Freedom from Emotional Eating, Food & Weight Obsession

Body Image and Hunger

There is an interactive forum on the BodyPositive site that asks readers to finish the following sentences:

1. “If I let myself eat anything I want … ”    

2. “If I could get as much power as I really want …”   

3. “If I had all the sex I wanted … ”  

4. “If I really let myself cry … ”   

5. “If I got as mad as I really feel sometimes …”   

6. “If I let myself go … ”   

After the feature had run for awhile I posted the answers I had received, and then the readers could see how similar their reactions were.  The modal response to the first sentence stem, for example, was, “… I’d be big as a house.”   There must have been a thousand of those.

A certain theme emerges as you look at the responses. Women are deathly afraid of their desires.  They believe that unless policed, they would be “big as a house,” “having sex in the middle of the street,” “flooding the world with my tears,”  “going postal and killing everybody,” and that if they “let themselves go” they would “be totally alone and unloved.”

Surely this is not the only way to experience desire, appetite, hunger.  But our culture teaches women to see our appetites as monstrous and needing constant surveillance and control.  How does this training impact a woman’s relationship with her body?  Specifically, how do we experience our hunger for food through the lens of this training?

Distortions of the meaning of hunger in a culture of thinness

There is a wonderful paragraph written by Ellyn Satter [ref: “How to Get Your Kid to Eat”  Palo Alto: Bull Publishing, 19  .] on the definition of “normal eating” that talks about how “normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating.”  I consider this line the essential and subversive core of her definition.  How many women do you know who trust their bodies to make up for their mistakes in eating?  Instead, because the “ideal” body size for women is so unattainable, most women who are heavier than the thin ideal are put in the position of needing to explain to themselves their failure to attain something so socially desirable, and they search for something to blame.  They scan what may be perfectly normal diets for the offending rice krispie, the wayward carb, the out-of-bounds fat gram, that can explain why they do not look like the celebrities.  They feel their bodies reveal, by definition because they are not thin enough, that they are eating incorrectly.  Why can’t they impose their will upon their bodies to eat in a way that will give them that socially desirable body?  It turns into a battle with one’s body and its appetites.

I have listened to patients who describe their feeling of being at war.  A woman might feel that her body is an evil antagonist trying to defeat her dieting attempts by making her hungry.  She might describe that experience of hunger as “all the people who want me to fail” to reach her weight goal.  Another will experience her body’s hunger as the part of her that is needy and to be held in contempt.  A third might talk about how annoyed she is at having the responsibility of having to respond to her body’s hunger, as if it is a pesky child needing to be fed.  

Ironically, some women will reframe hunger as evidence that they are winning the war with their bodies and instead be more nervous about feeling sated.  Hunger is evidence to these women that they remain in a state of chaste yearning, without the “sin” of consummation.  

In either case, hunger takes on a meta-meaning that disrupts the organic process of sensing a biological need and satisfying it.  Actual straightforward hunger is replaced by some other psychological experience.  

Salvaging the experience of hunger

But hunger is the necessary space for the creation of the pleasure of savoring, feeding, and finally feeling sated.  Why are we so antagonistic about moving through this cycle?   Why do we avoid it, either by never letting ourselves get hungry, or never letting ourselves be sated?

Many of the “intuitive eating,” “conscious eating,” “appetite awareness” approaches to treating eating problems hinge upon the person being able to tolerate the development of her hunger so that she can determine what she needs.  One begins with the question, “are you hungry?” and that can expand into all sorts of inquiries about what is needed, whether that is “a little something to eat,” or “a quiet evening at home,” or even “a different career.”  If we prevent ourselves from moving through the hunger/satiety cycle, how can we learn what we are needing?  How can we reality-test about the real size of our appetites, the fact that they can be met, that they are not so scary?  How can we come to see our bodies as essential partners in giving us the wisdom to navigate through life?

When women realize that our bodies are not the enemy, that our appetites can be trusted, that we derive our wisdom from those desires, then and only then are do we begin to empower ourselves and take charge of our lives.

How STUFF is being confused with FAT

Remember the axiom, “you can never be too rich or too thin”?  Why is it that the richest people are also the thinnest and the poorest people are the fattest?  Most of human history, those associations have been reversed.

The richest Americans consume the most (energy, land, labor of others), but they try to look like they are starving.  In a stunning feat of marketing, poor, working- and middle-class fat people are made into symbols of overconsumption, the targets of accusations of greed and indulgence.   Then they are sold useless weight loss products and services to make themselves over into the image of the “starving” rich.  

Lately I have been thinking about the paradox of being full of emptiness — how corporate culture fills us up with empty things — fills our bellies with impersonal food, fills our homes with clutter, fills our time with urgent but unimportant tasks, etc.  Many of us are full but not satisfied and it makes us believe the myth that we have bottomless appetites.  My eating disordered patients who binge have one only way to give to themselves – the “jailbreak” of the binge – and they convince themselves that their appetites must be monstrous because all that food doesn’t satisfy.  But the need is not for food, so the hunger persists.  The anorexic patients try to resolve this by proving they don’t want anything.  None of them want to just be present with their real feelings because it seems like they will be overwhelmed and hopeless.  

In our culture, fat women especially carry the burden of this toxic brew of guilt, shame, fear, and yearning.  They become the symbols of being too full but not satisfied, indeed not satisfiable, even though everyone of any size is wrestling with the same issue.  Being hungry, being empty, wanting — this could be an honorable state that leads to our discovering what we really might need and desire, that provides the potential for feeling the satisfaction of getting what we need and desire.  But corporate culture teaches us to fear that state.  Corporations can’t sell us connection with others and so it is in their interest to keep us from figuring out that we are hungry for that connection. The ads teach us that being empty or needing is disasterous, it’s being a loser, being vulnerable to other people having power over you, or being unable to afford to feel OK.  Don’t let them see you sweat, don’t look desperate, don’t be caught wearing last year’s style, make sure you have insurance to hire people to take care of you if you are sick or worried or old, because there won’t be someone (or a community) who wants to do it because they care about you.   Don’t rely on connections with other people because the only thing you can count on is stuff.

So we are pulling all this stuff into the space of bodies and our lives and our schedules, and we are vaguely aware of it not satisfying.  And because it fills up the space, we can’t determine the true nature of our desires.  There is no space for what we really want even if we could get it!   What are we hungry for?  There is so much that our way of life does not provide, in the midst of so much stuff.

What are you hungry for?


Deb Burgard, Ph.D., a San Francisco Bay Area psychologist, runs and is one of the founders of the Health at Every Size approach to eating/weight concerns,