She was in her 20s, dressed to the nines in size 4 Armani, made up for the office, and hunched over the sidebar at my neighborhood Starbucks, shoveling packets of Splenda into her purse.
I’m not proud of my response. I watched her for several long seconds recalling the various articles and listserv notes I’d read recently about people with eating disorders consuming huge quantities of artificial sweeteners, sometimes to the point of experiencing “aspartame poisoning.” At best, this young woman was stealing the equivalent of two boxes of Splenda because she didn’t have the time or money to buy it at the grocery store. At worst, she was stealing and poisoning her body in order to taste “something for nothing.” I should have shown her compassion.
Instead, when the packets were overflowing from her Gucci handbag and she would not meet my gaze, I said in a regrettably snarky tone, “Think you’ve got enough of that stuff?”
She threw me a stony look, clenched her bag to her chest and fled, wobbling down the block on her too-high heels. Starbucks was giving the stuff away, so it wasn’t exactly shoplifting. It was worse.
“Something for nothing” is becoming the name of the game in our culture as it is in eating disorders. Zero-calorie desserts. Waifs who binge. Perfection without connection. Sublime starvation. Size zero fashions. Cadaverous beauty. Status without substance. Oxymoron is too kind a term.
Do I sound angry? You bet! Because this is all a huge, sad, inexcusable con that’s rooted in personal terror, encouraged—and exploited—by our all-consuming society.
I’ve no idea what specific demons were chasing that woman in Starbucks, but she was so intent on her mission to steal fake sugar that she had no idea she was stealing in plain sight of everyone in the store. I was the only one to call her out, but the store was full of witnesses. And we all could see that what she was stealing had no meaningful value. It didn’t supply energy or nutrients. Its value was entirely negative.
Splenda creates an illusory taste that is 600 times sweeter than sugar. More than 90 percent of it is not metabolized by the body. And according to recent studies, it does not satisfy the craving for sweetness. Instead, it appears to subvert attempts to lose weight. Rats fed artificially sweetened yogurt ate more and gained more weight than rats fed yogurt sweetened with real sugar. This may explain why people who drink diet sodas seem to be at greater risk for obesity than those who drink regular soda.
So the Splenda thief wasn’t even stealing “something for nothing”—she was stealing single-digit calories that would just keep stoking her craving for more, more, more, until she finally ate something that would satisfy her brain and body. In the meantime, she’d remain in that same driven stupor she’d been in when I caught her with her hand in the fake sugar jar, able to think of nothing except where and how she was going to get her next fix of imitation sensation. I wouldn’t want to be her boss, her client, her partner, or her friend when she was in that state. She’d have nothing more for them than she had for her own body. But she’d be costing them energy and frustration, just as she was costing herself.
“Something for nothing” is a lie that consumerism loves to perpetuate. And America has fallen for it over and over, not only in the ersatz foods we eat and drink but in “no-cost mortgages,” “zero-financing” credit scams and now, thanks to reality TV, even zero-talent instant celebrity.
You don’t have to have an eating disorder to get caught up in the con, but eating disorders are a perfect reflection of what’s going on throughout our society. Everywhere we look we’re told that perfection depends on mastering the art of weightlessly having it all. Meanwhile, the negative consequences of chasing this empty ideal just keep mounting.
True value in life comes from substance, focus, passion, energy, effort, creativity and strength. It has weight and depth, and requires time to develop and appreciate. Until we recognize and actively defend the true sources of value in our own lives and throughout our culture, we are all, like the Splenda thief, just stealing from ourselves.