There’s a lot of fear that comes with food.
Fear that we eat too much. Fear that eat eat too little. Fear that we are hurting our health. Fear that we cannot have a normal relationship with food. Fear that our diet makes us different from other people.
These are all fears I experience sometimes.
Now let me hit you with a few oughts that feed the fear.
I ought to eat more healthily.
I ought to be healthier.
I ought to enjoy food.
It’s really heartbreaking when you see other people around you, succeeding, even treating food as a triviality, as something that merely goes in the mouth and keeps the body ticking.
There is pain in seeing the way others get on with food. How they can take it for granted, enjoy it for the taste alone, even maintain a healthy lifestyle without obsessing over it.
Food can be painful for us. Eating can be control. It’s often an enmeshing of a host of meticulous, exhausting titrations and layers, like creating the finest chef’s cuisine, with none of the feeling of satisfaction for making it.
I don’t like my relationship with food. Eating too much is guilt, misery and chastisement. When I eat for the pleasure and release of emotional pain, I am only reminded of how tied up food is with my sense of self, my ego and my emotional baggage.
The wold is out of control.
You have no control.
You cannot even choose what you put in your mouth.
Only babies need help putting the right food in their mouths. Like a baby, you are not fit to have control over your life.
That drifting hopelessness is all too familiar for many of us. Depression is like staring into oblivion, tied to a thread, tied to a stick, that’s being held by someone you don’t trust, who’s lackadaisically relying on a pilot they don’t know, to keep you steady. There’s no feeling quite like it. You’re an astronaut, not quite cut loose into the depths, but in severe danger of it.
That’s why some of us (including me) like to diet. It gives us some fleeting control back. No longer are we thinking ‘I have no choice but to trust in the environment, in chaos’, but rather, ‘I get to choose. I am in charge here.’. No longer are you facing the depths of open space with nothing but a needle thread and your hooligan-disaster-buddy his unreliable, probably unlicensed, cowboy-space-pilot to save you. You’re driving the ship, you’ve booted out the space monkeys of dubious origins, and you’re driving somewhere, with a steering wheel (or whatever it is they use in space).
Dieting can give us that control, for a moment at least.
The problem is, once you get out in your space boat, how long before you get lonely? How long before you run out of juice? How long before you give up on your destination?
Usually, it’s not that long, give or take your god-given resolve and tenacity.
What is worse is how taking back control through dieting can actually reinforce the sense of loneliness and otherness in your life, further driving you to sadness.
I’ve spent no end of time dieting, and the truth is, it can make you feel very lonely.
Often, your reasons are the first thing which creates the schism.
‘I’m dieting for my health.’
‘But you don’t look ill, what are you going to eat?’
‘I am going to try and eat more wholefoods and cut out junk.’
‘Oh, uh, ok, I couldn’t live without my takeaways!’
You couldn’t live without the takeaways? I might be reading too much into it, but does that mean you think I want to die? And if you do think that, well you can’t think much of me. We all know that suicide (sadly) is a taboo. People who are suicidal are some of the worst treated and most poorly regarded in society. Why? Because people don’t enjoy dealing with emotions. They want a hassle-free, easy life.
Half the time, just saying you want to eat healthier separates you because people think you’re trying to become better than them. It couldn’t be further from the truth. If I could eat badly all the time and not have that start to impact my health or, sometimes, my sense of control, then I would, believe me. I just don’t see it that way.
And if / when you fail your diet and revert to your old ways, the schism inverts itself. You, who were on the pedestal, become just another failed dieter who cannot live up to their snobby health standards. Everyone in the office gets their smack of delicious schadenfreude. Oh, the taste of watching others fail is ambrosia to these people, like a melted ice cream, dropped by a sad child at the zoo. Again, never my intention, but certainly somewhat the attitude I have noticed from some colleagues or friends.
If the sense of isolation due to ‘snobby lifestyle choices’ wasn’t enough, dieting makes it almost impossible to enjoy social commitments centred around food. You’re going to your parents for Christmas dinner, you’re a vegan (you can scream in horror if you like) now. Your mum, who cooks delicious food, is definitely not a vegan, and as powerful as her food is to your olfactory schnozz, more powerful yet, are her opinions about ‘fad diets’.
At once you’re met with an interrogation, defiance and a lack of acceptance. In order to appease your family, you let go of your control or alienate yourself. The same is true for situations with friends. Want to meet up for a chat? Cafe, restaurant, pub? Your choice! You have options! Except, you don’t really have options… Most of the places people talk are also the places they eat. Society is defined by the community of food and eating. If you’re dieting, you can’t eat like others. You’re committing the social equivalent of sepukku (please do not look that up if you’re about to eat – actually, just don’t at any point if you can avoid it).
If all the endemic social and cultural obstacles were not enough to make you despair, think about this final, and potentially, most devastating schism, the otherness of your own attitude to something which you can neither give up, nor enjoy fully as other people seem to. You might be something close to an addict, but unlike an alcoholic, who may give up his vodka in his recovery, you cannot decide to give up eating. You are perpetually trapped into a cycle of emotional entrenchment with food, which you must repeatedly experience for the rest of your life.
Every time you eat, you are creating a divide between what you perceive food to be, and what food actually is. You are not like other people, who eat and enjoy food, but who do not have any emotional side effects every time they chow down on a delicious flaky pastry.
It’s just you. You’re the one who doesn’t get the enjoyment, but somehow obsesses over it more than the average person. What greater divide exists, than between a food addict’s perception of food, and the reality of its function? For the pensive among you, the power of the mind to separate us from reality can be one of the most potent causes of sadness in existence. Our mind’s relationship with food is no less devastating and chasmic in nature.
Dieting has so many benefits, but it’s also riddled with traps. Traps of social and cultural courtesy and expectation, but also traps in perception and judgement, both about the world around us, and about ourselves. Dietsolation is a real problem for many, especially those who have found food a source, equal parts despair and obsession. When division is rife in just about every segment of social life, from politics, to technology, to the repercussions of pandemics and protests, does food have to be another way for us to exclude one another?
No, I hope not, but it will take an understanding as to why some people diet in order to get there. When we learn to be less judgemental about dieting, when we appreciate what a diet entails at face value, we allow the distance to fall, and create opportunities for innovation in social life. Could we get a coffee to go, then take a walk in nature? Can we be supportive when friends or colleagues get on a health kick? Can we perhaps even listen to them when they feel down about their relationship with food? Understanding is the road to intimacy without food, and I want to be a part of that understanding. It’s why I’m writing this article to you now.
Closeness shouldn’t only come from food, and for some, that requirement is vital to their health and happiness.