I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about our relationship to food, a sentence which in and of itself is completely weird when you think about it. A relationship with Food? This can never end well. Food will never write, never call and will make you fat just by looking at you. Bastard.
But it seems that increasingly we just cannot accept that Food is just not that into us. We insist, despite Food’s complete inability to watch movies without hogging the popcorn or give good head, on pursuing this relationship and weeping when it makes us sick.
And we are getting sick. Over a million people in the UK suffer from some kind of eating disorder. Those most at risk are young people between the ages of 14-25, although this may well be changing. Statistics from the NHS show that that 14 figure may well have to start being revised downwards to say, oh, 10.
Oh, hang on, Ms Optimism! Statistics from last year were open-mouthed shocking: Almost 600 children below the age of 13 were treated in hospital for eating disorders in the three years previous. That figure included 197 children between the ages of five and nine.
Five and nine? Are you frickin’ kidding me? You’re kidding me, right? No, you’re not kidding me.
Do not even get me started on childhood obesity.
Boogie is six. To say that I find this piece of information troubling doesn’t really hit it. This piece of information makes me want to weep. And then kill somebody, or at the very least kick a three-legged kitten. In other words it makes me sad and mad and mean all at the same time.
Course, the old, ‘it’s the celebrities’ thing was trotted out, with Susan Ringwood of eating disorders charity B-eat telling the Telegraph that ‘the figures reflected alarming trends in society, with young children “internalising” messages from celebrity magazines, which idealised the thinnest figures.’
And yes, I’ve no doubt that’s a factor, but the thinness of celebrities is only an effect in itself. Why are the celebrities so thin in the first place? Is there simply a genetic connection between a hunger for fame and a preference for lettuce and brittle bone disease? I haven’t read the literature, but I’m suspecting not.
We’re just emerging from National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, but I’ve been thinking about food for longer than that. In honesty, I started thinking about food when I had a girl-child but it’s only recently that I started thinking beyond the obvious about it: beyond not wanting her to be fat; not because I’m fattist (which the more enlightened among you will recognise as a comfort-blanket of a fib), but because I wanted her to be healthy. You know, like, thin.
Not really thin, of course, because that would be as wrong as wanting her to be fat. So I wanted her to be not too fat, not too thin…what exactly did I want? Where was the fucking line? How wide or narrow was this weight spectrum that would be found acceptable by me? Was it only a few pounds wide or did a stone more or less make no difference? Would a heavier weight be acceptable if she were taller and could ‘carry’ it better? Was it OK if she was generally thin but had a bulging belly? Was a bulging belly deemed OK at 4 but unacceptable by 8? Could she have a large bottom? Was whether a large bottom was acceptable at least partially dependent on whether they were ‘in fashion’?
Now, I ain’t stupid. I could see that something was off with my thinking; it was so…prescriptive. And so open to failure. Keeping Boogie within ‘acceptable’ weight limits – no matter how narrow or wide – was going to take micromanagement to a new zenith. I could see where it would end and I am fucked if I’m going to start weighing out my daughter’s food and have her doing one-armed press-ups in between episodes of Scooby Doo. But where else could it go?
What was off? I knew the facts. Too fat or too thin was unhealthy. Either led to all kinds of increased medical risk. It’s true, all the doctors say so, right? Right?
It was only when I understood why too fat or too thin was unhealthy that everything fell into place. And I could only make sense of that when I understood that ‘too fat’ is, to paraphrase Caitlin Moran, when you no longer resemble a human being and ‘too thin’ is when the weight of your very skin is too heavy to bear.
When I understood that what was ‘unhealthy’ was not a body shape but a state of mind.
Not many doctors tell you that. Oh, they tell you that when you’re 14 and you’re hospitalised with anorexia, or 46 and unable to heave your bulk out of a specially-made bed. Sure, they tell you then, when it’s too fucking late. Before then, when you really needed to know it, your obsession with your body size, your desire to get it ‘right’ whether ‘right’ was thinner or fatter, was lauded, you were praised for ‘taking control’ of yourself. Right?
Yep. It’s that relationship with Food thing again.
Reading Bodies by Susie Orbach really helped clarify my thinking. As I’ve said before:
‘In a nutshell, Bodies basically explores how, in the last thirty or some years, our whole concept of what a ‘body’ is has changed from being merely the physical structure housing a person, to being the sum of what a person is, and as such, something that we must now ‘perfect’ in order to ‘perfect’ ourselves as people.
‘Or bodies must be tamed, made to conform to ever decreasing notions of of what is physically acceptable, or we will be found wanting as people.’
When the cage that houses you becomes who you are, interior decorating takes on a whole new importance. And when that cage is something as fucking unreliable as a body, prone to leakage, stinky emissions, unsightly diseases and other unfortunate social habits, you can see that changing the wallpaper every 10 years just ain’t gonna cut it.
How could we not have a relationship with Food? Food is the most immediate, most obvious way we can change and mould our bodies. Food is the thing that can now define us: as fat slobs, as over-achieving control freaks; as people who have control or who have no control at all. No wonder the whole ‘relationship’ is so fucked up. But just because having one is becoming seemingly inevitable, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
What are we missing? We’re missing that food has no fucking bearing on who we are. Just being genetically programmed to retain fat or just being really, really over-fond of cheesecake or being able to exist on an apple a day, doesn’t actually define who we are as people. It just means we have genes, or we just really, really like cheesecake, or we have (quite unfathomable to me) self-control.
We are missing the fact that’s it’s impossible to have a ‘relationship’ with food, however healthy we may like to boast that relationship is. Food is fuel, nothing more, nothing less. If we choose more good fuel, our bodies will perform sufficiently well so that we don’t have to think about them and we’ll probably lower our chances of becoming unwell. If we choose more bad fuel, fuel that works against our bodies, our bodies will probably start to falter sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent.
That’s it. There is no ‘relationship’. This is not a two-way street. You can treat your cheesecake to dinner and a movie then serenade it with love songs before giving it oral sex for three days straight and it still won’t change into having the nutritional value of a floret of broccoli.
But still, something is missing. We may understand the idiocy of having a relationship with Food, but we still need to eat, right? Jesus, if we have no relationship with Food, how do we know when to eat, what to eat?
The thing that’s missing is called hunger. The relationship you need to have is with your stomach. And it’s the same relationship whether your stomach is convex or concave.
Your stomach will tell you when you’re hungry. So eat when it tells you to and stop when it tells you it’s full. And the more I think about it, the more I realise that what you feed it with is largely irrelevant. Whether you chow down on cheesecake or broccoli, as long as you listen when it waves at you shouting ‘Full!’, most of the rest of all the shit is gravy.
So yes, I tell Boogie about ‘good fuel’ and ‘bad fuel’ and I try to give her some idea of the difference between the two (salmon helps your brain work, pasta gives you energy, brownies give you sugar lift), but that information has become, over time, background noise.
My nightmare micromanagement scenario has segued into an idea of breathtaking simplicity.
Eat, I tell her. If you’re hungry, eat. When you stop being hungry, stop eating.
It sounds like a revolution when I write it down like that. How can that be possible?
It will be a long time before I know whether I gave her the ‘right’ message. But one thing’s for sure however it turns out: it won’t be any worse than any of the other messages she’s getting.
And it at least has the advantage of simplicity. How bad can it be, right?