THE DEADLY SINS
TRAY FIT FOR HEROD
day, in the far-off future, archeologists will come across the
remnants of the Statue of Liberty. Nearby, they’ll dig
up a Sphinx, and further north, a pirate ship. The archeologists
may well wonder what civilization they’ve found. Yet the
scene they’ll be diggin’ won’t be civilization,
exactly -- it will be the remains of Las Vegas.
the outskirts of today’s Vegas, sagebrush dots the dry
nothingness like Don King clones buried up to their hairlines
in dirt. The fastest expanding suburb in the US is rapidly encroaching
into this Nevada nothingness, but Vegas could send its suburban
tendrils out for many decades to come before it makes a dent
in the surrounding desert. From the air, the red plain surrounding
the gambling Mecca resembles Mars. Looking down, you realize
why this was long a choice spot for the military to drop bombs
-- and the mob to dump bodies. The off-world setting makes Vegas
itself seem like a geographical non-sequitur, a seam of fool’s
gold running through the US defence department’s sandbox.
Vegas, even in its latest, mob-free incarnation, is an Oz for
the Deadly Spins. It’s here we find excess in all its
red-blooded, corporate-branded, all-American glory. Figuring
prominently in the mix is food. Retreating into the MGM Grand
Hotel one sun-baked afternoon, my friends and I discover the
buffet. If the sophisticated traveller can ignore the decor
(a Wizard of Oz theme filtered through a Chuck E. Cheese sensibility,
with a Mafia housewife’s colour scheme) the MGM Grand’s
offerings look very appealing.
the mammoth buffet area, I come upon a sneeze guard converging
to a vanishing point at the other end of the room. Heaped into
great stainless steel sarcophagi are immense portions of everything
your palate could desire: lobster, crab, prawns, beef Wellington,
filet mignon. For dessert there is chocolate mousse, cheesecake,
black forest cake and every imaginable form of confection. There
is so much culinary overkill on display it beggars description
and put the muscle on metaphors. Since I’m not gambling
while I’m here, I figure I should maximize my vacation
dollar by eating as much as I can. I’ve never won a pie-eating
contest before, or anything of that sort. In fact, I’ve
never attempted a damn-the-torpedoes act of gluttony before
this. I’m in the right place for the challenge it seems.
I fill my plate and chow down. I fill it again. I return for
dessert. And more dessert. And then a third trip for dessert.
My friends are amused, then mildly horrified, at how much is
disappearing down my cakehole. So what? The only thing I’m
gambling with on this trip is my cholesterol level.
Of all the original deadly sins, it’s the one that hardly
seems deadly at all, at least in the spiritual sense. Yet Pope
Gregory the Great certainly didn't take gluttony for granted.
He had no doubt it was a deadly sin. In fact, it was Gregory
who put it on the list we use today.
ira, invidia, avaritia, acedia, gula, luxuria.” Gregory
compiled that list 1,400 years ago. Pride, or superbia in Latin,
heads the list, followed by envy, anger, avarice and sloth.
These are all sins of the spirit, of the mind, the soul: the
true or higher self. Gluttony, or gula in Latin, is
near the end, next to lust. These are the carnal sins of the
flesh, the body: of matter or the lower self. Gluttony may not
head the list, but that doesn't mean Pope Gregory thought it
a minor player on his hit parade of sin.
Catholic clerics, carnality meant a focus on bodily desires
that displaced spiritual concerns. Gregory would have blown
his miter over the MGM Grand's seafood buffet, an abomination
if there ever was one. For how can anyone properly contemplate
Higher Things with a dessert tray fit for Herod taunting them?
belly, when it is not restrained, destroys the virtues of the
soul,” Gregory wrote. “It is not food, but the desire
for food that is the cause of damnation.” And damned if
I didn’t feel great after my third dessert. Finishing
up from my buffet binge, I loosened my belt and rose from the
table, but only with some effort. My friends and I amble past
the slot machines in the MGM Grand, where the scene is Gary
Larsen by way of B.F. Skinner, with the beer-bellied and helmet-haired
working the levers like lab rats. Stumbling out into the harsh
Vegas sunlight, we aim ourselves onto Las Vegas Boulevard. My
friends walk normally, but with my belly distended to late-era
Elvis proportions, the only form of locomotion I can manage
is a modified gallumph. It pains me to put one leg in front
of the other.
the Mirage Hotel, we stop to admire a large bust of famed animal
trainers Siegfried and Roy, one of whom became a chew toy during
his last tiger-taming routine. As I waddle on, it occurs to
me that Vegas isn’t so much a middle-class Rome as it
is the Vatican City of secularism, where the big payoff is promised
for this life rather than the next. But back to the official,
papal take on gluttony: as Gregory said, it was not food per
se that concerned him, it was the desire for it. Not surprisingly
for a medieval cleric, he got a bit carried away in his assessment
of the risks:
is plain to all that lust springs from gluttony, when in the
distribution of the members the genitals appear placed beneath
the belly. And hence when the one is inordinately pampered,
the other is doubtless excited to wantonness.”
Gregory, with little more than work of the ancient Roman physician
Galen as a guide (the pope’s carnal experiences presumably
made for a pretty slim volume), imagined a fearsome alliance
between the gastrointestinal tract and the genitals -- a Praetorian
guard of the flesh.
it would be wrong to disregard the excesses of Catholic theology
without considering their historical roots. The Essenes and
the Gnostics, along with other precursors to what would later
become Christianity, emerged under the shadow of the Roman Empire.
These Judaic sects would have known of the excesses of the Imperial
City, of the bread and circuses meant to bribe a reckless, fickle
mob. The citizens in Rome were amused to death daily with spectacles
that outdid today’s Vegas, at least in brutality. So in
some ways the mortification of the flesh, and the retreat into
contemplation, were a natural course for the early Christians
to take. If the personal has always been the political, this
abnegation of the senses, and their religious equation with
sin, allowed Christians to oppose Rome -- but without the messy
and highly dangerous route of overtly political acts.
gluttony stands in a entirely different position in popular
culture. There is such a superabundance of food available, along
with an endless repetition of advertising for it, that we rarely
think of gluttony outside a secular context, or as a culturally
problematic state of mind, like greed and anger. Yet, with calorie-laden
fast-food guaranteeing sumo-sized bodies, the North American
diet has never been worse. Desire for food -- especially bad
food -- is pushed at every available opportunity by advertisers.
Over the next decade, at least three million Canadians are expected
to develop Type 2 diabetes, a lifestyle disease preventable
by good nutrition and physical exercise. In the US, obesity
is now second only to smoking as a cause of mortality.
the same time, the idea of overeating as sin persists, pushed
by the multibillion-dollar diet industry, and the thin-is-in
fashion scene. Sin has become spin. Not since the time of Gregory
have our attitudes toward eating, food and the human body been
more contradictory and ambivalent. And never before has our
bipolar culture been more profitable to the economic engine.
REMINGTONS TO DINNER PLATES
Oliver Stone’s masterful film Heaven and Earth,
a Vietnamese woman meets and marries a US navy seal played by
Tommy Lee Jones. When she returns with him to his hometown,
she is overwhelmed by the scale of wealth and opportunity. In
one scene, she wears an awestruck look as she stands before
a towering supermarket display of frozen food.
you’d be hard-pressed to find a North American shopper
who’d consider the grocery store a place of worship, Stone’s
film ably captures the immigrant’s near-religious reaction
to our modern temples to consumption. (Back in the eighties,
Russian “refuseniks” arriving on the US east coast
were said to make pilgrimages to supermarkets to see the amazing
displays of food.)
the 1830s, temperance preacher Sylvester Graham (for whom Graham
wafers were named) warned that gluttony, rather than hunger,
was the greatest dietary evil threatening mankind. Graham obviously
drew heavily on Christianity’s seven deadly sins, in a
historical era of relatively great abundance of food. Starvation
has never been much of a threat in the New World; that is, not
until the self-inflicted miseries of modern-day eating disorders.
the US civil war, Remingtons were exchanged for dinner plates,
and a spree of conspicuous consumption began. Looking well fed,
even rotund, was a sign of success, wealth and prosperity. Books
on health for women had titles like How to Be Plump.
The contradictory attitudes of the time foreshadowed the extreme
ambivalence about food and diet found in the North American
culture of today.
of little exercise and poor diet has today’s North Americans
ballooning in size. We are now the fattest people on the planet,
and the global export of fast-food franchises is ensuring that
obesity is a growing problem in places it’s never been
seen before, such as China.
at no time in history has more money been spent on diets, low-fat
and sugar-free foods, slimming pills, and aerobic equipment
and fitness programs. Weight-fluctuating North Americans contemplate
their waistlines obsessively, and flagellate their conscience
in between snacks. Never before have we been so obsessed with
the cult of thinness, and so repelled by our own bodies.
it may seem pretty lightweight as a sin per se, gluttony is
the Deadly Spin par excellence. It can kill. Obesity and physical
inactivity costs Canada an estimated $3.1 billion annually,
and leads to the death of about 21,000 Canadians per year. In
Graham’s time, unless you were a slave or a criminal,
you were first and foremost a citizen -- a word connoting community
and civic engagement. In today’s world of hyper capitalism,
you are first and foremost a consumer, a word that connotes
passive absorption, and disengagement from communal activities
other than shopping. (The flipside of being a consumer is being
an excreter, but this term isn’t likely to catch on in
how did we get to this strange place of fear and loathing over
our own bodies? How did gluttony, a straightforward sin in the
time of Pope Gregory, get spun into its present schizoid state?
On one hand we’re told by advertisers to “eat this,
eat that;” and then on the other hand told “be healthy,
don’t eat that.”
any time in history, we are exposed to an environment where
food is widely available, heavily promoted, available at low
cost -- and it tastes good,” says Prof. Kelly Brownell,
from the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, in a BBC
interview. He adds that much of the $36 billion a year spent
on advertising in the US targets children.” The average
child in the US sees 10,000 food advertisements annually on
television alone and 95 percent of these are for one of the
four types of junk food: dense calories and fat, fast foods,
sugar-coated cereals and candy. And that’s 10,000 messages
from the best minds in advertising to convince children to eat
foods that are bad for them.”
his book Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser
tracks the child-focused marketing of gluttony in alarming detail.
One-quarter of US children are now considered obese, and there
are now children six to 10 years old dying of heart attacks.
Along with the emergence of Type 2 diabetes among children,
previously only seen in adults, this translates into a new health-care
crisis. Schlosser demonstrates how effective advertising has
been in drawing kids into the fast-food world. Inducements that
have little or nothing to do with the food are part of the pitch.
With their marketing tie-ins to blockbuster films and cartoon
characters and an endless source of action figures and playthings,
McDonald’s and Burger King have become the biggest purveyor
of toys in the world.
habits you develop as a child are with you for the rest of your
life,” he writes. “Fast food companies know this,
and that’s one of the reasons they so carefully and aggressively
market to children. And they’re trying to create brand
loyalty in children as young as two, three and four years old.”
flip side of market-driven gluttony is market-driven anorexia,
with its epicentre in the fashion industry. Skeletal runway
models set the visual standard for bingeing teenage girls and
the high-society “social x-rays” who’ve “starved
themselves to perfection,” in author Tom Wolfe’s
words. The starved look has infected Hollywood, where legions
of starlets from television and film have sculpted themselves
into so-called “lollipops”: tiny, children-sized
bodies topped with adult-sized heads. The most memorable lollipop
moment was during the 1998 Emmy Awards, when actress Calista
Flockheart appeared in a backless gown, revealing a dorsal expanse
resembling the underside of a crab.
collateral damage in women’s bodies and lives are the
flip side of the obesity crisis, but the origins are the same:
a relationship with food that is so distorted by marketing persuasion
that life itself is under threat. Anorexics and bulimics aren’t
in danger from arteriosclerosis or Type 2 diabetes, as the obese
are; but they can stop menstruating and lose their fertility
entirely. Osteoporosis, heart damage and kidney damage can also
be the result in severe cases of anorexia.
the fairy tales we tell ourselves through advertising and media
play a major role here. The distortion of the eating impulse
is fed by hyper capitalism’s drive to maximize profit
at any social cost. Dollars can be extracted most profitably
by maintaining an advertising regime of mixed messages, creating
a schizoid cultural climate, which keeps consumers coming and
an example of this, in a 2002 New York Times article,
fashion editor Kate Betts says she “owes Renee Zellweger
a year ago, as the editor of a fashion magazine, I pulled her
picture off the cover of an issue at the last minute, swapping
it for a photo of a lanky swan in a whiff of Dior chiffon.”
was too fat. Which in fashion industry newspeak, means outside
the range of skeletal. The rumour on the street was that Zellweger
had put on 30 pounds for her role as the hard-living Bridget
Jones in the film of the same name. Her publicist said the total
weight gain was closer to eight pounds. “The final tally
was revised down to two,” writes Betts.
a measly two pounds,” Betts recalls of the decision she
made with her staff. “We went back and forth like a couple
of short-weighting wholesalers haggling over a shipment of turkeys.”
In the end, even “after several thousand dollars worth
of airbrushing,” Betts decided there “was no hiding
the truth” - that truth being that Zellweger resembled
a healthy human female in her late twenties (hard to fix even
with Photoshop). “It’s not in anyone’s best
interest to publish these,” she recalls saying of the
article is something of a mea culpa, blaming the fashion
industry for perpetuating the beauty myth, while dodging personal
responsibility for endorsing it during her tenure in the fashion
industry media. The most she can summon up is an acknowledgement
that she “did feel bad” about the magazine cover
decision. In a predictable finale to the story, a razor-thin
model took Zellweger’s place on the magazine cover. Photogenic
wraiths such as these, often hooked on cigarettes and laxatives,
continue to get heavy rotation as role models for young women.
Gluttony has been spun so wildly in advertising and popular
culture, who wouldn’t be dizzy from all the mixed messages?
Certainly not some Zellweger-look-alike in the Canadian heartland,
heading from the Weight-Watchers meeting to the drive-through
window of the fast-food joint, and madly wolfing down an Happy
Meal, to ensure her hunger pains fade back into robust self-loathing.
wheels of the gluttony industry are greased with animal fat
and slick PR. It may seem sometimes that our Huxleyan social
engineers dream of creating the perfect consumer - the one who
won’t be satisfied until the planet itself is chewed up
and barfed back out. Yet there are hopeful signs that consumers
are tiring of a steady diet of bad health and mixed messages,
and that consciousness is changing. Sales of fast food are down,
and the lollipop look is less fashionable now than it was a
few years ago. McDonald’s ceased offering a super sized
option for its meals after the documentary Supersize Me
premiered at The Sundance Film Festival. And with the practices
of factory farming becoming public knowledge, we are relearning
the truth of the old saw -- we are what we eat.
PRAISE OF ENVY
- THE SICKNESS OF BEING
is a Vancouver-based writer and political cartoonist.