The Aggregate: Dieting for Immortality // ‘Sesame Street’ and the Civil Rights Movement
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some important stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
The Immortality Diet
The Atlantic – Michelle Allison, “Eating Toward Immortality”
This article is a bit of a throwback, as it ran in The Atlantic back in February of 2017. However, after appearing on my Twitter feed this week, I decided it was definitely worth including. In this piece, Michelle Allison delivers a fascinating examination of diet culture in America, and explores the social nature of human eating habits from a unique perspective. Much like with anything else that makes humans uncomfortable, Allison argues that as a species we have created as many perceived degrees of separation between the act of eating and the concept of survival as possible. On first impression, this argument may seem like a stretch, but she connects the dots with more than one argument to support her claims— and after reading the piece, you may find yourself looking at your lunch a bit differently today.
“By creating and following diets, humans not only eat to stay alive, but they fit themselves into a cultural edifice that is larger, and more permanent, than their bodies. It is a sort of immortality ritual, and rituals must be performed socially. Clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret. If you haven’t evangelized about it, joined a movement around it, or been praised publicly for it, have you truly cleansed?”
While this might feel like a jab at anyone who has ever posted a picture of a salad on their Instagram, it is actually a statement that gets straight to the heart of the entire issue. Allison claims that staving off death through diet choices – and sharing your methods for doing so – is a concept that long precedes the Food Network and social media as a whole. Humans are social creatures, and eating is a social experience. Also, much like other social behaviors, a certain level of anxiety exists around our food choices and the reasoning by which we decide what to eat.
“The omnivore’s paradox was originally defined by psychological researcher Paul Rozin as the anxiety that arises from our desire to try new foods (neophilia) paired with our inherited fear of unknown foods (neophobia) that could turn out to be toxic. All omnivores feel these twin pressures, but none more acutely than humans. If it weren’t for the small chance of death lurking behind every food choice and every dietary ideology, choosing what to eat from a crowded marketplace wouldn’t be considered a dilemma.”
The “omnivore’s paradox” is a central part of Allison’s argument, and speaks volumes to the social anxiety around food and dietary choices mentioned earlier. This next paragraph brilliantly encapsulates Allison’s argument:
“This is how the omnivore’s paradox breeds diet culture: Overwhelmed by choice, by the dim threat of mortality that lurks beneath any wrong choice, people crave rules from outside themselves, and successful heroes to guide them to safety. People willingly, happily, hand over their freedom in exchange for the bondage of a diet that forbids their most cherished foods, that forces them to rely on the unfamiliar, unpalatable, or inaccessible, all for the promise of relief from choice and the attendant responsibility. If you are free to choose, you can be blamed for anything that happens to you: weight gain, illness, aging—in short, your share in the human condition, including the random whims of luck and your own inescapable mortality.”
Framing dietary habits in this way transforms the debate from one about food, to one about something else entirely:
“This is why arguments about diet get so vicious, so quickly. You are not merely disputing facts, you are pitting your wild gamble to avoid death against someone else’s. You are poking at their life raft. But if their diet proves to be the One True Diet, yours must not be. If they are right, you are wrong. This is why diet culture seems so religious. People adhere to a dietary faith in the hope they will be saved. That if they’re good enough, pure enough in their eating, they can keep illness and mortality at bay.”
Debates around diet and the “healthiest” eating habits are constantly changing and developing. What works for some people may not work for others, and perhaps the question of whether or not there is a “best” diet is one without a one size fits all answer. However, the one inevitability in life is death – dark, I know – and we would all benefit to remember that no matter your preferred dietary choices, humans share common goals for survival and community that are often furthered in beautiful, creative ways through the universal experience of food.
How the Civil Rights Movement Gave us Sesame Street
Undark – Anne Harrington, “Psychiatry, Racism, and the Birth of ‘Sesame Street’”
This next article comes to us from Undark, a digital publication that does valuable work that focuses on stories at “the intersection of science and society.” Anne Harrington is a professor at Harvard, and this article is both a history lesson, as well as a valuable tool for understanding the importance of looking at issues in our society with an interdisciplinary lens. Harrington’s piece begins shortly before the first episode of Sesame Street that aired in 1969, and explores the work its creators sought to do in a culture that was being forced to rethink. Also, to fix the gross injustices and pervasive misrepresentations of people of color.
“Racism did not just happen because some bad people had hateful beliefs. Unlike many of their liberal white colleagues, who were fascinated by the potential mental pathologies of individual racists, the Black Psychiatrists of America (drawing on new sociological work) insisted that racism was built into the systems and structures of American life, including psychiatry itself. For this reason, as some of them put it in 1973, ‘institutional change (as opposed to personality change) are needed to root out and eliminate racism.'”
Although it has taken many forms over time, one of the most damaging forms of racism has been the consistent (and often times) ill-intentioned misrepresentation of people of color in popular culture. Music, films, and in this case television has been cultural forces informing our notions of race for as long as entertainment has existed in American society. Then, it is no surprise that in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, some activists set about rectifying these damaging representations, and creating space for new representations to take hold.
“Chester Pierce — the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America — was most concerned about the pernicious influence of one institution in particular: television. By 1969, virtually every American family home had at least one set. […] Small children of all ethnicities were growing up glued to TV screens. This worried Pierce, because he was not just a psychiatrist but also a professor of early childhood education. And from a public health standpoint, he believed, television was a prime “carrier” of demeaning messages that undermined the mental health of vulnerable young black children in particular.”
It is true that television took America by storm, and it became more important than ever to provide programming and content that could begin to ease cultural tensions around race; especially for younger generations. This is where Sesame Street comes in:
“The show had had originally been conceived as a novel way of bringing remedial education into the homes of disadvantaged children, especially children of color. Pierce, though, saw a different kind of potential for a show like this: one that could directly counter and counteract the racist messages prevalent in the media of his time. […] “Sesame Street” would go on to become the most successful children’s show of all time.”
There was pushback from some states who saw the program as “too progressive,” and there were people alarmed by the multicultural cast of characters. Yet, the success of the program in its early days proved that there was both a need and an audience for more inclusive forms of popular culture.
“The program had originally been a radical experiment in the use of mass media to give the youngest generation of Americans their first experience of what Martin Luther King Jr. had famously called the Beloved Community: one based on justice, equal opportunity and positive regard for one’s fellow human beings, regardless of race, color or creed.”
Sesame Street by no means solved the issue of racism, which still has an incredibly insidious and harmful presence in America today, but it was among the first attempts to reverse the damage done by inaccurate and prejudiced representations of minorities in popular culture. There is still plenty of work to be done, though.
Thanks so much for reading, and we’ll see you again next week.