Paved with good intentions

Sorry I haven’t uploaded anything for so long. I’ve been working on a couple of posts but they haven’t been coming out right. In the meantime, here’s another response to another documentary about the oddities of modern eating.

The Food Programme on Radio 4: How we eat: eating by the rules, dealt with clean eating, the difficulty of eating healthily in a junk food society, the ensuing desire to control your food intake, and, inevitability, anorexia. Again, it’s remarkable how many of these things are similar to my own experiences with food.

Surprisingly, though, the programme didn’t chart the weary road to anorexia as I’ve just given it to you. Instead, while it did touch on the deeply dysfunctional relationship we have with food in our oversupplied societies, Sheila Dillon concluded, “In a world hooked on maximum choice…the unlikely conclusion seems to be that the holy road to freedom and happiness, might lie in learning to eat by the rules.”

This seems to me to be an overly optimistic rendition of the situation. Anorexia is pernicious precisely because it is rooted in reasonable and genuine concerns about healthy eating. We need to be alert to which of these perfectly justified ideas and attitudes could be twisted and cannibalised by the condition. There are a number in this programme.

Firstly there’s the tendency to see food as a threat. The nutritionist Dr George Wilson is recorded pointing out that in a garage shop “most of the food would be processed and sugar-based and addictive in the sense that it’s just that fast fix”. Talking to someone on a weightwatchers programme, Sheila Dillon suggests “the environment is almost scary. You could go out of control. You could go out to buy your morning paper and end up with 10 chocolate bars”. If most food is nasty and soiling, then abstinence from food is pure and clean.

Secondly, to resist the impulse to gorge yourself on vile, poisoning snacks, the programme makers suggest you need to adhere to a controlling system, a healthy eating regime. Dr Wilson, says “It’s about discipline, not sacrifice…When you’re surrounded by a society that’s basically junk food”. Here, we have the idea that abstaining from eating is admirable and praiseworthy.

Thirdly, the benefits of healthy eating are emphasised through the example of the boxer Derry Matthews. As a featherweight and lightweight boxer, he used to starve himself in the days before a fight. He began manifesting many of the typical symptoms of anorexia: exhaustion, reclusiveness. He even found that he was getting cut extremely easily. These ailments ceased when he began to eat using a diet plan devised by a sports nutritionist. Sheila Dillon said “it does sound, Derry, as if the rules have set you free and made you happier”. Jackie, from Weight-Watchers said “It does help to have the structure. You enjoy the taste more” (presumably because you’re hungrier). They agree that “it’s really good to feel in control”. So, here, we have the idea of plans and controlling your eating in order to be successful. Derry is successful because his diet is planned for him and his choices are much more sensible, now. For other people, the problem is, when does the planning become obsessive and who decides what’s on the meal plans? What is their true agenda? What if controlling your food intake, and losing weight, becomes a substitute for control and success in your wider life?

The programme does acknowledge the dangers of this approach. Right at the beginning, Sheila Dillon talks the food blogger Madeleine Shaw. She admits to having had an eating disorder in the past, saying “we’re all control freaks in some ways, and I think food can be quite overwhelming of making choices…people quite like it because it almost gives them an identity…For me it was a control thing…it wasn’t necessarily about being skinny it was like ‘if I control what I eat I’ll control my life in some way. And I think that food is something that we can control as well…food is the one thing that you’re actually in control of, especially once you’ve left home…suddenly you’re given this responsibility of feeding yourself and I think that is amazing and empowering and exciting , when you first left home and you went shopping it was the most exciting thing but I think that obviously leads to complex relationships with it because you can kind of use that element of control in a negative way”.

However, they do not question Jackie when she says “I want to feel better than I do now, which is much better than I did four months ago”, yet this is classic anorexic thinking: she is so encouraged by her success that she isn’t content to simply enjoy the benefits of achieving a healthy weight. She wants, now, to keep going, to push it beyond her original goals, beyond what is advisable.

The similarities between these people’s experiences and my own is striking. Like Dr Wilson, I felt assailed on all sides by nasty, fattening foods. Like Madeleine, my anorexia was an attempt to control my life at a time when much of it seemed beyond my control and it looked like Jo, our family’s main bread-winner, might lose her job, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Like Madeleine, this sense of control grew out of the exciting and empowering responsibility I felt in continuing to shop for and feed myself and my family so well, despite this impending catastrophe. Like Jackie, I was elated by my success at making my diet as low fat as possible and with how well it had made me feel, creative and energised, and like Derry, freed. And I was determined to continue that feeling by continuing the behaviours that led to it, until I had taken it all too far. And then, like Derry, I found myself, exhausted and reclusive, cutting far too easily…

I guess the lesson is that this dangerous madness erupts out of, and subsides back into, perfectly sensible thinking on perfectly ordinary topics, the subjects of thoughtful, harmless documentaries on radio 4. And there it lurks, waiting…

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