Making Food the Enemy: Echoes of Anorexia

In speaking with Lisa, who at 39 is struggling with the lingering messages of her own anorexia, it is clear that our culture’s communications about food are assaultive. Lisa Fogarty is a married mother of two, a writer, and someone profoundly affected by anorexia to the point where it remains a persistent element in her life. She is passionate about saving her two children from following in these footsteps.

As I speak with Lisa, we meander onto the larger stage of a picture of our culture’s severe ambivalence about food. She wonders about a younger anorexic person growing up in the world of today where the word “clean” is used abundantly when it comes to food. People are into restricted diets, where carbohydrates for one, are often seen as a clear and obvious culprit. Dieting and how to obtain slimmer body parts, like thighs, are discussed in corners of rooms at parties.

In her New York Times Voices piece, When Anorexics Grow Up, January 11, 2018, Lisa says she has a protective need to stay away from peer discussions that center around restrictions. It has been her world for decades, and it feels harmful to her—the constant talk of restrictions and the comparisons. And speaking of comparisons, when outsiders have seen that Lisa eats certain foods sparingly or not at all, they often compliment her. And it feels fake; she feels fake, since she knows it is the obsession of staying away from certain foods that haunts her. She knows it is not a real strength.

“Restrictions are so mainstream.”

If she were starting out with anorexia now, Lisa feels she would have probably been able to hide it behind the restrictions around food that today have become so normalized. In the 90s there wasn’t much—in her group of friends—of vegetarianism, veganism, gluten free diets. She feels the messages are confusing and I agree with her: if so many foods are “clean” it seems that so many others are dirty. She points out that differentiating so dramatically between clean and dirty can seem normal in the restrictive dieting culture of today.

Lisa herself knows that there may be science to back up some of the claims of various diets. She knows that obesity is an issue in the world, and in America. But she also knows that our culture is ambivalent about food and pleasure, and once again that many people can hide behind the potential facts of a given weight regime.

The Danger you will love food too much.

Lisa points to the notion many people have of anorexics that they don’t like food. For Lisa it’s the opposite. She is afraid of loving it too much because then it will have control of her.

Control is key; the loss of it is terrifying and a terrible failure, and the winning of it has been victory.

What about those taco shells?

It was poignant to talk to Lisa about her struggle to eat certain food so as to be with her children and husband. Tacos were one such food. The insides could be healthy and therefore “clean”, but the shell has been a problem. She knows that many people would side with her clean versus dirty side of the struggle; she knows there are facts to back up her avoidance. She also knows that the avoidance is more like dread that is choking, and that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice.

Does Anorexia come from a trauma?

Lisa doesn’t know. Her parents, both of Italian origin, from the region of Abruzzo, had the Italian love of, and emphasis on food. It’s easy to think of Italians as hovering and pushing food, but she doesn’t see her background as producing her anorexia. She does know that she thought it was an obsession that would go away. And the more there is shown to be biological components to it, the easier it can be for her—and no doubt for many—to try to live with it rather than feeling trapped in an affliction that can feel like it’s her fault.

Suffering is about competition.

Lisa has the middle class white woman’s about anorexia as a “white girl condition”. It has been considered an illness of privilege and whiteness, and this is another source of shame. I get this and know something about the awfulness of measuring and being measured for the right to suffer.

The guilt and the self-doubt are not only about eating or not eating. And they are not only about having anorexia per se. They can be about whether people will respect that she has this condition when her weight at its worst went down to 98 pounds and she did not fit the image of emaciation that the public bestows in its imagery of anorexia.

“Eating disordered” thinking

Lisa says we try to separate ourselves from food but we’re not meant to. So many people think this way. She calls it “eating disordered thinking” where calories become the enemy.

I like the problem.

Along with the suffering she knows something key: “I like the problem. I like the experience of restricting calories; it gives me a high--both a sense of calm and one of excitement.” She gets the soothing nature of so much obsessing and so much restriction, even though this becomes a self-absorbing adaptation.

Food in the Shadows

“Calories—food-- become our enemies but in reality they are part of us”. There is a division between clean and dirty when in fact we are both.

Is food, for so many of us, like the emotions we are tempted by but that seem so dangerous that we hide from them?

If we all need to face the good and bad, the clean and dirty inside us, couldn’t we make use this approach in our attitudes also about food?

I wish Lisa well, hoping for her increasing enjoyment. I also hope for our being less demonizing about food—all of us.

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