Soylent: My Fantasy Come True?
Trigger warning: Discussion of anorexia and weight loss.
So, before I explain my strange food fantasies, a quick synopsis of my personal history: thin/athletic up until age 14, totally unaware that I enjoyed thin privilege. Taught in school that anyone’s body can be made fat or thin through diet and exercise, because 3,500 calories = one pound. It seemed obvious, since “everyone knows” fat people overeat and underexercise. Because thermodynamics, right?
Sometime before I turned 15, my fervent desire for athletic and romantic success prompted me to try using that simple energy-balance equation to lose five pounds, returning my now barely-post-pubescent 125-pound body to the previous year’s 120 (I was 5’6″). Over the next six or seven years I got gradually fatter and fatter, while secretly practicing what I now regard as part-time, variable-intensity anorexia.
Crossed the 200-pound mark by age 20, feeling like a desperately-flawed, contemptible human being. If ever there were an advertisement against trying to lose weight, it’s me. Got thin again finally at 21 by
eating more or less nothing for most of a year. Somewhere during that time, realized that 3,500 calories doesn’t “equal” a pound, at least not always. For two more years, devoted most of my attention and energy to staying thin, until overexercise injuries caught up with me.
Just short of my 24th birthday, learned of the existence of heterodox opinions about fat, including among empirical researchers, and even a nascent social-justice movement. I read Shadow on a Tightrope (still a great book) and Dieter’s Dilemma (ditto). And I forswore anorexic behaviors and committed myself to a Health at Every Size® (HAES) practice (that’s what it amounted to, though, of course, that acronym wouldn’t be coined until years in the future).
Over the next five years, gradually rebounded to somewhere between 250-300 pounds. Thus, I led my entire adult life as a non-thin-privileged person, until at age 40 something weird happened — but let’s just pause the narrative here for now. I’m here to tell you, because I’ve been both and I know: it’s way better to be a fat woman who cares for her health than an anorexic, even part time. It’s way better to have a good relationship with your own body, even if this means having a body that other people scorn. Nothing matters more than your own health and well-being, nothing!
Still, and all, I found it kind of uncomfortable inhabiting a fat social identity. I still had basically the same personality from my teenage years, still had that athletic drive and desire to be admirable, seen as admirable and disciplined. I still had the ascetic temperament that had made fasting so tempting. Like idealistic Dorothea in Middlemarch, I “enjoyed giving things up.” Now here I was, to other people’s eyes, the embodiment of self-indulgence and softness. At least now I knew I wasn’t “guilty,” but nobody else did.
It drove me a little crazy, the mismatch between what I felt myself to be and how the rest of the world automatically read my body. Even in my own family, where you would think people should know me best — They could see me exercising! They could see me choosing foods according to the most exacting nutritional standards — well, but people often see what they expect to see, don’t they?
Even as a child, I was never much interested in food or eating, with a few exceptions for special treats. The siren attractions of food were deeply enhanced during my fasting years, a fact which seemed inexplicable at the time. Then, during my fat HAES years, the interestingness of food declined once again. Nobody believed that, though, because they saw me eating the amount I needed to eat to satisfy hunger, and that was a fair amount.
Eating is an endless, tedious chore, costing money and time I’d rather put into other things. If I didn’t have to do it, if there were other options (photosynthesize, plug into the wall at night), I’d definitely choose one of them instead. Science fiction, right? Well, I’m a science fiction fan.
I read a science fiction story where a space traveler from a less-enlightened culture visits a more enlightened culture. One reason you know his culture is fucked up is that he can’t stand to participate in a shared meal. In his culture, eating is just as private as defecating. People shut themselves up alone with the food the same way we have to be alone with the toilet. Readers weren’t supposed to approve of that, but, man…
I wished so much that I lived in that “perverted” food-taboo culture. It would be so great! No more food talk, nothing about who’s eating what or why, or what should or shouldn’t be eaten. Not that food wouldn’t be available in public or at social events. You’d go to somebody else’s house, they’d make sure you could feed yourself as needed, just the way they currently make sure you can do whatever might be needful in the bathroom, with special-purpose paper and everything. It just wouldn’t be social. You’d excuse yourself, pop into the food stall with your biological need, and relieve yourself. Everybody would cooperate to say as little about it as possible.
Probably some of you are thinking I’m a pathetic pervert now too. And it’s sort of true. Lots of fat activists have reclaimed for themselves the pleasures of social eating, and bully for you, but I (a) can’t quite manage that and (b) don’t even exactly want to. I don’t want to retrain myself to enjoy social eating, I just want to be left alone. Ideally, I’d like to get a pass on having to have a social food identity at all. Fat chance of that!
There are other science fiction stories, usually dystopias, where some kind of scientifically designed nutrient-delivery system, the human version of dry kibble, can replace food as we know it. Usually in these stories, either everybody eats the science-blend people chow (like in Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day) or else the vast majority of non-rich people subsist on it while only the most privileged can afford what we would think of as “real” food (like Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! which the movie Soylent Green was loosely based on).
That was another long-running fantasy of mine. If only! What if food were made publicly available in giant vats of nutrient broth or nutrient pudding/sludge? Plenty for all, hunger eradicated around the world! The key factor for me in this fantasy is that the food itself is no more than neutrally palatable. Anyone can suck out as much as they want anytime, and everybody would naturally eat so as to satisfy hunger and it would be clear to everybody that everybody else was eating intuitively, because, you know, nutrient broth just isn’t tasty enough to make ideas that are widespread in our world (theories du jour like “emotional eating” or “binge eating” or “food as a substitute for love” or whatever) even remotely plausible in the fantasy world. If somebody’s eating oftener than average, or more than average, that’s evidence that they’re darn hungry, nothing more.
Don’t you want to live in a world like that? Okay, I know for most people the answer is no. But for me it’s yes.
And then in the May 12 issue of the New Yorker I read an article called “The End of Food,” about a guy, Rob Rhinehart, who invented his own version of nutrient-broth food replacement and was on the verge of mass-marketing it. He’s even calling the stuff “soylent” after the Harrison novel. (Not the Charleton Heston movie, okay? If you know the movie, you know what I’m talking about. In the novel, soylent is made of soy and lentils, there’s no shocking secret ingredient.)
OMG! OMG! Is my private, long-running, silly, science-fiction food fantasy about to come true? Watch this space.