies and advertising take advantage of this. One of the banner ads at the top of my emails sometimes read: Are you fat or healthy? As if you can't be both. Or neither. The irony is that most of us fall into some middle ground, neither rich nor poor, short nor tall, healthy nor unhealthy.

And not only do we want to categorize other people, we also want to categorize ourselves. We ask: am I normal weight, overweight, or obese?** I saw a book when I was browsing at Barnes and Noble yesterday that was titled, "Eat This, Not That." Very dichotomous. But frankly, I don't like either Big Macs or a Baconator, the two choices of burgers on the cover. I didn't look further in the book, but I got the basic premise.

Even more, one of the two categories is always more highly desired by society. It is also harder to achieve, which is perhaps why it is so highly valued. The harder it is to place yourself in a category, the more a company can sell you products to move yourself into said category. If you're not beautiful, you're ugly. It's very hard to be considered beautiful in our society. Your eyebrows must be perfectly plucked, no wrinkles on your skin, always wear makeup, style your hair, etc.

And how much money is made by selling products to de-wrinkle your skin, find the perfect foundation/mascara/eye shadow, hair dye, hair gel, curling irons?

A lot. A whole freaking lot.

Especially when we're younger, our brains are very black and white. We haven't yet mastered complexities and nuances of such things. Because this drivel is continuously driven into our heads by companies and culture, it gets harder and harder to break free.

This is where teaching kids about "healthy eating" and "healthy body weight" gets dangerous. A 5-year-old is not equipped to know that eating a slice of cake--even on a regular basis--is fine, but a steady diet of buttercream frosting isn't. Cake is bad. Cake is unhealthy. These two things are now considered exactly the same.

If you are either fat or thin, healthy or unhealthy, and thin=healthy and thin=desired, then you will want to be thin. Above all else. Kids aren't stupid. The pecking order on the playground is brutal. Fat is not looked upon favorably.

We could tell our children to eat a wide variety of foods, and to enjoy them. We could tell them that human beings come in an array of shapes and sizes. We could. But we also feel the need to pare information down to the most basic level, at the expense of the message itself. Healthy or not. Fat or thin. If teachers are always talking about dieting and weight loss, kids begin to think it's normal. And if "everyone is doing it," what's wrong with my thinking that?

The issue is first that this is taught at all. Good food/bad food is totally arbitrary. Margarine used to be thought of as "better" than butter because it had less saturated fat. Now "butter is better" because margarine has trans fats. In the 1980s and 90s, fat in general was the culprit of all of society's ills. In the 2000s, it's carbs. The second issue is that it is taught too soon, where your brain can't yet sort out all of the information properly (or that it's so diluted that you don't get all of the proper information). And the earlier kids are brainwashed into thinking this way, the more it is reinforced, and the harder it is to break free.

Even we as adults have a hard time breaking out of this mentality. It has been so reinforced that it seems almost instinctual. And because this dichotomous thinking has been honed by millions of years of evolution, the either/or concepts are quite natural. But if we have evolved speech and calculus, I think our brains are up to the challenge.

*The structure of the book is based on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales- an interesting choice for a hard-core atheist. But I digress...

**These online tests might tell you, after you plug in the numbers, that you are, in fact, underweight, but it never asks you that outright. Just the three choices above.

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1 comment:

fighting_forever said...

I made some similar points in my post Boundaries a while back. It's so stupid that society divides things up into categories when there are blurred boundaries and the dividing lines are picked pretty much arbitrarily.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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