You don’t have to like food.

Some kids were not just neglected around food, but abused. This is a bit different than just not having enough to eat – it also includes being badgered and harassed about how you eat, what you eat, your weight, your appetite, having food withheld from you, being force-fed, force-weighed, forced to diet, forced to exercise, and a whole host of other terrible things.

It may centre around food or weight, but it is abuse just the same.

One of the devastating things about abuse is not only that it hurts and traumatizes you, but that it can drive a wedge between you and your intrinsic motivation to engage in survival behaviours, severely disrupting the intuitive process of pain-avoidance and pleasure-seeking that would otherwise lead you to take care of yourself.

Once you’re on your own, away from the source of the abuse, you may anticipate freedom and happiness — only to find that you neglect yourself. This can be extremely distressing, inspiring panic and maybe even self-loathing as you condemn yourself for not doing things that you assume everyone else does without difficulty.

I’m gonna tell you the truth here: eating isn’t easy. Getting food, preparing food, and orchestrating regular eating times takes effort, and sometimes it’s hard.

If food has been used in someone else’s hands as a cudgel to bludgeon you for a good portion of your life, it makes perfect sense that you would associate eating with doom/dread/awfulness and probably not enjoy it very much. If mealtimes used to be a time of criticism, sniping at your weight, having food taken from you, being told nothing you could do was ever right or good enough, or being forced to endure food you couldn’t stand, it is 100% normal for you to not enjoy eating today.

You would have developed negative associations with eating, sometimes very strong ones, that come up instinctively anytime the stimulus, food, is presented to you. Those negative associations will interfere with the instinctive desire — but that desire is still in you, somewhere.

You can build new, positive associations with eating. It will take time, and you might need help from a therapist and/or nutritionist. What you DON’T need, right now, is the additional pressure of being angry with yourself because you don’t enjoy eating.

You don’t have to like eating. You don’t have to like any particular food, either. Trying to force yourself to is, sometimes, very similar to reproducing the abuse.

So if you don’t like eating, what do you do?

1) Acknowledge that it’s totally understandable that you don’t like eating

2) At the same time, acknowledge that you need and deserve to take care of yourself

3) Go through the motions of putting food in front of yourself, even if your heart’s not in it (and even if you don’t end up eating it)

This is where offering yourself food at regular times comes in handy again. Even if you don’t like food, even if it inspires panic, even if it brings up all the horrible doom and terrible feelings that come from being abused — even in the midst of all those feelings, you still have the ability to put food in front of yourself.

Make it as easy and pleasant as possible. If that means you need to eat with a supportive friend 100% of the time, make some calls and figure out a way to set that up. If it means eating alone in your room so you’ll feel safe, set up a place to do that comfortably. If that means you eat only chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and canned peaches for a while, stock up on chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and canned peaches.

Play music, watch Christmas movies on your laptop, get a tray so you can eat in bed — anything. Anything to make this as pleasant, easy, and nice as you can.

Then, start putting food in front of yourself three times a day, with full permission to eat or not eat it. Commit to sitting with it in a pleasant, non-threatening environment for 15-30 minutes. Over time, you will start to build new, positive associations with food.

Being nice to yourself in general takes practice, so don’t worry if this feels strange and awkward at first. If you were abused or neglected, you were likely never taught the necessary skills to soothe and comfort yourself, or how to make necessary tasks feel less burdensome and terrible.

That’s what those things are, by the way: skills. We all learn them. Some of us later than others.

After sitting for a while in a pleasant environment with food, you might feel like eating it. You might not. If not, put it away or throw it away (and be nice to yourself.)

In a few hours, put the food there again and sit with it. Practice.

It’s going to be okay.

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Feeling safe around food again.

When you haven’t been fed enough, either as a kid, or as an adult for a significant period of time, the fear of going hungry kind of seeps into you. It starts to change your behaviour around food and eating. All of this is your body’s way of making sure it gets fed. This is about survival, not about character, and not about morality. You do what you have to do.

Sometimes people with a significant history of food insecurity or restriction will hoard food or feel preoccupied with food. While this can be good for survival, it can seriously complicate your food-eating life.

As you know, I’m a big fan of the regular meal. Planning to have, and actually following through on, regular meal and snack times gives you the chance to plan ahead, to put together nourishing combinations of food, and it also, crucially, provides one thing the scared, underfed part of you desperately needs: a guarantee that eating will happen.

When kids who were underfed are placed in a foster home or adopted by new parents, they often hoard, binge, and are totally preoccupied with food for a while. This scares a lot of caregivers, so they may clamp down with controlling practices that, unfortunately, sometimes serve to frighten the kids even more.

What can actually help (though it’s never easy, of course) is to provide structure and permission, rather than control and restriction. Part of that structure means setting regular meal and snacktimes, and crucially, communicating those times to the child. Some people will write the meal schedule on a whiteboard or tape it to the refrigerator, so anytime the underfed child is scared of going hungry again, they can look (or be gently pointed to) the meal schedule and remember, “Oh yeah. Food is coming in a comfortable amount of time.”

This is part of breaking through trauma in order to provide a sense of safety. Trauma does weird things to the brain, like keep it stuck in events that happened long ago, making it difficult to form new memories that build a bridge out of those events. People often need guidance, someone to walk with them, and sign-posts to remind them that where they’re going, and where they are, is not the same as where they’ve been. A meal schedule is one of those sign-posts.

As for what the meal structure should look like, I’m going to borrow from one of my colleagues (I can’t remember who, I’m sorry! Please feel free to add your name in comments if you’re reading) what she called The Rule of Threes, which I thought was a brilliant way to remember: three meals and three snacks, no more than three hours apart.

If you need to feel safe around food, if you need to reassure the part of you that is scared of not getting enough to eat, write it down somewhere. You can write times of the day, or you can just write the rule itself, and put it somewhere you will see it when you’re thinking about food. Whenever you wake up, eat something (within an hour or so), check the clock and make a mental note of the time you’ll need to eat again.

These are not enforced eating times — rather, they are the times you will commit to providing yourself the CHANCE to eat. That means physically putting food in front of yourself (whether you think you want it or not), sitting down, and deciding whether/how much to eat. If you don’t want to eat, put it away. If you only want part, only eat part and put the rest away. If you eat it all, check if you’re still hungry and want seconds. If you’re not sure, wait 15 minutes and check in again. Look at the meal schedule and remind yourself that food will be coming again in three or less hours.

At this point, don’t worry about what you are eating. Just put anything you have available, or anything you think you want, in front of yourself at meal times. Anything is better than nothing, and you can always build on it later. Regular eating times are the foundation, and the walls and roof will be built in time.

You are going to be fed. Someone is taking care of you. The people who raised you might have messed up in some way, or just plain didn’t have access to enough food, but things are different now. You’re taking care of yourself now, and you’re going to follow through.

Posted in eating, Humane Nutrition | Comments closed

On not being fed enough as a child.

This is one of the painful truths of my job: discovering that sometimes children, especially fat kids, or kids whose caregivers suspect they will one day be fat, don’t get fed enough. Sometimes those kids grow up and become my clients.

Sometimes considerable abuse and neglect in other domains comes along with being underfed as child, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes kids grow up in a family system that looks perfectly functional to everyone, even to themselves, that just happens to not meet their most basic needs. Like getting enough to eat.

A lot of kids respond to being underfed by sneaking, stealing, bingeing at a friend’s house. It’s expected. It’s universal. It’s survival.

The unfortunate thing is, they often internalize the idea that these behaviours are proof of moral corruption or badness, or some underlying eating pathology or addiction. It’s not true, but I’ll tell you what is.

If you were one of these kids, you were not bad. You did what you had to do to survive.

I’m glad you did that. I’m glad you’re here.

There is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken or bad. You were born into a world where the people responsible for your well-being failed in one of the most fundamental ways. I don’t know if they were abusive or neglectful or forgetful or just wanted you to lose weight. The bottom line is, they didn’t feed you enough, and that was their fault, not yours.

Eating is a human right, and you’re a human. Even when you’re a kid.

Posted in children, eating, Liking Yourself | Comments closed

Partner is a foodie, I’m a picky eater. Fights ensue.

Here’s another question from readers of Mealtime Hostage.

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My significant other is a foodie, and I’m a picky eater. I’m tired of hearing how terrible my diet is and being asked to try new foods. We just had a big fight about my eating, and I feel so disconnected and hurt.

Listen up, foodies.

I know you want to share your love of food with your loved ones — hell, with the whole world. That is a nice impulse, truly. But this is not an issue of food so much as it is one of relationships.

This is about bodily agency and consent.

In many relationships, one partner sees themselves as the Great Offerer of Experiences, Ideas, and Tastes, and sees the other as an empty vessel into which they pour their Experiences, Ideas, and Tastes. It can happen with music, film, travel, sex, and of course, food. This is a teacher-student dynamic, or a parent-child dynamic, or a mentor-mentee dynamic.

This dynamic has its place, but it is not a shared-love-between-equals dynamic.

So, what kind of relationship are you in, and what kind do you want to be in? Do you want your partner to be your student or your equal?

Have you received informed consent from your partner to assess their diet? Doesn’t sound like it. They’re doing their best to fulfill a bodily function that is physiologically controlled. Judging their eating is tantamount to following them into the toilet and holding up a scorecard. It’s creepy and gross.

People have to come around to food in their own time. If they aren’t allowed to, if they are pressured or forced or coerced into trying something that they find intimidating, there is a very good chance they will not suddenly love that food, will not have the Foodie Switch in their brain flipped to the On position.

More likely, they will associate more anxiety with that food, not less, and it will probably taint the memory of the delicious thing you were hoping they’d enjoy.

So what do you do instead? I’m going to sound like a broken record, but: follow a Division of Responsibility.

Not the one for parents and children. The one that exists between adults.

As an adult, you are responsible for your own eating. The other adult is responsible for what, when, where, how much, and whether they eat. You can negotiate certain things — where and when are sometimes necessary to coordinate, and if you’re deciding on a restaurant or a recipe, some negotiation around what will also be useful. But you need to remember that any negotiations around what end at offering. Not ingestion.

What this means is, you can both decide on a place to eat, or a recipe to try, and you can put the food on the table and both sit down.

After that? You must chill.

No one has to put anything in their mouth or their stomach that they don’t want. To insist that they do is a serious boundary violation, and a breach of their bodily agency. There is a spectrum of not-okayness that starts with coaxing, wheedling, and pressuring someone to try something they don’t want, and ends with force-feeding. Don’t be that guy.

People are funny about putting things in their bodies, because it’s inherently risky. It’s moving an outside object across the boundary between not-me and me, and there is a certain vulnerability attached to that. People are afraid of contamination, of squicky textures, of unknown ingredients, of possible downstream side-effects, and for good reason: we evolved to have this hesitancy around food because certain things are not good for us to eat. This is an inborn trait attached to survival, and you’re not going to get around it with pressure and prodding. If anything, you’re going to make it worse.

So shut up. Put the food on the table, throw on some bread and butter or rice as a back-up dish, sit down and eat. Talk with your partner about your day, about that funny movie you want to watch, about dogs you saw on the way home, and leave food entirely out of it. In fact, let’s set a rule right now: don’t talk about food at all unless your partner brings it up. Enjoy yourself and keep your eyes on your own plate.

If you make eating with you a pleasant experience, your partner will want to continue to do it. Over time, with lots of experience sitting at the table with intimidating foods, those foods will become less intimidating — as long as you don’t say anything — and your partner may actually branch out to try some on their own. They might not like it, which is okay, because it can take several exposures or tries before something is liked enough to be incorporated into the eating repertoire.

Just…shut up. Eat your food. Count your lucky stars that you enjoy it, and lay off everyone else.

Since you’ve already managed to hurt your partner, I’m going to tell you the formula for when you mess up: first apologize sincerely, and then do something to make amends. Go say you’re sorry, and bring home a nice little notebook or a plant or a favourite chocolate bar for them, or cook them a meal they really enjoy (and shut up.)

Here’s where I will address the picky eater: you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want. All you need to do is show up at the agreed-upon time and place, and don’t make faces or say anything about how gross the food looks or smells. That’s it. Sit at the table, pick at the bread and butter if you want, and if you don’t end up eating anything during the meal, go get yourself a bowl of cereal afterward and eat it in blessed peace.

P.S. There is nothing wrong with you.

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All of the bodily agency in comments.

Posted in Dear Fat Nutritionist, Picky Eating | Comments closed

We deserve to look like ourselves.

One day a while ago, my husband asked me, “Why do you have three-thousand pictures of yourself on your hard drive?”

This was not an easy question to answer. A little background:

From the time I was about nine, I was told almost daily by my peers that I was unforgivably ugly.

During childhood, for a long time, I appreciated the way I looked. I liked my face, my shoulders, even my wispy baby-hair. I knew that no one else could see what I saw, I knew that I was not “pretty” in the tightly-defined way girls are supposed to be, but I liked myself. I looked in the mirror with some amount of pleasure, a recognition that what I saw there was human, that it was me, and that I liked being me.

This liking was slowly eroded by two things: 1) being told, over and over again, that I was ugly, would always be ugly, and 2) being told that if I betrayed any sign of liking myself, I was vain.

I wanted to be pretty, and I was supposed to be pretty, and if I wasn’t naturally pretty I was supposed to work at it, but I wasn’t supposed to let anyone know I was working at it. It was a confusing way to grow up.

By the time I was 12, I started to suspect that the whole idea of “pretty” was bullshit — that year, I kicked a dentist who yanked my tooth without any warning/consent/anaesthesia, and who then tried to sell me braces with, “Don’t you want to be pretty?” I ran out of the room with crooked teeth and blood on my chin.

There were several confusing years after that, culminating in a moment, at 16, when people suddenly decided to find me pretty, and to loudly and aggressively tell me to my face that I was pretty, and to treat me as though I were now a more valuable and sought-after person because of it. I messed around with people’s perceptions whenever I could, dressing down at first, then suddenly showing up in my Pretty Lady Costume, and watching the same people who’d ignored me the day before become deferential.

I decided the entire thing, top to bottom, front to back, was a steaming pyramid of bullshit. My value as a human being could not possibly fluctuate as readily as people wanted me to believe, based on whether or not I wore certain clothes or put on makeup or didn’t bother with my hair that day or gained or lost weight. I was a person, not a fucking junk bond.

A few years later, I got fat, which meant that I was persona non grata again.

Bullshit: confirmed.

I didn’t look in the mirror for a long time, still believing in the misogynist fever-dream of “vanity.” For a long time, after I gained weight, I felt I didn’t have the right to leave the house or exist in public, that maybe I was too ugly to even deserve to live — even though I knew that, intellectually, to be bullshit. I took steps to fight against it, but it was a long, slow battle.

I started to come out of it around age 27, and took the first photos of myself in a long time. A couple years later, I got my first webcam and began taking more self portraits. When I was surprised by the way I looked in the pictures, I realized that I wasn’t actually familiar with how I looked, because I avoided looking at myself so much. This disturbed me; I deserved to carry a self-image in my head instead of a vague, dread-inducing void.

Later, as I took more pictures, this thought changed slightly: I also deserved to show other people what my image of myself looked like, how I saw myself. Whether or not this matched up with how they saw me was almost irrelevant — their image of me was no more objective or true than my image of myself. I deserved to be able to say, with my photos, to other people, “Hey, I know you see a crude barometer of my social status when you look at me, but this is what I, a human, actually look like.”

I took a lot of pictures.

Here’s the thing about pictures: they help to determine what image of yourself, and of human beings in general, you carry in your head. In a way, they help you to define what “human” is, and, if you are represented in the images, to include yourself in that definition.

I have weighed a lot of weights in my life, and looked a lot of different ways, and I have been human the whole time.

For reasons I shouldn’t have to spell out, this is really, really important for people’s health and well-being. We need to be allowed to see ourselves as human, at any size, and to see ourselves represented alongside other humans. We need to be able to share our images in public, if we want, and push the recognition of our humanity. Mostly, we need to be allowed to have images of ourselves imbedded in our brains, alongside everyone else. When we see nothing but images of people who don’t look like us celebrated and represented by our own culture, little by little, it degrades our sense of being human. It is a form of systemic emotional abuse.

When someone takes the images of stigmatized people and digitally alters them to fit the mainstream ideal of beauty, they have effectively turned those people’s images against them, and further degraded those people’s sense of their own humanity.

In places where fat people post their selfies, trolls needle them for posting “deceptive angles” that make them appear thinner, or “hiding their bodies” with headshots, or “using filters” (that is, the wide-angle lens standard on most smartphones) to elongate themselves, but — somehow without imploding from cognitive dissonance — consider themselves to be performing charity by poorly and aggressively Photoshopping fat people’s photos to make them look thin.

It’s just a joke, okay. It’s just trolling, okay. Trolling is subversive comedy, you know, okay. Man the harpoons, okay. It’s “promoting health,” okay. If I react with outrage, lel. Okay.

It’s just funny how it aligns with the status quo.
It’s just funny how it perpetuates health disparities.
It’s just funny how it always upholds the existing hierarchy.
It’s just funny how it’s never actually subversive.

They do it because they enjoy pushing people’s faces in the dirt. That’s all. They’re not rebels; they’re lackeys in service of the most pedestrian cultural norms, and boring enough that those norms are indistinguishable from their personalities.

I feel for them. Let’s hope they make a full recovery. Until then.

Posted in Fatness | Comments closed
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