Photo by Image Source
Artillery Row

London’s got an eating disorder

Food, frustration and dependence amid decline

London is the epicentre of price hikes. Headlines warn of £8 pints, whilst rising rents, £3.90 meal deals and myriad other polite steps toward unaffordability as inflation combine with gentrification to make the city near-unliveable for the poor. Foreign investments and private rentiers take over large proportions of council property, whilst a shallowly opulent, Instagrammable value system dominates domains such as food, clothing and housing.

Relegating life-sustaining behaviour to consumer preferences has hollowed out what many somewhat naively look back on as “1950s luxury capitalism”, resulting in the viral replication of the expensive, low-quality high street. Mundane concrete buildings feature the same brand names: Greggs, McDonald’s, H&M, Co-Op, Costa, M&S. In “The death of luxury”, The Critic’s Sebastian Milbank writes:

Go to London’s commercial heart and you’ll find Oxford Street a miserable press of bodies surrounding poorly stocked shelves where you’ll struggle to find a decent off the rack suit or furniture that’s much of an upgrade on what you’d get at Ikea.

Shopping is no fun in London. I have never seen horrors quite like a TK Maxx in Central London. It’s too loud; it triggers your “sensory issues”; you want to go home, bask in your fatigue. The culturally dominant remnant of the middle class has sunk into a warm bath of frivolous online spending habits, whilst the Covidian Gen Z has grown accustomed to a cocktail of reclusive dependence, hyperreal fantasy and financial abjection. Being economically precarious, we love the catharsis of giving in to advertisement, to desire itself. We love to “binge”, we love to be “guilt free” with Netflix, TikTok, letting an underclass of machines and service workers do the hard bit for us. Typical student house-shares boast bins overflowing with grease-stained Deliveroo packaging and brown Gopuff bags.

Anti-intellectualism and political illiteracy are celebrated as we turn further away from educational expectations. It is not uncommon to see students in lectures distracted by short videos and shopping on phones and laptops, knowing full well that a single two-hour seminar costs £64.24 on average, to the nearest penny. “I’ll never afford to pay my loans back anyway,” they say. 

Advert on a Southeastern train from London Bridge encouraging commuters to buy large amounts of costly junk food (a meal for two at Pizza Hut on Deliveroo costs around £40) on a credit scheme. Klarna lets you pay in three instalments, so the purchase of one evening’s takeaway will put you in debt for a quarter of a year. The companies’ partnership was condemned by financial commentators, yet its targeting of exhausted city workers is unrestrained.

Forever entertained, our wants exhausted, we enjoy a momentary break from the perceived apocalypse going on outside our double-glazed newbuild windows.Whether this takes the shape of climate disaster, rampant sexual predation or disease is relatively inconsequential, as our nightmares blend into one and the same. Figureheads of youth climate radicalism, such as Just Stop Oil’s Roger Hallam, warn that climate change “is about being brutalised, it’s about rape, and slow starvation, ending in early death … ” It’s no wonder our modus operandi is the bottomless brunch of self-pleasure. 

Advert on a District Line train. Home cooking is made “easy and affordable” as a commercial qualifier. There’s the assumption that throughout 6,000 years of human history, this has been a cripplingly expensive and difficult task. Rewriting the narrative around sustaining yourself strips away instinctive tools of survival, at which point a price hike is spliced in. With each meal “from £3.15 per serving”, HelloFresh is over 3x more expensive per meal than a scratch-cooked dinner from ASDA. Yet it is made to seem the homely and comparatively abstinent choice: more responsible than ordering a takeaway, the only thing you’re expected to know how to do. Classic case of Overton window distortion through linguistic leverage.

Presenting dependence as a conscious choice is the behaviour of a child — a child too young to look after themselves, though old enough to feel embarrassed by appearing as though they rely on others. Where the traditionalist movement’s resistance goes wrong is in failing to extend its blame beyond the “lifestyle choices” of the modern subject. Positioning the subject at the centre is the precise Liberal paradigm that the Right finds near-impossible to shake, despite moral outrage at its consequences. Anti-woke types blame sensitive dispositions, cultural feminisation and identity politics, blind to the knowledge that these are symptoms and not causes of “The Problem”. The Right makes this consistently whimsical error of nostalgia by tightening the reins on an already lost society in an attempt to claw back dissolved hierarchies. “The Left” makes a very similar mistake in the opposite direction, overly externalising our infantilisation to a mass state of depressive (an)hedonia seen as the eye of capitalism’s storm. Yet accelerationism’s formal fault has always been in its heuristic self-fulfilment narrative (“I fear I’m fucked, therefore I am!”). The introduction of cybernetic thought into post-leftism quietly admits materialism to be false: fleeting convictions may well form the crushing tide of history. If we turn to psychoanalysis, we can arrive at the position that dependence is expressed in the relation between the atomised “I” and “The Big It” (machinations of consumerism, grand bureaucracy, correct social behaviour etc).

Ivan Illich’s 1973 Tools for Conviviality outlines the blueprint for the dependent social mode. For Illich, it begins with our lifelong reliance on the medical-industrial complex. If the body is trapped within the state apparatus (“The Big Blob”) from birth, its acting in loco parentis extends throughout an entire lifetime.

One of the main speakers at the 1970 AMA convention exhorted her pediatric colleagues to consider each newborn baby as a patient until the child could be certified as healthy. Hospital-born, formula-fed, antibiotic-stuffed children thus grow into adults who can breathe the air, eat the food, and survive the lifelessness of a modern city, who will breed and raise at almost any cost a generation even more dependent on medicine.

I’m not like the other girls. Everything I do is hidden behind a pseudo-Catholic veil of abnegation, but I still want you to think I’m hot.

To unlearn dependence is to be at best foolishly paranoid and at worst a pariah. The anti-vaxxers’ assumption that medical hegemony is constraining natural liberty, though essentially true, does not take into account our love of our own dependence. It’s why leftists blame extraneous causes for our own incapability, so that we may have fun becoming more incapable. Meanwhile, disposability is heralded as emancipation. Negative liberty, the freedom from obligation, is a joyous surrender, even an art form, after My Year of Rest and Relaxation. This notion is best encapsulated by the eating disorder “communities” that have come to occupy vast underbellies of Tumblr, Twitter and TikTok since their migration from forums in the ’00s. See the central two paradigmatic relations.

  1. Anorexia. Self-imposed asceticism as a response to overindulgence (thinspo, coquette aesthetic minimalism, Diet Coke). Punishing yourself for the original sin of consumerism by growing malnourished and dizzy. Beauty as an idol. The end result is thinness, which is salvation.
  2. Binge eating. Rapturous sexual conquest (food porn, Mukbang). Physically and spiritually freeing yourself from constraint, or voyeuristically watching someone else do so. Quantity as an idol. The end result is fullness, which is gratification.
Instant ramen is an intensely postmodern food. Synthetic, wormlike, like something out of Alien. The slithering Leviathan in the saucepan, Buldak Chicken.

Among the white girls at my East London university, the language of eating disorders is embedded in our social tapestry like a sick stain on a rug. Merely catching a glimpse of the MyFitnessPal calorie counting app on a friend’s home screen is reasonable cause to assume she’s starving herself. The veneer of empty “body positivity” wears thin, literally. There is an odd atmosphere of mutual understanding creeping into our inner-city lives: the exchange of mental disorder terminology. “BPD” and “autism” become glorified Jungian archetypes. Yet this arcane code expressing itself as the “shared language” of the underclass holds a great deal of potential: not just for algorithmically generated tribes but for a new model of common relationality. Indeed optimism is a historical force and not an individual one. To return to Illich, language as a “shared tool” serves to lift us from our isolation and inspire a demographic to articulate change.

Sacrifice must be shown as the inevitable price for different groups of people to get what they want, or at least to be liberated from what has become intolerable. But beyond using words to describe the limits [for growth] as both necessary and appealing, the leadership of these groups must be prepared to use a social tool that is fit to ordain what is good enough for all. It must be a tool which, like language, is respected by all; a tool which, like language, does not lose its power because of the purpose to which it has been put in recent history; a tool which, like language, possesses a fundamental structure that misuse cannot totally corrupt

London’s narrative function of crisis after crisis (cost of living, rapid exchange of power, COVID) has not encouraged us to “be kind”, bunker down and re-acquaint ourselves with the concept of futurity, as the BBC might have it. The ambient depression of our post-scarcity YA dystopia means that we can, in a minor key, drink to our own decline. We might even recognise in our adversity that there is an innate worth to human life. 

I learned how to make pickles like they do in kebab shops

Just to stick it to the man, the past few months I’ve been teaching myself how to preserve food. I’m a poor student with adult ADHD: I am a sucker for takeaways, tending to forget to cook and ending up wasting money on food that’s guaranteed to make me feel bloated. So I learned how to make pickles like they do in kebab shops to enjoy them at home. Fast forward to a bleak November, and I’ve been savouring pickled cabbage, turnips and tomatoes with two sorts of homemade soup (potato/cashew/parsley and Jewish chicken soup). Like a mad grandmother I’ve frozen vats of blanched vegetables and made my own dips. At risk of sounding like a drugged-up ASDA advert, the seemingly unstoppable gush of money from my bank account is manageable for the first time in two years, and I no longer feel as though I’m in freefall.

It’s highly amusing that the tools for taking care of oneself and others could be shoehorned into some kind of awful cottagecore political manifesto. I hold no doubt that such a publication would fall on Pepe’s deaf ears and a blue-haired leftist’s pierced ones. Try and fail to find literature on optimism for nihilists. Try and fail to resurrect the Evolian argument that a healthy society needs a central mythology without being curb stomped by a dreadlocked squatter. What if I told you “mutual aid” and “Christian charity” were the same thing?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover