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.
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.)