I can honestly say I have never met a woman who hasn’t shown some sign of having an uncomfortable relationship with food. It could be as mild as only drinking diet soda or using sugar substitutes in coffee, or bemoaning “having an accident” by eating an entire pint of ice cream at once. Or it could be as extreme as permanently cutting out a basic food group without trying to find a nutritional equivalent (like animal protein or carbs) or going on a month-long juice fast.
I am not even talking here about full-blown eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, binging without purging, and constant compulsive eating. I am talking about the little things most of us seem to do in the name of “taking care of ourselves,” things that are punishing and make no sense, such as skipping a meal in order to make up for indulging in dessert the night before, or just feeling guilty at all for eating “bad” food when we normally eat a balanced diet.
In other words, I am talking about the way we all, regardless of age, size, or ethnicity, feel it is normal for women in our society to essentially be on a perma-diet.
“Dieting is a national pastime for women,” says Margo Maine, Ph.D., an eating disorders specialist in West Hartford, Conn., in an article in SELF magazine. “As a society, we don’t see the problem.” That same article includes a survey that showed that seven out of 10 women in this country have food issues. Of those seven, one has a full-blown eating disorder. The other six suffer from what the author calls “disordered eating.”
What is disordered eating?
In an online survey garnered of 4,000 women ages 25 to 45, SELF found that most disordered eaters fall into one or more of six categories: “‘Calorie prisoners’ are terrified of gaining weight, tend to see food as good or bad and feel extremely guilty if they indulge in something that’s off-limits,” writes Tula Karras. “‘Secret eaters’ binge on junk food at home, in the car — wherever they won’t be found out. ‘Career dieters’ may not know what to eat without a plan to follow; despite their efforts, they’re more likely than other types to be overweight or obese. ‘Purgers’ are obsessed with ridding their body of unwanted calories and bloat by using laxatives, diuretics, or occasional vomiting. ‘Food addicts’ eat to soothe stress, deal with anger, even celebrate a happy event; they think about food nearly all the time. ‘Extreme exercisers’ work out despite illness, injury, or exhaustion and solely for weight loss; they are devastated if they miss a session.”
As if that were not upsetting enough, many of these women transition from disordered eating to an eating disorder, then back again. In “Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Delf-Denial and Overcoming Anorexia,” editor Kate Taylor gathers essays by contemporary writers who have battled eating disorders. They all started out as disordered eaters, and, overwhelmingly, once they got better, returned to being disordered eaters.
“I have settled into a kind of working anorexia,” writes Priscilla Becker in her essay “Big Little.” “Not careening toward death, but — two words frequently used to describe me — disciplined, self-contained. It is, I suppose, anorexia’s middle age, in which I give up my ideals and try to be more reasonable.” Becker starts her essay by talking about an incident in high school, where a boyfriend told her her thighs were big. This, she writes, was the tipping point. “I had eaten until then without concern,” she writes. “Eating would never again be a natural thing.”
With that simple sentence, in my mind, Becker nails the problem. For most women, eating is no longer a natural thing. It stops being something enjoyable we do to survive, and morphs into something else. It becomes about control, and as far as I can see, those who deprive themselves have everything in common with those who over-indulge. It is just that one says, “you can’t make me eat,” while the other says, “you can’t make me stop eating.” Why such confusion? Because we worship stick-thin celebrities and merrily shame the large among us, while at the same time, nutritionists say that three out of four people (men and women) will be overweight within the next few decades.
It’s all part of the same hot mess of disordered eating. When we all buy into the idea that food is the enemy, some of us are going to go to one extreme and some to the other. Most of us fall somewhere in-between. I can readily identify three kinds of disordered eating I have practiced in my life: I have been a secret eater, a calorie prisoner, and still deal with being a food addict. Like Becker, I remember when eating stopped being a natural act.
I was 10, and had just finished fourth grade. We were on vacation, and the people I had seen just the year before were apparently shocked by my appearance — so shocked, in fact, that one family friend got down on her knees and begged me, with tears in her eyes, to lose some weight. My grandmother promised to get me a very prized stuffed animal if I reduced.
I went on a crash diet soon thereafter. It was the Russian stewardess diet, which guaranteed a 6-pound loss in just a week. My mother supervised. I lost some weight, got the stuffed animal, and started the slow mind-fuck that has been my relationship with food ever since. The kicker is that I wasn’t that overweight. I was chubby, yes, but in no way obese. I look at pictures from that time and wonder why everyone gave me such a hard time, why I needed so desperately to be taken in hand. I realize part of it was the contrast; I had always been stick thin. Then, when I was 8, my lifestyle changed drastically. My dad got a job in another country. We went from living in an apartment complex full of kids to a private house on a kidless street. I went from being able to play with my best friend down the block to spending every afternoon at home in front of the TV (it wasn’t an unsafe neighborhood, per se, just not kid-friendly, and I no longer had a bike, much less had a place to ride it). I went from walking to school every day to riding a school bus for two hours.
Before, the fact that my athletic ability was severely compromised by rheumatoid arthritis was mitigated by an after-school swimming program. My new school had a pool, but it was kept empty. The P.E. program focused heavily on Olympic gymnastics, which were hard for even those kids without a disability. Add the shifting hormones of prepubescence to that newly sedentary lifestyle, and it is no surprise I got chubby.
But these factors weren’t even considered by my family and their friends. To them, I had gotten fat because I ate too much, and I ate too much because I was lazy. They couldn’t accuse me of being stupid, but the extra weight was clearly due to a developing character defect of some sort. And the best cure was bribing, shaming, and bullying. The kids around me followed the adults’ lead, so I had no one to turn to. I felt despised, as most fat girls and women do, and the years between 10 and 14 were the unhappiest in my life.
I still resent these adults for reacting the way they did, even as I understand where the behavior came from. My grandmother, the stuffed-animal briber, struggled with anorexia throughout her lifetime. She passed down her disordered eating habits to my mother, who then spent some time in the eating-disordered paradise known as professional modeling. She still sees nothing wrong with eating a cracker for breakfast, and she tortures herself for binging. My father suffers from his own variety of disordered eating, and freaks out when he gains weight. The fact that it is very easy for him to lose weight makes it impossible for him to empathize with those who don’t find it effortless. I will never, however, stop thinking he is being a shit when he makes some nasty remark about an overweight patron at the next restaurant table.
The crying friend has always been overweight; even if she weren’t, she has the kind of stocky athletic build that means she is forever fated to be a Valkyrie instead of a sylph. And that is how, effectively, food issues get passed down from one generation to another, at least in my case. I listened, in horror, to my mother telling me about how my 9-year-old niece, then 5, and her little friends were pushing food away, fearing it would make them fat. And I look at current photos of her, and how much she looks like me, and how her cheeks have gotten rounder. And I worry that she, too, will be bribed and bullied and fat-shamed by some well-meaning adult.
Luckily, it seems my mother has learned something over the years; she was horrified. So was my sister-in-law. That is why I have hope that we can stop torturing ourselves with food. One solution is to take the methods described by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby in “Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body.” Both women are active bloggers in the fat acceptance movement, and Harding contributes regularly to Salon.com. They advocate “intuitive eating,” which pretty much boils down to common sense: “Eat what you want to eat when you are hungry.”
But what if all you want to eat is unhealthy? “The whole point here is learning to listen to your body,” they write. “You just need to trust that your body will eventually say, ‘Hey, I’m sick of ice cream now and want something green or fruity.’ It will. We swear.”
A woman who eats without guilt — or fear? Who just listens to her body? Now there’s a mythological creature I want to believe in.