Thursday, June 7, 2012

Girls Got Mommy Issues: The Anti-Diet Series II

When I was a teenager our Health teacher showed us a movie about the different text-book ways people can be kind of or really fucked up. I wish I could forget the scene about what's wrong with fat chicks, anyway. Overweight girls have low self-esteem, the narrator explained, so they eat to mask the pain of hating themselves which makes them even fatter which causes them to hate themselves even more which causes them to eat more to mask the pain of hating themselves even more, and so on.

"It's a viscous spiral of self-loathing that, for the binge eater, there is no escape," said the sonorous, concerned voice-over tinged with barely controlled, but controlled disgust.

The visual was this mildly plump girl in fortrel slacks grabbing hamburgers out of a fast food bag and cramming them into her mouth by fistfuls. She would take a few bites from the hamburgers in one fist and then, without swallowing, stuff some more bites in from the burgers in her other hand. Everyone gasped and/or tittered and/or guffawed. The footage of her eating was alternately sped-up and slowed down to give it a sense of distorted reality. Her hair was back-lit for that demented look.

One guy, who was always giving me a hard time, turned around and said "Gross." He looked at me when he said it, and sneered.

It bugged the shit out of me.

Is that how people see me? A mildly plump girl in acid-wash denim who, according to The Narrator HATES myself? I don't! Is that what people think I do? Purchase giant bags of hamburgers to cram into my mouth all at the same time with a crazed look in my eyes and back-lit hair? I don't!

Honestly, I've grown up quite mystified by the fact that everyone gets to be skinny but me. It seems I have to work so much harder then everyone else to control my weight.

I am a conscientious eater. I know a lot of nutrition. I am a smart chick. I should be able to balance the books, so to speak. But it's like there's always been something I just don't get about normal eating and normal weight.

I had a very thin boyfriend in University who patiently explained to me that the way he kept himself in size 28-inch Levi's was by simply eating when he was hungry, and not eating when he wasn't.

I was irritated by this facile advice and assured him that I followed the same strategy. However, that I was obviously hungry more often than him preferring to eat, for example, regular meals that included vegetables and quite doubted that his diet of cigarettes, Pepsi and hashish would benefit me in any particular way.

He shrugged and turned his palms upwards, spreading out those long, cartoon fingers of his in a gesture of helpless gentleness.

"I'm just saying, I eat when I'm hungry and I don't when I'm not."

What did he think? That I probably ate bags of hamburgers in secret because I hated myself? Screw that. Screw him. Nobody gets me.

Now, almost two decades later, I'm slogging my way through Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue and her advice to readers is to eat when they are hungry and not when they aren't. She encourages women to let themselves eat. And to let ourselves not eat. You probably don't know what normal eating and normal hunger are, anymore, she says, because of all the diets you've been on. You've got to find by not following any one else's eating rules for a while, just let your body's needs be your guide, respond only to your own hunger cues about when and what to eat, for once in your life. Get in touch with when you are hungry and when you are not. Nothing is off limits, there is no magic food or evil foods, just what you do and do not want to eat. When you are ready to slim down, you will. If you don't want to, you won't. Don't think about trying to slim down. Don't torture yourself with food rules. Just examine.

Dude, I've been on a diet since I was 8. Thanks, Mom. Thanks, The 80s.

Orbach's "Anti-diet guide" has been a ridiculously liberating experience so far.

I cannot believe how many rules, judgements, condemnations and little rages flash through me every single time I choose something to eat. Or not eat. It's ridiculous.

So I've been trying to take all this seriously and not judging, just honestly examining and experiencing.

Here are some things that I've noticed since paying attention:

The other day my husband put a piece of boiled broccoli on everyone's plate and, knowing I don't like boiled broccoli and find the smell positively nauseating, he gave me that look that says, "You better eat this to set a good example for our children." And I took the vile thing off my plate and put it on his, and said, "Don't feel like it." And he gave me another look and I blew a loooooong raspberry at him and said, "No way!" And it felt wonderful. We've had a similar interaction concerning microwaved leftover oatmeal.

Being around my parents makes me want to eat junk food. I feel deprived after spending time with them, and like I deserve a treat.

I spend too much money on food at the grocery store trying to buy food that is beyond impunity: organic local kale to dehydrate my own kale chips, single-origin fair-trade organic shade-grown coffee beans, and the like.

The other day my mom and I were driving around the park while my 2-year old had was napping in her car seat and I don't know how "breakfast for supper" came up but we were chatting and I was saying that "breakfast for supper" is always a hit with everyone and it's so easy when you don't know what to cook for dinner. And then she went on about how my father liked "that kind of thing" too, and that's why she didn't make it very often, because he could just "eat and eat that kind of food" and she herself knows better than to "indulge" in "food like that" but my father is just "an eating machine who would stuff himself with bacon and sausage and eggs all day long if she let him." And I "let my kids have jam on their toast" and that's one "mistake she never ever made," because kids will "just eat jam if you let them" but she "knew better than to have those kinds of foods around the house."

And I was so mad and annoyed with her. Like, really? There's something so wrong with omelettes for supper? And you don't make food "like that" because your husband would enjoy eating it? And is that why we're all just perfect, the no jam rule?

Luckily a pair of Canada Geese choose exactly then to cross our path, all haughty like they were going to church in their Sunday best and were at a cross-walk looking down their beaks at us commandingly, and it was so cute that it was easy to change the subject to stopping to let the geese cross. Cause she would have gone on and one while I got madder and madder.

When preparing a meal, I picture my mother criticizing my food choices and I launch an internal dialogue where I defend them and she keeps attacking them. I do this way too often and when expecting a visit with her, it goes into overdrive.

So, yeah, I have a lot of mommy/food-issues. How predictable, really, in hind-sight I'm shocked that it's taken me so long to realize it.

That thing my mom does, where she prepares a big meal, say Christmas dinner, and a saskatoon cheesecake for dessert, and then when people compliment her on the meal, she goes on about how it's all for us because she doesn't like food that's "rich and fattening like all this rich and fattening stuff." It's hard to enjoy meals with her because of her insistence that we are all morally obligated not to enjoy it, unless we're "just like our father" who is sitting right there.

That voice that tells me I'm a bad person for enjoying food and, in fact, enjoying it greatly, is my mother's voice. I have been working all my life to ignore that voice. I am quite successful at it. I am a shut-the-fuck-up-that voice ninja.

"Of course I should enjoy this food," I think. Of course "I deserve a nice meal" or a treat, I think. Or, "I better eat this now, who knows when I'll get another opportunity to enjoy this, cause really, next week I should really start cutting back".

I rarely (never) say no to offered food. I don't like to deprive myself. I don't binge on bags of hamburgers, but neither do I only eat when I'm hungry, and not when I'm not.

I have this feeling like my relationship with food and my body is so complex but the thing about Orbach's book that is a revelation to me is that she acknowledges this complexity. It resonate with me in a way that the whole "fat chicks eat because they have low self-esteem" thing does not, not at all. In fact, the whole bag of hamburgers because you hate yourself is profoundly insulting to my intelligence. Eating, to me, is a an act of self-love, not of self-loathing. It's the permission to love myself and treat myself kindly. I have always thought of it that way, though I've never really allowed myself to think it out loud.

But now, I have a desire to tease apart all these complex relationships between food/body/self/mother/sex/rage etc. that Orbach talks about. Maybe it's not as complex as I fear. Maybe it doesn't have to completely mystify me. That would be kinda nice.



  1. I think you are right on with your thoughts about food being "self love". I just happened on your blog and enjoyed reading it. I think you are right on with your thoughts about food being "self love". Isn't it all so complex! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Holy cow. That conversation with your mom? Could have been one with mine. Small differences, but WOW, the similarities. Shall be following your journey.

  3. Ugh. It would be a miracle if you DIDN'T have food issues, with a mother like that. What a sad, shriveled little woman. You are generous and smart and lovable and beautiful. I say you have a hamburger when you bloody well feel like it, and fuck the stupid fucking movie. And I think I need to get that book.

  4. Hi Betsy,

    I've been reading your blog for a while and the reason I hardly ever comment is because my kids usually need me for something so I only ever get to sneak to the computer to read, not comment. But my kids are not here so I am commenting and I wanted to tell you how I really enjoy your writing and think you are hilarious and wonderful and thoughtful. I walk away from reading here and have lots of new things to mull over and I just wanted to let you know.

    Take care,

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