I have a philosophy that goes something like this: you were born a complete, integrated whole of a being. Your mind, your thoughts, your body, your feelings, and your behaviours all converged in a single indivisible unit of you-ness.
When you needed food, you felt hunger, thought of food, and cried or reached out for it in one motion. There was no ambivalence, no questioning your own motives, no shame. You needed something — end of story. And if you were lucky enough, you got it.
I look back on the time I was dieting as a period of falling-out with my body. We fell out of synchronicity, and out of favour, with one another. We were no longer on speaking terms. And though the diet was a dramatic physical manifestation of the rift that had formed between my mind and my body, I believe the fault that led to the rift started much earlier.
The fault began to form when I started to feel the gaze around the age of 10 — when I began viewing myself from an external viewpoint, filtered through the preferences of my culture, and learned to continually measure myself against that standard.
The fault deepened when I first encountered food rules. Whether they came from the USDA or my parents or the school lunch program, the message was the same: there is predefined, normative standard for what and how much to eat. Any deviance from that standard leaves you vulnerable to criticism, ridicule, forceful re-education — possibly even social ostracization and loss of love.
In short, there is a right way to eat. Anything that doesn’t exactly fit that standard is, by definition, wrong.
Right is good; wrong is bad. And so, by extension, are you.
Ellyn Satter is probably most famous for her theory of The Division of Responsibility. It applies to feeding relationships between parents and children, and it states that while parents are in charge of deciding where, when, and what food to provide, children alone must be in charge of deciding how much and whether they will eat from what’s provided.
Perhaps the best advice regarding child-feeding practices continues to be the division of responsibility between adult and child advocated by Satter (64). According to this division, the role of parents and other caregivers in feeding is to provide positive structure, age-appropriate support, and healthful food and beverage choices. Children are responsible for whether and how much to eat from what adults provide.
It’s a profound concept — one that successfully negotiates the gray area between guidance and control, autonomy and anarchy. And, as it turns out, it can be applied to any relationship where there is some kind of power differential.
The thing is, when you step all over someone’s autonomy — someone’s right to choose how much and whether — you have breached their boundaries, and you have done them violence. They may react to this by rebelling or, as in many cases of abuse, by taking on the role of doing that violence to themselves.
One thing is for certain, though, whatever the response: trust is lost.
A rift is established. Your mind and your conscious will, those parts of you that are indoctrinated into society, separate themselves from the rest of you — the body with its physical needs, the unconscious will and motives. The mind reins in the body to secure safe passage through society, and to synchronize its efforts with the larger body of humanity. The body is dressed, trimmed, made presentable, and its needs are secreted away in the private pockets of life.
Rules that attempt to tell us how much and whether (FIVE A DAY!!!) violate our boundaries. We, in turn, rebel in a desperate attempt to regain autonomy, while simultaneously learning to flagellate ourselves, to take on the role of the abuser in our own minds, and to view our behaviours from an external vantage point — the gaze that continually judges what we eat against our culture’s ideal of the mythical, perfect diet.
The mind has overstepped its boundaries, aided and abetted by cultural pressures. You begin to monitor your eating in ways that go beyond providing pleasurable food and adequate nutrition for yourself, beyond choosing and then respecting mealtimes. You count calories, or assign points. You deny pleasure, and embrace nutritionism.
You hush your body’s cries of hunger and fullness and desire until, eventually, you may find yourselves no longer on speaking terms.