“Holiness and impurity are at opposite poles” (Douglas, p. 7, 2002).
In Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, purity is posed as a cultural concept that helps to enforce ideas of “good citizenship” (Douglas, p.4, 2002). Although the “pure, white and deadly” nature of sugar has vilified it as a poison in contemporary society (Yudkin, 1972), pure foods are generally seen not just healthier, but more morally acceptable. By comparing coconut water to blessed water in staged baptism for myself, I consider how health-food marketing uses the idea of purity to make draw on these moral themes by making an absurd statement with my photograph.
Cultural beliefs about purity were affected by how the body was perceived. By the end of the 20th century, increasing knowledge about infection and immunity saw the perceptions of bodily cleanliness move from being externally “disinfected” to internally “detoxed” (Greenhalgh and Wessely p.208, 2004). Purity could then alter the inner self, right down to each cell. Contaminating our bodies with impure convenience foods offered new risks to our health, whereas pure foods like coconut could nourish and clean our bodies.
Within the religious context, diet and purity are closely intertwined. By imitating Christ’s suffering through strict dietary restrictions, one could become closer to Christ (Bynum, p.5, 1987). The Eucharist is a physical means to link Christ to food: the purest kind of food possible. Eating luxury foods was seen as gluttonous and sinful, whereas self-control over desires demonstrated holiness. It is hard to ignore that these morals still exist today; we are still made to feel bad by overindulging, but if we resist, we can reward ourselves with honour.
Medieval scholar Caroline Bynum argues that diet plays a far larger role in the relationship between women and piety than originally believed (Bynum, p. 182, 1987). Given that the health-food crusade today is dominated by women, this makes an interesting comparison. The rejection of normal food and the desire for extreme fasting was a way for women to gain control and their sense of belonging. I suspect that modern food bloggers are trying to establish their sense of belonging, too. The 14th century Saint, Catherine of Siena shows how extreme this ideals could be, starving herself to the point of “holy anorexia” to prove her piety (Bell, 1985). These comparisons between dietary control and piety, are what I am interested in exploring in my photograph.
The connection between dieting and holiness persisted throughout the 20th century. The culture of dieting was based around a discourse of discipline and control, in which the “slim ideal” of the female body resonates with Bynum’s analysis (Peeters, p. 228, 2011). Furthermore, the increased popularity of the vegetarian diet, in which lighter, purer, low-fat diets were idolised, encouraged the feminisation of the diet (Peeters, p. 234, 2011). Coconut water conforms to this: brands are covered in feminine labels of floral and tropical imagery, with claims of being low in fat or calories.
I also chose coconut water as the focus for this piece because most brands of coconut water include the word pure on their packaging. My focus group also proposed that coconut water was the product most akin to purity and it is even suggested in the book Organic Way to Health that “there is no purer food available than the coconut” (Bernard, p. 34, 1996). In the health-food industry today, coconut products are given a special status. Coconut oil is the favoured cooking oil and coconut water is a musthave for juices and smoothies.
My photograph Baptism explicitly shows the way in which religious morals have entered the discourse of healthy eating. By using the process of baptism, it also plays on the way people “convert” to the health-food crusade. Staged in a local church, I was lucky enough to be able to arrange the scene with the help of a local vicar. I choose a traditional white alb and a purple stole to contrast with the rich red colour of the font carpet for my model to wear. Then, the baptism candle was lit and I placed the bottle of Vita Coco coconut water on the font. Editing the photo to give myself a glowing halo, this parodies how those partaking in the health religion, and eating pure foods are given a higher moral status in society.
There’s no going back now…I am officially admitted into the health-food religion.
Bernard RW. 1996. Organic Way to Health: Nutritional Value of Organic Foods and Sea Vegetation. London: Health Research Books.
Bell RM. 1985. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Bynum CW. 1987. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Douglas M. 2002. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge Classics
Greenhalgh T, Wessely S. 2004. “’Health for me’: a sociocultural analysis of healthism in the middle classes.” Br. Med Bull 69(1):197-213.
Peeters E, Molle LV, Wils K. 2011. Beyond pleasure: cultures of modern asceticism. New York: Berghahn Books
Yudkin J. 1972. Pure, white and deadly: the problem of sugar. London: Davis-Poynter.