On Being Natural
by Hillel Schwartz

Now that so-called "natural foods" can be found on nearly every American table, and now that Winston has just come out with a cigarette that is only(!) tobacco, it's time to reconsider the very notion of naturalness. If Straight Ups have "NO ADDITIVES * TRUE TASTE," does Winston mean to claim that cigarettes in this purer state are no longer addictive and carcinogenic, or that a puff on a Straight Up draws the smoker a breath closer to the primitive, unselfconscious enjoyment of smoldering tobacco leaf?

I suspect that Winston wants to imply the former while boldly pushing the latter, hoping thereby to firm up the cultural equation of naturalness with healthfulness, heartiness, and honesty. One of the Winston magazine ads shows a waitress in a down-to-earth diner, right arm akimbo, saying, "I'm a damn good waitress. If you want an actress, go see a movie." (The ad is scarcely convincing, since many aspiring actresses do wait on tables in greasy-spoons; moreover, the pale-faced waitress in the picture has carefully unkempt hair but an incredibly clear complexion, expertly drawn eyebrows, a model's features, and a photogenic figure. Surely to no avail: in all her proud forthrightness, she'll never seem to us as healthy or hearty as the ever-mounted Marlboro Man.)

Cigarette advertising, of course, is all about the consumption of a substance which is at root an economic luxury, a nutritional vacuity, a personal deficit, and an ecological nightmare (given the number of forest fires that have burst from stubs flicked into dry brush, and the number of butts that wash up on my local beach every day). Tobacco plants may grow in the wild, but for commercial purposes tobacco is always humanly cultivated, protected, cured, and cut or shredded; smoking or chewing tobacco is a product and habit of human culture far more distant from the wild than picking mushrooms or snaring birds. Although one might argue, as with the coca grown for centuries by the people of the Andes, that there are equivalent psychophysical benefits to the use of tobacco in certain extreme climates (geographic or emotional), it would be much harder to argue for the basic naturalness of smoking tobacco than for its fundamental supernaturalness, central as tobacco smoke has become to worldwide rituals of vision seeking, decision-making, warring, romancing, and reminiscing.

Indeed, historians and anthropologists together could make an impressive case for tobacco as one of humanity's most important additives. Tobacco is (for most people, in most places) neither healthful nor hearty. However, pipes or cigarettes are nearly global instruments for an initial sharing of words, ideas, and feelings among strangers; tobacco might also be said by its advocates to be a spice of life, consummator of relationships, preservative of community, warranty of civilization, and/or last outpost of the stubborn individual.

Whatever exalted claims may be made for them, cigarettes and pipes are NOT natural, and tobacco itself, in any form, is no truth serum, no chemical guarantor of honesty, no judicial guarantor of integrity, no political guarantor of transparency. The true taste of tobacco is not, absolutely NOT, the taste of truth.

So far, one might read this essay as yet another deposition in the legal archives of an aggressive anti-smoking campaign, but I am headed here instead toward the pantry and a set of comparisons with the no-less-virulent campaign against fatty foods. Is there any taste of truth to the claims that fat, like tobacco, is an economic luxury, a nutritional nonessential, a personal deficit, and an environmental (epidemiological) disaster? Are fatty foods, like superlong cigarettes and stubby pipes, unnatural? Is obesity, like cancer, the result of an addiction?

The connection between tobacco and fat is not one that I have engineered out of thin air. Manufacturers and distributors of Lucky Strike in the 1920s advised Americans that lighting up a cigarette was a healthful, satisfying alternative to eating yet another sweet: smoking was a most elegant avenue toward slimming. The slim smoker, especially the Virginia Slims smoker, is still part of our corporeal mythology, as is the assumption that people who quit smoking often end up getting fat-overeating out of nervousness and the need to have something, anything, in their mouths to compensate for the absence of a flaming cylinder of paper and tobacco.

When asked these days to establish priorities for public health campaigns, physicians ordinarily repudiate smokers before they set their sights on the profiles of the obese, but now that the anti-smoking campaign has been so successful (except among the poor and the adolescent), fat people are clearly next in line. It is therefore all the more important to understand exactly how fat is being prepped, late in the 1990s, as tobacco was prepped in the 1980s, to be unnatural.

What exactly do Americans mean when they say that something is unnatural?

That it is (wo)man-made? Well, then, fat must be what sad, sorry, stubborn people make of their bodies, which otherwise would be composed primarily of muscle, bone, and brain matter.

That it violates the moral order? Well, then, fat must be a sign of lethargy, sloth, laxity, gluttony.

That it works against the innate desire to come out on the better side of the evolutionary process of natural selection? Well, then, fat must cut life short.

That it is unnecessary and without redeeming virtue? Well, then, fatty foods and fat people must be excrescences, and if eating fatty foods is deliciously "sinful," finding oneself "suddenly" fat or being surrounded by fat people must be Hell.

That it squats in the way of modernity and the progress of civilization? Well, then, fat must be an atavism, something that used to be of value but is now blocking further human development. That it is a by-product of a post-industrial, service driven, spectator society catering to our every need and encouraging constant consumption? Well, then, fat must be the physical marker of complicity in such a hungry, heartless, and self-defeating system.

That it is a toxic substance? Well, then, fat must be as debilitating, if not also as deadly, as heroin or cocaine or crack.

That it is a pollutant? Well, then, fat must not only drive the fat person toward a humiliating death but it must threaten everyone else with a similar fate, either by corrupting children (their diet, body-image, self-esteem) or by standing in the way of the improvement of public health itself.

That it is incompatible with our categories of food? Well... that's what's so befuddling, because fat now loafs at the very top of the new Food Pyramid, as something we should have very little of but (as with any pyramid) implicitly desire the most. Fat must be unnatural because it is what we would have if most unrestrained. What is natural is not only pure, healthful, evolutionarily appropriate, and advantageous to civilizations of the future; it is also calm, balanced, harmonious, in sync. Fat then must be disturbed (fat people are always depressed), imbalanced (fat people get diabetes), at war with itself and the world (fat people are angry people), and out of sync (fat people don't fit in).

Given this amazingly strong if also incredibly confused cultural logic, it's hardly any wonder that the media should buy into the anti-fat campaign at the same time that they continue to advertise fatty snack foods, satisfying drinks, plush lounge chairs and couches, and a lifestyle as a spectator. Despite the most recent scrutiny of the mortality data on obese people, which finds no correlation whatsoever between so-called "overweight" and higher mortality, the anti-fat campaign goes on, and its leaders attack the authors of the article in the New England Journal of Medicine for not understanding the data.

Indeed, they didn't understand the data, for they weren't paying enough attention to what is natural and what is unnatural. If they had only looked at the Winston ads before doing their calculations, they would have understood what they should come up with. Rather than going through the statistics in a sophisticated way, they should have taken out a two-page color ad in medical journals. The ad would show a fat waitress in a family restaurant, doing her job expertly and with good cheer, saying "I'm a damn good waitress. You want a fashion model, go to critical care, find an anorexic, and watch her die young." The slogan would be: FAT, IT KEEPS US HONEST--Not an additive but what we have always wanted, naturally, from the beginning of time. ß

HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the size acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.