Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Pepper’s hierarchy of food relationships: a heuristic and recommendations for disordered eaters

I like to think of our relationship with food as having three tiers.  Is this a little bit presumptuous of me, and unacademic, and on the fly?  Try enormously. But I’ve been thinking about and interacting with these issues for some time, and I find that thinking about food in this way helps me to get at both my own mental state and the state of other people I talk to on a daily basis.

On the first level is the immediate vicinity: where is the food, and where am I, and how are we interacting?  The second level is more abstract: what is my relationship with food like in general?  How does food fit into my life?  Why do I eat?  The final level is Meta.  Super Meta.  What is my life like?  Am I happy?  Am I stressed?  We normally don’t think about such big themes in our lives in terms of food, but for a disordered eater, this is the most important level of all.  Food health falls under the umbrella of holistic health, so if we can get the big picture problems under control, the rest can more easily fall in line.

What follows is a description of each level, plus useful strategies I’ve uncovered and tested for handling disordered (mostly binge) relationships for each.


1.  On the lowest level of the hierarchy, it’s you and the food in front of you. What kind of food is it?  How much is there?   Do you know if the food in front of you is a ‘trigger’ food, and if it is just going to leave you wanting more?  Are you going to eat all of it?  Are you going to go back to the fridge when you’re done?   And most importantly, what do you do to forestall grazing, overeating, or even a binge?  Here are some ideas:

Get busy.  Keep both your hands and your mind engaged.  Do whatever you can to get your mind off of it.  Video games are oddly effective, as is playing an instrument, or doing housework.  Often, I used to exercise.  If I had the “good momentum” from exercise behind me, it could keep me off of food for even longer.   Leave the house– go to the library, a Starbucks, or run errands.  Drive.  Meditate.  Go for a walk.  Make a cup of tea.  Chew a stick, or even a whole pack, of gum (make sure you don’t eat when you’re done!).   Try and make sure that only foods that need to be cooked before being eaten, such as steak, or even frozen foods, are in your house.   Ease of access is really demonic for bingeing.  Take a shower.  Dance around in your underwear.  Make a list of everything that is beautiful about you.  Put both internal and external characteristics on that list.    Insist on loving yourself.  Make out with your significant other.  If you don’t have a significant other, find an understanding friend.  You probably have one or two or six hundred of them hanging around.

And if you can’t stop the binge, choose your foods more carefully.  If you absolutely MUST have a sweet, or you MUST have that one food you’re just dying for, try to have a little bit of it and then move on to something less treacherous for your health.  Then, over time (because we don’t punish, but instead congratulate, ourselves for making baby steps) try going for slightly less bad sweets.  For example, eat ice cream instead of cake.   An even better way to do this is to decrease the sweetness over time.  Reach for fruit instead of ice cream next.   And then maybe sweet potatoes.  And then veggies.  When I want to binge now, know what I eat?  Cabbage.  That’s right.   I’ll eat a whole head of cabbage at once.  It gives me the satisfaction (read: serotonin) I crave from continually eating without the calories or the blood sugar problems.  Turning to a food like this is also a good call if I’ve already started a binge.  Just throw a few pounds of vegetable matter in my stomach and see if it can handle anything else.


This brings us to the second level in the hierarchy.  What is your relationship with food?  Are you obsessive?  Compulsive?  Super controlled?   Chances are that if you’re a disordered eater, you’re fairly obsessive, and you think about food and what you’re putting in your body a lot.  You may think that this is good for you because it helps you increase your mindfulness and your health, but it’s possible that you’re wrong.  Being in control of our food, and constantly thinking about what we’re going to be eating next, and what we could be eating next, creates feelings of deprivation.  This turns mindfulness into obsessiveness, and then into addiction.

This is why “cheat days” for dieters often don’t work out very well.   They spend so much time planning cheat days that their minds just get stuck on those few, hyper-desirable, built-up foods.  Psychology has shown again and again that most of the pleasure and pain in our lives comes not from immediate moments but from anticipation.  So we build up foods in our minds way more than they ever deserve to be.

What’s more, if you’re thinking about what you’re eating next, you’re making yourself feel deprived.  Feeling deprived makes you ache for food.   Aching for food makes you ignore satiety signals.  You might in fact not be deprived at all.  You might even know logically that you aren’t deprived, but you still feel that way.  (It’s awful, isn’t it?)  I believe this is because you just think about it too much.  Is there a way you can get food off your mind, as well as your plate?  Try letting yourself have foods you like to binge on in small quantities, and then moving on to different foods.  Try to de-demonize foods.  Do I think fruit is kind of the devil?  Sure.  But if I relax that feeling into something more like: “fruit isn’t all that good for appetite management, but it won’t put a spear through my heart” then I can have a piece of apple when my roommate offers me one without fear, without loathing, and hopefully without too much emotional baggage in general.   Be mindful of what effects certain foods have on you, but also acknowledge that you can transcend those demons.  Eventually.  Baby steps are the name of the game.

Aside from these few mental strategies, we can make tangible changes in our lives to help re-balance our relationships with food, too.  For example, don’t buy carbohydrates!  That’s a good one.  Make sure to never shop when hungry, too.  Or perhaps make a shopping list before going out, give yourself a time limit in the store (or go shopping when you’re in a hurry), and come home with only those foods on the list.   Maybe you can ask your significant other to do the shopping for a while.  Or you could try eating out more, if that would help.  Limit the kinds of foods in your house that can be eaten without cooking, such as nuts, fruits, and dairy.  Talk to your friends and family about your “problems” and get them to understand that they can support you by having certain foods banned in the house, etc.  If you live in a house where people insist on having unhealthy foods, try partitioning off parts of the pantry for “you” and for “them.”  And then don’t look in those parts, ever!   They become easier to ignore over time.  Trust.  Another good trick is to buy foods frozen.  Even if you try to eat them out of the bag, your fingers might get too cold.  Perhaps that one belongs in Level 1.  Frozen foods are a go go.

Another good strategy I find, particularly for grazing, is to not eat breakfast.  This gives me a bit of “momentum” with which I can start my day feeling good.  I don’t want to ever ruin that by eating poorly or too much for the rest of the day.  A lot of people experience the same boost with exercise.  Whichever works for you.  But it’s a good one, trust me.

There are, of course, plenty of other ways to have negative relationships with food, including mindlessness, severe restriction, purging, super selectivity, and a range of others.  More on those perhaps another time.  In the meantime, how does food fit into your life, and are there steps you can take in your brain and in your life to make it even better?


The final level in the hierarchy is mental health. If emotions drive you to food, how can you mitigate those emotions?  Some of my family relationships stressed me out, for example, so I moved out of the house.  At school, workloads were enormous.  So I dropped a class.   Are you depressed, worried, nostalgic for the past, or hurting in any way that can be medicated with food?  You can even be a “happy” binge eater and binge when you’re elated because you’ve forgotten to keep track of what you eat.  Or maybe alcohol drives you to food.  Or a certain time of life–”in June I binge because it reminds me of the funeral”–or a certain event–”I always eat after I talk to my mom”–or a certain place–”I always have to stop at Dairy Queen when I drive by because work sucks”–get way from those triggers as fast as you can!  Fix it.  Fix your life.  Fix your heart.  Find peace.  Make time to breathe.   These are Macro issues–Macro with a capital M–and of course they take a long, long time to fix.  But they are about holistic health, and we need that for our bodies as well as our souls.

So that’s my hierarchy.  What’s most fascinating to me is that my strategies and my situations on each level are always changing.  These days, because of particulars on each level of the hierarchy–I hardly have a problem at all.  But I know, I do know, that if my life changed back to how it was a month ago or a year ago, I’d be looking the same old demons in the eye and expecting Buffy and Angel to back me up again.  BUT: Having worked on these issues for so long, with myself before and now with others, I have experience.  I’m better armed.  I’m more aware.  This is awesome, and it’s helped me enormously.  Hopefully it can help you, too, no matter what your current relationship with food is like.


02 2011

I will not be afraid of women

I just read a rather touching post over at Modern Paleo, titled Crossfit and Body Image. In it, the author Emily talks about her experience with Crossfit as focused on fitness and health, rather than image.   Awesome.  I’m thrilled that this is a common Crossfit experience.  W2FG, Crossfit.  This kind of shit rocks my world.

The most poignant part of the post for me, however, was Emily’s opening anecdote.  Emily told the story of a young, fit girl at the Crossfit gym who was disgusted with her body.  As she disparaged her butt and her thighs, Emily watched, dumbstruck.  First, how could such a beautiful girl think such awful thoughts? Second, if this young girl loathed her perky, perfect body so much, thought Emily, how must she feel about Emily’s older, more heavily-worn limbs?

I’ve experienced the exact same situation many times.  She’s so beautiful: she must think I’m fat.  !   I’m sure everyone has felt the weight of similar comparisons.  Yet of course our loathing is internally directed, and chances are quite good that if we saw a random, anonymous body that looked just like ours, we might like it just fine.

The thing is, we have to be able to be simultaneously more removed from and more in touch with our bodies.  More removed because we need to be able to step back and say “fuck it, body image isn’t really a bit deal, and I look just as normal and good as everybody else,” and more in touch with our bodies because we need to forgive and embrace them.  Perfection isn’t achievable by anyone, not by a long shot, so stop looking at other women in your life like they’re beating you to the finish line.

There is a Dar Williams song, “As Cool as I am.”   It’s about embracing womanhood and supporting each other, rather than fearing each other’s opinions and feeling judged all the time.  So… let’s do this.  In Crossfit gyms, at the mall, on campuses.  At work and in the grocery store. All over the world.  There is no race to beauty, and there is no race to health.  No man or woman is your enemy, and I’ll be damned if I ever play a part in making anyone feel otherwise.

Edit: Nor of men!  Competition with the other gender is different, but it is still important.  This really struck home today when my mother asked me if I read the latest post over at Mark’s Daily Apple, the Unconquerable Dave.  I deliberately hadn’t read it, I realized as I was emailing my mom back, because sometimes the awesomeness of others makes me feel inadequate.  I was afraid Dave would make me feel inadequate.  This was ridiculous.   He was enormously inspiring, and I’m buoyed to the moon and back by his joys.


02 2011

Support for your relationship with food

I created a new page for the blog.  It is titled “disordered eating,” and it describes my ambition regarding mental health in the paleo movement.   I want to address piles full of material and thoughts on this blog, but I also have made it my mission to support you in your journey with your relationship with food.  If you need an ear, or could use some specific advice or conversation, or just want to be friends (holla!), please drop me a line.    I have no official degree or training in eating disorders, other than a few courses I took in college and my upcoming work in grad school, but I do have loads of experience and infinite time to listen and to talk.


02 2011

Women and Vegetarianism

It’s a fairly well known phenomenon that the majority of vegetarians and vegans today are women. In fact, according to this article in the Vegetarian Times, women vegetarians outnumber men 2 to 1. Why? It’s an enormously complicated issue, and there are probably boatloads of interrelated causes. A quick search of “vegetarian women” brings up 1,160,000 hits. Yikes. Regardless, I’ve got a few ideas about what these reasons could be–none of them particularly unique–but a few ideas nonetheless. And I’m going to come back to this later. It’s a huge topic, and I can do it no justice in one quick post. Today I aspire only to get this ball rolling.

Eight memes:

1. Men are hunters, women are home makers. Admittedly, we associate men with hunting for pretty decent reasons. I get this. I don’t like it, but I get it. Hunting is truly a badass activity, and it’s a damn shame, if a tolerable one, that women have rarely been able to own the same badass and lithe image. What is definitely not okay, however, is that this makes meat a manly food, and leaves little but alfalfa to the women folk. Moreover, the association of men with meat throughout history might also have developed out of the imbalanced gender dynamic. Men are on top, and men get served the richest food, which happens to be meat. Think about Beowulf, Roland, and Arthurian courts. Them royalty ate nothing but elk and pheasants. I’d be willing to bet that even with the advent of chivalry a few hundred years later, if food were sparse, men got the hearty stuff and women the light. Typical. Lame. Unfortunate lasting effects.

2. Women have an ascetic history with food. For a brilliant text on the origins of this phenomenon, check out historian Caroline Bynum’s seminal work Holy Feast Holy Fast, a revolutionary analysis of medieval women and the ways in which they wrung spirituality from their depressingly bland lives. Fasting was a way in which women could connect with Jesus Christ. They could not partake in many of the Patriarchy’s rituals, but they could always internalize their spirituality. This manifested increasingly in attempts to mimic and to experience intimately the suffering of Christ. And in the later middle ages, experiencing intimately the suffering of Christ was all the rage. Thus, women became uniquely associated with fasting. This is doubly fascinating because up until this time, bodies and food were heartily appreciated in European society. And the lower classes continued to feel this way. But it was with the increased interest in Christ, spirituality, chivalry, and courtly manners, and with the decreased agency of women, that women began undertaking asceticism as a form of definition, and as one of their only means of power and control. Eating was one thing you could never be forced to do.

3. Women today maintain an ascetic relationship with food. This makes me sick. Ugh. Literally. Every single ad for food marketed to women (never meat, by the way, but dainty foods such as fruits and cereals and sweets) is about indulgences, healthfulness, being slim, and taking care of that nasty appetite. Our society perpetuates the female burden of having cravings you shouldn’t (or couldn’t) ever satisfy, and I believe that this goes along with vegetarianism. My vegetarianism, personally, was often marked by a “if you can’t do it, you’re too weak for vegetarianism” type attitude. I remember very clearly the day my best friend converted* to vegetarianism. When she complained of never being satisfied, I told her she either wasn’t doing it right or that she just needed to deal. She had to pick which option it was. I feel so, so sorry for that. And I always will.

(* Religious language.)

4. Come to think of it, women have an ascetic relationship with everything. Think 1950s. Think corsets. Think douches. Women need to be perfect, need to be dainty, and need to dampen their corruptive carnal influence. Women need to hide their personal needs and imperfections in order to be perfect and catch a man. Thankfully this shit is OUT. THE. WINDOW. But vestiges of it remain and permeate our attitudes. This isn’t to say that men don’t face equally heavy pressures, both from themselves and from external forces. But they are different, and I’ll treat you 180 percent fairly in another post, promise.

5. Meat is lustful and impure, and suspected throughout history of causing lustful thoughts: women need to be light and pure. European Monks have historically eschewed meat for this reason. Related to items 3 and 4.

6. Now here’s an interesting thought.  What if female vegetarianism is not driven primarily by ascetic ideals, but instead by feelings of empathy and love? Is it more common for a girl rather than a boy to melt upon learning that Bessie is on her way to the slaughterhouse? Perhaps. But even if it is, we have to wonder if this is a natural phenomenon or a culturally conditioned phenomenon. Maybe empathetic connectivity is genetically wired into my brain more strongly than the brains of the boys who I witnessed drop-kicking frogs at band camp. This would explain a few things. Yet again, maybe we raise boys to be macho and girls instead to practice motherhood on worms in jars. Regardless, I think we can all agree that women tend towards the more communicative and the more empathetic. I’d guess that this phenomena accounts for a decent portion of animal rights vegetarians.

7. Women are more assiduous about their health. Studies by Men’s Health show that women go to the doctor approximately 35 percent more often than men (4.5 times per year versus 6.2). And according to, the most popularly cited reason for vegetarianism is health. Huh. This is a neat little correlation.

So far as environmental vegetarianism goes, I’ve been dong a fair bit of googling and google-scholaring to see if I can dig up some data about male and female vegetarianism in the sustainability movement. I was off of a hunch hypothesizing that this is perhaps the one motivation for vegetarianism in which men and women are fairly even. But this was just a feeling. I don’t really have any idea. It’s possible that female empathy compels women more often than men to give up meat for the sake of sustainability, just like women more often give up meat for the sake of the cows, but it is–in my wildly inexpert opinion–true that men are equally as capable and driven to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. I’d in fact be rather indignant if people were unfoundedly claiming otherwise. In any case, I would really love to learn about this, if you have any resources or ideas.

8. And a final thought: what if women have been taking up vegetarianism as a part of contemporary female empowerment and norms? I have this amateur theory that women populate and excel so much over men in universities today precisely because they are told their whole lives that they are facing an uphill challenge and therefore adopt a more serious Go Get ‘Em attitude. This makes women… more driven? More focused? More disciplined? I don’t know. Moreover, there is a negative flipside to this ambition. Young women today feel not only pressure to perform, but also pressured to be “perfect without trying. ” This is extensively discussed in gender theory and feminist circles these days. (Check out Feministing) I witnessed this every day at Dartmouth, and I lived that way myself. Often it was manifested in spending hours on having perfectly disheveled bedhead hair, going to the gym for two hours a day but not telling anybody, or doing extra studying in secret. My vegetarianism was another way of building that perfection. A “difficult” lifestyle, a way to distinguish myself, and a way to come off as an even more moral and put-together individual, vegetarianism was an ideal way to… well, be perfect. I did what I could. It was misguided, but what do we do in life that isn’t misguided?

(Forgive me for conflating ‘women’ with ‘female’ a few times. Perhaps female was actually the correct term to use throughout much of this post. What do you think?)

Thoughts? Comments? Concerns? Did I fuck something up royally? Miss a really big idea? Let me know! Make me smart!