Which came first, the Big Mac or a consumer culture built on the need for immediate gratification in super sizes?
In How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and Psychology of Food, Leon Rappoport unveils social, psychological, spiritual, and political motivations for eating behavior. He initially became interested in the topic when he was learning the practices of yoga and Zen Buddhist meditation while simultaneously doing research on the Holocaust. He became aware of the symbolic role that food played in these radically different cultural scenarios. Starvation played a key role in dehumanizing and demoralizing inmates in concentration camps. The process of starvation is similar to drug addiction; people start to lose their humanity and they are reduced to a predatory/prey state where only one thing matters: survival at any cost. On the other end of the spectrum, Buddhism emphasizes the spiritual significance of eating as an act of communion with all beings. Feelings of humanity are intensified through community ritual and mindfulness.
Rappoport’s chapter “The McDonaldization of Taste” was particularly revealing, especially after seeing the film Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock. In the book, he defines “McDonaldization [as] the process whereby all or most other social values become subordinated to efficiency, convenience, and immediate gratification of artificial needs.” The underlying motivation is profit and the consumer gets manipulated not only psychologically but physically. In Super Size Me, the most revealing part was that Spurlock became “addicted” to McDonald’s. He experienced withdrawal symptoms of physical discomfort and depression which were immediately alleviated by ingesting a super-size dose of fries and a Big Mac. He began to eat to not feel sick. Sound familiar? That is how junkies describe heroin addiction. However, McDonald’s is significantly cheaper, readily available to children through school lunch programs, and legal.
Food as a tool of cultural manipulation is discussed in Rappoport’s book as a means of spreading American values of democracy by giving the masses in other countries easy access to valued products they might not be able to access in oppressive societies with rigid class structures. The main thing fast food is spreading is people’s waistlines and the values are poor nutrition, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This concept of “democratization” seems absurd when you see how fast food has affected American society.
The reality is that these “valued products” promote poor health and feed classism inherent in American society. In the United States, the masses that McDonald’s serves are overwhelmingly poor and working class families. Fast food is poisoning Americans at a greater rate than it is serving to democratize other cultures. Spurlock discovered how toxic fast food really is. In the short period of time he exclusively ate McDonald’s he succumbed to rapid weight gain, high blood pressure, depression, digestive problems, and was on his way to permanently damaging his liver. The American waistline has spread incrementally with the institution of fast food culture and the new plague is obesity. But people have a choice, don’t they?