I’ve never really watched Project Runway — not from lack of desire but from lack of cable — so I don’t know much about Laura Bennett except that I saw a picture of a pretty dress she designed once. I am going to make a wild guess that, being a fashion designer, she’s not exactly a model of body positivity. Nonetheless, this post of hers on the ways parental restriction on food can lead to binge and compulsive eating is spot on. She starts with a jaw-dropping story about an acquaintance trying to win sole custody of her kids because her ex served them non-organic food for lunch, and then gets into what happens to these overmonitored kids when they visit a house (like hers) where they have access to — heaven forfend! — junk food.
I just want to let the food Nazi moms* in on what happens when your kids come to a house where junk food inhabits the pantry. They have no decision-making skills or sense of moderation when faced with the forbidden fruit roll-up. Like deprived animals, they are determined to consume the lifetime allotment of sugar they have been denied; all before pickup. I have seen one such child eat Swiss Miss Cocoa with a spoon directly out of the family-size container, only to move on to conquer a box of frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts. When faced with not one but three brands of chips, they become apoplectic and run from the kitchen clutching bags of Cool Ranch Doritos and French onion-flavored Sun Chips, later to be found in a corner curled up in the fetal position surrounded by wrappers, unable to state their name.
Sheltering children from every evil in the world does them a disservice; decision-making is a skill, learned with practice from the time they are small. At some point my boys will go out into the world and have to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. One would hope that by then they have ascertained that Krispy Kreme doughnuts are not really for breakfast—and there are serious repercussions if you leave the mother of your children for a 24-year-old.
We’ve talked about this dynamic before, of course, often in terms of the self-deprivation of dieting and the fantasy of the compensatory binge. You tell yourself that you are absolutely, under no circumstance, to ever eat an Oreo or you have FAILED at LIFE, and then when you do crave one you figure you may as well eat all the Oreos in the WORLD. As an adult, you can train yourself — haltingly, painstakingly — in the art of intuitive eating; as a kid, you’re often at the mercy of the adults in your life.
I was the kid who grew up in a junk food-friendly house. I loved Cheetos and Frosted Flakes and chocolate chip cookies and god knows what else. But my mom was also a very good cook, so I also loved potatoes and broccoli and homemade soup and pork tenderloin and all that. Having good homemade food and having “junk” food weren’t mutually exclusive in my house — we just had to have a lot of food, period, because we sometimes had heaps of kids in the house at a time between my mom’s three and my stepdad’s three and all our little friends and cousins who’d stop by. The only time I remember ever engaging in what I’d now call compulsive eating of junk food was in the first couple years after my mom remarried — I was probably feeling a lot of emotional strain, and suddenly there were all these older boys in the house who would eat all the snacks in about two minutes if they could, so I would grab my favorite snacks when I got home from school and eat them all on the staircase to my room before my brothers found me. I was 7 years old and I was confused and I liked food; I stopped doing it once our household settled down more. Eventually I learned that I really didn’t want all those Cheetos all the time — they made my tongue feel funny and I didn’t want orange fingers for the rest of the day. In short, I learned the decision-making skills that Bennett talks about (at least until I started reading teen magazines and getting a whole other species of food morality pumped into me).
But boy, did I have those friends who went berserk when they came to my house. They would be so overwhelmed with the prospect of mainlining all that sugar that sometimes they forgot why they came over in the first place; plans to play a game or ride bikes would crumble under the hypnotic sway of Smore-flavored Pop Tarts.** It always baffled me, because I didn’t have the same reaction when I went to their houses — I often really enjoyed the home-grown, hand-picked, carefully allotted food (not organic, though — too early in the century for that) we got there, because hey, I liked food, but I didn’t usually feel the need to go on a carrot stick bender. After all, I could get those at home too. (I did like discovering new kinds of foods at friends’ houses, though — this was the ’80s and ’90s, and in my area “ethnic” foods [i.e., from ethnicities that include non-white people] and hippie foods and fancy vegetables were just starting to enter our awareness. Plus, my mom had some medically based food restrictions, so though we did eat vegetables often, we didn’t eat a wide variety of them, and we didn’t eat them raw. Salad was a total revelation to me when I was a teenager.)
Not being a parent myself, what struck me most about Bennett’s article is that the dynamic she describes — not letting kids have the slightest opportunity to make their own decisions about food — doesn’t actually go away when you’re an adult. We’re all infantilized by the diet industries and the anti-obesity epidemic BOOGA BOOGA scare factories. All of us, but especially if we’re women, are told that we don’t know what we want, that we don’t know how much to eat, that if we claim to eat by the rules we must be lying, that we’re one bad decision away from death’s door. The single most basic act of living that you control — putting food in your body — is considered out of your league, intellectually speaking. We are never allowed to grow up when it comes to the refrigerator.
Here’s the thing: we’re all going to make bad decisions sometimes. It’s okay. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t even have to try to be perfect! If you’re trying to shed a lifetime of infantilization and cognitive dissonance around food, rest assured that practicing intuitive eating doesn’t secretly mean that you have to be Michael Pollan‘s fat twin to do it right. (I’m betting he has had an Oreo or two in his lifetime, too.) It means you get to eat what you want, for real, without judgment. And if you’re trying to raise a kid not to be insane about food and fat, good luck to you — it will be an uphill battle, but you’re already giving your kid a leg up by refusing to treat yourself like a child, too.
*My biggest problem with Bennett’s article: why the focus on moms? Yes, her original encounter was with a food-obsessed woman, but that doesn’t mean that only women can warp their kids’ psyches. This reads to me as resting on unexamined misogynist principles, namely that women are solely in charge of children’s nourishment.
**Dude, are these as good as I remember? I haven’t bought Pop Tarts in ages but OMG I can still taste these in my mind.