Why We Choose Not to Eat

Eleven years ago, a startup promised to solve the problem of food. Soylent was a venture-capital-funded meal-replacement product composed of such ingredients as soy protein and maltodextrin; it could be consumed as a convenient shake, and it provided a way of getting calories into a body without all the bother of cooking, chewing, or tasting very much. It also inspired a certain amount of skepticism. One could be forgiven for wondering (and many did) whether the new product—a fortified beverage that you could drink instead of eating a meal—wasn’t basically SlimFast.

A crucial difference here was branding. SlimFast was understood as a diet drink for vain women with nothing better to do than worry about how they looked; Soylent, meanwhile, was a life hack for body-optimizing tech bros with more important things to think about than lunch. Its popularity offered an early inkling of a broader trend. In the late twenty-tens, men in Silicon Valley discovered the allure of not eating—and the combination of self-tracking apps and elaborate rules about when and what to consume produced habits otherwise associated with red-carpet crash dieting. Jack Dorsey, the monkish Twitter co-founder, tweeted, in 2019, that he’d “been playing with fasting for some time” and eating only one meal a day. As with Soylent, these practices had been removed from the embarrassing and inevitably gendered realm of body image and weight-loss culture; instead, they were steps on the path to an enlightened state of productivity. Intermittent fasting was of a piece with an interest in manful self-improvement via stoicism.

This vogue is the backdrop for John Oakes’s “The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without,” a recent addition to the library of research-fortified pop-sci self-help. Oakes does not dwell on fasting’s recently trendy iterations—his book discusses neither Dorsey nor the wellness doyenne Gwyneth Paltrow—but, still, he addresses an audience primed to see skipping meals as an interesting and even ennobling pursuit. Oakes’s own experience undertaking a weeklong fast gives a frame to the book. Bodily transformation is not his goal; “I don’t own a weight scale,” he volunteers at the beginning, insistent to the point of redundancy. Nor is he trying to biohack his way to productivity, exactly. What he is after instead is “a personal exorcism”—something that might provide a sense of “profound cleansing” and also “perhaps illusory control” over his body. A fast also promises, or so the reader suspects, some relief from boredom. Oakes’s experiment takes place in the draggy aftermath of COVID restrictions; he writes that he has been “sheltering in place” and mentions going to a movie theatre for the first time in more than a year. In fasting, “I simply wanted to shuck my then current mental state in favor of something else, anything else, even if only for a few days,” he writes. By his fast’s third day, the smell of a sliced cucumber is enough to excite him. By the fourth, he is fantasizing about diving into the “stormy sea green” of a salad’s leaves.

As Oakes makes abundantly clear, there is a long history of voluntarily forgoing food for reasons that have nothing to do with appearance. “The fast of Achilles after the death of his companion Patroclus is a furious sacrifice to the gods,” he writes. His survey includes hunger strikers, hucksters, and mystics; Confucius, Plato, St. Augustine, Franz Kafka, and Mark Twain all show up. The approach that he takes is so expansive as to encompass what he calls “fasting beyond food”—for example, he visits an anechoic chamber (where sound levels can be muted to negative thirteen decibels) and reflects on John Cage. In Oakes’s usage, “fasting” stands for gestures of deliberate negation and refusal more generally. A boycott, he proposes, is “a variant of fasting in that it requires specific, physical actions of self-restraint.” Lysistrata’s sex strike comes up, as does Bartleby, the Scrivener.

The biology of fasting is one part of the story that Oakes has to tell, and though he details the health risks of not eating, his interest gravitates toward possible salutary effects on perception and mental acuity. Recounting Cesar Chavez’s fasts as the leader of striking farmworkers, Oakes quotes Chavez’s description of a transformation that he finds takes place on a fast’s third or fourth day. “My mind clears; it is open to everything,” Chavez once told the writer Peter Matthiessen. “After a long conversation, for example, I could repeat word for word what had been said.” Regarding his own fast, Oakes writes, “sad to report, in my case, my memory never improved, but by about day three I did feel quite serene.” Each of the book’s chapters begins with a brief, diaristic account of his weeklong effort as it unfolds, with particular attention to his senses, energy, and focus. “In eating nothing, I feel more substantive than ever,” he writes on Day One. “I feel like someone gasping in amazement at the night sky: Everything seems new, unexplored.”

A fast, Oakes writes, is as much mental as physical: “There is no better way to explore the power of one’s mind than to deny the body’s imperative.” But the mind-body divide comes with historical baggage, as Emmeline Clein writes in “Dead Weight: Essays on Hunger and Harm,” another recent book about not eating:

For figures like Plato, Augustine, and Descartes, transcending the dichotomy between mind and body—what Descartes called dualism—was humanity’s ultimate challenge. . . . In their quest to unshackle mind from body, the philosopher-kings needed somewhere to trace their disgusting, desirous urges back to, a vessel for shame and blame. They found one in a figure they saw as the epitome of the bodily, a sexual receptacle that also offered food: woman.

Oakes touches on this aspect of the intellectual and spiritual lineage that he traces—he and Clein both discuss St. Jerome, for whom misogyny and asceticism were tightly intertwined. “Dead Weight,” though, considers what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that contempt, and to starve the body in response. The book is a personal testimony and cultural analysis on the subject of disordered eating. (It argues, for one thing, that such diagnoses as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder often blur.) Clein first developed an eating disorder in middle school, and she connects her condition to a growing understanding of the long tradition holding women’s bodies as vessels for shame and blame. She describes preparing for her bat mitzvah and studying her Torah portion alongside Tumblr. “Judaism teaches that reading is devotion, study sacred,” she writes. “On the internet, girls told me the commandments they lived by.” Girlhood, in her telling, is “less a gender or an age and more an ethos or an ache”—and, in that spirit, her tendency is to refuse tidy binaries. For Oakes, “fasting signals precedence of mind over matter, demanding careful assessment of the most normal of acts.” For Clein, eating or not eating is hardly so simple; a disorder might begin with the desire for control over an unruly body, but “careful assessment” can give way to compulsion, and a certain irresistibly clear logic persists even in the grip of disease.

“The Fast” does not ignore disordered eating altogether. In Oakes’s wide-eyed inquiry, though, the specific tangle of pressures and pathology that bind food, weight, and gender is not a central concern. “Anorexia is an eating disorder that is difficult to cure and can be deadly,” he writes. “It hovers, or should hover, over every discussion of fasting.” This comes about twenty pages before the end of “The Fast,” near the beginning of a final chapter that quotes a handful of doctors and other authorities. “While we must be alert to its incidence, this disease should not keep us from exploring the gifts that fasting has to offer, in spiritual terms and very likely in physical ones as well,” Oakes concludes. He notes that “women in particular suffer from an unending avalanche of exhortations to be thin,” but finds such cultural explanations “too pat” and prefers to regard anorexia as “a complex, heritable phenotype.”

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