Reclaiming Emotional Eating
November 19, 2015
by Geo Peck
What do you think of when you hear the term “emotional eating”? Who do you think of when you imagine an “emotional eater”? The first thing that comes to mind for most people is a woman.
The emotional eater of the popular imagination is invariably a lady sitting alone on her couch at night time, almost always crying. Used tissues litter the couch around her, and she is most likely elbow deep in a tub of Häagen-Dazs, perhaps with a half-eaten pizza in front of her. Maybe somebody just broke up with her, or maybe one of her many cats died. Emotional eating is never seen as something beneficial, or even something enjoyable or nourishing. Emotional eating is universally portrayed as a problem that needs to be fixed, a bad choice that a woman is making for herself. The only scenario in which a woman’s apparent “indulgence” is excusable or understandable is in the face of a traumatic life event and even then, we anticipate that there will be a hangover of guilt and shame the next morning. When we see an emotional eater, we feel bad for her, and we assume she feels bad about herself. If only she could control her eating, find something else to make herself feel better, she could overcome what ails her.
But what is emotional eating really? Why must it be clouded with so much negativity? Can we not simply have an emotional connection to our food?
Those who would seek to pathologize emotional eating believe that emotional eating is an unhealthy coping mechanism; it is a sign that an eater is not “properly” dealing with stressors and is giving in to disordered eating, which will surely lead to serious health problems. But this is not always the case. These concerns might be valid for some, but I’m more interested in looking at what emotional eating might look like if it weren’t so tied up with humiliation and embarrassment. Feeling emotions after eating, or even eating because of emotions, is so deeply shamed in our society it’s hardly accepted as something that can be positive, in any situation. I am searching for a different perspective.
The negative association that we have with emotional eating is fat-antagonistic, sexist, and oppressive. Fat antagonism is intrinsic to our shaming of emotional eating because a fat body is the logical and shameful consequence of overeating. Fat antagonism tells us that if being fat is the worst thing a woman could be, and emotional eating will result in fatness, then emotional eating is something to be avoided. If you enjoy eating, you’ll likely only continue eating until you explode with fatness: best to just nip it in the bud and never derive joy, pleasure, or satisfaction from food.
Emotional eating, of course, is something that most people partake in without even realizing it. Why exactly is the idea of “comfort food” acceptable, but “emotional eating” (also known as: being comforted by food) is not? What does enjoying food too much even look like? Where is the line and who draws it? Groups like Emotional Eaters Anonymous use lines like “Food is for fuel, not treats” and “You are not a dog” to keep their clients in line, successfully comparing anyone who enjoys their food, and anyone who is fat, to animals. If that is truly the world we live in, why would anybody ever go out to eat at restaurants? We might as well just not bother; we might as well give up on growing a variety of vegetables and fruits with different tastes and textures if we are not required or even allowed to enjoy these differences.
The misogyny inherent in the shaming of emotional eating is as palpable as the fat antagonism. Women are often expected to nourish those around them, be it by cooking food or providing other forms of comfort. But when a woman nourishes herself through the same means, people get upset. Within some families, women are expected to eat last and are only entitled to the leftovers after their families have eaten, as if their nourishment is secondary. A recent study showed that men often indulge in comfort food when positive emotions are felt; food is a reward for a job well done. “Go ahead and have that steak, you’ve earned it buddy.” Women, on the other hand, tend to indulge when something bad has happened. These results are hardly surprising considering women are told continuously that we do not deserve food, that we do not deserve to feel good, and any time we do, we should be feeling guilty about it.
Food can nourish the mind just as much as it nourishes the body. In 1795, the famous, French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin proposed an intrinsic link between food and memory. This relationship, he said, is attributable to the physiology of how we taste the things we eat, but also because the act of eating evokes many emotions in us. For many of us, our earliest associations with food are memories of closeness to our parents and guardians and the intimate and safe feelings we once received from accepting nourishment from whomever cared for us. When we eat as adults, we are accepting this intimate nourishment in other ways. With each bite of food, we are connected to the farmers who grew the food and to whoever has cooked it for us. The feeling of comfort we get from eating is natural, and it is even more natural to seek out this connectivity when one is feeling lonely or sad.
Food makes me feel a lot of things. When I eat a fresh pear I feel hopeful, optimistic, and joyful. Chicken noodle soup makes me feel safe, and I’m instantly having fun when eating pizza. I feel both proud and honoured when I feed my friends and when they compliment my food. A particularly bad day left me with an aversion to stuffed grape leaves, and I can’t eat spicy Italian sausages in a bun anymore because they were what I always ate with my best friend who passed away—I cry whenever I do try to eat them. This is where memory comes in. If you never ate ice cream as a child, but instead your parents gave you an orange as a treat, you would probably feel the same way about oranges as many people do with ice cream. As long as it makes you feel things, it is emotional eating.
So here’s to ordering pizza when sad, having a cupcake on a particularly hard day, or becoming stupidly happy while sharing a s’more with a group of friends. It’s okay if certain food makes you feel good: you are allowed to eat emotionally. You have the right to care for yourself mentally and physically in the way that is most effective for you.
Geo Peck is a cook and writer living in Toronto. She is currently studying critical theory at the University of Toronto. You can find more of her writing at Fat Girl Food Squad.
Image by: Alisha Davidson