Saturday, July 08, 2006


I'm so often intrigued and horrified by the things I find online. This article, in particular, raised several questions in my mind. Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice, to those of you who are happily unaware of her status in British pop culture) has become a "thinspiration" to anorexics, apparently. My question, however, is more about the website that espoused such an opinion. "Proanorexic"?? I wasn't even aware of the concept, much less the word. Of course, I took the story and told everyone I could about it, trying to pry their opinions out about what this might "mean" other than that I spend too much time surfing the net at work.

My boss, who could not even contemplate such a mindset, simply noted the Sixth Sign of the Apocalypse and went back to eating his sandwich. I was also inclined to do so, as I usually am with people whose views are so extreme they cease to obey the bounds of reason. But the story made me wonder about anorexia on a larger scale, and about why such a disorder would even exist in the first place. It must have something to do with societal pressure, after all: if obesity was the vogue, McDonalds would promote its trans-fat-filled fries as "health food." Actually, I think it does anyway.

What I wondered was related to a simple notion I've had for a while about America and our obsession with having more. Perhaps having too much, even in our society, can cause some rather extreme reactions.

I once read an essay by Peter Singer, a philosopher at Princeton University, which essentially argued that not only is aid to people in need a moral imperative for a nation of such great economic means, but that the sheer amount of our abundance necessitates aid on a much grander scale. How great? He postulated that to truly balance the scales, Westerners should give up their assets to a point of "marginal unity," which roughly defined means that we should give until giving more would put us in a condition worse than those to whom we are giving. That would mean diminishing our assets down to the level of near-starvation - something very few of us are inclined to do, Peace Corps volunteers perhaps excluded.

Put that way, the argument seems absolutely absurd, at least to my ear. Why, one might ask, should we be forced to give up what we have inherited, from family, society, and the hard work of our predecessors? Our luxuriant lifestyle was not something we gained by trampling others around us or relegating others to poverty; we were simply lucky to have been born into such affluence.

The crux of his argument, however, is that we are causing suffering. Right now, by sitting at your computer in your office or your home and quietly surfing the net, you are contributing to the suffering of millions. Indirectly, to be sure: I have never seen a Somalian, and if I did, I'm sure I would offer him any food I had at hand. Yet I buy products every day that are made affordable to me by means I surely would not find acceptable if I were made aware of them at the point of purchase. "This apple will cost 39 cents and the poverty and eventual starvation of two children in Central America. Thank you!" Just take the stories you hear every day of sweatshops and extraordinarily unfair wages in countries which have no choice but to take what they're given by Western companies - this sort of criminal indifference, paired with the economic might that our country wields to ensure our continued dominance, are part of the reason that so many other nations can't gain so much as a foothold in the industrial world.

I read several counter arguments to Singer's proposals, most of them resorting to concepts of "entitlement": "I earned these six sports cars, and I'll be damned if anyone will take them away to help some foreigner who never did me any good!" But I never understood why one person was entitled to so much more than another for an equal, or presumably far smaller, amount of work. Most of us, including myself, live in a happy cloud of denial about what happens to the rest of the world - it's easier that way, after all. "Marginal unity," when speaking about certain third-world countries, means giving so much that you might lack even one's own roof or enough food for the next day. I quite like my computer and my Wendy's and my products made around the world. I would find it very difficult to give all of that up so that people I have never seen might survive for a few more months.

It seems, however, that people in the West are beginning to feel the revulsion of so much wealth. The anorexics in the newsgroup I mentioned above are people to be pitied, surely - they have such a twisted perception of their own bodies and of the perceptions of others that they may very well never be satisfied until their bodies are wracked with hunger pangs. And the strangest thing happened when I thought of those people and Singer's argument: I realized that they were, in some terrible way, conforming to his notion of marginal unity, though not intentionally, to be sure. These people never, ever, have enough to sustain themselves.

What does it say about our culture that we have turned one of the most fundamental drives of humankind - physical satiation - on its end? We have so much that people have become bloated with it, and the revulsion that others naturally feel in their presence has manifested itself: if you're talking about food, look at the problem of anorexia, if you're talking about material goods, look at the bohemians. "Plutophobia," by the way, means "fear of wealth." Was anyone surprised that such a word exists? I was.

The culture of desiring and acquiring more is a human phenomenon and will never cease - as it has been and ever shall be, amen. Indeed, we have turned it into our form of religion. What, after all, is religion if it is not a reason and a foundation for living one's life? Many commentators have noted that "success" in the modern vocabulary means having more in this life, not the next. But there must be a point at which it is all too much. People understand when they have too much - like eating or drinking to excess, our instincts will tell us when we have more than we should have. Our problem is that we like to ignore that little sensation: "I don't need this new diamond/computer/car, but... why not?"

Give it to charity, perhaps: Amnesty International or the Red Cross, if it suits you. Or to a foundation whose goal is to educate and treat anorexics or bulemics. Or just buy the car - it is your money, after all. But do it with the knowledge that all that money didn't come to you for just forty hours a week. Somebody, somewhere, is always footing the bill. And after what I've read recently, I've begun to worry that at some point it will probably be us.