Finding Myself Through Food - une femme d'un certain âge

Finding Myself Through Food

Jan Steen: Girl Eating Oysters

I was just catching up over at Harriet Brown’s terrific blog, Feed Me! and this post really resonated with my own experience. Lately I’ve been tempted to write about this, especially with Diet Season™ in full swing with it’s onslaught of advertising for various weight loss schemes, drugs and scams.

Harriet quotes Ellyn Satter, a therapist who specializes in food and eating issues:

Competent eaters have positive attitudes about eating and therefore are relaxed about it. They enjoy food and eating and they are comfortable with their enjoyment. They feel it is okay to eat food they like in amounts they find satisfying.


…competent eaters are emotionally and socially healthier than people with low levels of eating competence. They feel more effective, they are more self-aware, and they are more trusting and comfortable with themselves and with other people.

I started dieting in earnest at 14 years old and 103 pounds. I’d been a chubby kid, and even though I’d grown out of my “baby fat,” I still thought of myself as fat. My family and friends encouraged the endeavor, and after a week of nothing but cottage cheese, hot dogs and turkey lunch meat, I was down to 95 pounds. Everyone raved about how great I looked. Of course, it didn’t last, and soon I was on a cycle of starving/bingeing, losing/gaining that was to last for a many years at my most disordered, and on/off for a couple of decades afterward. During these times I was perpetually anxious around people, around food, and had no sense of who I was or what I wanted. I remember telling a friend, “sometimes I feel like an onion; just keep peeling away the layers and there’s no core, just more layers.”

I envied my friends who seemed to have a normal and uncomplicated relationship with eating, who could have one cookie or one piece of their mom’s zucchini bread, and who didn’t seem to be thinking about food All. The. Time. For me, eating “normally” was impossible. I was always hungry, always thinking about food: what I could eat, what I couldn’t eat, how I was going to resist having birthday cake at the party, how I was going to be able to sneak back into the kitchen to grab another piece of pizza and then sneak into the bathroom to wolf it down. Today I understand that this was a normal physiological reaction to periodic semi-starvation, but back then I thought it was because I was weak-willed and indulgent, had no willpower, and was morally flawed. Not trusting myself around food spilled over into not trusting myself in most other areas of my life. I had friends who put me down and boyfriends who constantly bugged me about my weight and commented about every bite I took, and I thought this was what I deserved. I wore clothes that were too small and uncomfortable because I thought by punishing myself I’d be more motivated to lose weight.

One day in my early 20’s, I was perusing the shelves of my favorite used bookstore, and found myself with a copy of “Fat is a Feminist Issue” in my hands. At the risk of sounding trite, this was a life-changing book for me. I gave myself permission to stop dieting, and almost immediately I stopped bingeing. For the first time in years, I left food on my plate. While it did take a few years to get fully back in tune with my body’s hunger and satiety messages, I initially experienced a freedom around food that I previously thought I’d lost forever.

And as I became more in touch with my body again, I also became more in touch with myself, my likes and dislikes, and started living more from the inside out not only in regards to the superficial things but also in regard to the people and relationships in my life. I began to think less in terms of “do they like me?” and more in terms of “do I like them?” It wasn’t a smooth or simple path; several times over the next couple of decades I lapsed back into dieting, and each time the anxiety around food and social situations reasserted itself. I haven’t given up wishing I were a bit thinner; I’m just no longer willing to sacrifice this peace of mind I have today to that goal. I still worry too much about what others think of me, but am no longer devastated by disapproval. I no longer believe that my self-worth comes from wearing a smaller size, or that having dessert makes me a weak or bad person. And more often than not, I am able to eat a few bites until I’m satisfied, and leave the rest on my plate. By disengaging from our culture’s disordered attitude toward food and eating, I’ve achieved a normal and healthy relationship with food, and with it, a sense of comfort about life in general.

Edited to add: Proof again that great minds think alike, 😉 Maya’s Granny has some insightful thoughts today on this topic.

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  1. Toby Wollin
    January 20, 2008 / 9:00 pm

    I love that phrase – “competent eater”. All sorts of wonderful stuff attached to that. I don’t lay any claims to great “eating wisdom” but something I decided to do a while ago was to commit to eating good food — that is to say, stuff that actually tastes good. To take the time to actually cook meals from good stuff and take the time to eat the good meals with my husband and family members and enjoy the food and the companionship and the talk. I enjoy eating and the food a lot more now than I did before. In the past, I have tried the whole “eat stuff that is really good for you in the medical sense” and I found eating things filled with soy flour and flax seeds, etc. made me feel resentful and bloated instead of better, so I just try to make sure I eat enough fruits and veggies every day and get a bit of exercise and whatever happens…happens.

  2. January 21, 2008 / 7:44 am

    Yes, indeed, we are moving on the same wavelength today.

  3. Duchesse
    January 21, 2008 / 4:37 pm

    I love the points you make! Sallie Tisdale’s essay, “A Weight Women Carry” changed my life like “Fat is a Feminist Issue” changed yours.

    A brief quote:
    “American culture, which has produced our dieting mania, does more than reward privation and acquisition at the same time: it actually associates them with each other. Read the ads: the virtuous runner’s reward is a new pair of $180 running shoes.”

  4. J at
    January 21, 2008 / 2:46 pm

    What a wonderful post, and how I wish more people could see this, and get more comfortable around food. It can be a wonderful part of life, and in America at least, we act as though we should be ashamed of enjoying it at all.

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