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FFB: Re-learning to eat

Miššión ÅççömþÏíšheD
Photo via here

I’m back from Amsterdam and had a great time! I’ll post all about that later, but today is the last on the weekly Feminist Fashion Bloggers (FFB) posts for Women’s History Month. Don’t worry though if you’ve enjoyed them, we will continue on with this project, just at a slightly less speedy pace of one post a month.

Today’s theme was for the FFB bloggers to talk about a feminist and/or fashion related thing we learnt from someone else, something that changed the way we thought about something or the way we behaved. The idea had initially been for the FFB lot to reflect on what we had learnt from the weekly posts, but then so many people joined that we thought we’d go more general. I really really would like to do some reflections on all the things I have learnt from the other FFB bloggers, and hopefully I will find the time to do so, but since I’m just back from the trip that will have to wait.

So instead I was inspired by Terri’s excellent FFB post last week to talk about my relationship with food, and specifically about Susie Orbach’s writing and how it helped me re-learn to eat. I shall explain!

Susie Orbach is a psychoanalyst who specialises in eating disorders, most famous from her 1978 book, Fat is a Feminist issue, and for treating Princess Diana’s bulimia. I’ve read both Fat is a Feminist issue and her most recent 2009 book, Bodies, which takes many of the same issues and updates and expands them. There are so many ideas in these books, including the move towards bodies as projects, but today I just wanted to focus on one, which has been so important for my own life:

The idea that what is often called the obesity epidemic and the rise of anorexia, and which Orbach calls disordered eating to highlight that the two developments are sides of the same coin, is because most people have completely lost any sort of natural relationship with food. In today’s society, we are bombarded with messages from all sides on what to eat and what not to eat. On the one hand we should control ourselves: fat or sugar or whatever is taken out of certain foods and they are sold to us as diet foods, while on the other we should give in to desire: fat and sugar is added to other foods which are sold to us as indulgent treats.

With all this overstimulation we just don’t know how to eat any more, we have lots all sense of what is normal, and we turn to diets and food plans as external rules to give us the structure. But of course, 95% of diets fail, that’s how the diet industry works, it doesn’t want to make itself obsolete, and even if we do manage to stick with it, we end up spending a ludicrous amount of energy, and in many cases money, on something that should be the most natural thing in the world, eating.

Orbach, Susie - Humber Mouth - 2006
Susie Orbach – via >here.

Fat is a Feminist issue is actually a sort of self-help book to help us get out of this state, to reconnect with our natural, self-regulating appetite. And this initially involves ignoring everything you know about food, any rules, whether its ‘no carbs after six’ or ‘breakfast like a king, dine like a pauper’ or even just general meal times, and just eat what you want to eat when you want to eat it. Truly listen to your body and then do whatever it tells you. And if that is chocolate mousse for dinner or oysters for breakfast, then eat chocolate mousse for dinner or oysters for breakfast. But also, listen to your body when it tells you it has had enough. Don’t ever overeat. Don’t finish a meal to be polite, don’t eat a salad you don’t want so you can have some ice cream. If you want the ice cream, just have the ice cream.

The books suggests you may want to warn your friends and family your eating could be a bit all over the place for a while, but in a few weeks you should establish a natural balance and your body will start demanding things that actually make sense nutritionally and also weight wise. Some of the people used as case studies initially put on a bit of weight (especially when they had started from a position of constant dieting), but everyone eventually settled into a steady weight for the long term. Which incidentally, is exactly what has happened to me.

My relationship to food has not been easy. I am naturally prone to overeating, I eat when I’m bored, I eat when I’m worried, I eat when I’m happy too. Food is a major part of Dave and I’s relationship, we cook together and eat out together and I do see food as an expression of love. So I’ve always been on the bigger side, and I was a chubby child. But I’ve also gone through two pretty major periods when I was younger of eating very little and very limited things (think apples, fat free yoghurt, and orange juice, nothing else) during which I lost a lot of weight and did God knows what kind of long term damage to by bones. I was never diagnosed as anorexic, but that was pretty much what it was. So it’s been hard getting to anything resembling a balance.

But I did. I never did anything as dramatic as some of the stories in FiaFI, but the ideas in that book helped me a lot in understanding and addressing the psychological needs behind certain food cravings (which I haven’t talked much above, but is a big part of the book) and just listening to what my body wants. Which has turned out to be the ‘right’ things anyway, a mix of things and lots of fresh fruit and veg. I have a major sweet tooth and love both cake and baking, but I always get my ‘five a day’ without even trying. When I’m hungover, I crave fruit smoothies, not bacon sandwiches or chips. I did put on some weight after I stopped trying to be ‘sensible’ by external rules (‘sensible’ being the current code for dieting) and just ate what I wanted, and the weight I stabilised at is slightly higher than I would ideally have chosen. But it is a healthy weight, one that I am happy with and one that I maintained for 7 years with no effort, thanks to the magic of the self-regulating appetite.

A slight disclaimer, in case this all sounds too good to be true, it is a little bit. As most of you will know, I’ve been going through a bit of a stressful time recently, and I am still not out of it, and this has expressed itself in some comfort eating and I have put on a few kilos (you may have noticed in the outfit photos). It’s been lot harder to listen to my body tell me what it wants and when it is full when I’ve been constantly preoccupied with bigger problems (and since Dave has similar comfort eating tendencies). But I know this phase will pass eventually, and I am still healthy and in touch with my body, and at least dieting is one thing I don’t have to worry about.

What do you think? Have you had similar experiences? Or are you on a diet/food plan? I know there are a few bloggers out there on weight watchers (who Susie Orbach tried to sue under the trade descriptions act at one point, according to one article)!

Incidentally, if anyone is thinking of reading any Susie Orbach for general interest, I would recommend Bodies over Fat is a Feminist Issue, which does feel quite dated now. Bodies is more a sociology book and less of a self-help one, which I do prefer. There are so many ideas in Bodies, not all of which I 100% agree with, but it’s definitely worth a read.

For a link up of this week’s FFB posts, click here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alexa Wasielewski 30 March 2011, 6:51 am

    I will DEFINITELY give this a read; my weight has been going up and down since I was like, 7 years old. There has never been a sustained period of time where I have looked the same. Usually I lose weight very quickly, keep it off, then put a bit back on, freak out, lose some more very quickly, get ill, put on some weight….rinse and repeat. Great post! 🙂 x

  • Ceri 30 March 2011, 6:59 am

    I have always been against diets and have never dieted. I gave up smoking about 8 years ago and I think eating must of kind of replaced it, if I feel bored or stressed I tend to eat. That plus getting older I have piled on a few pounds over the years.

    I have tried not snacking but this doesn't really help so I now make my own soups (with pasta and pulses) and eat a slice of toast for breakfast and soup for lunch and dinner. I am not really rigid about do sometimes give in to a biscuit but I have found I am starting to recognise more when I really need food. I think the portions I was having were far too much and just having soup has made me realise I don't need nearly as much. I also excericise at least 3 times a week, which in my mind allows me to have nice dinners and a few treats on teh weekend.

  • Veshoevius 30 March 2011, 8:44 am

    Very interesting post and although I've never read the book I do agree wholeheartedly with everything you've summarised about the philosophy eschewed by the author – listen to your appetite and don't overeat. I read somewhere that chewing food slowly and not gobbling, whilst important for digestion, is supposed to help allow time to send the brain signals that you are eating and you are getting full. People rush eating and therefore before the body can register that it has had enough it has been overstuffed. Part and parcel of our time strapped lives is not making enough time to eat slowly. I do see food as an expression of love too and Mr V and cook together lots too – part of the pleasure of eating is savouring it.

  • Alex 30 March 2011, 10:39 am

    New follower here – thought I'd be brave and chip in. I haven't stuck to this way of thinking entirely as I've mostly been calorie controlling, although done in a sensible way and always paying attention to what I want to eat, rather than a very strict regime. When I was at a very sluggish point in my diet it did really help to get things going again.

    I think a lot of it is realising when you're actually hungry. Most of the time when I thought I was, it turns out I was either thirsty or just wanted something in my mouth.

  • feministified 30 March 2011, 10:40 am

    This is a wonderful post! The way I look at it is, I refuse to say I'm 'dieting', because then I feel trapped and like a statistic and bad about myself. One day I just decided that I'm going to be a good decision maker when it comes to food. I've since effortlessly shed a few pounds.

    I am definitely going to check out this read. xoxo

  • poet 30 March 2011, 12:13 pm

    Thank you for this honest post! Society is definitely pushing women (and increasingly, men too) towards a disordered relationship with food. We need to speak up about this. Sadly, I'm on a diet for health reasons (health as in: get my digestive system and my skin to stop being troubled, get general better balance, not "health" as in: lose weight), and it really bugs me but in the end it's hopefully going to be better for me. My post will be short today because I'm wrapped up in paper-writing…

  • Diana 30 March 2011, 1:00 pm

    I think you are correct in saying there is a relationship with food. awhile back i went vegan and it was the best thing to happen to me. i'm not fully vegan anymore, but overall, it gave such a strong awareness of myself, food and how i treat my body with it. now, food is more like a pleasure and need. For example, rather than stuffing my face with real Italian food I've enjoyed in Italy, I'll take a few small bites, enjoy the ingredients, and not think twice. If I'm satisfied, it's enough.

    I also use food as comfort, but I've used alternatives. Instead of using say chocolate cake as comfort food, i'll divulge in some fruit and gourmet cheese. much healthier for my body (although I am a bit jealous at times when people could afford the extra kilos to enjoy the chocolate cake so often). For myself, i was really really tired and emotionally drained, economically spent on seeing food as the enemy and my body as the victim.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Also, for the record, you are beautiful regardless of how you feel about the extra lbs. I know it's easier when someone says it, but it's true!

  • Cloud of Secrets 30 March 2011, 2:19 pm

    This is fascinating. I like the idea of following the body's instincts to eat what you want, when you want; don't try to fight cravings; don't force yourself to finish a plate you're not really enjoying. Unfortunately, most of this idea just won't work for the caretaker/main food preparer of a family.

    What really helped me was the French Women Don't Get Fat series by Mireille Giuliano. The title of the first book is admittedly awful, and a fib, but the advice is very comfortable, heathy but luxurious and sensual, and positive even if the humor can be a bit "tsk-tsky" at times.

    Eat smaller portions of good stuff, ideally in-season. Like, have your daily chocolate, but make it a bite of really good chocolate, not fatty preservative-laden snack cakes. And really savor that bite. Take more walks rather than pressing yourself to work up a sweat at the gym. Try taking half the portion you'd normally take, wait a few minutes when finished, and ask yourself if you really need more. Drink water. Try to cut out snacks. There are simple, seasonable recipes throughout the books, and even a standalone cookbook. Mireille talks about posture, accessorizing, and simple elegance in clothing, which pleases the style afficionada in me.

    I'm naturally plumptious, and a stress eater too — I've done a lot of it this past winter! Holiday eating, too. Every so often I do a refresher read of the French Women books to inspire me to recalibrate the kind of eating I find truly enjoyable.

  • Alli 30 March 2011, 2:50 pm

    I was always very worried about food and tried to be very controlling with it, because I had a specific number in my head for how much I should weigh, and I was over that (even though I was still at a completely healthy and average weight for my height). I spent the first few years of college working out like crazy, planning and scheduling all my meals, and mentally beating myself up when I gave into the cookie tray at the office – even though it was just my body trying to get the calories it desperately needed! Living in the former Soviet republic of Georgia completely changed me – my diet there was a complete 180 from what it had been in the states. And what do you know – I DIDN'T gain huge amounts of weight, even though I wasn't eating low-fat and counting calories! It was a revelation to me that my body could be TRUSTED to handle the food I put in it. And I feel so much better now, because I'm not wasting all my mental energy on trying to control something that our bodies are made to do naturally, if only we listen.

    Good post, Franca!

  • SACRAMENTO 30 March 2011, 3:02 pm

    I am so glad to know that you had a good time , and now are safely back home.
    Mil beso, my dear Franca.

  • superheidi 30 March 2011, 3:43 pm

    Today I came across this vid and somehow i had to think of your blog posts about society and body image so I 'll just post it to you.

    Gosh, this world still is very much in need of Susie O.!

  • mavenhaven 30 March 2011, 4:30 pm

    Great post. A lot of this reminds me of posts I've read at http://fatnutritionist.com/, a site I love for its sensible, research-backed nutrition information. I am suspicious of all prescriptive diets, and try hard to subscribe to the philosophy of normal eating described here: http://www.fatnutritionist.com/index.php/what-is-normal-eating/. Also, this is one of her best posts: http://www.fatnutritionist.com/index.php/the-rules-of-nutrition/. Aaaaaannnd I'll stop posting links now.

  • Terri 30 March 2011, 5:06 pm

    Franca–glad my post proved to provoke this post. I need to read Orbach's book as Bardo's book mentions her. As I read thru your post, I realized that I still have a game or two that I play with my eating (I love cookies and have thrown out our cookie jar).

  • Raisa 30 March 2011, 8:24 pm

    I love this post… I really enjoyed reading it… body image and the messages given to us, is something I really enjoy working on. Food is so weighed down with meanings. For a while I was destructive with my eating patterns when I was younger, as a way to control my stress. I'm so glad that you've managed to self regulate all these years…and not let yourself get pulled into the I feel so guilty I ate a cupcake line of thinking… You look brilliant for it too!

  • Laura Connell 31 March 2011, 2:47 am

    Do you know about Susie Orbach's Endangered Species summit that just took place in London, New York and other cities round the world? She's trying to change the culture that teaches women and girls to hate their bodies. Personally I am naturally slim but have made a vow to myself to stop objectifying my own body, ie., judging it when I look in the mirror. It has changed my relationship with my body in a positive way and I can't believe I treated myself that way before! I am amazed at how few women actually eat what they want when they want. I do (now) and make sure and tell people that I do. They seem astonished haha!

  • MrsBossa 31 March 2011, 1:12 pm

    I can relate to all of this, Franca. I too eat for everything, and cooking and enjoying food is also part of my relationship with Mr B. I've actually been considering the idea of listening to my body, and I have to say the biggest relief was shedding the guilt, which of course can make you eat more anyway. Thanks for such an honest post – will get reading more Susie Orbach! x

  • Leia 31 March 2011, 1:23 pm

    This is a very interesting post! I've had ongoing issues with eating as well. I was always an unhealthy eater but had a small appetite and have always been naturally slim. However, stress takes its toll on me – when I'm too busy I don't eat (and lose too much weight) and lately it has been that when I'm bored/anxious I eat a LOT, and much of my socialising revolves around eating as well. I've been trying to make healthier choices and stick to a regular exercise routine, but I still haven't lost weight … and when I get upset about my 'problem areas' I tend to feel so down that I overeat! So it's a vicious cycle. However, I definitely think that listening to your body helps. That, and the elimination of sugar. 😉

  • Jeanofalltrades 31 March 2011, 4:45 pm

    Very interesting! I'll read Bodies. I've never dieted, but I have been a vegetarian since I was 10 years old so I tend to eat lower fat, higher fiber foods and lots of veggies. I have a big sweet tooth and can't imagine giving in to all my sugar cravings! But maybe my body would regulate itself after a while.

    Reminds me of my weekend in Austin, TX where I had junk food for three days straight. I ended up craving brown rice and broccoli! Luckily I found a 24-hour vegan diner (I know – in Texas!) and they had a brown rice and broccoli bowl on the menu. Anecdotal, but perhaps an indication of how our bodies find balance.

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:07 pm

    I used to be exactly like that! good luck with with breaking the cycle.

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:09 pm

    yes, this is actually something she talks about too – taking the time to really enjoy what you're eating!

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:13 pm

    Hi, welcome and thanks for commenting. Recognising hunger is definitely the most important thing. For me calorie counting became this huge obsessive thing – I used to know the calories in everything! it's taken me years to forget!

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:13 pm

    thanks A!

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:16 pm

    absolutely, and its so true that men are pulled into this more and more! Hope your health improves. and your comment just reminded me how eating healthy is another code word for dieting! as if thin = healthy.

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:17 pm

    Oh, thank you Diana! you're a doll! I've never managed the vegan thing properly, though I think its the right ethical choice.

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:19 pm

    you know, i've always dismissed that book because of the awful title! never judge a book by its cover!

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:20 pm

    exactly, its this mental energy spent on food and exercise trying to control something that makes no sense that stops us from actually enjoying ourselves and doing all kinds of other amazing things with our lives!

  • oranges_and_apples 31 March 2011, 7:38 pm

    That is so interesting! thanks for sharing!

  • Fabienne Jach 31 March 2011, 9:25 pm

    Absolutely brilliant and sound advice! I actually do that. Sometimes it's weird. Friends will ask why I'm eating right before going out to dinner. Well, because I'm hungry now. If I wait 2 more hours, I'll be famished, I'll overeat, most likely on fillers like appetizers. I eat whatever I'm in the mood for, whenever I want. (I had an ice cream bar yesterday and probably won't crave another for another 24 days!!)

    Over the years I've noticed that my weight stays relatively steady and that good judgment plays a greater role in the "whatever I want" part. If I'm craving sweets, is it because I'm thirsty or tired? If I eat an orange, (which I LOVE!), will I still remember I was craving sweets earlier? No. I have craving amnesia!

    Stressful times and injuries to take their toll. Our bodies respond best to kindness and compassion. We really don't become more or less attractive when our weight fluctuates. We want to believe so, but our beauty is what radiates from the inside out. A smile makes one infinitely more attractive than having lost ten pounds. I stand by that.

    The House in the Clouds

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  • Blabla 12 June 2011, 10:03 am

    I discover the joy of eating when you're hungry on a journey and i apply it when i have no time : in the holidays, it measures what i usually eat for breakfast and during the semester, i take the same amount of food (but in 5 minutes). 
    This way i don't have to listen to my body (not hungry at 6am, of course), but don't take any weight =D 

    Nice post ^^