Swans Commentary » swans.com June 15, 2009  



Observations Of The Body And American Culture From The Buffet Line


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - June 15, 2009)   A $3.99 buffet, which is a time-limited special, is very hard for me to turn down. I had done a bit of cycling today, in 90-degree weather, and figured that it would be glorious to bike only a mere three additional miles to Cici's and just load up on the carbs. After all, I needed, after grazing, to traverse those same three miles on the way home so I probably would have burned off the calories that I consumed. But I couldn't help but think about my experience in the restaurant as an odd snapshot of culture. Here are some of my observations.

First, people seemed to pretend that they are eating healthy by making an obligatory stop at the salad bar. The only problem was that most of the people I saw had more pizza on their trays than salad. So if you add a little green to all of that cheese and bread, does that make for a healthy dietary outing? I think I'm going to stop here with that thought because I myself was guilty of the same offense. But at least when I went back for seconds and thirds, I also went back for seconds and thirds of salads (wipes hands clean).

Second, there is the issue of body types. People in the restaurant were either flabbing-out of-their-clothes overweight or they were thin. The thin people had just arrived from nearby gym in a sweaty musk and shorts, so maybe I wasn't as judgmental of them when they went back for seconds and thirds as I was of the more gravity-endowed patrons.

Third, the gravity-endowed patrons had kids tagging along with them in the pizza line. Cici's is a family friendly place since kids' meals are discounted. I just wondered whether the parents were prudent in enabling their five- or seven-year-old kids to develop a taste for pizza at such an early age. What was interesting was that none of the parents who let their kids sample pizza actually made salad plates for their youngsters. One way, I suppose, of getting kids to dislike vegetables is to either exclude them from their diets or require that they eat less than what ought to be their daily intake. Not only were the parents exposing their kids to what can be considered a meal high in calories and saturated fat, but we can't ignore the high sodium content of pizza.

I'll get off the diet subject here because I already mentioned that I had my fill and perhaps it would be hypocritical of me to question how other people eat badly or expose their children to bad diets. Yet one major difference was that when all of the adults (that is, the gravity-endowed adults) in question were full, they returned to their cars and drove off; my full stomach didn't have the luxury of resting on top of a car steering wheel. So I biked back to campus, pedaling away in the humidity, praying for a downhill coast along the way to shorten the ride.

Gender images were interesting aspects to observe at the restaurant and seemed to give credence to the notion that the ideals of beauty for each sex, which no doubt stem from the failure to question images sanctioned by corporate media and corporate clothiers, must involve a measure of pain or discomfort. There was what I estimated to be a seven- or eight-year-old girl at the restaurant and her four-or-so-year-old brother. He had on a tie and while I guess that it was a clip-on tie clogging up his collar, I wondered whether he could have possibly known that one day, he will have to learn the art of tying a tie, which pretty much amounts to choking himself. I still like ties myself but you couldn't get me to put on one of those things these days -- neither for a funeral, a date, or an interview for some bigwig, prestigious, academic job.

Then there was the boy's older sister. She was wearing slings and I guess that the heels were three or four inches high. It was actually amusing seeing her trying to walk. You should try juxtaposing in your mind the control needed to walk in those things with a child's wanton enthusiasm. She didn't fall, but knowing that many of my women friends feel a level of discomfort walking in heels, this child, with her recurring sprints to the pizza bar, was bound to sprain something or slip and plummet headfirst to the ground.

There was baseball on the tube and of course these days you can't escape the steroids conversation. I sort of chuckle at my own hypocrisy about it: thinking that I'm cool if I slide into the convenient comfort of "conventional wisdom" and view baseball as some sort of idyllic pastime, thereby enabling me to make some ridiculous claim about how steroids demean "the game." This snap judgment ignores the historical game, one littered with follies and scandals, which is the only game that exists.

But "conventional wisdom" isn't really consistent with itself. We don't seem to apply the same standards of bodily "purity" when it comes to Hollywood stars/actors. Some of the guys in Cici's whom I noticed criticizing steroid abusers aloud in the dining section probably would have stood up and cheered if the restaurant staff switched from ESPN to the E! channel to show the latest results of some Hollywood starlet's breast "augmentation." And I don't think a lot of couples out there would have issues with Viagra-enhanced dalliances when "natural" performance falls well short of the goal.

All of what I said was just a snapshot of dinner. Sometimes we like to think that a picture speaks for itself: that it is a representation whose content and details no one could be mistaken about unless one was delusional. Perhaps gorging on carbs made me delusional. But certainly interpretation plays a role in how the picture is rendered; perhaps my feelings, inclinations, and assumptions about what I observed provided more detail about the dinner hour than an actual snapshot or video of the experience could have done on its own. And I think that what my experience taught me the most was not that Americans are all fat and addicted to their cars (although there is a great deal of truth to that) but that moral/aesthetic inclinations or worldviews seem to shape or organize the ordinary observations that we make of other individuals. The human body, as an object of observation, is almost immediately shuffled into normative categories that are largely based upon media-generated images of what healthy and unhealthy, beautiful and unbeautiful, bodies are.

A pressing question is this: how far are we willing to allow the mainstream media, by its indefinite rerun of ideal body types, dictate our aesthetic sensibilities? Is it no wonder that most anchorwomen are excessively dolled-up beauty queens or the anchormen are chiseled to the bone? Corporations, by endlessly advertising beauty or health products for us to buy to "improve" body image, also have a role in dictating the same sensibilities. I find somewhat ironic the fact that some of the chemicals used in these products and pharmaceuticals to improve the body find their way into the water supply and inevitably into human beings who do not consent to these chemicals being in their bodies in the first place.

Most importantly, do we really care at all to question what these entities -- mainstream media and the corporations that underwrite it -- present as "fact"?

With that thought, I think I'm biking back to the restaurant: only this time to gobble more salad.


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Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect

America the 'beautiful'


About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. He also loves art and formally practice fine art and graphic design.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/hewhit01.html
Published June 15, 2009