Continuing on from yesterday’s post ..
What is it that makes us binge-eat? It’s a practice we rarely discuss and yet it affects one in fifty of us.
I wonder if, as a culture, we embody a kind of eating disorder – an ambivalence towards consumption which drives us to new levels of excess, followed by restraint.
To begin with, let’s look at some of the traditional ‘risk factors’ for binge-eating. These are similar for those with any eating disorder and may include;
past criticism of body and eating habits
a problematic relationship early in life with significant others, e.g: family, bullying at school etc
involvement in certain sports or activities which encourage a particualr size, e.g: gymnastics, dancing
a family history of eating disorders
personality type e.g: anxious, perfectionist.
So far, so familiar. But are there broader cultural issues at play?
First of all, it’s important to note that binge-eating is not restricted to a particular class, gender or culture. It affects Asian men as well as schoolgirls. However young, Western females seem particularly vulnerable to such behaviour. This suggests that at least part of the issue stems from our cultural attitudes to food (and to our bodies).
Secondly, we need to examine the relationship between our appetites (for emotional and spiritual needs) and our hungers (for physical sustenance). Bingeing is often what happens when we conflate the two. But in our culture appetites and hungers are nearly always equated.
In some senses this is unavoidable. Food is much more than what we serve up on the plate. It is inextricably bound up with relationships – in many languages, my “friend” is the one with whom I eat. In these relational contexts, food is strongly associated with the passing on of moral and social values, such as class identity (which fork should I use? Or who gets served first?)
In every culture there are taboos around food and the body. And we in the West are by no means exempt. We too have our holy and unholy, clean and unclean distinctions. We readily label foods and bodies ‘bad’ or ‘good’, ‘fat’ or ‘thin’. And we obsess in ways that even our recent ancestors would find baffling.
Where our grandparents worried about where the next meal was coming from, we are familiar with aisles dedicated solely to breakfast cereals, a multiplicity of choice which bewilders and confuses. And where our predecessors were producers, in contact with the essentials of existence, we are often mere consumers, divorced from the source and supply of food. The post-war surplus that seemed to offer freedom, has turned out to be slavery. And if we are what we eat, then everything hangs on picking the ‘right’ foods.
Another factor is the equation of spirituality with “food and body” issues. In many bookshops, you’ll find the Bible next to a Dalai Lama biography next to a pilates manual next to the Atkins diet next to 40 days of purpose, or whatever. “Mind, Body, Spirit” is a catch-all category in which super-foods and detox diets are blended with meditation and self-improvement. We’re urged to express our spiritual drives in purely physical ways, e.g through food and exercise.
Whilst food appears to be a common language, eating is becoming increasingly individualised. It’s food we’re obsessed with, not meal fellowship. Food must be fast, chowed down ‘on the run’ or in front of the TVs that are dominated by celebrity chefs and makeover programmes. Whether it’s MasterChef or Come Dine With Me, we’re watching – but we rarely cook for ourselves and our living rooms are filled with other people’s lives and conversations. As food becomes divorced from relationships, we invest it with emotional and spiritual power, in and of itself. Increasingly, my physical hungers and my spiritual appetites start to look the same. So by feeding one I’m actually trying to silence the other.