For centuries, humans thought of food as merely a means for survival. In affluent societies where food seems abundant, however, we have entered an era in which food takes on perplexing new meanings: our morals and social status can be judged based on the food we choose to eat.
It seems that a hierarchy of morality is connected to every choice that we need to make, especially in relation to food. The decisions we make have become more and more representative of our views on nature, society, and consumerism. This hierarchy is not necessarily based on external judgements, but more in an internal struggle to decide where we fit in a world where the food we eat becomes a reflection of ourselves.
Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman is a novel that closely examines this phenomenon of food symbolism. The book follows a young woman, Marian McAlpin, who finds her appetite disintegrating as she loses her sanity. McAlpin’s self-scrutiny increases as she begins to notice the social hierarchies all around her, becoming confused as to where she fits in. She starts to associate food with different aspects of social status, specifically relating certain foods to the different people in her life and the roles that they play in society. Most importantly, she associates her arrogant, dominating fiancé with meat, which she feels is a symbol of power, money, and competition. She begins to think that eating meat will mean she is succumbing to his dominance.
After this initial realization, McAlpin decides that the consumption of any food symbolically places her into a social group that she doesn’t want to be in. She quickly stops eating all foods she doesn’t want to identify with, which eventually leads to eating nothing at all. She feels suffocated by the inescapable need to conform, as though she is being “devoured” by society. The book ends with her baking a cake of herself and eating it.
Atwood describes the world as a “cluster of raw materials” just waiting to be “digested into assimilation.” We are all frightened of being classified with all these “raw materials,” she suggests, and are confused about being placed on the same level as what we eat.
Why has something as natural as eating turned into such a complicated psychological process? It is inevitable for natural hierarchies and social categories to exist, but just because they exist does not mean that our choices must revolve around conforming to them. We might not all be as crazy as Marian McAlpin, but her story offers much to relate to – either on a conscious or subconscious level. I guess these days it’s just rare – pun intended – to do anything, even eating, without contemplating the effect it will have on our social status.