Beauty & Diet – The Feminine Dimension
Beauty is the ultimate feminine value, and is intimately connected to health. Catherine Shanahan’s ‘Deep Nutrition’ is a book of immense importance, because it introduces this feminine dimension into the debate over what it is to eat well. Her work allows us the possibility of defining health in positive terms and not simply as the absence of disease, and to state that our diet should be one that makes us both healthy and beautiful.
Catherine Shanahan is a practicing doctor with a profound knowledge of bio-chemistry and epigenetics. Her book ‘Deep Nutrition’ is the product of hard science combined with clinical experience, mostly on the islands of Hawaii. At the same time, her writing contains a softer touch through the use of personal anecdote and references to popular culture, Hollywood celebrities, as well as taking the discussion of nutrition into the kitchen with advice on cooking and food preparation for optimal results. She also highlights the question of childhood development as a focal point for consideration.
Shanahan’s main contribution is to bring a feminine perspective to the debate. This is highly appropriate, because as I have argued elsewhere (see here), the nutrition space is first and foremost a feminine one. It is no accident, therefore, that the adoption of a feminine point of view is able to bring important insight into the matter at hand.
The author is fully aware of this, and at times makes it explicit. For example, when introducing her ‘Four Pillars of the Human Diet’, she seeks to round out an otherwise one-sided view of the hunter gatherer lifestyle,
“If you’ve ever seen one of those museum exhibits of ‘ancient man’… perhaps a diorama of hunters pointing weapons threateningly at a lumbering, large-tusked giant beast, while, somewhere in the background, women smoke meat around a fire. With this masculine view of history, one could easily get the impression that sheer aggression enabled early humans to hunt down more animals than their competitors, outliving and outbreeding them to be the ones to venture from Africa to every corner of the globe. But this tells only half the story. The other half is what happens after the animal is killed and hauled back home. This chapter rotates our historical stage 180 degrees, so that the cooks are placed in front as the true heroes of our historical journey.” (p.237)
Shanahan then goes on to celebrate “the astounding invention, creativity, and study human beings have honed into the craft of culinary art”, and explore the lessons cooking traditions from around the world can provide us today about what we should be eating and how we should prepare it.
All of this is extremely worthwhile. It is not, however, the main contribution ‘Deep Nutrition’ makes through its injection of the feminine dimension into the debate. This lies in the book’s discussion of BEAUTY.
Why beauty matters
Beauty is the ultimate feminine value, just as truth is the ultimate male value. Much of the current debate around diet and nutrition takes place within the masculine realm, with competing truth claims battling it out as to what is the most ‘healthy’ way of eating. Meanwhile, health itself remains undefined. This is no accident, in the Modern West the concept of health is given a purely negative definition, namely the absence of disease. This automatically sets the discussion around diet on certain terrain, and privileges particular metrics, such as longevity (see here). This is consistent with the mainstream position, and puts the nutrition establishment in its most positive light. Such a view of health fits our current post-Modernist lifestyle, which revolves predominantly around cultural production and the processing of symbols, either words or numbers, and which does not have any recognisable physical dimension. People sit on their computers all day, and health only appears as an inconvenience when they fall sick or cannot concentrate from pain of one kind or another.
This reflects a weakness within any discussion over nutrition that confines itself solely to ‘the truth of the matter’. The problem is that ‘the’ truth is not enough, there is more than one truth, more than one answer to the question, ‘what is it to eat well ?’ From the perspective of our present way of life, the diet followed by the bulk of the population IS a good diet, that’s why they do so, it is one that either values pleasure over health, in its fast food and slow food forms, or else reverses this to promote foods that are unpleasurable for the sake of health, as do the 7th Day Adventist influenced Dietary Guidelines. (see here for a map of the main positions) In other words, there is truth in the mainstream position, it reflects the world we live in today, above all its values, it is an ETHICAL position, a conception of the good life. This means that in order to counter this, we need an alternative ethical position, not simply a truth claim. This is why paleo is an important departure in the debate, because it seeks to frame the concept of a healthy diet in terms of human evolution, of what our biology tells us we should be eating. Carnivore is a further development of this idea, it too is an ETHICAL position first and foremost, this is its value.
If there is more than one truth in play, then what we need is some means of evaluating the different truths. This is where the feminine dimension steps in – BEAUTY is this measure. It introduces the aesthetic realm into the debate, how we look, what we find attractive, our ideal human form. This is why more than once I have contrasted the physical appearances of Shawn Baker with Michael Greger (see here) as an argument in favour of carnivore as opposed to vegan. This is not a cheap shot, nor meant as a personal slight, it is a serious point, using these two individuals as examples of something fundamental. Both men represent different ideals of masculinity, and in choosing our way of eating we are making a decision as to which we prefer, which we aspire to, for ourselves if we are male and for our men if we are female.
There are several claims going on here. The first is that our choice of diet is an ethical one, we are choosing a conception of how to live well, and second that our preference is determined by an aesthetic judgment, by what we consider to be beautiful.
Aesthetics drives ethics, and ethics determines which truth we prefer to live by.
There is a truth to beauty
By introducing this feminine dimension into the discussion, Catherine Shanahan does us all an enormous favour. This is only the first part of her contribution, however, of equal importance is her demonstration of the idea that THERE IS A TRUTH TO BEAUTY. She does this in two ways.
First Shanahan shows that our sense of beauty is not arbitrary or random. It follows rules, it can be described mathematically, for example through the Fibonacci sequence or ‘phi’, and it can be captured in words. This echoes Gad Sa’ad, the evolutionary biologist, who has provided overwhelming evidence for the same claim, that across cultures, across history, there is an underlying consistency to the female form that has been considered the most beautiful - the hourglass figure. (see here 18.00 mins in) ‘Deep Nutrition’ includes photographs and diagrams to illustrate this (pp.54,59,61), both as it applies to the human face and to the body’s contours. These give content to the principles of proportionality, of symmetry, and of the notion that ‘form implies function’. (p.55)
This is of immense significance. It provides us a basis on which to critique our current lifestyle, within which the human body HAS NO FUNCTION, and which therefore has no guide as to what form it should take. Our era is out of step with every single other human culture that has ever existed, in the sense that it is neutral, agnostic, as to what bodyshape or facial features are to be considered beautiful. It is a nihilistic civilisation, in that it has NO VALUES whatsoever. This is why it can tolerate the complete confusion that exists in society over what we should eat, because whether we are fat or slim, strong or weak, fertile or infertile, beautiful or ugly, is all a matter of complete indifference. Instead, our physical aspect is viewed solely as either a source of pleasure, or of pain, both of which offer commercial opportunity, as the target for junk food that makes us sick, and then for the pharmaceutical and health industries to relieve our symptoms.
It also allows us to understand such phenomena as the ‘fat acceptance movement’, which is a logical extension of our present way of life. This completes its separation from both truth and beauty, for being obese is not beautiful, nor is the claim that it is, true. This sums up our time, we have lost sight of the truth and we have no ability to discern beauty from ugliness. This is the same reason why our cities are so ugly – office buildings have no function other than to house abstract activities, word processing, number crunching, meetings, which is why they so often default to the square or rectangular dimensions of the land they are constructed on, deviating from this only to be playful, not to follow any functional need.
Secondly, ‘Deep Nutrition’ makes a connection between beauty and health. What we admire in beautiful people are the same features that indicate good health. Shanahan cites studies in support of this,
“Women with the most attractive of the four body types, the hourglass, not only live the longest, they live better. Statistics consistently show that having a longer, slimmer waist and more womanly hips correlates with reduced diagnoses of infertility, osteoporosis, cancer, cognitive problems, abdominal aneurysms, diabetes and its complications, and more.” (p.69 references supplied on pp.446-7)
Some of this research is her own, into the field of gene expression, epigenetics, she writes,
“As a twenty year old senior… I developed a suspicion, the awakening of perception, that allowed me to see a connection between form, function and health… After years of subsequent research, I discovered that the bulk of evidence suggest that the same conditions that allow our DNA to create health also allow our DNA to grow beautiful people. I call this phenomenon the package deal effect, because beauty and health are just that – a package deal. The more you have of one, the more you probably have of the other.” (p.57)
The significance of this becomes clearer when Shanahan shifts focus to child development. For now we are in a position to combine these concepts into a means of measuring the quality of our diet, in a positive manner, and not simply as the absence of disease. These include the notions of proportion, symmetry, and function,
“Beauty is not incidental, not an accident of fate. It is the default position, the inevitable product of natural, unimpeded growth, whose progress conforms to rules of mathematical proportion… generations of optimal nutrition prime human chromosomal material for optimal growth. If optimal nutrition continues throughout childhood development, the laws of biology dictate the final result: a beautiful, healthy person.” (p. 70)
This approach gives us a set of metrics with which to evaluate whether our current diet is serving us well. A good example would be that of metabolic syndrome, which is symptom-free and even undetected among large sections of the population, both adult and child – it does not appear on the radar for the nutrition mainstream, and will not do so until much later when diabetes or some other condition emerges. Meanwhile, we have a generation of adolescents who are either skinny fat, or simply all out of proportion when compared with a traditional view of what body shape is proper and beautiful.
This helps us in the case of children. Shanahan also starts us down a path where we can evaluate the diets of adult men and women. She does this by emphasising the importance of sexual dimorphism, that is, the notion that the ideal forms for males and for females are different. This is the bodily aspect of my own argument in favour of sexual polarity (see here), the idea that men should be men and women should be women, the two complementing one another. This idea is another that contradicts the value system of our current order, reflected in dietary guidelines that consider it appropriate for men to eat oestrogen-rich soy, and for who plummeting testosterone levels present no cause for concern. In contrast, ‘Deep Nutrition’ provides a specific example of a healthy feminine feature, present when nutrition is optimal, and widely absent when it is not, as is all too common today,
“Voluptuousness is an indication of healthy female dimorphism, while a lack of voluptuousness indicates a problem. Normally the hips and bust develop during puberty as a result of a healthy surge in sex hormones. These developments involve expansion of the pelvic bones along with deposition of fat and glandular tissue within the breasts. But women… whose diet is such that it interferes with the body’s response to hormones – end up with boxier figures. If they’re thin, they’ll end up bananas. If they put on weight, it gets distributed in a more masculine pattern… and they’ll become apples.
“Less than 10 percent of women today develop the voluptuous curves universally recognised as the defining features of a healthy and attractive figure.” (p.68)
Here the argument comes together – we have a critique of our current diet from the perspective of aesthetics and health, beauty on the one hand, and the truth of what is healthy on the other. Combined, they form an ETHICAL position, they do so because they only matter IF we consider voluptuousness in this case, as something to be VALUED. This is a genuine choice, among the mainstream, reflecting our current way of life, it is NOT, other values take priority, such as eating for pleasure, overcoming ‘gender stereotypes’, and most of all, freedom from natural or social constraints. These are the guiding values of our present social order, and they are reflected in its way of eating, they are the TRUTH of its way of eating. This is the key point.
The same line of attack applies to veganism, which has no place for voluptuousness either, and is content to see the young women following its diet lose their fertility and turn into bundles of skin and bone.
Our present society does not value EITHER truth or beauty. This is why it approaches food in the way it does, seeing it mostly as a source of pleasure or revenue, is why it has no interest in where the science actually stands, or in the kind of people we are, how we measure up when compared to previous generations, to previous cultures, to our biological nature, to our innate standards of beauty.
A sense of beauty, and a determination to be guided by this sense, is itself an ethical choice. It is one I make, it is where I stand, and it is the basis on which I criticise the nutrition establishment. ‘Deep Nutrition’ is of great value because it places the feminine dimension – beauty – at the heart of the debate. I hope this brief review here has helped explain why that is so important. I encourage everyone to read the book itself, not only for the way it deals with this topic, but for many others too, including the question of tradition, which is also critical in my eyes.
Catherine Shanahan, Deep Nutrition, Flat Iron Books, 2016
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