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Are we what we eat – or have we made an enemy of food?

Posted in Health, Life & Love, Relationships, and Women's issues

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Image from an Italian anti-anorexia campaign shot by Olivier Toscani. Isabelle Caro, the woman pictured here, died in November last year. She was 28.

We have a ‘normal’ history with food in sofafamily. We sat down to dinner together every night: with instructions to finish what was on our plates. Most times that wasn’t a problem. But  there were certain things we hated. Most especially Chris, who wouldn’t eat veggies: spitting them into his napkin and hiding them down the back of the sofa. I loathed the ‘savoury-mince&rice/tinned-green-beans’ combo that would appear once a month. Couldn’t get it down my throat, the textures just freaked me out. Tears at the table.

My mom and sister are serial dieters: each with their own approach. Mom likes to keep a certain weight and will calorie-count and deny herself to get there. Mandy has tried it all – often with hilarious results. My dad and my brothers occasionally dabble – but are more pragmatic: they don’t care what they look like in a bikini. Showing up is more important. Besides my father loves Albany chocolate.

I “keep trim” as my mother puts it. If I put on more than 2kgs – I simply follow the NeNaMe plan: no extras, no alcohol, more exercise. I am not a snacker – so any weight gain comes from cocktails or cake. Easy things to put down. For me. Yes, I understand how lucky I am in this, and it’s not lost on me that I am, in my way – a dieter too.

I am thinking about all this because my niece, Riley, can make suppertime a challenge. Doesn’t eat this, doesn’t eat that – melts down like an operatic diva. It’s tiring and gives the rest of us nervous gas: so her mother and I have been trying to figure out how best to handle it. Without pointing her towards an eating disorder.

Mandy sent me some images of a Brazilian anti-anorexia campaign – which takes fashion sketches and translates them into proportional real life, with the tagline: You are not a sketch. Great idea/great images – but I think they miss the point a tad. Implying that fashion designers’ stick figure sketches are to blame for the weight problems in the fashion industry is naive. Model agencies, casting directors, advertisers and magazines editors – are all complicit too.

Plus, the causes of anorexia (and its shadow bulimia) are not that simple. Women come to disordered eating by many routes: among them perfection-issues, depression, low self-esteem, OCD and anxiety disorders. If you add the cultural triggers of glossy mags and advertising, skinny models, celebs and Victoria’s Secret angels – you have perfect storm conditions for food abuse. When Kate Moss said: “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” – millions of girls took her seriously.

Pintrest is beset by accusations that they tacitly endorse the pro-anorexia movement (known as pro-ana) by allowing girls to create boards featuring unnaturally thin women and starvation diets. The Internet is rife with websites dedicated to Thin, and they’re graphic – Thinspiration features images of starved ‘real’ and celebrity figures. I am torn – the impact of an eating disorder on the girl (and occasional guy), her family and friends is harrowing. The suffering prolonged and outcome often fatal. But freedom of speech is freedom of speech. Regardless of weight. So how can we expect Pintrest or Google to determine who has the right to express themselves?


But thin is not the only feminist issue when food is in play.

Magazines and online sites devoted to “big beautiful women”(BBW) have become more and more popular. These women (known as “gainers”) love their ‘fat bodies’ and there are millions of men around the world who love them too. Men who are willing to pay to watch them eat online. I knew about BBW through a band member I worked with. He was an unabashed fan of the fuller figure – and the girls who would overnight at our hotel during a tour would fly in the face of the skinny stereotypes favoured by the other lads. He took plenty of stick for it – but his dates seemed more cheerful. And smoked less. I always felt they had it marginally better in the weigh choice stakes than their skinny compadres. At least they were fun at dinner. But, after watching ‘My Big Fat Fetish’ on TV last night, I am not so sure.

The program (complete with bouzouki soundtrack, an ironic nod to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” I assume) introduced us to four women – who spoke with brutal frankness about the relationship they have with food and their bodies. And sex. Because, unlike anorexia; gaining is sexual – the feelings brought on by stuffing yourself with food – mirror those of arousal and release.

Gainers often have “Feeders” who help them eat: acting out their sexual fantasies. As 21-year-old (280lb/127kg) Kitt’s stomach expands during a forced feed, her eyes grow misty and her tone slurs and becomes languid. Her boyfriend Wes is unable to keep his hands off her: rubbing her belly as he pours milkshake down a tube into her mouth. It’s hard to watch but impossible to tear your eyes away. Kitt and Wes admit that gaining isn’t normal – but they believe it is better to live out their sexual drive than to repress it.

The women say they feel empowered by what they do. They run their own online businesses, provide for their families; have nice houses. They are not interested in going along with what the rest of the world thinks they should do – or weigh.

But then there’s the flip side. “Goddess Patty” (616lbs/280kgs), the queen of the BBWs – performs ‘squashings’ for paying punters. There is no sex involved: Patty sits and bounces on them. The men lie there – squirming and breathless: then leave, thrilled and released. Patty is helped to the sofa to rest: she is too heavy to walk unaided. She lives as a semi-invalid – in a small motel room on the outskirts of town.

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Goddess Patty

In the closing moments of the show, Patty – who hasn’t left her bed in a week: cries as she admits that she created this “armour’ around her body to protect her from men. But now it’s become the very thing that has trapped her. And trapped her boy too. He has become his mother’s primary carer, doing far more than should be expected of any son because: “since my stepdad left, there is no-one else to do it”. They both live off her meagre income – eating dinner in the parking lot of a Mexican Diner. Take-outs balanced on a trash can, the Goddess in a plus-sized wheelchair.

If she had her time again, Patty says: she “wouldn’t have started this”.

The last few days have reinforced for me how we fetishise body size. Skinny is tied to the idea of glamour and perfection – wealth and angular self control. Fat implies voluptuous appetites, accepting kink, maternal nurture, and lack of limits. But that’s not my niece, she is adored and knows it. Riley is exercising her five-year old preference to choose what she eats. And I understand that. I won’t eat what I don’t like either: fish that tastes like fish, meat that tastes like meat, cream in/on my food. I hate savoury food that tastes sweet or sweet food that tastes savoury. The memory of Heston Blumenthal’s crab ice-cream, still makes me retch. And please, no offal.

So Rupert – here’s the plan: I will prepare dinner as usual. And give you only the things that you like to eat from that meal, I won’t be cooking options. And you will eat them because you need to grow. We won’t turn food into a weapon or use it as punishment or a reward. It will just be a nice, shared, fun and nutritious part of our day.

Because, despite what Kate Moss may think: nothing looks as good as healthy feels.

(Images from the Anti-Anorexia campaign sourced here. Pintrest images found on the relevant boards. BBW images found in the public domain courtesy of Channel 4. “My Big Fat Fetish” can be viewed here.)

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24 Comments

  1. It continually amazes me how much more securely we are imprisoned by satisfaction than oppression. Particularly in a country like the U.S. it is far too easy to be swept away in a deluge of “fulfillment” — though the outcome very rarely bears that moniker.

    Glad to hear your confidence that a change in advertising may be imminent. Marketing truly is the inadvertent devil -.-

    May 18, 2013
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  2. There is a local spice shop (Penzeys) in Milwaukee, whose one of few logos is “Heal the World: Cook Dinner Tonight”. Their catalogs not only describes dishes and list their products, but also showcases stories from local families who share food as an integral part of life. And I think that’s one (of MANY) aspects of having a good relationship with food, and see our bodies not so much as a poster board to get attention/approval/assets, but a vessel by which we carry out our actions. And like anything functional, our bodies fall apart when we don’t give them the proper care, or try to manipulate them in unnatural ways.

    Thanks for another great post! I used to obsess more about my weight in my teenage years, but I love cooking and eating too much to actually be anorexic. 🙂

    Here’s an article that discusses eating disorders and ballet dancers, which unfortunately, tend to more synonymous.

    http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/eat-your-heart-out-on-my-wifes-eating-disorder/

    April 27, 2013
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  3. Great post, very thought provoking. Both extremes – and we need to remember they are extremes – are scary, unhealthy and dangerous. Finding a healthy equilibrium with our attitudes to food can be a battle for many people, but is vital for our physical and emotional well being.

    April 25, 2013
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    • Yes – good point – those are extremes, and equilibrium is all. What they did was kick my thought process on how to deal with Riley down a notch. Sometime I rush to solf, to land a solution. When a holding pattern with good lift, is sometimes all that’s required

      April 25, 2013
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  4. This article was published in the New York Times on December 30, 2010:

    Isabelle Caro, Anorexic Model, Dies at 28
    By WILLIAM GRIMES

    Isabelle Caro, a French model and actress who became the international face of anorexia when she allowed her ravaged body to be photographed nude for an Italian advertising campaign to raise awareness about the disease, died on Nov. 17. She was 28.

    Her friends and family initially kept her death secret. Danièle Gouzard-Dubreuil-Prevot, Ms. Caro’s longtime acting instructor, informed The Associated Press on Wednesday that she died after returning to France from a job in Tokyo.

    Though her anorexia was almost certainly a factor in her death, its exact role was not clear, and her weight at her death was not known. But Ms. Caro weighed only about 60 pounds when she posed, reclining and staring balefully over her right shoulder, for an advertising campaign for the Italian fashion label Nolita in 2007. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall and had battled anorexia since the age of 13.

    The image, displayed on billboards and in newspapers as Fashion Week got under way that year in Milan, was shocking. Ms. Caro’s face was emaciated, her arms and legs mere sticks, her teeth seemingly too large for her mouth. In large letters, “No — Anorexia” ran across the top of the photograph.

    The photo was taken by Oliviero Toscani, celebrated in the fashion industry for his Benetton campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, which included such provocative images as a close-up of a man dying from AIDS and prisoners on death row.

    The Nolita campaign came as the fashion industry was under a spotlight over anorexia, after a 21-year-old Brazilian model, Ana Carolina Reston, died from it in 2006.

    “The idea was to shock people into awareness,” Ms. Caro said at the time. “I decided to do it to warn girls about the danger of diets and of fashion commandments.”

    Some groups working with anorexics warned, however, that it did a disservice to those with the disorder. Fabiola De Clercq, the president of Italy’s Association for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia, said that Ms. Caro should be in the hospital and pronounced the image “too crude.”

    The ads were eventually banned by an Italian advertising watchdog agency, which determined that they exploited the illness.

    The campaign gained Ms. Caro widespread attention in Europe and the United States. She subsequently served as a judge on the French version of the reality show “America’s Next Top Model” and worked periodically as a film and television actress.

    Ms. Caro often spoke out about her anorexia and her efforts to recover, including an appearance on the VH1 reality series “The Price of Beauty,” starring Jessica Simpson.

    Ms. Caro’s Facebook page said that she was born on Sept. 12, 1982. In her 2008 memoir, “The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Get Fat,” she described a tormented childhood dominated by the profound depression that gripped her mother, an artist, when Isabelle was 4. Obsessed with protecting Isabelle, her mother kept her out of school until the age of 11 and forbade her to play with other children, lest she pick up an illness. She often criticized her daughter for being too fat.

    “She wanted me to be her little girl forever,” Ms. Caro told Italian Vanity Fair in 2007. “So as I started puberty I hated the idea that my body was going to change. I wanted to have the body of a child forever, to make my mother happy.”
    As a result of her self-imposed diet, she would often lapse into comas and awake delirious, not knowing who she was. At one time, she survived on one square of chocolate a day with a cup of tea that she consumed a teaspoon at a time, to make it last.

    Ms. Caro’s long struggle with her disease had alarming ups and downs. In 2006, when her weight dwindled to 55 pounds, she sank into a coma. After months in intensive care, she was advised by a psychologist to break free of her parents, and she moved to Marseille. She also began a blog documenting her struggle with anorexia.

    “I still eat almost nothing, but I’ve stopped vomiting,” she said after her photo shoot for Nolita. “I have started to distinguish tastes of things. I have tried ice cream — it’s delicious.”

    This March, she announced with pride that her weight had risen to 93 pounds.

    The Swiss singer Vincent Bigler had been working with Ms. Caro on a video for a song he wrote about anorexia called “J’ai Fin,” a wordplay in French that means roughly “I am the end” but has the same pronunciation as “I am hungry.” He said he wrote the song after being so moved and worried by seeing Ms. Caro on television.

    Mr. Toscani said that he had visited several hospitals in France, Italy and Germany to find the right model and chose Ms. Caro because she exhibited the classic physical characteristics of advanced anorexia and because her eyes were haunting.

    April 25, 2013
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    • Oh Manu – how sad. Thanks for sharing. I will change the pic to acknowledge this and that Toscanini took it.

      April 25, 2013
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  5. People have this incredibly awful ability to make an enemy out of everything. I am usually not one of those who blame society for everything – but with food I really think it’s down to a lack of intervention.

    I dated a couple of girls with eating disorders – they’re more common than one would think. These people look perfectly fit and fine from the outside but when one pays attention to their routine and diet, some dire things come up.

    A lot is done for alcohol and the way one drinks, for example with the “drink responsibly” campaign. Nothing is done for food and nutrition: fast food chains can advertise their junk food and make it look like it’s the perfect balanced option for the happy family meal. Fashion brands can promote (and impose) their anorexic role models and no-one would spend a word for the general public.

    April 25, 2013
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    • Too true – though we are going to see more stringent conditions applied to the fast food industry over the next few years. Obesity is costing governments and health care insurance companies millions.

      April 25, 2013
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  6. Another great post. Eating disorders are something that are quite common in my line of work. I also tend to “keep trim” minus the NeNaMe, but then again I’m also a smoker and major coffee drinker. The company I work for does weigh ins once a week and you have a 5lb. limit in either direction (though more for the upwards movement). I have seen the skinniest, most fit girls stressing about the numbers on the scale and watching other naturally thin women stuffing themselves trying to put on weight. It’s not just the women either … you see the men showing up to weigh ins with extra clothing trying to show by the scale that they are bulking up. Some girls refuse to eat anything on weigh in day until after they have their weight recorded. Personally I go with the dehydration method. Hand me a bottle of wine the night before and the scale says “YES!” and the abs come out.

    Thanks for this insight into the way we are thinking about, looking at, and treating our bodies in this day and time.

    April 25, 2013
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    • Wow – I can only think of one industry that does weigh-ins. Legally that is. Which is the airlines – for flight crew. Can’t imagine how stressful that must be for people, especially as one ages.

      April 25, 2013
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  7. Eating disorders are so devastating to me because of how much power food has to do GOOD if we just use it the right way. There are so many good foods out there that can replace medicine and yet our culture makes us abuse it instead of appreciating it. It’s so sad to hear about young girls who face this problem, but it’s also horrible that people forget about older adults with eating disorders too. Nobody really looks out for them and they’re almost blamed for their problems, while only the young girls are victims. There’s a really interesting documentary (available on Netflix) about male body aesthetics called “Mansome” that I think also has some good insights on this issue.

    April 25, 2013
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    • Sounds fascinating – I will see if I can find it in SA!

      April 25, 2013
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  8. Great post! I encounter women with a variety of eating disorders on a daily basis in the bodybuilding community, and it can be really frustrating to witness but I’m also aware of how I act myself, as food tends to become an obsession (one way or another) and it should just be there to be enjoyed as a natural part of our lives. Everyone should be able to have a relaxed relationship with food, but unfortunately with all the marketing campaigns, ads, articles etc out there advertising junk food and processed foods to then the next second show the next “Get thin quick” diet, it becomes next to impossible. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts – love your blog!

    April 25, 2013
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    • Thanks Sunny – I can imagine how central weight is to the whole ethos of bodybuilding. Must add an enormous amount of stress what is supposed to be fun.

      April 25, 2013
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  9. This is a really big issue for many young women in the west. My daughter (now in her 30s) had no less than 9 (nine!) girls with anorexia in her class at senior school in London. You are correct in saying that the reasons for anorexia are complex – it is not just about body image, but primarily about having control, not to mention family relationships, expectations of excellence in everything etc. Can’t say I’ve seen much about anorexia here in China but obesity (particularly of young boys) is a growing problem.

    April 25, 2013
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    • Those are frightening stats … I have read about the obesity rates in young Chinese boys – an example of food control of another sort: by the mother.

      April 25, 2013
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  10. Hilton Blumenthal?? guess you want to change that Not sure which of your images scared me more – the lady on this or the gent and all his bits on facebook Think I will retire to bed!x

    April 25, 2013
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    • Thanks for catching it Tracey. He is now back to being his Heston self.

      April 25, 2013
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    • That’s weird – I knew a guy at school called Hilton Rosenblum, hadn’t thought about him for years. Wonder why my brain made that association here.

      April 25, 2013
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  11. Janet Rörschåch
    Janet Rörschåch

    Very, very powerful piece. Years ago I worked as a chef for a psychiatric hospital specializing in eating disorders. The challenges that the patients there faced were enormous, on the very edge of comprehension. For them to get better we all had to learn that shoving food into their faces, complaining he or she had to eat, or deride them for their eating habits wasn’t helping them get better. I cooked the best food that I could based on my dietician’s direction and hoped that if he or she ate a bite, it was one bite more than at the previous meal. It was an amazing 18 months and I grew with the patients.

    April 25, 2013
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    • Wow Janet – that’s inspiring, have you ever written about it? Would be fascinating to read an ‘insider’ view.

      April 25, 2013
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      • Janet Rörschåch
        Janet Rörschåch

        Have never written about it. Not sure if I can. Their stories seemed more important than mine. The men and women there were struggling to regain balance, purpose, and life. All I did was cook and hope.

        April 25, 2013
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        • Cook and hope: so much of life. I worked in a rehab for a while, and I hear what you say about people’s stories remaining their own. And rightly so. But your cooking and hoping is a story in and unto itself. But, maybe not to be told.

          April 25, 2013
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