The unbearable vulnerability of eating enough.

If I were to pull a theme out of all the conversations I had about food and eating this summer, it would be black-and-white thinking. By that I mean, thinking in all-or-nothing terms, swinging between two extremes, and never pausing to consider the middle ground. In fact, actively resisting the middle ground.

There is so much black-and-white thinking about eating in our culture, that sometimes I start to wonder if we have an allergy to moderation. It seems that moderation (by which I mean: eating enough to feed your life, while respecting your body’s fullness signals) must be a place of intense vulnerability, or we would not avoid it with such urgency.

Some people restrict their food intake in order to give their bodies less than they need, and some people feed their bodies more than they have the capacity to process, and I think both sets of behaviours are encouraged by our culture in many ways.

Let me stop to define “eating moderately,” since we live in a cultural hellscape that takes words like this and redefines them to mean something like “eating less than you want or need and pretending it’s okay.” In my own life and in my work with clients, I’ve come to understand moderation as eating enough, and pleasurably enough, to be able to stop thinking about food for a while.

Eating moderately means your sensations of hunger go away for a bit, usually a few hours, and thoughts about food that are precursors to hunger (not hobbyist enthusiasm about food, and not the food preoccupation that is either a hallmark of long-term deprivation or a coping mechanism that has come to replace all other coping mechanisms) also cease. At the same time, you’re not troubled by the discomforts of over-fullness, or signs of physical distress that come with having eaten something that doesn’t agree with you, in a quantity your body can’t handle.

In this space of not-thinking-or-fantasizing-or-feeling-uncomfortable-about-food, there is room for thinking about, and doing, the things that make life meaningful.

In fact, I suspect that’s exactly where the vulnerability comes in: because if you’re not obsessing about food, either eating less of it than you need, or more than your body truly wants, what should you do?

It is a big, frightening question. Especially in a culture obsessed with careerism, credentialism, and “achievement” of a very specific and limited variety.

When I started this work, I didn’t realize this would be such a source of terror for people, and that, in order to avoid it, food obsession and disordered behaviour might rush in. But once I witnessed how often people actively resist eating in a way that is comfortable, even though they may suffer intensely from their disordered eating, I had to ask why. As far as I can tell, for many people I’ve talked to, it’s about avoiding the uncertainty and inherent riskiness of life. One of the major sources of uncertainty and risk is the question of what to do, and how to make meaning, with the limited time we have.

The only comfort I have to offer is this: humans are meaning-making machines. Our lives, when told back to ourselves, become stories that tell universal truths about being alive. There is pain and sorrow, joy and wonder, filth and beauty in living.

Meaningful lives are not reserved only for the rich or beautiful or uniquely gifted. There is meaning in being of service to others, in making someone’s day slightly less crappy, in laughing with a friend, making music, petting a dog, eating a good meal, or watching the wind stir some leaves. Everything we do and experience can be made into meaning, if we’re willing to be here for the experience.

When you are hurt or frightened very badly, it can become tempting not to do much at all: not to connect with others, not even to experience the present moment, your body and the world as they are, right now. Life can get very small, and may feel empty and pointless. If this is the situation you find yourself in, the only answer I know is to find a way, maybe with support from a friend or therapist, to start being present and pushing out again.

Being among people, among animals and nature, feeling what is happening in your body, and feeling compassion for yourself and for every small, warm, breathing thing alive in this big, cold, inert universe reminds you that we are all in this together. We’re part of the organic mulch that makes up the thin, sentient top layer of earth. Don’t go underground. Don’t substitute a life for made-up rules about food.

You’re vulnerable because you’re alive. Being alive means feeling things, so feel them. Grab a pillow, an animal, or another human if it helps, and let yourself. Try a thing, make a mistake, tell someone you like their earrings. Eat a meal that fills you up and gives you life.

No matter what you feel, or what has happened to you, we love you anyway and we want you here.

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15 Comments

  1. Posted August 28, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Gads! I love this post. Thank you.

  2. Posted August 28, 2018 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Michelle! This post is especially meaningful to me. I always appreciate your wisdom.

  3. Morgan
    Posted August 28, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Thank you!

  4. Teresa
    Posted August 28, 2018 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Damn was this spot on. Thank you.

  5. Gretchen McSomething
    Posted August 28, 2018 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Oh wow! This explains a lot. I’m going to need to sit with this and think about it for a while.

  6. Jessica
    Posted August 29, 2018 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    I am always excited to see a new post from you, Michelle! This one I especially love, and it’s definitely one I will share often.

    I particularly liked this bit: Don’t substitute a life for made-up rules about food.

    Yes, yes and more yes! I honestly never really thought about this perspective… but I absolutely see the validity in it, and I can really feel what you’re saying when I think on my own past experiences with food obsession, binge eating, food restriction and my long, awful path of dieting and battling an eating disorder.

  7. Amy Gregor
    Posted August 29, 2018 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much, Michelle.

  8. Missie
    Posted August 29, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    So much gorgeous prose in here. Thank you as always, for reminding me that I have permission to be alive, to be myself, to be Out There.

    I loved this line, “But once I witnessed how often people actively resist eating in a way that is comfortable, even though they may suffer intensely from their disordered eating, I had to ask why.” I had an eating disorder for 35 years, but managed to stay the same weight. After taking an antidepressant that caused me to very quickly gain 80 pounds that wouldn’t budge, I had to decide to let the eating disorder go. None of my tricks were working anyway, and my body wouldn’t let go of the weight, even after stopping the medicine, so I decided that I might as well love myself.

    I’ve sloooooowly lost half of those eighty pounds after a couple of years of nothing happening – except the healthy stuff between my ears. :) Still considered medically overweight, when I look in the mirror I see someone thinner than I ever was able to before in the midst of bulimia. I love myself! I love eating in such a way that I’m not laying in bed at night either starving or uncomfortably bloated.

    I never believed you that if I would just let myself EAT WHAT I WANT, AS MUCH AS I WANT, and just BE, that I would get better. What what do you know, it definitely does work. I had to be forced to try it through the weight gain, but who cares? I still arrived at a much better place.

  9. RachelB
    Posted August 29, 2018 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    This is beautiful. Thank you. My frustrations with my body of late have more to do with injury (and not being able to enjoy walking) than with food or hunger, but everything you say about uncertainty, and the difficulty people can have staying present when experiencing it, really resonates.

  10. happyhedonist
    Posted August 29, 2018 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful evisceration of a seriously Puritanical culture we have here. I have to read this about six more times to get everything out of it that it offers, which I’m happy to do. Thanks for writing it.

    • Mich
      Posted September 11, 2018 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree with you. No matter how much society believes it’s changed, it’s still stuck in the 16th century mentality, but using iphones.

  11. Posted August 30, 2018 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    That was incredibly thoughtful. Thank you!

  12. Mich
    Posted September 11, 2018 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post. You’ve nailed it.

  13. Cath Haynes
    Posted September 12, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    You write so eloquently Michelle and like others I am planning on reading this over a few times to really squeeze every last little grain of wisdom out of it. This post really struck a chord with me; both as Psychologist who works with people with Eating Disorders and as a human-being who has experienced all of her own ups and downs with the seemingly simple task of putting food in her mouth. I think I am going to print out the paragraph about moderate eating and carry it about with me!

    Incidentally, I don’t know if you can see my email address (I know others can’t) but I’d be interested to know how you’d feel about my printing your post and showing it to some of the people I work with. It really tallies incredibly well with the Compassion Focused Approach we use to recovery. Thanks again for sharing, Cath

    • Posted September 21, 2018 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      Hi Cath – that’s very sweet of you! It’s totally fine if you want to print the post and share it at work.

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