8.3 Editor's Pick
October 6, 2022

“When Food is Love” is not just a Cliché.

Jo, Jo,
Round as an O,
Where does all
The porridge go?

Thus, aged four, I learnt that I wasn’t good enough. That there was something wrong with me.

At age four, my father branded me a misfit.

He thought it was hilarious. His crappy little rhyme became a family joke, so I also learnt that being round as an O made me a laughing stock. But of course fat girls don’t cry, even when they’re only four.

In Feeding the Hungry Heart, Geneen Roth says, “If who you are is wrong, then what you want is wrong…if you let yourself be yourself, no one would love you.” So, crying inside, I laughed with him.

Some years ago, I heard that children are being diagnosed with anorexia as young as eight years old. Eight! I wonder how many of those eating disorders began like mine, with a piece of gratuitous cruelty that should have no place in a family. 

My father had another daughter, my half-sister Sonja. She died of anorexia when she was 26, weighing 26 kilos. One kilo for each year of her short life. I am not anorexic. I am part of Australia’s growing obesity problem. Anorexia and obesity. Two sides of the same coin.

My father never saw the connection.

I’m standing under the bell. I can taste sick in my mouth.

I’ve been naughty again. Every day this week I’ve been sick in class. On Wednesday, Mrs. Evans said, “That’s it. I’ve had enough!” She sent me to stand under the bell. But it still keeps happening.

I don’t like Mrs. Evans. The other kids keep calling her Mummy. By mistake. One day she said, “This has got to stop,” but kids still say it sometimes. I tried saying it once. I thought it might make them like me. Mrs. Evans  got cross and kept me in at playtime. She wouldn’t even let me eat my chocolate crackle for playlunch.  It’s not fair. 

This is my third day under the bell. I’m waiting for one of the big girls from Grade 6 to come and ring the bell for playtime. I hate this bit the most. All the other kids come running out with their playlunch. They’re all laughing and talking. They stop and stare at me. Whisper behind their hands so I can’t hear them. They don’t talk to me.

Yesterday the bell-ringer said, “Oh, not again. Why don’t you stop?”

But I’m not doing it on purpose. I just sit in class doing writing practice and suddenly up it all comes. I feel it in my tummy first then it roars out my mouth. It’s yucky. Smelly. It goes all over my alphabet letters. I can see carrots in it but I don’t know why—I never eat my carrots. They’re yucky too. I hate this school.

As I see the big girl coming toward me I feel my face going all red and hot. My feet set off for the school gate. The voice in my head says, You can’t go. Girls who are only five can’t go on the road. You’re not allowed.

My feet keep walking. They know the way home.   

That was 1964. I like to think it wouldn’t happen today.

I drove past that school recently. It looks so innocent. So benign, sitting there amongst the trees. There is nothing benign about my memories.

What on Earth were they all thinking? Did nobody recognise a child in distress?

In my mind’s eye I see that sad little figure, my five-year-old self, standing under the bell waiting for all the other kids to come and jeer at her. I feel the knot in my  stomach as I wait, day after day, to be laughed at. To be told, yet again, that who I am is wrong.

We’d just moved from Hobart to Sydney. At my Hobart school I had a best friend, and at home I played with Peta, the girl next door, every day. Most of all I had Mate. Mate was warm, motherly Mrs. Scott, my child-minder. She listened to my childish woes and small excitements with endless patience. She thought I was neglected so she fed me chocolate biscuits, every day. I loved her. Denying me that playtime chocolate crackle was a cruel reminder that she was no longer there for me.

In Sydney, there was nobody. My family was at war, I had no friends, and my new school was unwelcoming. Every day I woke up with the dread that only a child can feel. I suffered the mortification of being the Billy-no-mates in a class where everybody else seemed happy. There was nobody to tell. Nobody to listen.

As I watch my five-year-old self head for the school gate and turn left onto Pittwater Road, my heart breaks for her. But I cheer as well. It took courage to walk away.

The connections are not hard to make, but it’s taken me nearly 60 years to see them clearly. That’s the thing about an eating disorder—it distorts the vision.

As I searched my bookshelves for Geneen Roth’s book, I discovered an entire library bought over the years to try to enlighten me about my eating behaviours. These books have travelled across the world with me. I may have packed up my life, but I knew my eating disorder would come with me. And here’s the puzzling thing: despite all this literature, and the ever more elaborate theories behind the use and abuse of food, the population is getting fatter. Women, girls—and men too—are developing eating disorders in ever greater numbers. 

Periodically, specialists “discover” a new one. Binge-eating disorder, chewing-and-spitting disorder, and orthorexia, to name but a few. There is so much advice and so many contradictions. But it comes down to this:

Any form of disordered eating is an attempt to solve a problem. It signals an emotional and spiritual pain that only the person who lives with it can understand or identify.

Although eating disorders are classified as complex psychological issues, we often look to simplistic medical or surgical interventions for help. It’s an understandable response. Who doesn’t love a quick fix? And these issues of mind, heart, and soul have a physical means of manifestation. There can, of course, be physical contributory causes: sugar addictions, genetic factors, thyroid issues, and more. For most people, though, the emotional issues come first. Obesity is a consequence of overeating, and morbid obesity likely signals a food addiction. Like every other addiction, food addiction is an expression of emptiness, loneliness, and despair.

I’m sitting in my armchair after dinner, watching an episode of “My 600-lb Life” with horrified fascination. As I watch, a part of me wonders how this person could have let it get this bad, but in my heart I know: his extreme disability is what happens when the meaning behind a compulsive eating disorder is left unattended.

There, but for the grace of God…He is housebound, almost bedbound, but still he eats. Food has stolen from him everything that makes life worth living. He exists in a prison with bars made of pizza, chips, burgers, and fried chicken. A prison of his own making, and he doesn’t know how to break free. 

At some point I go to the pantry for a packet of biscuits. I’m not hungry, and this is no longer usual behaviour for me. I wonder why I’m doing it, and realise I feel deeply uncomfortable watching this man’s personal hell being turned into entertainment. Watching his care givers help him with  intimate tasks that he can no longer do for himself is an invasion of his privacy; I feel voyeuristic. As every compulsive eater knows, bingeing should be a secret shame.

Biscuits beside me, I can’t stop watching. The opening credits of each episode include a line informing us that weight-loss surgery has only a 5 percent chance of long-term success. Only 5 percent, but 10 seasons worth of morbidly obese individuals have thought it was worth trying. That breaks my heart. I turn the TV off and sit with my thoughts.

My immediate thought is that I don’t like the doctor these people have come to for help. He is authoritarian and seems devoid of empathy or sympathy. He tells each patient they will have to lose around 100 pounds on their own to be approved for surgery. When they fail, as most of them do, he treats them like naughty school children.

He prescribes a diet that forbids virtually everything except chicken and vegetables, and he recommends that they should also see a therapist. Most patients have heartbreaking stories of childhood loss, abuse, and emotional deprivation, so they do this with reluctance. If talking about their issues was easy they wouldn’t have needed food to numb their pain. Does he have any idea of the enormity of his demands?

I’m six now. I’m in the playground at school and I’m crying. I can’t stop. I can’t breathe. Mum hasn’t given me any lunch, or any money for the tuckshop. Girls are crowding round me, offering me sandwiches, biscuits…friendly offerings to share. But I just howl more. I don’t want their sandwiches, I want my pie and Twisties. When Mum doesn’t give me lunch I always have a pie and Twisties. Always.

I feel a big hole inside my tummy. Ages later, I stop crying and my best  friend Jenny shares her lunch with me. But the hole is still there. Empty.

Compulsive eating is not about the food. It’s about the love that food represents. That day in the playground I felt abandoned and totally unloved. It felt as if the only thing that could ease the pain was pie and Twisties. Twelve years later, when I left home and moved to London, I would feel that same emptiness and overwhelming craving for pie and Twisties in my first lonely months there. You can’t buy Twisties in London. As before, nothing else would do.

It seems so trivial. My mother certainly thought it was when I told her about my lunch. But to me, pie and Twisties meant love. As did chocolate biscuits, thanks to the loving ministrations of Mate. For decades, my binge foods of choice were chocolate biscuits and Cheesy Wotsits (Britain’s answer to Twisties). 

“When food is love” has become a cliché; Roth even wrote a book about it. But it’s become a cliché because it’s true.

That image of Dawn French on the “Vicar of Dibley” says it all. Dumped by her Mr, Wrong, she sits on the floor in her jammies, face all puffy and smeared, surrounded by empty tubs of Haagen Dazs. It was a comic scene, but how I wish she hadn’t done it! Dawn was an icon for women of size everywhere. Holding obesity and binge-eating up to ridicule felt like a betrayal.

Roth writes, “The inside of a binge is deep and dark…Nothing matters—not friends, not family, not lovers. Nothing matters but food. Lifting, chewing, swallowing…until a physical limit, usually nausea, is reached. Then comes the sought-after numbness…Like a good drug, food knocks out sensation.” A cause for ridicule? I don’t think so.

Despite all the research, the obesity crisis is still escalating. Why? 

The prevalence of what Michael Pollan calls “food-like substances” has something to do with it. Food-like substances fill us up, but give no nourishment. They are the stuff of every binge. No one binges on chicken and vegetables.

A bigger problem, though, is hatred. Both self- hatred and the hatred that society feels for obesity and the people who suffer from it. In Eating Your Heart Out, Julia Buckroyd writes, “Very often we set out to change [ourselves] from a position of hate: ‘I hate who I am; I hate what I do… Because I am a greedy pig I will go on a diet and that will punish me for being the way I am.’” That was my problem with the bariatric surgeon on “My 600-lb Life.”  He was punitive, and he threw his patients ever deeper into the bottomless well of self-hatred they were drowning in. 

Most compulsive eaters find it difficult to give themselves positive regard. It’s no coincidence that every subject on that show lived with at least one companion animal. I do too. Our animals give us the unconditional love that we cannot give to ourselves or receive from the society in which we live.

Writing of attitudes to obesity in America, Ann Helen Peterson talks of “a widely held American attitude—one that fears and pathologises fatness, even as it promotes the rhetoric of self-acceptance and self-confidence. Fat is ugly, and dangerous, and an epidemic sweeping the country…but you should love yourself.” The same attitude prevails in Australia. Buckroyd says, “Hatred of ourselves is not a good beginning for our new growth and development as people.” But faced with such ambivalent vilification, how is a morbidly obese person to achieve any sort of equanimity?

Prolific research seems to have contributed little toward a solution. I think we were coming closer to understanding obesity back in the 80s and 90s, when Buckroyd and Roth were writing. So many recent medical advances focus on surgery and confusing, conflicting nutritional advice—a search for physical solutions to what is essentially a cry from the heart.

My father is no longer with us. I don’t think he ever understood the role his relentless mockery played in the struggles of his daughters, but he genuinely grieved for Sonja when she died. Alongside his belittling comments, he demanded that his children glorify him by reaching the most impossible pinnacles of the paths he had chosen for them. Perhaps he finally realised that his relentless pursuit of vicarious fame and fortune was too high a price to pay. I became so estranged from him that the last time I saw him he didn’t recognise me. That hurt, despite my strongest intentions.

I  rarely eat compulsively these days, but it’s been a long road. I’m lucky. I have friends and family who love me, and a life filled with purpose. I also have cancer. My attitude to the drugs that keep me alive is a reminder of my eating disordered past. With each new drug, my first question is unfailingly, “Will this one make me thin or fat?” Old habits die hard.

Compulsive eating is a visible disorder—sufferers cannot leave home without the evidence. Although I rarely binge-eat, I am still a woman of size, and I still feel the shame of living in a body that doesn’t fit society’s expectations. I wish the world would look on and applaud, as I did when I looked back on my five-year-old self. People who suffer from disordered eating are strong and brave. Their eating behaviours are the only solution they can find to deal with unmanageable pain. But day after day they carry on, bearing burdens they cannot shed.

If we are to conquer obesity, the strongest weapons we have are understanding and respect.

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