I stopped dieting not too long ago and my relationship to food is still complicated. What’s your relationship to food like? Will these feelings ever go away?
I’m so glad you asked this question! Our relationship to food is an intimate one, which begins to be shaped in childhood and changes over time. What food means changes with context, geographical location, mood, and ideology. Hunger is as old as the oldest animal.
I want to start with your first question. So here’s some background on my history with food:
I spent a lot of my life feeling like my body was my biggest enemy and my greatest failure. Like a lot of people, my education in diet culture began around the age of 5. My relationship to my body was heavily influenced by shame and I truly believed that it was my relationship to food that was the cause of my “bodily failure.” This is a common belief, and why caloric restriction and food anxiety are major cultural touchstones. In fact, before my education in fat shame, my relationship to food was a pretty normal one:
I ate when I wanted to eat – to me, this means that hunger didn’t always motivate eating, but I had a relationship with food that was motivated by the pleasure food gives us and also the need for food to survive and thrive.
Also, food was just food – it was yummy, but it wasn’t some magical entity that could make or break my day.
At a super young age, I began embarking upon what would become a decades-long relationship with food that was characterized by disordered thinking and pathological behavior, including (at its height) starvation and obsessive exercise.
I began my first very serious diet at the age of 11 between 5th and 6th grade when I decided to use the summer months to lose weight by eating only lettuce and toast with an occasional side of barbecue sauce while exercising at least two hours a day. I was praised for this disordered behavior because as a fat girl it was culturally expected that I would lose weight by any means necessary. So the idea that this behavior could be negative in any way did not occur to me because I had been taught that my body was a problem that needed correcting.
Fast forward seven years. I am 18 years old. I’m going abroad for the first time in my life. I’m a college freshman, and I get a rare opportunity to study in Italy. Again the weight-loss fantasy of my 11-year-old self returns, never really having gone away. I decide to use this study abroad program as motivation to lose weight, so I can return home transformed. I decide to do this by returning to restrictive eating and this time, it’s even more extreme. I resign myself to starvation. I want you to imagine for a moment: I’m in a country with the most amazing cuisine on the planet and I’m eating somewhere between 3 and 5 spoonfuls of food per day, and that is only if I am not “disciplined” enough to eat 0 bites.
Well within about a month and a half, my behavior begins to take a toll on my body. I’m constantly exhausted, and every time I stand up for more than a few minutes I become very dizzy, and that leads to nausea. At the time, I had absolutely no idea that my eating behavior was leading to these outcomes. In my mind, these two ideas never connected because I saw the dizziness and the nausea as negative, but I saw the dieting behavior and starvation as inherently positive. Sometimes I would get so dizzy and exhausted that I’d fall asleep on random park benches in town. One time this happened and I woke up at 2 am alone; I was terrified.
Even, after all of that, I still went on to diet for several years. I was convinced that controlling my relationship to food was the key to creating the perfect life.
My relationship to food began to turn a corner at around the time I realized that diet culture is full of shit and that my intake was not connected to my body size in quite the linear fashion I’d been led to believe it was. Yes, I’m calling bullshit on the absurdly reductive “calories in, calories out” theory. I came to realize that unless something cataclysmic happens, I will always be the Western idea of fat. And I came to realize that I’m actually ok with that because there’s nothing wrong with me or my big body.
Even after having been involved in fat politics for almost 5 years, my relationship to food isn’t like some portrait of Zen perfection. Know why? I – and you – live in a culture that teaches us every day how to have a weird-ass relationship to food. I will say, though, that since I’ve stopped feeling ashamed of being a fat person I have developed a cuter relationship to food. Like, for example, I can look at what goes in my mouth and know almost exactly how my body is going to deal with it:
I know that a poached egg is probably going to make me poop soon (in kind of a bad way, girl). I know that half a cup of coffee is going to make me feel focused and awake, and a full cup of coffee is going to give me the shakes (and that either way I’m going to poop soon). I know that when I have heartburn I probably need to cool it on my consumption of tomato products and chocolate. I know that if I eat a massive serving of kugel, I’m going to be awake half the night with the I-ate-a-lot-of kugel tummy cramps. And this knowledge leads me to make informed decisions. This doesn’t mean I don’t ever eat hella kugel, girl. This new relationship to food I’m developing, however, helps me know what works for me and what doesn’t. And that’s what I need.
Furthermore, I would say that for as long as humans have been around we have used food for lots of purposes, not just fuel. People use food to convey affection and to signify celebration. We use food as a quick way to feel pleasure, and for some people, food is the cheapest and easiest way to access positive sensations. Food has long been symbolic. And so I don’t think the ideal relationship with food is one of detachment. Food is so GOOD. Nay, food is AMAZEBALLS Like, I don’t want to be indifferent toward tiramisu. Ever.
In my opinion, the problem isn’t that food has emotional meaning, it’s that we’re taught to endow food with a power that it simply doesn’t have. Yes, we need food to survive, and we need it to thrive. However, food does not have the power to change anyone into a good or bad person, nor does it have the power to determine how worthy your body is.
I don’t have some perfect solution for your complicated relationship to food, and it’s possible that you need some additional outside support. But the three things that have helped heal my disordered relationship with food have been:
(1) Time: sometimes (ok, often) it takes a while to get over diet culture. Think of it as a long-term relationship, where diet culture is your asshole ex. Even if you now realize that Y’all weren’t meant to be soul mates because your ex is ultimately a calculating sociopath, it still takes time to get over the breakup.
(2) Patience with myself: patience is another word for self-compassion in this context. Remember that a long, long time ago you had this natural relationship to food – you ate when you felt like eating, and there was no guilt or shame in it. Remember that when those complicated feelings come up that they are learned feelings. It’s ok to have complicated thoughts or feelings. Just sit with them, without letting them determine your behavior. Think to yourself: “I see you, weird thought, but you’re not the boss of me.” Remember: You’re not a terrible person. You’re not a food failure!
(3) Not imposing hard and fast rules on how I eat: Diet culture taught me that I needed to have a very concrete set of rules around food otherwise awful things would happen! I actually think this promotes a pathological relationship to food.
Finally, even when we’ve ideologically worked things out, and we’ve decided that dieting sucks, it takes time for our brains and habits and thought patterns to catch up. And that’s normal.
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.