How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 2

My husband says I forgot to point out that not only did Ruth pursue Boaz, pretty much proposing marriage to him, but she also went and lay down next to Boaz at night. When he was sleeping. After he’d been drinking.

How’s that for some ‘Biblical’ Passion & Purity!?

{And yes. I totally love and adore my scholarly husband for pointing that out.}

Anyway, OK. Brief recap from part one–

Things I learned from evangelical culture:

Be Pure.

And so be afraid of your own desires.

Be Pretty.

And so be afraid of eating, excreting, and everything bodily.

Be Perfect.

And so walk the fine line between looking great, being ‘nice,’ and pretending that you don’t even care about ‘the physical.’

{Because you have a crush on the cute boy with nice hair who plays guitar for youth group talks piously about wanting to date only ‘spiritual’ girls. And ‘spiritual,’ in the theology of the evangelical youth group, means ‘not physical.’ That’s why the really ‘spiritual’ girls are always ‘dating Jesus.’ Which unfortunately translates, too often, treating the smitten guys around them, with whom they’re ‘just friends,’ like crap.}

My own understanding of growing up Christian, then, meant shutting down everything that was God-given, normal, and healthy.

I was terrified of ‘liking’ boys because that might lead “someplace” sinful. So I was choked up, found it hard to talk to boys unless it was to listen to how much they liked my friends.

I was terrified of getting a womanly body. Not just because women were dangerous temptresses, all curves and sensuousness and endangering to a young man’s ‘purity,’ though that was part of it.

Part of it, too, was that I was afraid to take up space. Because, after all, in the evangelical version of womanhood I’d pieced together for myself, a woman’s passive perfection entailed unobtrusiveness.

Let me tell you, I’m not really naturally unobtrusive. Oh, I might be a little shy when we first meet in person. And I’m told my personality is more ‘sweet’ than not. But I also can be a bit of a Scrappy Doo, or, if you prefer, a bit of an Anne of Green Gables kind of girl. One time I smacked a boy in my Sunday School class on the head with a hardback Bible. (Sorry about that, Tommy!) I rather enjoyed debates as a young’un. And none of that’s really conducive to the whole “gentle and quiet spirit” thing that I took to mean passivity.

Somehow, in my mind, cultivating a passive, pure, perfect Christian girl persona got tied in with remaining physically petite. Not being ‘weighty,’ not being a contender. Something to be pursued, not someone to be reckoned with.

And then, too, there was the food side of things. Oh, food. Until a certain point–I think about age 14 or 15–I enjoyed eating and didn’t give undue thought either to food or to my weight. Sure, I was aware of dieting, aware that ‘someday,’ when I was a woman, I’d hate my body just like most of the grown-up women I knew. But I liked food. Not that I was particularly adventurous, but I remember relishing the sweet and sour chicken my dad would cook for my every birthday at my request, the simple pleasure of perfectly steamed white rice, and the lemony explosion of a cold Granny Smith apple behind my teeth.

Somehow, though–and it’s all mixed in, I think, with the passivity and the perfection, the prettiness and the purity–I began to fear my appetite. Just when my appetite should’ve been growing–when I was growing, both in mind and body, more rapidly than I’d ever grown since babyhood–I recoiled from it in fear.

Gluttony was a sin, after all. The body’s desires were suspiciously sinful: “put a knife to your throat if you’re given to gluttony”?!

You combine that with a food culture like ours, where food is plentiful, cheap, and everywhere, and I began to harbor a secret, shameful fear: what if I eat everything? What if I just start eating and can’t stop? If I can never stop? How would I know how to stop?

Obviously, eating was too complicated and dangerous.

Not eating was easier. Of course, then the problem was my hunger would overtake me, eventually, and I’d break down and eat and eat, always, it seemed, too much–enough to trigger fear, panic, guilt; terror over letting my physical ‘desire’ get the better of me.

After all, where might that lead?

And so I was afraid: afraid of wanting to eat, of eating, of liking boys, of boys, of accepting my body, of my body, of going out and of being seen.

I would get dressed under my bath towel, hiding nakedness from myself.

And in all this time, all this was a shameful secret.

Because, after all, this wasn’t the behavior of someone pretty, perfect, pure, or passive.

But that–a tortured, circumscribed, turned-in-itself, endlessly abstemious life–is not the flourishing, fully human life God desires for God’s daughters.

You are God’s. God made you, you are beautiful, and God loves to feed you and to see you flourish–you, as God made you–not you, pressed down and rolled out and cut to fit some other shape.

You, as God made you, are beautiful.

{of course this isn’t the end. there’s more to my story. and to yours. looking forward to sharing and hearing more…}

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Speaking Out, Part One

{I’m away this week. In addition to the delights of being with family & friends, I had the opportunity to speak to a MOPS group in New Jersey. I’m going to share some of the talk with you here. If I get my tech stuff together, I might even go all fancy and post it as a podcast so you can hear my squeaky little voice.}

So, I’ve struggled with how to organize this talk because I feel like there are two sides of me that I bring together in my writing, and each one is the “real me.” The first side is the person who likes to tell stories and to find the humor in things. The second is the geeky side that likes to read and research things and find facts. Sometimes I’m able to strike a balance between the informing and fact finding and the story-telling, sometimes, I lean too far to one side or the other. So I hope that today our time together can have some of that balance.

What I would like to talk about today is food. Specifically, eating together as families. More specifically, how central and shaping and important that can be in your life and your child’s life. I happen to think that how we view food tells us a lot about how we view ourselves. How we relate to our families. Even how we relate to God.

I grew up a Christian, with a pastor for a dad to boot, but my mom is Jewish. And I don’t know how well you might know the Jewish stereotypes, but we are a people that have a notorious love for eating and for worrying. So, you know, the little gatherings of my mom and her best friends (Jews, too, by the way) involved bagels, and cream cheese, and lox, or Danish pastries and coffee, or Chinese food, or whatever, but it’s like, here are all these women, different sizes, different shapes–and they’re enjoying their food, but at the same time, they’re worrying. They’re like, punishing themselves for eating. Like, “this is great, but I shouldn’t be eating it, I’m fat” or “I’ll take JUST A SLIVER of that cheesecake” or eating two different kinds of cake while insisting on Sweet N Low and skim milk for their coffee–not because they like it that way, but because they’re “cutting calories.”

I was quite a thin child. And it wasn’t like I tried to be that way. Actually, I’ve always loved food. And I didn’t think of my body as something that I had “shaped” in anyway, because, you know, kids tend not really to think like that. But always, always, I was aware of one big thing: when you got to be a grownup (or at least, more grownup, you had to punish yourself over the food that you ate. Calories were BAD. Fat was BAD. Even seemingly harmless BREAD and PASTA became BAD. I would eat whatever I wanted, sure, and stayed thin, probably because that’s just how I was. But older women would tell me: “just you WAIT. when you get OLDER you won’t be able to EAT LIKE THAT.”

I began to think that I was something like a self-inflating life jacket. You know, the kind where you pull a valve or something on this flat thingy and slowly but surely it, you know, inflates? I was just kind of waiting for a valve to blow and suddenly I’d have a body that I’d hate, because pretty much all the grown up women I knew hated their bodies, or, at the very least, didn’t like them and beat themselves up over them and did weird things with food and diet. I mean, I even kind of wondered not whether but WHEN I would start going to Weight Watchers meetings myself. (My mom had been a lifetime member.)

What happened next is not that interesting, just because it’s the story of disorder that’s, sadly, more normal than abnormal in our culture. I began to fear food, began to overexercise, just generally developed an obsession. And it had a kind of religious significance, because the Christian diet plans were making their rounds in those days. So I felt like I had to be “Slim for Him,” that there needed to be “More of Jesus, Less of Me,” that I had to “listen for God” to tell me what and whether to eat, and so on. I counted calories and fasted and “did penance” for my indulgences with exercise and, you know, pretty much punished myself for everything I ate. I can remember many days in high school when I’d get by on an apple for breakfast, a banana for lunch, with diet cokes in between, and then only at the end of the day allow myself to eat dinner, and I’d still be anxiously counting calories and figuring out how many sit-ups I still needed to do before bed.

I have to condense the story here, but I want to tell you two things that helped me get to the place I am now, which, admittedly is not perfect, but which is undoubtedly a much, much happier place, a place where I can have the occasional chocolate croissant with a cup of coffee with cream and not feel “dirty” or like I need to go run 6 miles to “get rid of it.”

And for you readers, you’ll just have to return to get the rest of the story…

Guest Post: Ellyn Satter on Emotional Eating

~it’s NORMAL, it DOESN’T CAUSE WEIGHT GAIN, and RESTRICTING makes it worse…but it can be abused~

{I’m delighted to welcome dietician Ellyn Satter to the blog today with a re-print of her article on emotional eating! Thanks, Ellyn!}

In my review of the January through June issues of the journal Appetite, I found that a high number of articles addressed emotional eating. As with earlier articles on the topic, the underlying assumption of authors was that emotional eating is to blame for overeating and weight gain and that getting rid of emotional eating is key to weight loss.

Emotional eating doesn’t cause weight gain. That assumption is oversimplified and physiologically naive. Let’s assume that emotional eating leads you to eat a lot at any one time. That eating-a-lot only makes you gain weight if your body ”forgets” those calories, which it doesn’t. In reality, your body remembers: You are less hungry the next meal, the next day or even the next week. The body corrects long term for short-term errors in food regulation. To overwhelm your body’s natural regulatory abilities, you would have to overeat day after day without stopping. Few do.1

Emotional eating is normal; abusing emotional eating is not. From the perspective of the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter), it is natural to eat for emotional reasons. Eating can raise your spirits when you are low, soothe you when you are tense, and distract you when you are upset. We cook special meals to celebrate and we use food to help us connect with other people.
Emotional eating is a problem only when you abuse it: You have no idea what you feel, other than generally upset or stressed. You eat to feel better or to push down or to blot out your feelings. You eat fast and don’t pay attention and end up feeling guilty, unsatisfied, and out of control. Certainly, such eating makes you feel bad. However, the biggest problem is not weight gain, but rather having feelings go straight to eating. To make good choices in life, you have to know how you feel. Knowing how you feel helps you cope. Eating is one of several solutions, including talking about your feelings and dealing with the problem.



Restrained eating increases abuse of emotional eating.
In my clinical experience corroborated by the research, restrained eating exacerbates the tendency to abuse emotional eating.2 People who are not restrained eaters consume less, not more, under stressful conditions.3 Restrained eaters try to eat less and less-appealing food than they need and want and are chronically hungry. Trying not to eat in the face of hunger and food-preoccupation takes a lot of energy. Stress undermines the energy to sustain food deprivation, and the person overeats. Thus, rather than overeating in response to stress, the restrained eater disinhibits. The restrained eater still eats a lot, but the root cause is undereating rather than emotional arousal. The cycle continues: The remorseful fallen-away restrained eater redoubles her efforts to restrict and again falls prey to stress induced disinhibition.

Here is how to stop abusing emotional eating:

  • Feed yourself regularly and reliably. Have meals and snacks at predictable times, and include the food you like.
  • Set aside restrained eating. Trust yourself to go to the table hungry and eat until you feel satisfied. Then stop, knowing another meal or snack is coming soon and you can do it again.
  • Become more comfortable with your feelings. Know what you feel, including that knowing in choosing how to act. Learn to productively use food for emotional reasons.

Be clear about what eating can do for you. Eating in a focused fashion is likely to soothe or calm you and even raise your spirits a bit. It won’t resolve the problem-unless the problem is being hungry! When you feel like eating because you are bored, depressed, happy, or sociable, say to yourself, ”It is all right to eat. But first I will find out what I am feeling.”

Then eat positively, deliberately, soothingly, and cheeringly.

{I introduced some of Ellyn Satter’s books a few weeks ago on Weekend Eating Reading. Check them out here and in my bookshop!}

References

1. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook. 2008 , Kelcy Press: Madison, WI. p. 243-246.

2. Van Strien, T. and M.A. Ouwens, Counterregulation in female obese emotional eaters: Schachter, Goldman, and Gordon’s (1968) test of psychosomatic theory revisited. Eat Behav, 2003. 3(4): p. 329-340.

3. Herman, C.P., J. Polivy, and V.M. Esses, The illusion of counter-regulation. Appetite, 1987. 9: p. 161-169.

Copyright © 2011 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatter.com.

{All images added by me, Rachel Stone}