Food and the Paradox of Abundance

Here’s a brief summary of Brigida Marovelli’s research about food habits and food choice among three generations of Italian women in an urban context.


by Brigida Marovelli


Next to breathing, eating is perhaps the most essential of all human activities, and one with which much of social life is entwined.” (Mintz & De Bois, 2002:102).


Food habits and their complexity

Nowadays there is a relevant public debate about food policy, food security, and biodiversity, as well as about dieting, physical activity and health (Waxman 2004).

Globalisation is characterized by the growth of city economies and consequently the increase of urbanisation and migration. Obesity is one of the major public health concern of both high-income countries and of developing countries, as people are “exposed to increased availability and aggressive promotion of processed, inexpensive food – generally high in fats, sugar and salt – but reduced access and affordability of fruits and vegetables (Waxman 2004:59)”. Additionally a fall of the high energy expenditure activities, such as farming, mining or forestry, due primarily to urbanisation, has modified the lifestyle toward a more sedentary one. Another consequence of urbanisation is the reduction of the time dedicated to the preparation of food, encouraging the introduction of highly processed foods. All these factors have contributed to a massive increase in overweight and obesity both in urban and in rural areas (Monteiro et al. 2004), with a consequential proliferation of non-communicable diseases, that aggravates the burden of health systems (Waxman 2004). Lang defines under the label of nutrition transition the transfers of dietary patterns and of health profiles from one area to another (Lang 1999). Nutritionists usually refer to transition from high-income countries to low- or medium-income countries (Popkin 2001), focusing essentially on the burgerisation (Lang 1999).

I believe that food choice should be seen as a complex phenomenon, in which different layers of meaning and different social pressures interact. Food is strictly related to the way people perceive their body and their ideas about health. This means food is related to identity, to who we perceive we are.

During my Medical Anthropology research at Brunel University I carried out a fieldwork about food habits and food choice among three generations of Italian women in an urban context. My dissertation – Food and the Paradox of Abundance – was an interesting opportunity to explore how people reshape food habits in their daily life in a global society (Giddens 1999). This means dealing with the anthropology of daily life in a contemporary society and with the changes occurred in food habits and food perception within the context of the consumer society (Baudrillard 1998).

The focus is on the quotidian and on the daily experience of common women (Van Wolputte 2004). In order to analyse this aspect, I carried out a qualitative study among Italian women in Rome, based on non-directed interviews and participant observation of the households.

Italy is undergoing a cultural, economical and social transition. My aim was to explore how Italian women perceive and experience these changes in relation to food, body and health. The research itself was grounded in the theories of anthropology of food, and the goal, at this fundamental level, lied in widening our knowledge of Italian food habits.

A major concern of the analysis was the role of dieting in food choice. I investigated how Italian women shape their bodies through diet and dieting and which is the context of meaning, in which the government of the body takes place (Turner 1982).

The foundation of theoretical conceptualisation drew on three major perspectives: the Anthropology of the Body, particularly the post-structuralist and phenomenological theories; the Anthropology of Food; finally the literature about Italy, food and women.

Furthermore, some concepts developed within the sociology of food are particularly useful when analysing my findings. The first one is clearly presented by Fischler (1988): the “omnivore paradox”. Human beings are omnivore, which implies they are autonomous and adaptive, but “an omnivore […] cannot obtain all the nutrients it needs from one food” (ibidem: 278). Man needs variety. Fischler relates to this paradox the oscillating tension between two extremes: neophobia and neophilia. Neophobia is characterised by a conservative and mistrustful attitude toward food; while neophilia is the “tendency to explore, the need for change, novelty, variety” (ibidem). This creates a “fundamental anxiety in man’s relationship to his food(ibidem).” Tradition was able to solve the ‘omnivore paradox’, in a world view functional for the separation between known and unknown. This category of known/unknown is connected to the ‘uncontrollable’, that means dangerous, because related to the fear of ‘being eaten’ (Falk, 1991). Fischler illustrates another key concept: the process of incorporation which is also meaningful. Through food we incorporate something that is external. Food crosses the boundaries between external and internal through the mouth. The mouth is often seen in our representations as the gateway of the organism, an orifice opening onto the inner depths of the body, the viscera (ibidem: 282) That is one of the reason why the current debate about food is articulated through a discourse about safety, risk and trust (Rosati and Saba, 2004). Montanari (1992) explains it further, when referring to food availability in our contemporary society “Now that food is abundant on our tables, our relation to it is paradoxically looser. We don’t know where food comes from. […] We don’t know when, how it was produced.We know very little about it. ”(ibidem:XII).

Incorporating something that is uncontrollable, dangerous and unknown provokes anxiety. This is caused by a different notion of space, in which the ties with territoriality becomes looser (Augè 1995). Such a concept is particularly relevant when addressing food habits within a globalised society.

I can briefly summarise the findings of my work into two main broad themes. First of all, although globalisation and globalised society are often seen as forces that universalise and standardise identities and traditions, the main implication of my findings was that the reaction to this process is oriented to assimilation of new elements within a system of meaning, that integrates tradition and novelty, known and unknown. Italian women were expressing through daily practice as dieting the tension between these opposite poles. The anciety created by the unknown is overcome incorporating it in what is known. The new element is assimilated into a system of significance. From this perspective, taste preference could be seen as a multi-relational concept (Falk, 1991:757). Disgust as well as taboos are not only a cultural dimension, they are also shaped within social relations, which can change cultural values attached to food.

Secondly, dieting could be seen as practice, as the search for a rule, as a new normative system, that gives order to chaos. Profound changes in social and political life attest the weakening of the traditional Italian institutions such as family, religion, and the nation state. As consequence, the body could be seen as the last domain that an individual can control, now more than ever through food. I think my narratives provide valid examples of an active attempt to find an appropriate way of coping with the gap created by the collapse of the traditional institutions. Now in the age of abundance, dieting and healthy diets are attempts to dominate the drive to gluttony. Overeating is seen as culturally inappropriate and this drive has to be socially controlled (Counihan 2004). That is why eating habits can be read as specific techniques of ‘government of the body’ (Turner 1982). Dieting in its wider meaning integrates many different beliefs, coming from biomedical information, spiritual and religious beliefs, tradition, media information, and the like.

A large body of works addresses the pressure of the beauty and thinness ideals on women’s body. Some relevant contributions are the ones by Bordo (1993); Wolf (1991); Pollack Seid (1989). These ideals have undoubtedly become stronger and stronger in recent times, as ideals of a capitalistic society based on efficiency and forever-young myth. These anxieties about appearance might have contributed in changing women attitudes towards food, but in my opinion the beauty ideal is not enough to explain the phenomenon of dieting. In literature, including feminist literature, women are often pictured as victims of this ideal. I argue that women are finding ways to deal with the uncertainty of society, with the pressure that society puts on them. Dieting becomes the rule and eating for pure pleasure is the exception to the rule. Pleasure is associated with junk, greasy, fat food. In this contemporary age, food habits and food choices can be studied only by assuming a multidimensional viewpoint, in which dieting is more than striving towards the perfect body. There are many, diverse layers of meaning that are worth taking into consideration.



Augé M. (1995) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso

Baudrillard J. (1998) The consumer society: myths and structures London: SAGE

Bordo S. (1993) Unbearable Weights. Feminism, Western Culture and the Body Los Angeles: University California Press

Counihan C.M. (2004) Around the Tuscan Table. Food, Family, and Gender in Twentieth Century Florence New York: Routledge

Falk P. (1991) “Homo culinarius: towards an historical anthropology of taste” Social Science Information Vol.30 Issue 4 pp.757-790

Fischler C (1988) “Food, Self, and Identity” Social Science Information Vol.27 pp.275-292

Giddens A. (1999) Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives. London : Profile.

Lang T. (1999) “Diet, Health and Globalization: Five Key Questions” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society Vol. 58, pp.335–343

Mintz S. W. & Du Bois C. M. (2002) “The Anthropology of Food and Eating” Annual Review of Anthropology Vol.31 pp.99-119

Montanari M. (1992) Convivio Oggi. Storia e cultura dei piaceri della tavola

Monteiro C.A., Moura E.C., Conde W.L., Popkin B.M. (2004) “Socioeconomic Status and Obesity in Adult Populations of developing Countries: a nell’età contemporanea Roma-Bari: Laterza

Pollack Seid R. (1989) “Never Too Thin: A History of American Women’s Obsession with Weight Loss” New York: Prentice Hall Press

Popkin B.M. (2001) “An Overview on the Nutrition Transition and its Health Implications: the Bellagio Meeting” Food Health Nutrition Vol.5 (1A) pp.93-103 Review “Bulletin of World Health Organisation Vol.82 (12) pp.940-946

Rosati S., Saba A. (2004) “The perception of risks associated with food-related hazards and the perceived reliability of sources of information” International Journal of Food Science and Technology Vol. 39 pp.491-500

Turner B. S. (1982) “The Government of the Body: Medical Regimens and the Rationalization of Diet” British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Jun., 1982), pp. 254-269

Van Wolputte S. (2004) “Hang On To Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, And Selves” Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2004. 33:251–69

Waxman A. (2004) “WHO’s global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. Response to a worldwide epidemic of non-communicable diseases” Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition Vol. 48 (2): 58-60

Wolf N. (1991) The Beauty Myth How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women New York: William Morrow & Company

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