Category Archives: Mental Health

Comfort Eating or Eating Comfortably?

A lot of junk food including burgers, chips, ice cream, donuts, popcorn, cake, nachos and macarons.  Superimposed in front is a black rectangle bearing the words "KEEP CALM AND OM NOM".

A lot of junk food including burgers, chips, ice cream, donuts, popcorn, cake, nachos and macarons. Superimposed in front is a black rectangle bearing the words “KEEP CALM AND OM NOM”.

I know I said not that long ago that I didn’t want to talk about food, but it turns out I do. Hurrah! TRIGGER WARNING: The following post discusses mental illness and eating, and may be triggering for folks with depression, eating disorders or a history of mental illness in general, so proceed accordingly!

Yesterday I went to the doctor. I’ve had chronic depression to varying degrees of severity for my entire adult life, and right now I’m in a particularly severe depressive episode. So the doc and I were talking about my mood and how it is affecting my day to day life. I mentioned that most days I only get around to eating one meal, because I just can’t see the point of eating and don’t have the energy to prepare or find food. Non-ideal! Luckily at dinner time I usually have someone around to make food and thrust it at me, which is an excellent thing and ensures I get fed well at least once a day.

When I said this the doctor looked at me and said “if you’re only eating one meal a day, why are you the size you are?” I rolled my eyes (internally) and said “well, I’ve always been this size” and he went on to ask whether I was “comfort eating”. This post isn’t really about fat hating doctors; it’s pretty awful that fat hating doctors have become de rigeur for me and fat blogging in general, but they have, and that’s not what I’m writing about today. What struck me as I brushed off the doctor’s ignorant question was the concept of “comfort eating.”

It’s an interesting and loaded question – “have you been comfort eating” – and it got me thinking. Have I been comfort eating? What is comfort eating exactly?

What I usually think of when I hear the term “comfort eating” is binge-eating. “Eating your feelings.” I certainly have experience with binge eating as disordered eating; I don’t mean eating a whole! bag! of chips! in one sitting, I mean eating half the pantry in a self-hating, panicky frenzy. Not especially comfortable, let me tell you. Comfort eating is also seen as things like having a block of chocolate on the first day or your period, or ploughing through a tub of ice-cream after a bad breakup. I’ve done that kind of comfort eating too, choosing to eat something because I know it will feel nice and be calming and enjoyable when I am feeling awful. Homemade Prozac, in other words.

A screencap from The Simpsons.  Homer is in the kitchen, looking thoughtful as he tastes a bowl of pink goopy stuff.  Marge looks on from the table in the background.

A screencap from The Simpsons. Homer is in the kitchen, looking thoughtful as he tastes a bowl of pink goopy stuff. Marge looks on from the table in the background.  “My only hope is this homemade prozac.  Hmm…needs more ice-cream.”

There’s plenty of stigma attached to comfort eating of both kinds, which strikes me as rather silly in the second situation (and outright vicious in the first, which is a symptom of mental illness). In Australia and the US at least, we seem to have developed this idea that food is SOLELY fuel for the body and has – or should have – no other purpose. Shame on you if you eat anything when you’re not actively hungry, or eat anything that isn’t “nutritious” as determined by the food fashions of the day. And the kind of food matters too. Eating a slice of cake is “being bad” and chocolate is “wickedly sinful”, even when it’s soap! There’s a wikihow tutorial on how to “resist naughty foods cravings” but I’m not going to link to it; as far as I’m concerned, the only “naughty” foods are cakes with swear words on them (tee hee). If you’ve never heard someone say “no thanks, I’m being good” when you offer them some food, I want to trade lives with you. Feeling guilty about food is awful but common. And the kinds of food that people, myself included, usually think of when we think of “comfort eating” (whether it’s binge eating or the “homemade prozac” kind) are precisely this sort of high energy, fatty, starchy, sugary food. Dangerous food! Out of bounds food! Naughty food!

When I think about it, yes, I have certainly been eating more high fat, high sugar, high starch foods than usual lately. But I don’t intend to feel guilty for it. On the one hand, guilting people for eating anything at all is rubbish, and I don’t believe that any food is morally inferior to any other. But furthermore, I feel like I need to defend this kind of eating even more than social eating (like having cake at a party) or self-medicating comfort eating. I feel like I need to fight even more fiercely to be allowed to have this kind of eating guilt-free, because it feels less like eating solely for comfort and more like eating in the way that is comfortable, because that’s been necessary for my survival lately.

Let me explain by referencing Satter’s hierarchy of food needs, which I recently read about on The Fat Nutritionist (great post, by the way – it’s about eating and poverty, and it’s important stuff that is well worth reading). As the Fat Nutritionist says, “the idea is that, before we worry about nutrition […] we’ve first got to HAVE food. Enough of it.” She’s talking about this in reference to a scarcity of affordable food, but I think it also works when the thing getting between you and eating is your brain.

On a particularly bad mental health day last month, if I didn’t eat, say, a bag of chips for lunch then the alternative was not a salad or a sandwich, it was not eating at all. Chips felt unthreatening and, yes, comfortable, but it was not a matter of eating just for fun (it was usually 3pm and I was ravenous) nor was I choosing “comfort” food over healthy food. It was simply that I didn’t have the energy to both get out of bed AND prepare food, so the food I was going to eat had to be both appealing and pre-prepared, ready to eat, in order to convince me to try and eat it. And, as the Fat Nutritionist points out, fatty, starchy, high sugar foods are really, really appealing to most of us (especially when we’re hungry) for perfectly sensible biological reasons – when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from and it’s been a while since the last, pick the food with the most immediately accessible energy and the most energy to store for later.

Obviously I’m privileged enough that I’m not usually unsure where my next meal is coming from. But I’m not making these decisions consciously, so it makes sense that when I need a quick energy hit (because I’m really hungry) and I need to not have to think about it or do much to get it into edible form (because I’m severely depressed) the things I reach for are fatty, sugary, starchy junk foods.

So no, I haven’t been comfort eating. I have been eating comfortably, to keep myself from starving because I was too depressed to eat. Even though years ago – when I still subscribed to the idea that eating is something nasty you do when you run out of willpower – I probably would have described the eating I do on a bad mental health day as “comfort eating”, it really isn’t.  I refuse to feel guilty for keeping myself alive with “unhealthy” food, and neither should you if you find yourself in similar circumstances.

Of course, even if I were comfort eating in the true sense, that isn’t something I should feel guilty for either.  Because eating is not a moral issue.

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Embodying Bravery? Really?

So apparently Lady Gaga is speaking out against body shaming in the wake of being a recent victim of public body shaming herself. That’s pretty cool, but might benefit from a view through a critical lens. Here’s an article on Bitch about it:

Body Revolution: Is Lady Gaga’s New Project Resisting Beauty Standards or Reinforcing Them?

Wait a minute. Sorry Bitch Magazine, but did you really seriously use the phrase “it’s wonderful that this conversation is even happening at all”? Did you somehow forget about all the fat positive blogs and size acceptance activists?

Let’s make one thing very clear. Lady Gaga is not “starting a revolution” here regardless of whether or not she uses the language of traditional beauty ideals to praise the “flawed” bodies she is trying to “redefine”. The revolution has been going on for DECADES.

I think everyone should jump on the size acceptance bandwagon, and I’m sorry for Lady Gaga’s eating disordered history and glad if her signal boost of the size acceptance message is reaching people who had not heard it before. But I’m heartily angered by the trend of pretty, thin women being praised for how brave they are in “finally speaking out” against fat hatred when they are not. fucking. fat.  Jezebel’s article on this so-called body revolution even has a headline image of Lady Gaga’s photos of herself in her underwear emblazoned with the heading “EMBODYING BRAVERY”.  Um…how?  By being thin and conventionally attractive in your undies?  It’s true that it can be scary to show people what you look like semi-dressed, especially if you have an eating disorder or body image issues, but it’s not like Lady Gaga is a stranger to being semi-dressed in public.

And here is a newsflash for you: PEOPLE ARE ALREADY SPEAKING OUT ABOUT THIS. Fat people like me and fat people before us have been speaking out against fat hatred for a very long time. Famous fat people like Gabourey Sidibe and Camryn Manheim are already talking about this.  Fat Acceptance websites already have galleries where people proudly show off their supposedly socially unacceptable bodies.  What Lady Gaga is doing here is not even a tiny bit new.

I do not wish to imply that pretty, thin women aren’t welcome in size acceptance, or aren’t welcome to spread the message. Any signal boost is a wonderful thing! Women of all sizes are subject to body policing and that is an important issue for anyone who is committed to improving women’s lives. But the body policing that happens to thin women and the body policing that happens to fat women are not identical, and it hurts fat women to suggest that spotlighting thin spokeswomen for body acceptance is somehow revolutionary.

Even when thin women are being defended from body policing, the policing of fat bodies comes into it; how many times have we heard feminists decry media claims that celebrity women are “too fat” because they are not really fat? The Jezebel article about Lady Gaga’s “body revolution” includes this delightful aside:

“Last week, a smattering of very misleading photographs were published by various outlets; the singer looked significantly wider, chubbier, fleshier than she has in the past. She was called “meaty” and and the “news” was that she had “piled on the pounds.” As some have noted, the photographs did not reflect her real, true shape — whether they were stretched in Photoshop or flattened and distorted by a long lens is unclear. But video from the same show demonstrates that this woman is by no means fat — though she has admitted to gaining around 25 lbs. recently.”

Excuse me, but what does it matter if the photographs were “misleading”? Sanctioning a woman because she has “piled on the pounds” is wrong whether she has actually gained weight or not. It is true that Lady Gaga (or America Ferrera or Christina Hendricks or Kim Kardashian or whichever famous woman is being criticised by the tabloid media for her big hips today) is not fat, but that isn’t the point. If she really was fat, would the scrutiny of her body in the press be okay? We really need to stop defending against fat hatred by saying “but she’s not fat at all!” When you say that, you are propping up the belief that it is okay to hate on people if they are really fat. When you say that, you are hurting fat people and setting back the cause of body acceptance, not supporting it.

Actually, maybe the fact that Lady Gaga isn’t really fat is salient here. It begs the question: why do actual fat people’s voices not seem to count when we’re talking about fat hatred? Why do we need to hear the message from a thin woman who is being called fat “unfairly” – along with a lengthy explanation as to why the allegations of fatness are untrue, as if fatness were a crime one needed an alibi for – before it can be taken seriously?

Hearing young fans of Lady Gaga thank her for helping them find the strength to try to recover from eating disorders is one thing. I am glad for them. But Bitch is supposedly feminist media. Jezebel is a website “for women” which has had the very famous Fat Acceptance blogger Kate Harding as a regular writer, and has encountered conversations about fat before. They should damn well know better.

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