In 2012, Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts sponsored a program called “We Are What We Eat”, in which authors and panelists Marian Nestle and Daphne Miller discussed the ethical, political, and nutritional implications of our food choices. For 2016, we have turned the table on the topic, with an eye toward the social, cultural, and creative lens food provides for us: “You Eat What You Are: The Act of Eating as a Form of Self Expression”. Paired with the exquisite writing and photography of the “EAT: A Photography + Literature Installation”, this program raises a selfie-stick to the relationship we have with ourselves via eating.
The proposition “You Eat What You Are” raises a set of interesting questions from personal, social, cultural, and ethical perspectives, the answers to which might be expressed in eating actions, creative writing, fine arts, rituals, religious practices, social gatherings and political organizations, among other things. These questions occur at the intersection of our internal conception of self-identity and the variety of ways in which others perceive our identity from the outside. How is it that you express to others what your self-identity is in the act of eating? How do others perceive your eating as expressive of who you are? This intersection also works on us from the outside—cultural norms and practices form parts of our identities, and move us to behave in certain ways. Many of those concern the act of eating. Consider the relationship between cultural norms of beauty and attractiveness and the pressures they place on each of us. Now think about the cultural norms surrounding food and eating that place other pressures on your self-identity. How is your identity shaped by these cultural forces? Do these contradictory pressures produce internal conflict for your own sense of self? A quick exercise: think of one food slogan and one beauty slogan familiar from your culture and share them with your neighbor. Do they engage questions of identity? To what degree do they express how you view yourself?
Many of us are concerned with where our food comes from, how it is raised, and how it is grown. If you share these concerns, your eating actions express values. How do others react to your connection of values and eating—are they open to your self-expression or do they disagree? Often these kinds of actions can be avenues toward conversation and engagement with others. In that dialogue you can learn about what it means to share your identity, and open others to thinking about how they do so.
What aesthetic qualities drive your eating? The EAT installation imagines a range of beautiful ways in which food can be written about and pictured. But we also recognize the marketing pressures of images in our daily lives. Do artistic renditions of food and eating affect you differently than marketing and advertising efforts? What effect do these images have on your own choices? Likewise, literature can connect with our views about aesthetic values. Are any of the writings in the installation expressive of your sense of self? Do they resonate with your own experience? If you consider yourself a “foodie” or post pictures of food on social media, you are expressing something about your self-identity in your eating actions. What are you expressing?
Our cultural identities are often expressed in how we dress, practices, and rituals we engage, and ultimately also in eating. Your identity has been informed by these practices, but of course they do not simply make you who you are. You also get to decide how and to what degree such cultural factors shape your own view of your identity. That provides you with an active role to play in your own history and heritage. How have you integrated your cultural background into your eating? Have you altered or rejected any of that heritage? What kind of changes did you make and why? How do new practices on social media, like taking selfies while eating and sharing pictures of your meal, develop new cultures around eating and self-expression?
As you view the photographs, read the literature, and listen to the panelists, keep these questions in mind. But also work to answer them as you consider your own self-identity and how it is expressed by your actions. And if you have questions you would like the panelists to answer, please ask us. Conversations at the crossroads lead to adventures and unexplored paths.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy