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.

Posted in eating | Comments closed

Why I write so much about immortality, significance, and injustice.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been more active on Twitter than here. But I miss being here. I want to round up my notes and do a little explaining.

What follows are links to threads that seem relevant:

Where I linked Terror Management Theory to diet culture (more) explicitly (than before.) This was the rough draft of the article that later appeared in The Atlantic.

Where I shared my (sketchy and preliminary) thoughts about
neoreaction, politics in the US, and more Terror Management Theory. There was also a Metafilter thread about it, and people said nice things, which is particularly nice for reasons I don’t have the words for…yet. (You know me, it’s only a matter of time.)

After the van attack here in Toronto, before we knew the motive.

And a follow-up.

There are probably one or two more, but they are submerged in the sands of Twitter and it will take some digging to find them.

So, if you’re wondering what the endgame of all of this tweeting about significance and immortality is for me, it’s this: it is my personal believe that no one can do anything that will mark them with lasting significance.

No book, no building, no work of art, no hospital wing with their name on it, no great fortune, not even the destruction of the entire planet will leave a legacy that marks out an individual person as significant on a truly cosmic scale.

Certainly, no amount of hierarchy-building or climbing will do it. (I could go into why, but instead, refer to this standalone tweet.)

Now, the explanation.

Many of my young years were wasted by the idea that certain bodies are inherently superior to other bodies. I gave over years of my life to shame because my body was supposed to be bad and undeserving of its basic needs and existence, and as a result, I missed time and life experiences that will never be returned to me.

And I know this is true for many, many people who live caught up in the same hierarchy, under the same system of ideas that certain bodies and certain people are worth less than others, and many, many people have had smaller or larger fractions of their lives wasted more or less violently, as a result.

This bothers me. Which is why I started this website, and why I chose this career.

People who cannot admit their own insignificance or mortality seem to think that spoiling other people’s time by shaming or oppressing them will somehow add to their lives, and while it does succeed in creating misery and even shortening some people’s lives, it doesn’t make the perpetrator immortal or even significant. It’s a fool’s errand, a waste of one’s time, and involves the wasting of other people’s time without their consent.

Life is fragile, short, and precious. The best any of us can do is make our time good and meaningful. We do that by creating things, feeling and experiencing things, and bonding with other people in a way that acknowledges their inherent and unchanging value.

If I can clear obsession with food and shame about having a body out of people’s way so they can get down to living, then I have done a good job. If I can help chip away at some of the structures that unjustly limit people’s use of their finite and precious lives, even better.

In some form or another, I have been writing about this stuff for six years, and thinking about it for twenty-five. I figure why stop now.

As always, the after-party happens in comments. Bring snacks.

Posted in Unified Theory | Comments closed

The desert island.

I’m conscious when I go out in public that my very presence is a tiny act of rebellion. It’s a kind of rebellion that I find totally ridiculous – the idea that just existing in front of other people is transgressive is…I don’t even know how else to put it. It’s mind-bendingly, surreally, ludicrously ridiculous. And it says a lot more about the world we live in than it says about me.

For one thing, it says that the world we live in is completely messed up when it comes to appearance-based discrimination, social hierarchies, and how we value people as members of society. It says that, when I walk out onto the street, some people assume my body is a tragedy, a cautionary tale, or a fetish object. And that they have certain rights over that body.

They have the right to make pronouncements about it to my face, or just barely behind my back where I can still hear them, and that they can assume all kinds of things about my life and my character and personality based on how fat I am.

Not everyone does this, and certainly not every time I leave the house. But it has happened enough that each time I walk out the door, it crosses my mind.

I think about the joggers who mocked me as they ran past, I think about the men at the street market who followed me until my husband intervened, I think about the men shouting at me from cars, and I think about all the photos of fat ladies with bodies like mine that have been used as objects of ridicule on funny cards and websites, because they dared do something as transgressive as wear a bathing suit at the beach, as though they were human or something.

I think about how much I love the beach, how much I love the water, how good I am at floating, or surface diving, or snorkeling, or kayaking – and then I think about all the people back on shore.

Very often, I think about the desert island scenario, which is something I often ask my clients to do when they are caught up in blaming their body for things that may or may not be its fault.

The desert island scenario goes like this: If you were stranded on a beautiful desert island, with no one else around, and with plenty of food and water accessible to you, what problems would being fat cause you? This can help you separate out which difficulties you’re having are actually located in your body, and which difficulties are located in a culture that treats fat people poorly.

For me, the answers are something like: I might walk kind of slow in the sand because I sink into it more, and I would probably be sweaty and hot and maybe get the chub-rub. On the upside, I wouldn’t have to worry about people judging me for being sweaty, I would wear whatever is most comfortable without wondering how I looked. I might have trouble climbing trees, but I would be totally fine in the water.

Things I wouldn’t have to worry about: people judging me and treating me poorly, feeling self-conscious about how I look, having trouble finding clothes that fit me, wondering whether I will fit in that chair with arms, worrying that they might throw me off the airplane, playing the Good Fatty all the time, having to constantly prove that I am 1) not ignorant, 2) not lazy, 3) not gluttonous, 4) not smelly, 5) not sick. As if any of those things affect my intrinsic value.

Once you know what problems are located where, it gives you some information about the source of the problem, and how might be the best way to handle it. Problems located in the body might need a solution that is body-focused. You may need accommodations or physical therapy or medicine. Problems that come about simply because you can’t avoid being part of society, well…they probably require some personal fortification and self-compassion in the short-term, and changes to the culture in the long-term.

Next time you’re blaming your body for something, try it. Would this problem still exist if you were stranded on a beautiful desert island with enough food and water? If so, what is the kindest way you can help your body? If not, maybe your body isn’t the issue.

Hi! Looks like I wrote this post a long time ago, and never posted it. I might write it differently today, but here it is. Feel free to add your experience and thoughts in comments.

Posted in Liking Yourself | Comments closed

Diet culture and immortality.

I know it’s been quiet (TOO quiet) around here lately. What can I say? I’ve been working my face off.

I did write something for The Atlantic, though, after a good long period of grumpy hermiting. Here’s a good chunk, in case you want a sample before committing to a click:

The act of ingestion is embroidered with so much cultural meaning that, for most people, its roots in spare, brutal survival are entirely hidden. Even for people in extreme poverty, for whom survival is a more immediate concern, the cultural meanings of food remain critical. Wealthy or poor, we eat to celebrate, we eat to mourn, we eat because it’s mealtime, we eat as a way to bond with others, we eat for entertainment and pleasure. It is not a coincidence that the survival function of food is buried beneath all of this—who wants to think about staving off death each time they tuck into a bowl of cereal? Forgetting about death is the entire point of food culture.

When it comes to food, Becker said that humans “quickly saw beyond mere physical nourishment,” and that the desire for more life—not just delaying death today, but clearing the bar of mortality entirely—grew into an obsession with transforming the self into a perfected object that might achieve a sort of immorality. Diet culture and its variations, such as clean eating, are cultural structures we have built to attempt to transcend our animality.

By creating and following diets, humans not only eat to stay alive, but they fit themselves into a cultural edifice that is larger, and more permanent, than their bodies. It is a sort of immortality ritual, and rituals must be performed socially. Clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret. If you haven’t evangelized about it, joined a movement around it, or been praised publicly for it, have you truly cleansed?

I’m going back to grumpy hermiting for a while. I’ll send up another flare if anything exciting happens.

Posted in Unified Theory | Comments closed

You don’t have to figure out the universal truth of nutrition.

When I speak with clients, a theme that often comes up is the question of what is true and what is false in nutrition. Yesterday, an article about the demonization of fat made headlines, and along with it, whipped up that familiar confusion about nutrition and people asking a very familiar question: what is actually the truth?

It’s a good question, an important question, and one which will likely keep researchers and dietitians busy for decades. But the thing that always strikes me about this question is who asks it, and who seems to feel most tormented over the fact that there are, seemingly, very few answers: usually a person who is neither a researcher or a dietitian.

I’ve met many people who appear to be engaged in a one-person mission to discover the universal truth of human nutrition by conducting a series of uncontrolled experiments on themselves. It’s a very human, and very noble, undertaking, but one that always strikes me with its futility. It also carries with it a great deal of stress, and a great burden of effort with very little promise of reward for its champion.

I am fully supportive of people who enjoy conducting nutritional experimentation on themselves, though I’m not one of them, and it’s not a lifestyle I would recommend. Some people view it as a hobby, and come away with a few insights into their own body’s workings, largely unscathed. But this isn’t true for everyone, and my own clients (some of whom are people Ellyn Satter referred to as “Dieting Casualties”) are a great source of information on why this is.

When the foundational workings of your relationship with food are not yet in place (the lower tiers of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs), it can actually be destructive to that relationship to place the burden of experimentation on top of it. Nutritional experiments reside in the very top of the Hierarchy of Food Needs, under the label of “instrumental food,” which means eating in a way that gets you some symbolic or health-related outcome.

Hierarchy of food needs, in order: enough food, acceptable food, reliable ongoing access to food, good-tasting food, novel food, and instrumental food.

Certainly people can make instrumental food choices without damaging their relationship to food — but not before the lower-order needs are fulfilled and stable.

The unfortunate thing is, the way nutrition is communicated in our culture and even from our established health authorities, “instrumental” food choices are usually front and center, before (and often instead of) any of the lower-order needs. Thus, most people, when they start to think about nutrition, try to begin from this point rather than working their way up to it.

This results in people who haven’t already established, for example, feeding themselves regularly — or who don’t have quite enough money to buy more expensive “instrumental” groceries, or who feel guilty and ashamed for taking pleasure in food, or who only have a handful of foods that they know how to eat and like — attempting to impose upon their eating habits completely new and burdensome food rules.

Which usually ends in spectacular “failure” a little way down the road. (I put “failure” in scare-quotes because it’s hard for me to view it as an actual failure when an arbitrary set of diet rules falls by the wayside — your body probably views it as an unqualified success, but to the person making the attempt, it is demoralizing all the same.)

The bigger issue, of course, is this: it is literally not your job to figure out the universal truth of nutrition. Unless you’re a researcher who has been funded to do this, not only is your sample size too small, but you run the very real risk of hurting yourself and destroying your relationship with food. Please remind yourself of this when the temptation to conduct yet another uncontrolled experiment comes your way.

You are not obligated to uncover, all by yourself, with your mouth and your body, what holds true for all people with regard to nutrition. Your only job is to feed yourself faithfully, get comfortable with food and your enjoyment of it, and then to find out what is true for you. The only universal rule of nutrition that I’ve discovered in my many years of studying and practicing it, aside from eat or die, is that humans are massively omnivorous and nutrition is extremely individual. Your truth will be different than someone else’s.

That’s okay. Your truth counts too.


Individual truths in comments.

Posted in Diets, eating, Humane Nutrition | Comments closed