From Part One: FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Let us commit ourselves now to expanding our minds and wonderful experiences, not our bodies!
I have been on a diet for as long as I can remember, at least since I was five years old. My mother put me on a diet at that time because she said I was getting too fat. I imagine that because she was obese, she wanted to make sure I wouldn't be. But looking back at childhood pictures, I see that I was never really fat as a child. When I was about five years old, you might say I still had some baby fat, but you would never describe me as being fat. If I must say so myself, I was kind of cute. Nevertheless, my mother told me I had to diet, and therefore I could not have more than one cookie from the box of assorted cookies placed in front of me at the kitchen table. Sometimes, when nay mother wasn't looking, I'd sneak another cookie. When I was six or seven years old, I remember, I stole money from my mother's handbag to buy chocolate-covered halvah from the local grocery. It cost three cents, and I could get three of them if I stole a dime. I still feel as if I am sneaking food when I eat something I love. And sometimes I still feel guilty when I let it get the better of me when I eat too much of something delicious. My present desire to eat what I shouldn't probably stems from those experiences. Although I know I am not really fat, I still often think and feel I am. I have worried about how fat I am since I was a little girl. And I have been dieting ever since.
I am a psychotherapist in the private practice of treating adults and adolescents. Since going into the field of psychology, I have spent a lot of time thinking about why people overeat. Why were my mother, her sister, and her brother obese? Why do people spend millions of dollars on one diet book or program after another to lose weight? Why do the people who finally lose the weight regain those pounds, plus more?
There are many conscious and obvious reasons we overeat. Eating is pleasurable. Overeating can provide pleasure when we are not getting enough joy out of life. When things are not going well, a hot fudge sundae may make us feel better. Chinese food or Raisinets do the trick for me. Many people forget their pain or troubles and feel better while they are eating something delicious. Just think how many children are offered an ice cream cone when they fall down and cry. Many parents do what their parents did. They offer something delicious to soothe the hurt. For most of us, soothing pain with something delicious begins very early in life.
I grew up in one of the thousands of apartment buildings in congested Brooklyn, New York. But one summer, when I was seven, we went to "the country." I felt free wandering gleefully around in the woods. It was wonderful. But my joy soon ended. I tripped and fell in the woods and got pebbles in my knee. I remember it as if it were yesterday, though it was decades ago. I ran to my mother, crying hysterically and pointing to my bleeding knee. My mother looked down at my bloody knee and then at me. In an attempt to soothe and calm me, she said if I let her take the pebbles out of my knee she would take me to the candy store and I could have anything I wanted. This was extraordinary. I was, after all, the little girl who couldn't even have more than one cookie. Since I knew I wasn't going to have a choice about having the pebbles taken out of my knee, I made the deal. Picking out all my favorite candies was fantastic. But eating them with my mother there and approving was ecstasy. Going to the doctor usually brought the same reward: something delicious to eat. It feels childish to admit this, but even today it is difficult for me to go to the doctor or do something else that is painful without rewarding myself with some candy. The desire to soothe or reward myself with candy is still with me some forty-odd years later.
The actor James Coco has said he was a skinny child until he was nine years old. He points to his tonsillectomy as the beginning of his weight problem. "Without that tonsillectomy, I might never have had a weight problem. Though I was terrified at first of surgery, my parents won me over by describing the ice cream feast to come....Visions of Breyer's hand-dipped ice cream danced in my head as I went under the anesthetic vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, the three main flavors they made then. My last conscious thought was of chocolate." Mr. Coco acknowledges that of course there were other reasons for his overeating. One, he states, is that to him, "Food is love."
Overeating can be fun, especially with others. Think about it. What do most people do when they get together? They eat. They eat brunch. They eat lunch. They eat dinner. They eat après dinner. What do we think of when we get together for Easter, Passover, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and so on? What are we going to eat? For weeks ahead of time we plan what we will prepare or eat for our holiday dinners. It has been that way probably since the beginning of time. We celebrate by eating. Eating is how we share a good time and pleasure with others. It is a way of connecting. It is a pleasure both to the senses and to the emotions.
Recently my son had a slumber party. My husband and I understood perfectly when he gave us the long list of "munchies" to buy for the party. For my son and his friends, the best part of the party was eating all the junk food they possibly could. Throwing it at each other was an additional delight.
A man I know feared he might have diabetes. Medically he had reason for his fear. We talked about the possibility that this fear was related to his mother and father developing adult-onset diabetes. But his biggest fear was not that he might have a serious, possibly life-threatening disease. His fear was that if he did indeed have diabetes, it would prevent him from having desserts. I found that hard to believe. But he said, "Really, I'm serious. One of the biggest pleasures I have in life is sharing desserts with my wife at the end of dinner. It's a big part of our intimacy and fun."
Now, with greater public awareness of health issues, we know that overeating, fat, cholesterol, and sugar are all bad for us. If you eavesdrop on conversations, you can overhear friends relating stories of how they try to trick themselves out of eating all those wonderful but, alas, bad foods. I myself have shared stories with friends about freezing desserts so that I wouldn't eat them, only to discover, when I weakened, that some frozen cakes are even better than fresh cake! One comedian jokes about avoiding the temptation of fattening foods by throwing them away. However, an hour later she finds herself rummaging through her garbage, retrieving the forbidden food, brushing it off, and eating it. The audience laughs. The audience connects. Often, when we are not eating, we are joking and talking about food. We identify and we connect through food.
Overeating, like smoking or drinking, helps divert some people from feelings of anxiety. When something is going wrong, the first thing overeaters think about is eating. Eating, or more drastically, bingeing, helps assuage the upsetting feelings for the moment. Just as when my mother took the pebbles out of my knee, even though it hurt, the hurt is softened by being nurtured. Eating is something we do to divert our attention from an emotion, even a positive one, so intense that it doesn't feel comfortable.
Little is said about eating when there is an intense positive emotion. My desire to write this book raised some doubts. I believed it was such an important book; how was it possible no one had written it before? I did a lot of research, reading many books and journal articles about overeating and eating disorders. But in all my research I did not find any book that suggested what I wished to communicate. When I was in the library the last time and realized no one else had written this kind of book, I became extremely excited that writing this book was becoming a very real possibility. It would be a dream come true to write a book helping people to understand the powerful underlying wishes and fears that cause us to overeat. I was so excited I didn't know what to do with myself.
At first what I wanted to do was eat, and eat a lot. I was not hungry, but that very excited feeling, which was lasting a long time, began to feel very uncomfortable. Eating would be a way to calm myself (I did not want to lose all of the excitement, but just quiet it a little). I wanted to mollify the pleasurable and happy, but too intense, feeling of excitement. Ironically, here I was thinking about writing a book about overeating, and precisely at that moment what I was thinking about doing was overeating! Ultimately, I told my husband about it; he laughed, and shared in the excitement. That, plus beginning to write, was what helped.
Even pleasurable feelings can be uncomfortable. Many people, especially those who do not overeat, would react in the exact opposite way. They would be unable to eat. But overeaters typically rely on food to deal with many things.
For many, one of the most gratifying pleasures in the world is eating. But not all people overeat. It is incomprehensible to someone who overeats that a person can eat a little of something delicious and not want any more, because he has had enough. When we overeat around a person like that, we feel ashamed of overeating. Intuitively we know there is another reason we are eating too much. Often this shame brings about hiding of, or even self-deception about, eating.
My obese mother used to tell my sister and me that she just could not lose weight. She would tell us that she watched what she ate very carefully, but her body would not comply. Growing up, I felt so bad for her.
Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Michelle Joy Levine