Why I Can’t Stop Discussing Disgusting Things

Looking back on some of my Andy’s Corner posts you may have noticed a recurring theme. Among other things, I have written about family meals that gagged me as a child, eating bull testicles, preferring the juice of beetles in cocktail mixers, eating fried grasshoppers, the blood sausage of my past, and a fondness of the Museum of Disgusting Food.

I figured that I had devoted more than enough of my creative energy to writing about such distasteful things. That is, until Ann alerted me to a recent NY Times article by Molly Young, How Disgust Explains Everything [editor’s note: if you are unable to open the NY Times link, go here for a pdf file of the article]. For me it was like finding a delicious smorgasbord of theories and insights about this often-underrated emotion, nudging me to once again wade in these repugnant waters.

Like me, you may have been wondering if my fascination with yucky things is some kind of warped obsession. One reason I was so enthused by Young’s article was that she provides some reason to believe that my “obsession” with disgusting things is not necessarily an idiosyncratic personality disorder on my part, and that I may be in good company.

For one thing, and I’ll be the first to admit, I get a muted sense of prurient pleasure in sharing tales about disgusting things. Young points out that such a feeling may be a form of “benign masochism.” This refers to

“any experience that is pleasurable not despite being unpleasant but because of its unpleasantness. Horror movies, roller coasters, deep tissue massage, bungee jumping, hot chili peppers, frigid showers and tragic novels all fit into the category.”

In my case, a better term may be benign sadism. Take banana slugs for instance. During my time as a docent at a nearby wildlife preserve (which I have mentioned in a previous blog) I was always delighted to come across a banana slug while leading 4th and 5th grade kids on their nature hikes. It was a real kick to watch their responses when I asked if anyone in the group would like to hold the slug. If I got a brave volunteer to hold it (after thoroughly wetting both hands with distilled water from my spray bottle) the others always gathered around to get a closer look at the repulsively slimy decomposer.

The icing on my benign sadistic cake came when I asked if anyone would be willing to kiss the slug. I can still hear the chorus of “YUKS” and “NO WAYS” accompanied by the appropriate emoji-like disgust faces. [editor’s note: I have learned since then that “even a small peck can transfer harmful bacteria to the slug’s organs,” so technically the slug is the one who should be disgusted!]

Some “YUK” sayers from a Bouverie hike.

But the main reason I keep coming back to the unsavory topic of disgust is that it is – shall I say – so sociological. Clearly, feelings of disgust are much more than bodily knee-jerk reactions or psychological predispositions regarding the yucky stuff we encounter in life.

Disgust is a bodily experience that creeps into every corner of our social lives, a piece of evolutionary hardware designed to protect our stomachs that expanded into a system for protecting our souls.

More concretely, our feelings of disgust are learned and validated in cahoots with others. Young refers to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai‘s suggestion that disgust is a social feeling: “A person in the thick of it will often want her experience confirmed by other people (as in: ‘Oh, my God, this cheese smells disgusting. Here, smell it.’)” Indeed, my young hikers’ mutual repulsion by the thought of kissing a banana slug is a case in point.

W. I. Thomas of the Thomas Theorem

If I were to add anything to Molly Young’s discussion of disgust it would be a consideration of what is termed The Thomas Theorem. Formulated in 1928 by William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas it goes like this: if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences [editor’s note: evidently sensitivity to gender pronoun biases in academic publications was not as keen in 1928 as it is today]. Hence, if we define something as disgusting it will trigger bodily feelings of disgust irregardless of that thing’s objective or “real” properties.

In this regard I can’t help but think about my own brief moment of disgust as a child while eating dinner at a friend’s house. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote about that in an earlier blog:

…one of the side dishes was diced, creamed potatoes – or so I thought… Unfortunately, these “potatoes” actually turned out to be creamed diced turnips, a vegetable that I had never before personally encountered. So, as soon as I took a bite I was convinced that they were potatoes gone bad.

Too embarrassed to say anything and too repulsed to swallow, I sat there for what seemed an eternity trying not to look like I was going to die on the spot. Finally, I faked a cough into my napkin and left the un-chewed remnants wadded up beside my plate.

So my gag reflex had less to do with the turnips themselves than the fact that I defined them as creamed potatoes gone bad. I would venture to guess that we all have many stories of ill-fated definitions of the situation. In a benign sadistic way, I’d love to hear your stories.

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