‘He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.’
A while ago, Marie Rebelle used ‘Weight’ as a prompt for the Wicked Wednesday meme. At the time, I didn’t feel that I had much to say on this topic as I am fortunate enough to have never had a significant issue with either weight or body image but I did ponder writing about my relationship with food instead. Unfortunately, work got in the way and I never put my thoughts into words.
I did, however, look up some somewhat ridiculous images of me posing with food that I thought could illustrate this as yet unwritten post. They’re incredibly stupid and are only a small example of the range of ‘Livvy with food’ photos that litter my family albums, but they do quite eloquently demonstrate my relationship with food – it makes me really happy! Even though I’d forgotten how much plumper I was in this first one where I am happily tucking into a Cornish pasty, all I can think about when looking at this photo is how delicious these pasties are and how happy I was to be eating it.
The fact that food can elicit such a response and the extent to which we form emotional connections to food was brought back to my attention yesterday when reading a great piece for The Pool by Daisy Buchanan. She feels that the obesity epidemic can no longer be tackled with education or practical measures because we already know about diet and exercise. Instead, it is our emotional responses and uses of food that need to change.
‘I know the food is “bad”, yet I want to eat it, which makes me “bad” too, which makes me so sad that I want more. I don’t need public health adverts telling me that sugar causes 19 different kinds of cancer. I need information about how to work through the emotional hold that my diet has on me.’
And this was essentially what I’d wanted to write about when I was thinking about food because, as much as I love to eat, food doesn’t have an emotional hold over me.
I’ve struggled to describe how and why this is the case because I am aware of how I might sound. I am very lucky; I have never had an issue with my weight, always being on the thinner side of average, and subsequently have very few body image worries, but when I say that I feel like I’m boasting and then sticking two fingers up at everyone who has battled with these issues. I fear that what I write may seem like I’m unaware of this privileged position that I have found for myself and I may sound like I’m preaching on a subject that I clearly have no experience.
But I am fascinated by how I’ve managed to escape without these worries. When so many of my friends had significant eating disorders at school, how have I maintained a healthy relationship with food? When I have been single for the majority of my adult life, is it weird that I’ve never blamed my body or my looks? I just don’t know!
What I do know is that I eat because I love to eat. I eat because I’m hungry or because it looks good (or maybe because I’m bored!). I don’t think of eating as a treat, regardless of the food, and I certainly never feel guilty for what I’ve eaten. I don’t use food as a reward or torture myself because of my meal choices. I’m not drawn to food when I’m feeling low so I don’t eat to try and make myself feel better. I don’t really binge eat, I don’t crash diet and I don’t count calories or withhold foods because they’re ‘bad’ for me.
I suspect that I’ve been able to maintain this attitude because food has never been a reward, and because I don’t eat as a treat, my emotions have no concept of food as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Food is delicious or functional. It’s always been this way and this may turn out to be the greatest gift that my parents ever gave me!
Growing up, I ate everything and anything. In contrast to the efforts that some of my friends undergo to ensure that their children have healthy, balanced diets, I would eat chocolate, chips, pizza, McDonalds, chicken nuggets, crisps… I never went without pudding because I hadn’t finished my main course, as I so often saw threatened. I knew exactly where all the chocolate biscuits were but didn’t eat them all as I could just have one when I wanted. In the current diet-focussed culture, this may sound like a staggeringly unhealthy way to grow up but it worked. My sisters and I are all size 14 or less and have one filling between the three of us. It’s my mother who struggles. She has been on a diet for most of my life and still isn’t happy with her size.
Essentially, I ate everything so I didn’t yearn for anything. As with all forbidden fruit, making something special or naughty just makes it more appealing. I’ve only tried dieting once and that was to counter the obscene amount of snacking I did when revising for my finals. I chose the Special K diet; two bowls of cereal and one ‘proper’ meal per day. I stuck it out for two weeks and I don’t think I ever eaten so much in my life! Depriving myself in the day only made me pile my plate higher in my evening meal. Thinking of the foods I couldn’t have made me guiltily stuff another chocolate into my mouth when I inevitably broke under the strain, making me feel awful for breaking but didn’t stop me doing it again. It was a disaster and not something I intend on repeating. I didn’t like how food was making me feel; I didn’t like the constant feeling of guilt whatever I ate or the level of obsession that rapidly sprung up when foods became prohibited. It really wasn’t for me…
I appreciate that despite these ramblings, I haven’t exactly come up with a solution to the emotional problem of food; my disconnection is born from a lifetime of eating without limits and fortunately finding that this balanced out in a good place. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend my diet as an example of How To Eat Well. It’s pretty poor – I eat a lot of junk and so few vegetables that I genuinely think I would have scurvy if it weren’t for peas. But what I eat doesn’t make me feel bad; it doesn’t make me feel guilty or like I’ve failed. I can look at myself objectively and make a logical, pragmatic change if it’s needed.
Aaaand once again, distinctly Vulcan tendencies have emerged when I think through why I view complex subjects differently from others. Logic wins again! Because I know that my unemotional attachment to food is helped by a generally unemotional view of my appearance. I am pretty happy with how I look and always have been, and that’s because I’ve accepted that I am decidedly average.
Don’t misunderstand me and think this is a thinly veiled plea for compliments – I don’t think I’m average in the linguistic sense. I don’t consider myself plain or forgettable. I am just mathematically average – I know that I am better looking than some but there are also an equal number who are much more beautiful than me. You may disagree with my assessment, but it positions me at a point where I can neither boast nor berate myself. There are good hair days and bad hair days, fat days and skinny days, days with good fashion choices and others where I instantly regret what I’m wearing, but they average out to a generally even keel. I am how I look, and that’s that. To paraphrase Labyrinth, it has no power over me.
And that’s the crux of this whole meandering point. It has no power over me. When I eat an entire packet of chocolate biscuits, there’s no spiral of guilt that leads me to binge more and more to make me feel better. My mood is entirely unaffected; it has no power over me.
Sadly, I don’t know if it’s possible to just one day declare that something has no power over us anymore. I expect it would make all sorts of interactions much easier if we could!
But it certainly confirms to me the importance of teaching good lessons to our children about food and is why t-shirts with slogans about ‘treat food days’ or this abomination of a babygrow that was exposed in the Metro upset me so much. How can we expect anyone to grow up with a rational view of food when messages such as these are pushed down our throats as soon as we’re born?
So what can we do? There are countless considerations that need to be factored in when thinking about improving our diet and reducing obesity, from the increased availability of food and the elevated prices of healthy food, but Daisy Buchanan is right. Our emotional response needs to change too.
I don’t really know how to do this, except that I know what works for me. I need to continue to view food objectively and without depriving myself. I want to enjoy everything that I eat because there’s no point in eating it otherwise! And I will forever be grateful that I have the luxury of just relaxing and letting my body do what it wants to do.