Morsels and their meaning

Food, The Body and the Self
May 9, 1997

Genetically engineered soya beans and tomatoes threaten to engulf our supermarket shelves, Delia Smith's publicist defines cookery as "the new rock 'n' roll", and the media periodically turn on models who are believed to be anorexic. The multiple meanings of food and eating jostle for attention so that in the mid-1990s we are exquisitely aware, as if for the first time, of the fact that one is what one eats, or, equally, what one does not. Deborah Lupton's book turns to this self-evident fact to examine the vast freight of sociocultural meanings that we ingest with every mouthful. She uses written memories of food and eating from a broad social sample alongside the cinematic representation and the marketing of food. If recent theoretical concerns with the body have tended to erase the banal mechanics of taste and digestion, then Lupton revels in everyday corporeality. Adopting a poststructuralist position, she sets out to examine food as our principal means of self-definition. Lupton's approach is resolutely cross-disciplinary, so that anthropology sits beside feminist theory and sociology. These sources are introduced in the first chapter, and the book extends into a wide-ranging examination of the ways in which food constructs and constricts our subjectivity. Lupton traces the many forms of control that we exert over food, from the familial experiences of fussy children and dieting mothers, to the desire for "natural" food as an assertion of consumer autonomy. The book examines the hidden social reasons that dictate tastes and distastes, concluding with a discussion of the struggle between hedonism and self-discipline.

Lupton's central argument is that food has pre-eminently sociocultural rather than physiological meanings, and she demonstrates how food contributes to subjectivity. To this end she includes an original examination of the multiple emotional meanings of food; the restaurant meal as a social obstacle course; and the pleasure of indulging in "exotic" or "disgusting" gastronomy. Lupton covers a broad range of material which upholds the central points that eating can never be banal, and that our investment in food is inextricably tied to our sense of self.

Her methodology may be likened to the American practice of grazing - she snacks on an appetising variety of theorists, yet passes swiftly on to the next without gaining any real sustenance. Writers such as Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva are used as intellectual ballast but Lupton fails to engage fully with or critique them. Although much of her own empirical research is highly suggestive, she tends to state the obvious; in her analysis of childhood memories of "special meals" she concludes only that this affects food preferences in later life. The writing is generally thorough and clear, yet several points jar such as the abrupt two-page conclusion and trite statements such as: "Eating is generally understood as a highly embodied experience"; "Many beliefs about food are reproduced from generation to generation".

As a beginner's guide to the cultural and academic discourses around food and the self this is a helpful, well-annotated volume with a bibliography that is comprehensive. Its strength lies in the precise details of how people eat themselves into being. Here the experience of eating an olive for the first time vividly encapsulates the self-affirming power of food: "I remembered how consciously and conscientiously I ate it; I knew that what was being offered was civilisation, a way of life which I could desire and perhaps achieve." But Lupton tempts the reader with a theoretical sophistication that is never fully put into practice. Ultimately unsatisfying, the book can only reiterate the fact that we take much more than nourishment into our mouths, and the chapters explore variations on the meanings of food without building an argument.

Reading this book is rather like eating with a heavy cold: the reader is adequately fed, but frustrated by the lack of taste. When the self becomes alienated from food, fractures occur. What is happening to the Japanese sense of self now that a generation appears to have embraced McDonalds and rejected the tea ceremony? Do women feel guilty about using what Rosalind Coward has termed "food pornography"? Can someone who boasts about eating "probably the first sun-dried tomato in Australia" lay claim to superiority once it has passed through his intestines?

Victoria Howell is researching a PhD at the Centre for Womens Studies, University of York.

Food, The Body and the Self

Author - Deborah Lupton
ISBN - 0 8039 7648 8 and 7647 X
Publisher - Sage
Price - £37.50 and £12.95
Pages - 175

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