Denial As Virtue

We humans have such a confused, twisted, snarled relationship with food. We can’t seem to decide what to do with it or how to respond to it and we come up with baroque rules to surround ourselves with, not just so we can feel secure around food but so that we can judge others who eat food. When you are judging, you are on the offensive, not providing a small crack for someone to slip through and do some judging of their own, because they are too busy being defensive. Food creates a splendid medium for doing this.

Attitudes around food and eating often position denial as a form of virtue, and this is constantly reinforced. People who are ‘good’ engage in self-denial, while people who are ‘bad’ do not, and they should be punished for it. The persistent belief that weight is as simple as a calories in/calories out equation that can be neatly balanced means that most people assume fatness is punishment for eating too much. For being gluttonous. For not, in other words, suffering in a state of self-denial like all the good thin people, who wear hair shirts and want to be praised for it.

There is a long history in many human cultures of celebrating denial and asceticism while condemning hedonism. It reflects over and over again in social attitudes from people who are living with these cultural legacies. You cannot attend a dinner party without two thousand years of history behind you.

Food, weight, and bodies are not this simple, but even people who know better buy into this mythology and promote it in the way they talk. You see it come up when people hesitate over dessert or accepting a sweet. They say they ‘really shouldn’t.’ They want you to say ‘oh, go on,’ giving them permission to ‘indulge,’ but at the same time, they feel intensely guilty. If they give in to ‘temptation,’ they will talk about how it’s just the once and they will be sure to make up for it on the following day with some extra exercise or a skipped treat or something else. They are at the same time trusting their bodies to make decisions about what to eat, and pledging self-denial in advance to avoid judgment.

Or they are virtuous and good and stand firm and refuse. And they want praise for this, to be told their willpower is commendable and how other people in the room certainly couldn’t do that because it’s just too hard to resist those delicious cupcakes. They want to be told that the self-denial is worth it, really, that they’re not just trapped in a twisted, snarled, tangled relationship where they are constantly fighting their brains and bodies because it’s all for a good cause. They think about how their legs feel in their pants and how much better they will feel after denying just a few more cupcakes, because they are fighting their bodies and they are winning.

Hand in hand with the praise of self-denial comes a larger belief in willpower, the idea that people should be able to control their base urges. Hunger is treated as a base urge, as something dirty that needs to be expelled and controlled. The desire for a treat in particular is something disgusting and unpleasant that really shouldn’t be mentioned, because it goes beyond the simple need for nutrients and into the desire to eat something pleasurable and enjoy the process. People should exercise ‘willpower’ to resist sweets and focus on eating vegetables, even if they love vegetables and eat them regularly and happily in addition to sweets.

The concept of willpower seems to heavily focus on going against the body and being praised for it. In the case of food and eating, many people have been so socially trained that it is hard for them to listen to their bodies; they’ve been told they shouldn’t, they have a complex and conflicted relationship with food, their own internal messaging is off (for a variety of reasons). Willpower, control, are touted as the solutions to these problems, treating the body like an object that needs to be tuned, rather than a living organism made up of complex interconnected systems.

This is not about whether people should love or hate their bodies, or about how people should navigate their own relationships with their bodies. It is about the ways in which society encourages a disconnect from the body, rewards people who ‘control’ their bodies by effectively turning them off and refusing to listen. It is also about a society where certain bodies are considered controlled and others are not, and by extension, people in control are considered virtuous while others are not. Lack of willpower, loss of control, are believed to be negative personality traits which can be read in the body. After all, if someone was in control, the body would be thin and lean and hard and it would conform with a specific beauty ideal. It wouldn’t be soft and fat.

Fatness is considered offensive for a whole slew of reasons, but one of them is the way it’s considered evidence of moral laxity, because people believe that fat is the result of lack of willpower, and they consider this a weakness. Even worse are those fat people who are unapologetic and perfectly happy and refuse to play the dieting and willpower game, who cheerfully listen to their bodies and eat what they want when they want to, because they are breaking the social contract that says we all must suffer to prove how virtuous we all are.