When I was in high school, I remember making pacts with my girlfriends to eat only one meal a day during the weeks before a big dance or special occasion. For me, skipping those meals meant I would look as thin as possible in my new dress. Early on, food became the enemy in many ways, the demon that would make me gain weight and question myself.
Today, my story is familiar to many young girls and grown women, but it wasn't long ago that curvier women were seen as beautiful. Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and Jayne Mansfield are all examples of beautiful, curvy women popular in the 40s and 50s. Then along came Twiggy. At 16 years old, she was named "the face of '66" by The Daily Express and soon after, girls and women everywhere wanted to emulate her style. But most of all they wanted to be thin, thin, thin. Just like Twiggy.
I don't blame Twiggy for the troubled relationship women have with what they eat, but her popularity was the beginning of supermodels and the very unrealistic standards we've set for women. I've seen a thousand women or more in my office with eating disorders -- from as young as 7-years-old to as old as 84.
In essence, food is fuel for our bodies to have the energy to carry out our daily functions, but our relationship has become so complicated that it is almost hard to remember that basic fact.
Food: Why We Love It, Why We Hate It
As infants, many of us were breastfed or held in our parents' or caretaker's arms while being fed from a bottle. Right from the earliest days of our lives, love and food were woven together. Then as we grew into young children, food -- especially dessert -- was often used as a reward for being a "good" girl or boy. The reward of having a sweet and your parents' love doubled the pleasure. Not to mention the fact that certain foods like sugar can affect the body in the similar ways that cocaine can, sending powerful messages to the reward centers of our brains.
This relationship is magnified by the fact that we turn to food when we are "hungry" for something else. The "Black Box" is the name I have for what some overeaters, alcoholics and drug-users call the hole in the center of them that they are trying to fill. It's a feeling of loneliness and emptiness that -- no matter how much they binge -- can't be filled. When we eat to fill the hole, the guilt of bingeing takes the place of whatever feeling was there to begin with. So we eat to avoid truly feeling.
Though food can make us feel good for the moment, we all know that eating too much can make us put on weight. This is where the guilt and self-hatred come in after bingeing. Once the connection is made between eating and being fat, especially for young girls exposed to popular culture, food becomes the forbidden fruit. I want it, but I can't have it. There may also be messages from parents and caregivers that being too fat means that you are unlovable. Whether these messages were directed at you as a child or modeled for you by your parents, the seed was planted.
Body Image, Food, and Society
Just the other day I had a group of people for dinner at my house. These were some of the things I heard: "I can't eat that -- it'll make me fat," or "I'm going to be bad and have seconds," or "This cheese is going straight to my hips." We use this language all the time with food and guess who hears us doing it? Our daughters and sons. They learn to look at certain foods with the same critical eye that we use for ourselves.
On top of this, we have magazines airbrushing already too-thin models to make them look even more thin, and Hollywood actresses starving themselves, having liposuction or other procedures to look "perfect." And then there are people like the man who wrote to a news anchor in La Crosse, Wis., telling her she was too fat for TV. Our society has set women up to fail from the start. We will never look like those cover models or movie stars because they aren't real. For many of us, our bodies are round and curvy and it doesn't matter how many cheese sticks or second helpings we deny ourselves, we won't have a body like Twiggy's.
Taste It, Smell It, Enjoy Every Bite!
If we continue to make food our enemy (or even our escape mechanism from experiencing difficult feelings), we're only getting further away from what food truly is: a delicious, often beautiful way to fuel our bodies. What if we began to take a different approach to our food? What if we began to create plates that please the eye with bright colors and interesting shapes? What if we slowed down to smell, taste and chew each bite with thought and attention?
I know that as women, our relationships to food are complicated and that all of us have stories that play a unique role in those relationships, but I believe that we truly can appreciate food, eat it, and love our bodies all at the same time. Stay tuned for my next blog on tips to love your food and yourself.
1. Avena, NM, et al. 2008. "Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake." Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32:20-39. URL: http://www.foodaddictionsummit.org/docs/Hoebel-sugaraddiction.pdf.
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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.