Many of us in the West are fundamentally unfamiliar with hunger. Maybe we skip breakfast or lunch occasionally; we submit to the edict “nil by mouth” at a surgeon’s bidding. But these very deprivations ooze with privilege. Our eating, like so much about our lives, tends to operate in terms of individual choice, control, and comfort.
How else could – or should – it be? A subtle but suggestive challenge to our model of consumption has been playing out around the world over the past month as Muslims have observed Ramadan, the sacred ninth month of the Islamic calendar. For the past month, adult Muslims have refrained from eating and drinking (yes, even water) between sunrise and sunset. It is fardh (obligatory) for them to do so, one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
In our increasingly diverse communities, and partly thanks to the democratising tendencies of social media, Ramadan becomes year on year more visible to non-Muslims. This year saw the Twitter thread #RamadanProblems surge in popularity, with participants reflecting on their fasting experiences with (literally) dry humour: “I think I just watched my clock go from 2:54 to 2:53” – “living in America where every other commercial on TV is a food commercial” – “Life is like a box of chocolates. That you can’t eat.”
Food practices are deeply cultural – and deeply personal. We structure our days around various types of food intake (breakfast, coffee break, working lunch, family dinner). Celebrations are invariably punctuated with some special kind of consumable, from birthday cake to champagne. The what, when, and how of our eating speaks volumes about who we are and what we value – but perhaps the choice not to eat says even more.
Of course, the primary form in which not-eating features in most of our lives is that dreaded and ubiquitous Western spectre: dieting. A growing number of fad diets include a significant fasting component, such as the 5:2 fast diet, under which dieters cut their daily calorie intake to a quarter of its normal level two days a week.
The morass of guilt, envy, self-deception, jubilation (usually short-lived), pride, and misery that constitutes most people’s experience of dieting – that sense of superiority constantly jockeying for position with a sense of profound moral failure – doesn’t seem to have much in common with the communal discipline and joint celebration of something like Ramadan. Diets may be sensible or even necessary; they may be rewarding; but at the end of the day, they’re all about me. This means isolation instead of solidarity, no matter how much camaraderie you can muster over a Michelle Bridges Super Saturday Session.
Indeed, both our fasting and our feasting are fraught with problems. People have been cataloguing the many faces of our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with food for decades now; even a cursory list would range from the trivial (food as a vehicle for various forms of snobbery and elitism) to the dire (obesity, the insidious destructions of body image, crisis levels of eating disorders – the number one killer among mental illnesses, with a mortality rate of about 20 per cent).
Our dependence on food is not (only) psychological. But it’s not meant to control us, either.
For a society that prides itself on tolerance, we can be surprisingly self-righteous about other people’s food choices, from breastfeeding onwards. And the sheer volume of food programming on our TV screens – so-called “gastroporn”, food preparation as spectator sport – suggests that something, somewhere, must be out of whack. Considering it’s a biological given, there are an awful lot of ways for us to get the eating of food wrong. As Lionel Shriver observes in her 2013 novel Big Brother, we seem to have “mislaid the most animal of masteries” – that is, how to eat.
Western culture used to have a simple (if unpalatable) name for this, borrowed from the Bible: gluttony. It pointed not simply to a lack of self-discipline signalled by over-indulging, but to a wider disordering of our relationship to food – according food a place in our lives and our affections beyond its, well, desserts.
Philosophical and religious figures throughout history, from Plato and Aristotle to Confucius and Zoroaster, not to mention Jesus and many of His followers since, have practised fasting. They believed that forgoing food could be beneficial, whether as a refusal of the body’s demands as absolute, or a way of focusing their attention on spiritual things.
Interestingly, there is one area (Ramadan excepted) where fasting is making a bit of a comeback among us. While World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine has been running since 1975, newer events like Live Below the Line, which involves eating on $2 a day for five days, also aim to raise not only money for international hunger relief but awareness of the human experience of hunger.
Unlike dieting, these forms of voluntary hunger direct the attention outwards in compassion and empathy, in a longing for justice, and in a recognition of what’s more important than the messages our stomachs send us from moment to moment.
Our dependence on food is not (only) psychological. But it’s not meant to control us, either. Fasting, in religious and non-religious contexts, has traditionally been viewed as liberating – but usually with reference to something higher, whether a higher being or a higher purpose or calling. Perhaps the loss of that higher reference point than the self goes some way to explaining the lack of balance that characterises our food culture?
Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.