Friday, March 28, 2008

The Sin of Gluttony

Boy, I am back, eh? I have had a lot on my mind and it seems more time to get it down. My newest fascination is with how much my students are unforgiving to people who eat too much and consequently put on weight. My colleague Kerry noticed the same phenomenon when he was teaching his seminar on the 7 deadly sins. Gluttony, he said, was the only sin that students were unwilling to attribute social forces as partially to blame. If you overindulge, especially in food, then you are weak-willed.
This conversation took place in my Philosophy of Psychiatry class where Dan Blazer, the author we are currently reading, made the observation that we have become a society more likely to attribute social origins to physical problems like obesity, rather than mental illnesses like depression. Blazer offers up a case study of a young woman who has sought treatment for depression and the physician notices she has gained weight. She has put on weight because she visits the hamburger stand across the street from her work daily. The patient attributed her depression to her weight gain and wanted to get a prescription for Prozac because she heard it would help her lose weight. At the end of this case study, Blazer points out that this patient was quite willing to consider the multiple ways in which social forces lead to obesity, but she couldn't see how her depression might be related to work stress.

I read this passage to my students to get their sense. Rather than deal with the observation, two very passionate students launched into an attack on the patient's willingness to attribute her weight gain to the over-marketing of fast food or the cheapness of fast food. "She should know better how to eat well. She is a computer engineer. If she wants to lose weight, she should just eat less."

I asked my students, however, if they believed that her depression was in part the result of work pressures, fear of losing her job, and stress over mortgage payments. They absolutely agreed that those were part of the problem. In fact, almost every student in the class believes that depression has social origins and they are deeply disturbed by a culture that wants to "pop pills" and "get a quick fix," rather than address the real underlying problems. They are Utopian in their thinking--wishing we could improve neighborhoods, provide better jobs, better education, universal health care, less stress in the workplace and schools. Many of them have downright indicted capitalism. I am, for once in my life, confronted with several Marxist students. Who would've guess? I am the one arguing for Prozac all class.

But, when I asked them why they were unwilling to attribute social origins to the obesity epidemic, they couldn't see the connection. Being overweight was a personal failing. Being depressed, however, was a sign that our culture is messed up. Why such a glaring inconsistency?

I have been trying to come up with some sort of helpful explanation for this. Part of it may stem from the fact that by and large my students are well off and have been socialized to be "healthy eaters" and thin. They are less able to make the connection to lower social class and higher rates of obesity. They don't know what it is like to manage a family, while having to work a lot, and therefore not having a whole lot of time to make "healthy food." Furthermore, healthy food is expensive, unless you grow a lot of it yourself. I think Michelle Obama actually has a great stump speech that addresses these stresses of "average families."

The other part of the sin of gluttony seems to be their buckling under to a culture obsessed with thin bodies--especially in the case of women. For the first time, I really saw the connection between anorexia and control. Being thin is not just about being beautiful, it is about having the ability to say "no" to all of the temptations that bombard us daily to eat food that is indulgent.

What do you all make of this?