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24 September 2018Last updated
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Healthy body

What’s eating you?

It’s one of the most enduring, confusing and challenging relationships in a woman’s life: the one we have with food

By Charlene Naidoo
12 Oct 2015 | 02:46 pm
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There was an episode in Season four of the drama series Lost titled ‘The Constant’. In it one of the characters, Desmond, travels through time, and the only thing rooting him to certain places is a ‘constant’ – an object, element or person he can hold on to so he isn’t lost forever in the space-time continuum. Within the mythology of the show, a constant transcended time, space and circumstance. An unchanging element. Something tangible, something real to hold on to as a way to remain in a solid space.

What is your constant?

Would you be surprised to hear that it might be food? It is for millions of women.

Research into the psychology of food dependency reveals that women think about food more than men, diet more than men, binge-eat more than men and are more prone to emotional eating and food neuroses. No wonder then that women are the most physically and psychologically damaged by food.

Food is inarguably intrinsic to the average women’s life. As pre-teens, sleepovers meant girlish laughter punctuated by popcorn and junk food. As teenage girls, we were thrilled with boxes of chocolates from boyfriends and nursed broken hearts with the same.
At university, it was late nights, fast times and fast food. And all underscored by a persistent soundtrack from our mothers, fathers, the media, boyfriends, advertisements, songs, movies, literature…

Lose weight!

Foods to lose weight.

Superfoods you must eat now!

Eat yourself thin!

Food has been that constant for us. There for the
good times, the bad and everything in between.
Yet it’s a conflicting constant.

For a fascinating look at this duality, take a peek at Instagram. For every #foodporn upload featuring
a lovingly photographed slice of red velvet cake, there are corresponding #eatclean homages to fit living, dieting and food restriction.

In 2011, weight-loss company Atkins surveyed 1,290 women in the UK about dieting and food, and the results confirmed a lot of the historical data around this issue. More than half (54 per cent) of the women admitted they thought about food more than sex and a quarter thought food was more important than their relationship. Perhaps the saddest revelation; 10 per cent admitted they would feel guiltier breaking their diet than being unfaithful to their partner. Let that sink in. Some women could cheat and not feel too guilty, and yet be miserable if they fell off the diet wagon. What sort of Inception-level mind meld is that and how did we end up brainwashed by food? 

Girl eats world

Are we biologically wired to love food to obsessive levels? Maybe.

Consider the March of Versailles; in 1789, thousands of women in Paris rioted, protesting over the high price and scarcity of bread – clearly we loved our carbs even back then – and it’s apparent that food and women have always enjoyed a charged and fragmented relationship. The phrase “barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen” is derived from a German phrase that translates to “children, kitchen, church” – and, while we might balk at it now, this is more or less an accurate summation of women’s historical roles in society. Men were the providers; women the nannies, kitchen staff and moral gatekeepers.

And so, as each subsequent generation of women has grown up around food – cooking it, eating it, feeding their families – food in all its complexity has become embedded in the tapestry of home life, and our psyches.

We also cannot ignore that in certain cultures, food is love. It’s how we relate to each other: the smells emanating from the kitchen, the mealtimes around the table, your mother’s homemade dinners an ode to family life. Indian, Arabic or European, most women will attest that food is integral to the chemistry within family. It’s from this base that the relationship develops. Food modelling plays a vital role in how we perceive it. And the science backs up the rhetoric. Did your mother drink carrot juice or crave chocolate when she was pregnant with you? That might account for you being partial to it too, says an ongoing study by the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia. Repeated and early exposure to a certain flavour can apparently create
a ‘hardwired kinship’ in the child.

Author of Mindless Eating, Dr Brian Wasink, relates in his book how a colleague grew up hearing from her mother that it was “low class” to eat sweets before meals and because of this indoctrination the woman grew up to avoid sweets herself. In her book Like Mother Like Daughter, Debra Waterhouse speaks to exactly this foundation. The book explores the issues of food and women and just how influenced we are by our mothers. Getting mothers to break free of a punishing food culture, writes Waterhouse, is fundamental to their daughters navigating a stress-free relationship with food.

Clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia,
Dr Tara Wyne, attests to the influence of family history and cultural relationship. “When our relationship with food begins, it’s harmless and uncomplicated. We want and need food. It’s functional and pleasurable,” she says.

It is conditioning that plants the seeds of an unhealthy association with food. As Dr Wyne explains it, conditioning occurs throughout our lives where food can become imbued with many different meanings, representations and associations.

“We absorb and learn our parents’ anxieties,
issues and food habits. As we individuate away from our parents we learn and acquire friends’ and partners’ eating associations and societal representations of food and eating.”

Scary but true, adds Dr Wyne, is that women have typically formed food and eating rules by as early as age 10. “We see food given polarised labels – good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, fattening/non-fattening – and this shapes our own attitudes and feelings about food. We learn to fear food and this ends up over years becoming a policing and patrolling of our eating.”

And so eating becomes a multifaceted thing.
A minefield of triggers. A many-headed beast.
The manifestations of food obsession run the gamut from eating disorders – everything from anorexia to orthorexia (when healthy eating turns compulsive) – to emotional imbalance from associating food with self-image and esteem.

Locally, the trend is apparent. Around a quarter of girls in secondary school in the UAE have disordered eating attitudes and behaviours (Eapen, Mabroul, & Othman, 2006). A 2013 study by the American University of Sharjah surveyed a group of students and found that a fifth scored above the clinical cut-off for the eating pathology scale. Of the 361 students surveyed, 284 were female. Another study by Al Ain University a year earlier profiled 900 girls from the ages of 13 to 19 and found that almost 2 per cent had anorexia, which is striking considering that research cited by UK-based organisation ANAD (National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders) suggests that about 1 per cent of female adolescents in the UK have the disorder.

It’s the same story everywhere: in the US, The Journal of the American Medical Association has estimates that almost 36 per cent of women are obese, while the American National Eating Disorders Association believes up to 20 million will have, or are suffering from, an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

In fact, spin the globe, point to a random spot and you’re bound to hit a country with a population of women who have complicated issues with food. Proof? A miniscule sample survey on the tiny island of Zanzibar profiled 25 female students in a class. Only three were satisfied with their bodies.

Are women the world over in the grips of food neurosis? We just might be, says Dr Wyne. “I certainly see a lot of people who have irrational relationships with food; there are complex emotions surrounding particular foods, ways of eating, quantity and source
of food. Eating becomes a
trial, a way of judging and measuring ourselves. Eating becomes tightly regulated, and all too often, a highly tense, anxious experience.”

Not that we need more fuel for that anxiety, but let’s also acknowledge the chasm that exists in how men and women are perceived in relation to food.

Full plates 


The story of food and human beings is the story of men going out to conquer the environment, and provide for the family. When the big strong man partakes of the meal, it’s with gusto and enthusiasm and a token nod to etiquette. While women, says
Dr Wyne, were traditionally meant to approach food with delicacy and restraint. “This demonstrated etiquette, social class and breeding. Women should not display too much appetite or greed or even interest or pleasure when eating.”

This old-world attitude still resonates in many cultures and it’s apparent in current social mores and how foods are gendered and parsed. Chocolate is a female thing, meat is for men. Men glug masculine beverages, while women sip on girly ones.

Also contributing to the pile-on is the effect of globalisation and the politics of food policing.

As the world gets smaller and pop culture and societal fault lines blur into each other, the impact is hard to ignore. Just think of the food-centric messages – offering a seemingly endless choice but also endless pressure
– that come at us from all angles on a daily basis:

What’s on the menu today? Fruitarian? Flexitarian? Vegan? Vegetarian?

Do you support your local markets?

Is your food Fair Trade?

Are you on the clean-eating bandwagon?

Do you travel miles for a gluten-free restaurant?

Have you jumped on board the all-organic train?

It’s an all-consuming smorgasbord. Pick your issue, plate it and digest. And with the ubiquitous social media, never have we been more conscious of what we eat (and how often). A full plate indeed.

But how do we clear this plate and get to a place of enjoying food as we would anything else without residual baggage, issues and attachment? Maybe we start by observing how men approach food. Dr Wyne says that, traditionally, men were less likely to attach meaning to food.

“The communal expectations were typically that men should eat as much and as heartily as they need because food is their fuel. I believe that some of this mentality remains.”

A significant indicator of how men view food differently is in the relative lack of engagement and attachment. Men also tend to monitor their food choices far less than women, which puts them far below women on the guilt-trip scale because food isn’t necessarily connected to their emotions or predefined stigmas.

In 2014, US-based food delivery system GrubHub Inc conducted an extensive analysis of their network to gauge how men and women eat. By far they found that women consistently make healthier food choices. For instance, women more often than men order lighter options from restaurant menus such as salads, sushi and vegetable-based dishes.

Experts are hopeful that there will be a turning of the tides in how women come to relate to food.

Our modern concepts of food shaming, fat shaming, skinny shaming and fatlash, among other buzzwords – indicate that we are becoming more self-aware.

“We can and will move away from our neurotic
food attitudes,” says Dr Wyne, “if we hit the reset
button and renew our relationship with ourselves.
Learn to know our bodies, listen to them, appreciate
and be grateful for all that they do for us. When you have compassion for yourself and your body, it dilutes the years of conditioning.”

Still, perhaps the most important lesson to learn,
say the experts, is that food needn’t be your best friend nor your arch-enemy. Remind yourself daily that you
are more than a box of chocolates or the sum total of calories you consume; more than that kale juice infused with goji berries.

As author Geneen Roth writes in Women, Food
and God, “It’s never been true, not anywhere at any time, that the value of a soul, of a human spirit, is dependent on a number on a scale. At some point, it’s time to stop fighting with [your] thighs...”

By Charlene Naidoo

By Charlene Naidoo