Just yesterday I was talking with a graduation student who has a head full of commonplaces and unfortunate journalistic pseudo-truths about the environment and sustainibility, with particular reference to food. Setting aside the specific topic of bullshit ideas (such as that in the past the food was healthier and people enjoyed, as a consequence, better eating: on this topic, you can get a light introduction in Shears, P. (2010). Food fraud–a current issue but an old problem. British Food Journal, 112(2), 198-213), I was struck once again by how frequent the association between food and guilt is.
You can check out Guilt for Dinner, a short, juicy blog post that focuses on the specific guilty feeling that is born when we realize that we are not cooking the way we think we should. In the more inspired words of Denise Gershbein,
The research revealed to us an incredible pattern of guilt and
aspiration in how people eat—an embedded cycle of should/don’t/want.
Our research subjects believed there existed an ideal they had to live
up to, but none of them thought they could meet that standard, so they
felt guilty. And yet they continued to aspire to that goal.
I had the feeling that my student was laboring under the weight of strong feelings of guilt towards food. The same feelings that, it sounded like, pointed her towards vegetarianism, lately. The same feelings that make her think in mandatory terms of local production, without thinking for a second about the implications: or about how wonderful the international world of trade is and has always been historically.
But I digress: what I am driving at is that guilt, filthy guilt, is a very powerful emotional lever, and a food designer would be wise to investigate that guilt about
- being fat
- not being a good mother/cook/homemaker
- empty calories
- geese and their liver
- poor unhappy cocoa farmers
- poor unhappy Alaskan crab fishermen
- poor unhappy whale fishermen (scratch that: they are not the target of guilty feelings)
- eating GMOs
- eating frozen food
- watching food/cooking shows and then eating only frozen food
- eggs laid by poor unhappy chicken
There is, if you think of it, a large choice of food-related guilts. More or less, for every taboo or contemporary ethical (or pseudoethical, let’s not be picky) injunction, we can find a related guilt and a designerly way to use it. We can build on the guilt, and make food products for vegetarians. We can encourage users to plunge into the guilt and turn it into sinful indulgence (really irritating choice of words here), and offer them chocolate. We can try to avert the gaze of the user, for example by packaging and trimming meat so that it looks as bloodless and unrelated to animals as possible.
Or we can frankly exploit the guilt parents feel towards children (am I doing enough?) and sell… nearly anything! As long as we claim that it is educational and/or healthy.
Someone more idealistic than me should comment about using guilt as a positive force for positive effects.