BY Sarah Turley
I’ve been thinking a lot about food.
This is not unusual for me, I LOVE food. Food is my friend. Food is good if it’s steaming hot or ice-cream cold. If it’s creamy or fruity. Bitter or sweet. It’s good if I’m happy or sad. If I’m celebrating or if I need comforting. If I’m with my friends or on my own. If I’m tired or excited. Angry or let down. It’s good if it’s from my mum’s kitchen or a market stall in Thailand. If it’s fresh from the oven or picked off a tree.
Yes, I love food.
What is unusual for me is the WAY I’ve been thinking about food. I’m reading a book called Fat Is A Feminist Issue by a psychotherapist called Susie Orbach. Writing way back in 1978, Orbach threw out old-fashioned notions of fat being the price women pay for greed and laziness, and instead proposed a vastly more complex idea: that it is gender inequality that makes us fat.
“For many women, compulsive eating and being fat have become one way to avoid being marketed or seen as the ideal woman,” she writes. In other words, Orbach thinks women who are fat are expressing a rebellion against the powerlessness of being a woman. She postulates that we get fat because it means we will be taken more “seriously in our working lives outside the home”, as well as to de-sexualise ourselves; avoid competition with other women; and because of our mothers’ own crazy relationship with food.
There’s a lot to get your head around there, and you’ll need to read the book to decide whether you agree with her or not. I’m still making up my mind. What I do know is that the book has got me thinking about my own relationship with food. Yes, I love food, but how the heck could I, a woman of (usually) sane mind, open an article saying that food is my FRIEND? Why do I turn to it for comfort or when I feel let down? And how come, even though I love it in all the ways I describe above, it often feels like an ENEMY – like something I should avoid, or at least ration?
Some background on me: I do not have an eating disorder and, thank the Lord, I never have done. However, like many women I know, perhaps even most of the women I know, my relationship with food is, shall we say: odd. Occasionally obsessive. Disordered, but not a disorder. You see, despite my love for food, since the age of 12 I have mainly been trying to limit the amount that passes my lips. Not because I love it any less than I did as a child, but to stop myself getting fat, or fatter, or so that I actually get thinner.
What I am realising from the book is how food, that substance we all need as fuel to live, has for me taken on something like magical powers. That food has become entwined with my emotions. That eating does not just have an impact on my body – how much energy I have, whether I lose or gain weight – but that the amount and type of food I eat ricochets on to how much self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth I have too. And that this is body image anxiety, brought about by something I must have learnt before the age of 12: that women must be thin to be beautiful. And that I am not thin.
There’s a passage in the book about binge eating which showed me just how complicated the relationship between food, my body image and my self-esteem really is. Orbach suggests we binge eat to dispel a difficult emotion, like anger, disappointment or sorrow (sound familiar? See my opening paragraph). She says that in stuffing our faces (in my case usually with five bars of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, followed by the entire contents of my fridge) we swallow that difficult emotion and replace it with a more familiar feeling that we know and trust: namely, self-loathing. In so doing she says we make food and our perceived fatness the reason for our original upset, and trick ourselves into thinking that if we could control our eating, everything would be fine. Life would be rosy, if only we weren’t so greedy and fat.
However mad all that sounds (and I’m aware for those of you who don’t have food issues it probably sounds stark raving bonkers) it makes weird, scary sense to me. Thinking about the times I find myself binging, I realise it’s usually when I feel rejected, or like I have failed. And I can see how it’s easier to be angry at myself for being unable to control how much I eat, than to accept that say, the guy I like doesn’t like me back. It is also somehow more realistic to think I can fix the uncontrollable eating, by promising myself I will never binge again, than to actually find a way to make a guy who doesn’t like me, like me. This does not just give me a welcome (but warped) sense of hope, but confirms what I’ve known all along: that I am too fat. Told you it was complicated.
This brings me to my second big realisation: that somehow in my head, thin has become not just beautiful (as I learnt before I was 12), but also inextricably linked to success, wealth, love, sexuality and happiness. That if I manage to control the size and shape of my body, I will in some magical way be in control of my whole life. It’s a crazy thought isn’t it, particularly given that thinness is really nothing more than a fashion, and shouldn’t be in any way connected to how I perform at work, or to whether or not I find love. But somehow the way I feel about my body, whether I’m feeling chubby or skinny, seems utterly connected to everything. It is like a measure of my success.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in feeling this way. Recent research shows that 90 percent of British women feel body image anxiety. If we don’t have Rihanna’s abs or Cheryl Cole’s perfectly formed bottom, we tell ourselves we’re not working hard enough. We feel more confident when we’re thinner, and we believe other women to be more successful if they are slim. If we are unhappy, rejected or lonely we tell ourselves it is because we’re not working hard enough on our bodies or can’t quash our greedy appetite for food. Which brings us back to where I started: with food being connected to my emotions. It is a vicious and complicated circle, which I am aware I am only just beginning to understand.
Who would have thought that delicious, bitter, sweet, creamy, fruity food could be the cause of so many complex feelings and experiences? I wonder if I will ever get my head around the friend / enemy relationship I have with food. In the mean time I am going to turn back to page one of Fat Is A Feminist Issue, because though it was written all those years ago it feels very relevant to me, now. The female body has throughout the ages been objectified – something to look at and to please – but now more than ever it seems we are obsessed by controlling it.