Tag: Food

"The female body is a minefield"

Alexandra Kleeman

In her book “You too can have a body like mine”, writer Alexandra Kleeman describes the absurdity and shame that is linked to our bodies and their perception. We talked to her about the ideal world of pornography, body perfection, and why she distrusts anyone who dislikes Adam Sandler movies.
How much time do you consciously think about your body or appearance?
It varies quite a lot. When I write, the page is completely distracting. I sometimes even forget to eat when I am writing because if I remembered that I had to feed my body, I would also have to remember all the other things that go along with it. It is a very unhealthy attitude but it is healthy to me because it helps me to stay productive and therefore emotionally balanced.
The human body and looks are central themes in your book “You too can have a body like mine”. The characters seem to be very conscious about their bodies and how they look and feel – up to the point of complete obsession. It got me thinking about my own body and how I perceive it and I would say that most of the time when I think about it, I do so unconsciously because it has become a habit.
A lot of my habits for taking care of my body, habits for making my body appear to myself as my body, are deeply engrained. Processes become automatic, we do them without deciding to do them, and then we naturalize the end result. When I see myself 100% unmade-up, I feel like I resemble myself less than if I had just the eyeliner on. Our body rituals don’t take up that much mental space but they do take up a lot of time. When I think about the time I spend doing my routine – scrubbing, exfoliating, etc. – I feel cheated. It is time I could have spent working on something else.
In the book you write, that it is no wonder we care so much about our looks because it is the one thing that sets us apart from each other. It is a very true and yet also a very superficial judgement at the same time.
In terms of our culture, there is all this rhetoric about how people are not all that different from each other. You can shape your inner self to become a different person, one that fits the social surroundings. Our insides are undifferentiated; you can mould them like a piece of clay. In some ways the materiality of our outer selves offers resistance to this idea of infinite changeability. This surface can be altered, but only through labor and only with some pain or discomfort. It refutes the myth of transformation as a painless and liberating process.
The protagonist of the book, a girl called A, is afraid that her roommate, B, is trying to copy her looks and behaviour in order to come as close to her as possible. But it seems like it is not B’s strange behaviour that worries A but the fact that she can be copied and is therefore not unique.
Even though A is the person who is on stronger footing in the friendship, she starts to feel her personality as a delicate configuration of traits that can all be copied or even done better by someone else. She is afraid to realize that her personality is not what she wants it to be and she is nervous that others are able to see it too.

“We are under constant production”

The book’s focus on our body shows how much shame there is involved when we are conscious about our body and its behaviour. A lot of what is very natural, are things we want to cover up or at least ignore.
Yes, we have a measure of control over our bodies so we take on the responsibility of presenting it in an attractive way. We carefully produce images of ourselves that are supposed to reflect our personalities, our inner selves. If you turn on the TV, you can see how the pressure to perfect, fill, and define faces has constricted facial expression, and therefore the expression of emotion. It is almost as if these famous faces are trying to transcend their personhood, turn themselves into a flawless personified brand. When we reckon with our own body, we reckon with a physicality that is in a constant rehearsal process. We are never a finished product. We are under constant production. But there is a lot of shame involved because artificial personalities have become the benchmark, professionalized, weaponized bodies with personalities to match. You cannot compete with perfection.
It seems to me that the body shame in the book is exclusively female. The male character, C, seems very at ease with himself – except for his porn addiction. Was that your intention?
There are probably more similarities between the female and male world of beauty than we might see at first. I think that the female way of dealing with body insecurities is more open and direct, whereas men absorb and internalize these concerns. Men also worry about their weight or their body hair but are trained to reflect on it less, and are definitely trained to keep that type of anxiety contained. Maybe a man’s body also has fewer problem areas than a woman’s – at least in public perception. Our eyes are drawn toward areas that we’ve been taught can betray us, and the female body is a minefield.
C’s fixation on porn is striking because it highlights a pressure that many men feel: to be a true stallion that can satisfy all the women. His fixation is also superficial but on a different level.
When they select men for porn movies, it is less often about types and more often about performance. Women have to fit a certain type or role, they determine the genre of the film. Both are being objectified but in different ways. I wanted to include porn in the book because it does so much nowadays to shape how we perceive the act of sex. With porn, you are transported to this virtual place where you can be anyone in any given scene. It is like a scaffolding for your own fantasies. You even have the luxury of getting bored. In reality, you are more restricted and under pressure. The pleasure from having actual sex with a physical body and the pleasure derived from the limitless, virtual world of porn are profoundly different and yet very linked. It’s maybe similar to comparing books and e-readers.
C takes fantasy – in the form of porn – and tries to put it onto reality by making it part of his relationship with A. He thereby glorifies it because in contrast to the real world, the virtual porn world is a place where no desire is rejected. It is the ideal world of fulfilled desires.
I understand that it is controversial to glorify porn because it is loaded with problems and hidden power structures. Accepting or even liking porn is surely a minority standpoint and as a writer that is interesting to me. I don’t want to focus on how deadening or flattening porn can be, I want to explore why we like it, because it is hyperreal. I think of it as a technologically enhanced imagination space, that helps you expand your fantasies. But as I write in the book, it can also have a very distancing effect. There is a very subjective mixture of fantasies and you might not occupy the same fantasy as the person you are physically engaged with. The situations in the book are designed to show A sharing the same experience with other people but highlighting her discomfort with it. She is maladapted to C’s porn obsession.

“Food now exists for aesthetic pleasure”

One of the sentences that stayed with me after finishing the book is when A says that the female body never truly belongs to the woman. Do you feel that way?
I really feel that to be true, but at the same time I want to assure you that I am happy with myself. It is a problem that has been of interest to me for a long time and especially while working on this book. Being female in public, is an invitation for other people to comment on your looks and behaviour. Your body is unavoidably open to engagement from others who expect you to also engage with them.
Especially with the main character called A, it is easy to draw the conclusion that a lot from the book is autobiographical. The writer Chris Kraus once claimed that as a woman, it is almost impossible to be a-personal and that everything you do is understood to reflect your own experience. Do you feel that too?
I can relate to that, yes. But to write autobiographically, to mirror myself in this way, I’d need to know more about myself than I currently do. Because many events in the book seem out of this world, it should be clear, that this is a fictional account. A is constructed from many feelings and fears that I have, but she is not me. In some ways she exhibits the raw version of fears that I’ve trained myself to metabolize, fears that society defuses. It’s true that most foods were once living flesh—animal or plant matter. At the same time, it’s not useful to society or useful for an individual to keep this fact alive in your day-to-day reality. With A, I wanted to explore life in the modern world without the desensitizing calluses and coping mechanisms I’ve developed.
Food is another central theme of the book. The characters either seem to develop an obsession with it or feel complete disgust. It mirrors how we as a society glorify food but don’t want to know where it comes from or what effect it might have on our bodies. I would argue that people love food but hate the act of eating.
If you check Instagram, you can see how food has become completely detached from its primary use. It now exists for aesthetic pleasure. In a way, we are always asked to define ourselves through our eating habits. Food is the best metaphor for the relationship between an individual and his environment; it is the thing that links our insides to the outside world. In this sense, it’s a problem when that relation becomes visual rather than primarily nutritional.
A refuses to eat anything that is not purely artificial because she fears that by doing so, she would integrate herself into the food chain and be swallowed by something bigger than her eventually. Her reasons are not moral but purely self-protective, it seems.
You could argue that. Have you heard about the research they are doing on extreme caloric restriction? They were feeding one group of monkeys a normal calories-diet and another group a very restricted amount of calories. Over the course of five years, they found that consuming far calories made the monkey appear youthful. They speculated that the more one eats, the more the body is remade using the new materials—which means more chances of making mistakes in the replacement. In short, the finding was that everything you eat in a way speeds up your demise. This makes sense on a technical level, but is the point of life really to resemble yourself for as long as possible?

“A strange world can also offer comfort”

The novel describes the typical anxieties and problems of millennials yet there is very little indicating this: the Internet is virtually absent, instead the characters are all obsessed with TV for example. Was that intentional?
People say that TV is a dying medium and it certainly no longer exists in the way it used to when I was growing up in the 1990s. But it is still a very communal thing, as opposed to the more solipsistic, fractured content of the Internet. When you watch a movie on TV, you know that many other people are also watching this at that very moment. There is a big difference between watching TV all by yourself and watching it with other people – especially when you watch something that is generally regarded as bad or purely entertaining.
Because in a group you could not confess that you actually like what you see if you watch something like Sharknado?
If you watch Sharknado with other people, you adopt the reactions of the group. It is hard to have a private, distinct emotional experience when it is in conflict with the emotions surrounding you. But it is possible to have real emotions in a fake or staged emotional situation. One of the first things that got me watching TV again after college was the TV-series The Bachelorette. I watched this personal drama unfold and sometimes I couldn’t tell real from fake. Obviously the scenery and everything was completely fake but some of the emotions were very real.
I feel like your book does a similar thing by portraying people with real human emotions and fears in a completely surreal environment – not comparing it to The Bachelorette though.
I’m fine with it being compared to that show (laughs). You are right, there are real emotions in the book that take place in an unreal world. The characters in the book struggle with their environment but they are not sure whether the outside world has really gone mad or if they are just unable to cope with it. Also, coming back to The Bachelorette, we have already created a world that is so strange that I as a writer felt compelled to go one step stranger and create this bizarre nature. The only way to de-familiarize an already strangely familiar world is to push it even further. A strange world can also offer comfort.
How so?
I know that romcoms are completely unrealistic and bizarre but I find great comfort in them. I distrust anyone that doesn’t like Adam Sandler movies. I don’t watch romcoms with other people because I don’t want to know what they think about it, I don’t want to hear their critique. I just want to watch the rightness unfold: the good guy getting the girl, the bad guy losing out. I feel that romcoms are modern day myths. They tell a story we aspire to, a pattern we find over and over in the stories we tell about ourselves.
In a way, modern myths are tricky because they are no longer set in a land of fairies or dragons, so it becomes harder for us to understand them in purely mythical terms. We think that a perfect relationship is possible and get frustrated if it does not happen to us.
Yes, we believe that perfect communication in a relationship is possible. There are guides and TV shows telling you how to achieve it but nobody knows what it would be like because it does not exist. I honestly think we need new myths and they should be as detached from reality as possible. Anything else makes it too easy to substitute the myth for a reality.

"Isolation isn't the biggest problem"

It’s hard to imagine a more solitary place than space. How do astronauts prepare for it? We spoke with researcher Jack Stuster, who has helped NASA develop a training.

You research and counsel astronauts in outer space. Judging from your experience: is space a lonely place?
Let me go back one step before answering: I study conditions on earth analogous to those on a spacecraft – Antarctic research stations or expeditions for example – and I study the behavior of astronauts working in isolation and confinement on board the International Space Station (ISS). That research was conducted in two phases. Between 2003 and 2009, members of two-or three-members crews participated in the study and from 2011 up to this year, members of six-person-crews participated in the study. Neither the first nor the second phase revealed that loneliness is a problem for the astronauts.

Jack Stuster is President and Principal Scientist at Anacapa Sciences. For NASA, he has contributed to the development of training of astronauts concerning the behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement.

Jack Stuster is President and Principal Scientist at Anacapa Sciences. For NASA, he has contributed to the development of training of astronauts concerning the behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement.


How come?
Even with small crews, as phase one has revealed, astronauts do not get very lonely. They might be alone all day but they are busy working and meet the others over dinner later. Every minute in space is programmed in advance so that there is relatively little free-time and when there is some, the astronauts tend to spend it together with their crew-mates. I ask astronauts to write a sort of diary to see how they feel and I have only very rarely read about loneliness or lack of personal space. Between phase one and phase two, private sleep quarters were added and so the astronauts always have the possibility to interact with others but they can also withdraw to their own sleeping chamber. I think the main reason why astronauts don’t get lonely is because they are too busy. However, there have been occasions where a supply spacecraft was severely delayed and the astronauts would have to wait for the material it was supposed to bring them. Then all of a sudden, astronauts have relatively little to do and that can become a problem.
Because they have the time to allow for loneliness?
From their journals, I learned that during such incidents, the astronauts felt under-challenged, bored and useless. But even here, loneliness is not the biggest problem. Let’s also not forget that the astronauts have e-mail and a phone with which they can call their friends and family. This helps a lot with the negative effects that separation from the loved ones can entail. Now on an expedition to Mars, this will not be possible. Astronauts will have e-mail but there will be no possibility for phone calls when the time delays increase beyond a few minutes.
Allegedly, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen did not take a pocket knife with him on his polar expeditions but only the parts required to build one because he said that boredom is the greatest enemy of the explorer. Your findings seem to confirm that.
Boredom was the number one enemy of the polar explorers and when Amundsen traversed the North-West passage, he only took with him the raw materials to make trade items with the Eskimos rather than pre-manufactured items because he knew that he had to keep himself and his crew busy. When Fridtjof Nansen attempted to reach the North Pole, he had on board a library of a thousand volumes, music and wonderful food to fill the free time. The engineers even disassembledand re-assembled the engines on board twice to keep busy when the ship was locked in the ice., Nansen reported in his journal that the saddest day of the expedition was the day they ran out of beer.

“Being behind schedule is stressful, but having nothing to do would be worse.”

So work is the best remedy against negative feelings on such expeditions?
As I said, the only time that astronauts report negative feelings is when they have nothing to do. So NASA puts them on a very tight schedule so that there is always something to do. Astronauts are constantly running behind schedule which is an awful feeling for a person with high achievement goals which all astronauts are. Being behind schedule is probably the most stressful thing for astronauts but having nothing at all to do would be even worse.
How do the astronauts schedule their day in an environment that is not regulated by sunrise and sunset?
The ground crew schedules the day for the astronauts and trains their body clocks. They go by Greenwich Mean Time and wake up at the same time every morning except on weekends. Even though they have many sunrises and sunsets throughout the day – every 90 minutes basically – because they circle the globe, they do have a day schedule because of their work schedule. But some astronauts have problems adjusting to this because of the excitement. I mean it is a unique experience to look down at Earth! It is something that almost nobody will ever experience and it is so exciting that they sometimes forget to go to sleep at the set time. If they have problems sleeping, there are also sleeping aids on board that can be taken in special cases when sleep schedules change. So there are a lot of things that help them adjust to a regular day and night schedule.
Obviously there are many things you can do to prepare astronauts for issues like sleeping disorders but are there things you can do to prepare them for the distress of solitude?
The astronauts are almost never in complete solitude, unless they wish so. I am not aware that there is formal training but there are or have been simulations. In Russia, six test subjects were locked in a small module for 520 days to study the effect isolation has on their mental state and body. NASA is currently conducting 30 day simulations with four member crews. But these simulations cannot train the crew members for the special conditions on board of the ISS, they can only prepare them to a certain extent. Just knowing that you will experience certain conditions like isolation and confinement can help you a lot to deal with them later on. Because these conditions can cause some severe problems.
Like what?
Because of the pressure of isolation, trivial issues can become very serious issues and this can lead to arguments and fights between the crew members which must be avoided at all cost. Knowing about this helps you to cope with it.
So there is no way to predict how astronauts will react to certain conditions?
No, they are humans and we humans are too complex to be predictable. Especially in environments like outer space. But behavioral psychology teaches us that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So if you plan a long and difficult exploration, you should of course pick crew members who have demonstrated that they are capable of living and working in isolation and confinement.

“Going to Mars would be a challenge to even the most experience astronaut.”

That is where the simulations overlook a crucial question: can you simulate solitude here on Earth and predict future behavior in space when the conditions of these environments are so different? Solitude on Earth surely is different than solitude in space.
I believe that solitude on the ISS is easier to deal with than solitude or isolation at a small Antarctic station, because work is performed at a high tempo and the scenery is beautiful and constantly changing. One astronaut wrote in his journal that no matter how bad things are going on board or how stressed one might be, the view fixes everything. On an expedition to Mars, where your destination is just a little dot in the sky and ultimately your home becomes just a little dot in the sky, that will make things very different. The solitude that interplanetary explorers will experience will be qualitatively different from what ISS astronauts experience.
How so?
A few years back, I gave a lecture about expeditions to Mars and a distinguished and experienced astronaut walked up to me afterwards and told me that he has always been comfortable being in the Earth-moon-shuttle system, but that he might not be the correct person to leave low Earth orbit and head to Mars. That, to me, revealed a self-awareness that astronauts have and that goes both ways: they know how capable they are but they also know their limitations. Going to Mars and having Earth so far away for two or three years would be a challenge to even the most experienced astronaut.
In his essay “On Solitude”, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne writes that we should have family, friends and property but that we should never make them the masters of our well-being, that we should be able to be happy on our own. Following his reasoning, the perfect astronaut would be a loner.
Not a loner, because interpersonal skills are essential to getting along in isolation and confinement. However, I have recommended that astronauts on an expedition to Mars should not have small children because they would probably regret the separation. I am an advocate of selecting husband-and-wife-teams, but this definitely is a minority opinion.
Would that not be a possible source of conflict?
Yes and no. There could be conflict between married people, but if they have been married a long time it demonstrates their compatibility and fidelity to a cause, two essential personal qualities. Also, people who have been married for 25 years probably know how to deal with conflict situations. There would, of course, be other advantages.
Are there astronauts who value the solitude in space because they enjoy having that time on their own?
Yes, absolutely! The astronauts are there to work and they often consider too much personal contact to be a burden. Sometimes, when the crew of the ISS gets visitors or when new crew members arrive, they feel happy at first but it can quickly turn into an annoyance because it disrupts the rhythm and work flow.
You have said that in the extreme conditions that astronauts find themselves, food becomes extremely important. Can you tell us why?
Food assumes added importance when usual sources of gratification such as family, friends, or hobbies are denied,. So the astronauts learn to cherish what they have up there. Their exercise machines become extremely important and so does food. Unfortunately, food has become kind of a disappointment to them in the sense that the options are very limited. But ground control is very busy making the food experience as pleasant as possible. Often, the people packing the food include small hidden messages, wishing the crew a good mission. Something like that can really cheer a person up after a long day of work. This has tradition: even during the early Polar expeditions, explorers would find little notes in their food to console and cheer them up.

“Solitude binds astronauts together.”

Is there a food that astronauts crave in particular?
Tortillas – by far. Astronauts never get enough tortillas. They train in Texas so they get used to eating Mexican food. But the other thing is that food starts to float away in space. So you need something that keeps the food together. What better than a tortilla?
Popular culture often paints the picture of the lonely astronaut such as David Bowie’s Major Tom, Elton John’s Rocket Man or Matt Damon in the movie The Martian. How accurate are these portrayals or descriptions?
It’s not very accurate because astronauts are always in groups, but it would be a completely accurate description if an astronaut were to be stranded somewhere, which is not very likely but possible. The Martian depicts a solitude that is not completely unrealistic in that sense. When a person is all by him- or herself, the things around start to change. You no longer perceive your environment the same. We know for example from prisoners in solitary confinement that all they need is the assurance that somebody is close to them. Even the noises coming from other people are enough to feel like you are not completely alone.
Is there one concluding observation that you can share from your research?
I have found that solitude and the extreme conditions in space have had a very positive effect on how the crew members deal with each other. There is sometimes a bit of friction among the American crew members or among the Russian crew members, but there has never been conflict between the Americans and Russians, the Americans and Europeans, or the Russians and Europeans – or with the Japanese. There have been several crews composed of former American and Russian fighter pilots. They had trained for years to kill each other but there they were, 230 miles above the Earth, working together in complete harmony under arduous conditions. The solitude and their common goals bind them together. If they are able to do that in space, we should also be able to do so here on Earth.

Party of One

Perhaps Paris is best enjoyed without company.

4, 6, 8 … 10 avenue des Champs-Elysées. A century old greenhouse hidden away on one of Paris’s loudest, most hurried streets. White wood paneling, sunlight streaming in, in summertime the terrace looks onto the Grand Palais.
From the kitchen’s innocently open windows, aromas of herbs and slowly cooking wine waft out, stopping a wandering passant. A gentleman d’un certain âge, a definite flâneur, in a navy blue coat, well cut, collar up. About him lingers a hint of Eau Sauvage, and the quiet refinement of one who has well read, traveled, seen, and done. On his left hand, a gold wedding band and a fine brown leather watch. He consults the latter, and one more time inhales. Then, seduced, he walks in.
Through the neatly trimmed garden, up the white marble steps. By the door, a wine list, and desserts on a golden cart. The visual temptation amplifies the olfactory; intricate and delicate, crafted like art.
The maître d’hôtel, however, apologetically says:
Désolé, Monsieur. Nous sommes complets. ((I apologize, Monsieur. We are full.))
Not a table available, not even for one.
But as he watches the gentleman leave, the host has a thought.
Attendez Monsieur! Upon reflection, I believe we do have one.
At the Pavillon Lenôtre, there is a table, with white linen, white roses, fine china and silverware. And a single, perfectly positioned, proud Louis XV chair. Silver salt shakers de chez Christofle, crystal glasses from Baccarat. And the most beautiful view in all of Paris, from across the baie vitrée.
The table cannot be requested, and is always reserved. It is the perfect setting for a party of one.
Its guests are assigned at the maître’s discretion; historically eclectic and few. Old, young, ladies, gentlemen, wealthy, and poor. Frenchmen, foreigners, literate, or not. With nothing in common, save for a quiet way of walking in and inquiring about lunch, tea, dessert – for one.
The gentleman is deemed worthy. He is escorted to his seat. Coat taken, napkin unfolded. The wine is poured in silence, the first plate quietly placed. The guest is left alone, with silence, Paris, and a feast.
En entrée:
Ravioles de langoustines et bouillon de crustacés, ((To begin, scampi ravioli in a light shellfish broth)) accompanied by sips of crisp, young Bandol blanc.
A warm piece of baguette shamelessly sops the light shellfish broth. One lingering sip of white wine.
Remise en bouche: a fresh lemon sorbet.
A few, unhurried minutes later, le plat principal:
Filet de bœuf façon Rossini aux cèpes et gratin dauphinois, ((Beef fillet Rossini with porcini mushrooms and potato gratin)) with a fine wine sauce poured at the table, and a glass of merlot de Pomerol.
The flavors are intense and wholesome. The last bite is deliberately slow.
A fleeting sadness, but consolation soon comes:
The sun setting over Paris, a slice of vieux Comté, more Pomerol.
From the golden cart, a moelleux is served à la chartreuse. The spoon cuts through the soft and crunchy entremets. The warm chocolate oozes out and blends into the liqueur.
Each bite is savored leisurely, in silence and with care. Lenôtre is one of those rare places where dessert and solitude are still considered art.
Short and black, the coffee arrives promptly. The bill never does; another honor bestowed only to the finest table in the house.
To dine alone in Paris is to dine alone with Paris. With the stories it inspired, and those that inspired it. Eiffel’s eccentric tower, Haussmann’s avenues, Hugo’s chimneys, Pagnol’s boulangeries. Sisley’s barges along the Seine, Monet’s mist over Notre Dame. The rivaling cafés des Deux Magots and Flore, the Bec-de-Gaz bar. Picasso’s studio, Renoir’s hôtel particulier. The covered galleries, the rooftop gardens, the secret alleyways.
Street musicians and artists, hidden lovers around corners, chain smokers in the sun. In this city, there is no such thing as a party of one.
The gentleman finishes his coffee. A perfect ending to a perfect meal. The food was exquisite, the view was sublime. He folds his napkin and places it on the tablecloth, beside a few bills. He pulls up the collar of his navy blue coat, ready to leave. But waits for the last ray to set, out of respect.