So, if you haven’t yet watched Joy’s new Fat Rant video, go do that now. ‘Cause I want to talk about it.
I have to admit I cringed a little when “Chelsea” (whose outfit I covet, btw) introduced herself as a compulsive eater, and the video’s central conceit became clear. I mean, I loved it — but I could also instantly see the Fatosphere shitstorm a-comin’, because oh my god, she’s mocking compulsive eaters! There’s been some debate lately about whether those of us banging the HAES drum are neglecting those with eating disorders, and about where people who do overeat fit into the movement. And now there’s this. So I guess it’s time, yet again, for me to weigh in (ha!) on this issue.
First, for those of you just joining us, I have a sister who’s a diagnosed compulsive eater and has done time in eating disorder clinics more than once, plus attended loads of OA meetings, gotten more therapy than most of us will get in a lifetime, tried every antidepressant on the market, and done all the recommended reading on the subject. She’s still fat. Her eating is still not normal. She is not as healthy as she could be, and weight-wise, she is probably above her setpoint range (though I also suspect her natural range is much higher than mine, and much, MUCH higher than what doctors would have us believe is “normal”).
I care about her rights as a human being and a fat woman more than pretty much anyone else’s, so let’s just say I bristle when people accuse me of only giving a shit about the rights and dignity of healthy, stereotype-busting fatties.
And by “bristle,” I mean “throw things.”
Since very little is known at this point about why some people routinely overeat to the point of illness — and I’ve watched someone I love seek “expert” solutions for this problem for 20 years, to no avail — let’s just say I will not be surprised if we eventually learn that our current knowledge about compulsive eating ain’t worth a hill of beans. (Feel free to insert your own joke about eating that entire hill in one sitting — although that would technically be binge eating.) I do not in any way dismiss the existence of a certain group of people who have serious problems with eating more than they need or consciously want; but I also don’t think we have a good metric at this point for distinguishing them from people who just have major hang-ups about food because we live in a culture that damn near pathologizes the act of eating at all. I believe we know too little about compulsive eating — and make too many assumptions based on fat stereotypes, not science — to reliably separate, on this end of the spectrum, an eating disorder from disordered eating behavior.
So, for the purposes of this post, let’s start with what we do know:
- Eating disorders affect a relatively small percentage of the population.
- As Joy says in the video, there is no evidence whatsoever that, on average, fat people eat any more or exercise any less than thin people.
- We are so conditioned to believe that fat is always the result of overeating and a sedentary lifestyle — not to mention taught by the diet industry that “normal” portion sizes are microscopic and a “normal” calorie intake is well under 2,000 a day — many of us assume we must be overeating when, in fact, we’re not.
- An addiction model for treatment of compulsive eating is clearly limited by the fact that abstinence from food is not an option.
- “Abstinence” from “trigger foods” is dieting in sheep’s clothing. And has about the same long-term success rate. And encourages the same old pattern of demonizing certain foods and feeling guilty about eating what you crave.
- Accepting your body and learning to eat intuitively are among the proposed solutions for compulsive eating. And while those things clearly aren’t a magic bullet, nobody seems to have a better idea, so I might as well continue promoting self-acceptance and HAES for everyone — while periodically reminding readers that you do not have to live on kelp and lentils or spend hours at the gym every day or even be basically healthy to be welcome here. HAES is something we at SP think of as a worthy goal in general, not something on which we believe human rights are contingent.
So. In light of all that, let’s talk about how brilliant Joy’s new video is.
No, wait, one more tangent first.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have ADD. (No H in my case, even though technically, ADHD is the only official diagnosis; that’s a whole other soapbox, since girls with ADD are often more spacy than hyperactive, and it goes undiagnosed in a lot of girls — like me, for 23 years — because of that.) As we all know, you can’t bring up AD(H)D these days without somebody going on about how it’s a bullshit wastebasket diagnosis that’s applied willy-nilly, and ZOMG, we’re drugging perfectly normal children! Maybe it’s even you who goes on like that.
This pisses me off for exactly the same reason people claiming fat is caused by eating too much and not exercising enough does: it’s pathetically fucking simplistic, and the person making the claim usually has no clue what he’s talking about.
While I will totally fight anyone who says ADD isn’t a real disorder, and I think the panic over Ritalin (which has been in use for ages and is an extremely safe drug, relative to a lot of drugs people don’t think twice about taking) is highly obnoxious, I actually do think it’s probably overdiagnosed among young boys.
I also think it’s probably underdiagnosed among young girls. And I definitely don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with being “labeled ADD,” since for most people who have the disorder, finding out there’s a label for us other than “lazy,” “spacy,” “stupid,” “irresponsible,” “undisciplined,” and/or “afraid of hard work” comes as a huge fucking relief. But do I think there are boys out there who don’t actually have ADD brains but are getting that label anyway? Honestly, yeah. Probably.
And that’s kind of how I feel about the “compulsive eater” label. It describes a very real disorder that’s incredibly painful for those who suffer from it — but that doesn’t mean everybody labeled a compulsive eater is one. And since we just don’t know much about the causes of compulsive eating, and there don’t seem to be any consistently successful treatments for it yet, I think it’s reasonable to ask if people are getting this label (or giving it to themselves) unnecessarily. Because in this case, the label itself really does cause additional suffering; it further distorts our concept of what “normal” eating actually looks like and further reinforces the stereotype that the average fatty is out of control.
More background. For many, many years, and until very recently, I thought of myself as someone with “compulsive eating tendencies.” I’m pretty sure I’ve referred to myself as such on this blog, which isn’t even that old. It’s obviously in my family, and at different times in my life, I’ve engaged in compulsive eating behaviors to a pretty impressive extent. Not to mention, when I dieted, I was just as compulsive about that (I was the kind of dieter who never “cheated”), and I do have one hardcore addiction (smoking), so I fit the profile. And I just never questioned the profile too much.
Then a couple things shifted for me mentally.
1) The more I ranted about how diets don’t work, the more I thought about how, for my sister, the available eating disorder treatments haven’t ever worked, either. And in fact, I haven’t heard of many people successfully conquering compulsive eating through nutritional reeducation or “abstinence” from trigger foods or psychotherapy for their emotional eating issues for any longer than most people can “conquer” fat by dieting. I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the people attempting to treat compulsive overeating are A) taking big ol’ shots in the dark and B) looking at weight loss, not improved mental and physical health, as the end goal of treatment. You’ll note how much a lot of the treatments for this disorder look like dieting. And how much dieting looks like other eating disorders. You do the math.
2) The more I worked at practicing intuitive eating, the more I watched the compulsions disappear. A genuine craving for ice cream or a burger is very different from an irresistible impulse to eat something “naughty” until I’m sick. Once I quit thinking of certain foods as “naughty,” I started seeing that difference quite clearly — and stopped wanting to eat myself sick on food my body didn’t crave.
The other night, Al and I went to a bar and walked past a 7-11 on the way home. He drunkenly decided he NEEDED beef jerky. (Which gets the world’s biggest ewwwwww from me, but to each his own.) In the past, that would have been an automatic trigger for me to suddenly NEED something — chips, candy, ice cream — available at the same 7-11. And in fact, that old mental process started as soon as Al said he was stopping for jerky. I went in with him and walked around the store looking for something, anything that sounded good to me — because if Al was going to have a treat, then I SHOULD HAVE ONE, TOO!
But what I realized was, even drunk, I couldn’t find anything there that appealed to me at all. And the main reason for that (because certainly, at different times, I still find plenty of convenience store food appealing) was that I was full. I did not want to eat. I didn’t just recognize intellectually that I didn’t need food at the time, or that I really didn’t need 7-11 food; I simply did not want to eat at all. Because I was still satisfied from dinner. Because being pleasantly, comfortably full meant — I’m not sure if you caught this part — I did not want to eat.
That’s still a new one on me, it really is. I talk a good game, because I believe fully in the principles behind intuitive eating, and I have absolutely watched it change my eating habits and comfort level regarding food for the better — incrementally, in baby steps. But going to 7-11, drunk, a few hours after dinner, and sincerely having ZERO interest in a bag of chips or peanut M&Ms? Was still a major, surprising milestone for me.
And here’s the big lesson I took from it: the hard part to get over wasn’t the lack of M&Ms. It was knowing that Al was having a treat while I wasn’t. Over the years, I got so conditioned to seek permission from external sources before I ate junk food — or else loathe my guilty, guilty self for going ahead without any permission — I got into the habit of eating the “naughty” foods any time I felt I could get away with it, instead of when I was actually hungry for them. Boyfriend wants jerky? KICKASS! I can have candy and not feel guilty now!
Now, I’ve been practicing intuitive eating long enough that I really can have candy whenever I want without feeling guilty. And lo and behold, that means when I don’t want it… I don’t want it. On any level, conscious or unconscious.
The reverse is also true. When I crave a salad — as I did the other day when Al and a couple of his co-workers said, “Let’s go out for cheeseburgers” — I eat a salad. Cheeseburger didn’t sound good to me; salad did. Period. In the past, all I would have registered was PERMISSION TO EAT CHEESEBURGER GRANTED! — not what my body was actually telling me to eat. Also in the past, there were times when I felt like having a salad at a restaurant but couldn’t bring myself to order one, because I knew I’d mourn the loss of the potential cheeseburger, even if it wasn’t what I wanted. The thought of ordering salad triggered feelings of deprivation — even if it was a huge salad that came with cheese and croutons and bacon and a side of bread. It was salad. Salad was good, and I wanted the baaaaaaad food. Always always always. Every moment I wasn’t eating “bad” food was a moment of deep personal sacrifice.
I exaggerate. But not by much.
For me, that compulsive desire to eat the “bad” foods even when I didn’t want them, and even when they made me physically ill, wasn’t necessarily an indication of a real eating disorder — any more than my dieting indicated anorexia, although the behaviors involved looked awfully similar. It was just an indication of a fucked-up relationship with food — which pretty much everyone in this country has, to some degree. I was never powerless over french fries; I was just damn near powerless over the bone-deep belief that french fries were simultaneously the best thing in the whole, wide world and COMPLETELY FORBIDDEN.
Take away that belief, and french fries become just like any other food: sometimes, they’re what I really want to eat, and sometimes not. *shrug*
Take away a whole series of similar beliefs, and suddenly, I’m not a person with compulsive eating tendencies — I’m a person who has very little desire to eat when I’m not hungry. Like magic! (Slow-moving magic that involved a great deal of conscious effort, granted, but it still feels kinda mystical.) I didn’t have to dig deep and resolve some buried childhood trauma or stop being angry at my mother to overcome those compulsive tendencies; I just had to train myself to really, truly believe that eating is a morally neutral act.
Now, for some people, coming to see eating as a morally neutral act is a more daunting challenge than resolving childhood trauma or forgiving their parents. And for some people, like my sister, there apparently really is something much more serious going on. Furthermore, you could make an argument that I was a legit compulsive eater, and I just conquered the disorder by following the treatment plan some authors and doctors propose.
But that’s not how I see it. I think I was pretty much a normal American woman — one with depression and anxiety (and ADD, for that matter), and one who grew up in a family of self-loathing fatties, which certainly didn’t help. But mostly just a normal American woman brainwashed from birth to believe that eating tasty, fatty food is baaaaad and eating bland, raw vegetables is virtuous. No real in between. (Rather like a normal American woman who grew up in the ’50s was brainwashed to feel about sex.)
Some people respond to a cultural paradigm like that by only ever eating the “good” stuff and annoying the shit out of the rest of us with their self-congratulatory proselytizing about the benefits of an abstemious lifestyle. Others respond by instinctively recognizing the black and white rules as a load of hooey, eating what they want, and doing just fine. But some people respond just as some people respond to any set of rigid rules — by wantonly flouting them, then struggling with massive guilt about it.
I’m totally that last kind of person by nature. The kind of person who instinctively flips authority the bird but then writes authority a letter of apology on nice stationery. The kind of person who fancies myself a rebel while desperately craving approval. The kind of person who can’t stand being told what to do, but also can’t stand myself sometimes because I know the directions I’m refusing to follow might actually be useful to me. The kind of person driven by a genuine independent spirit, but also by a good measure of spite and petulance.
In short, I am exactly the kind of person who would respond to being told that fatty foods are the devil by eating them every chance I got — then spending long hours wondering if I was going to hell for it. If I’d been born in a different era or to a stricter Catholic family, you can bet I would have fucked every guy who said hello to me as soon as I got to college, too. My issue isn’t with food, it’s with rules — specifically, the kind of rules that aren’t entirely arbitrary (living solely on french fries or fucking people indiscriminately will, in fact, tend to cause more health problems than not) but also aren’t remotely proportionate to the real risks that come with breaking them (eating french fries and fucking different people as part of a balanced, self-respecting lifestyle will most likely not cause noteworthy health problems). And when I look at it that way, frankly, it doesn’t seem like much of an “issue” at all. It seems like a pretty logical response to being told I’m supposed to regard natural, pleasurable human behaviors as TERRIFYING WEBS OF DANGER THAT WILL TRAP MY VERY SOUL.
So. This post has spun wildly out of control and in no way resembles the one I thought I was going to write today. (Did I mention I have ADD?) I planned to talk more about those bullet points way back at the beginning — specifically, about how it’s really fucking hard to figure out that you do eat pretty normally when the only models of “healthy” eating we’re told about are restrictive diets, and we’re taught to believe that fat people don’t eat well and thin people do, period. I really believe there are a lot of women out there laboring under the misconception that they eat way too much just because they do eat, and don’t exercise enough because they’re not running marathons — even if they walk most places or chase their kids around the yard every night or do a “wuss” form of exercise like yoga (HA!). I believe there are women who think of themselves as compulsive eaters because they just can’t bring themselves to skip dessert some nights, or “emotional eaters” because yeah, Ben & Jerry’s DOES taste especially good right after a break-up.
And I believe that’s because we have no real framework for understanding the concept of moderation when it comes to food and exercise. Moderation doesn’t mean being hungry or sore, or feeling deprived or punished. It means being satisfied and comfortable and balanced and healthy. But how many of us have any fucking clue what that would even look like before we stumble into it, if we ever do? And how likely are we to stumble into it if we’re constantly distracted by messages that we are too fat and therefore clearly desire too much — making it nearly impossible to focus on the only really important question when it comes to determining what “moderation” means: How does your body feel?
So I think Joy’s latest video is fucking awesome, because it brilliantly sends up that unnecessary self-flagellation over normal behavior, and the pathologizing of a basic human need. (Also? Hilarious.) Of course there are people who really do routinely overeat to their own chronic detriment, and I neither want to make light of them nor exclude them from the conversation here. But again, they are a small percentage of the population — and fat people are not. Most fat people are not compulsive overeaters any more than most dieters are anorectics. We are mostly pretty normal people living in a culture that tells us eating — EATING — is a perilous, potentially deadly endeavor that the average human being can’t be expected to negotiate successfully without professional assistance.
EATING. EATING FOOD. I mean, seriously, y’all.