A while back, in my post You Ain’t Necessarily Misbehavin’, I began to explore the topic of how we arrive at being the eaters we are today, and how we berate ourselves for so many things that we had little control over.
The last week of February marks the observation of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week–which also has been expanded to reach out to the many who live in daily distress from hating their bodies. I have not been sure what to add to the conversation which is so ably cradled by many wise people. However, as this struggle is so relevant to the story, and such a part of the fabric that we are all woven into, I offer a continuation of the examination of how our relationship with food and eating gets shaped. Last time, I left off, just as we were being born.
After we slide out or are plucked from our mothers’ tummies, the messages regarding food and security are profound. Influencing this stage are many factors: how our cries of hunger were responded to; if food was used to placate other needs; whether our cues of satiety were observed; or if we were encouraged to keep feeding according to some external measurement.
The emotional state of our caregivers also colors our early feedings. A premature or reluctant feeding infant whose parent anxiously counts every milliliter consumed is having a different sentient experience than the content babe who nuzzles and guzzles while mother hums dreamily.
Whether we are breastfed or formula-fed also may affect us. A breastfed baby exposed to a wider palette of flavors based on mom’s diet may develop greater food acceptability than the formula-fed baby who gets the same recipe with each feeding. Also, fullness (and growth) may be appreciated differently, due to the difference in the composition of human and artificial milk.
Other subtleties influence this early feeding stage. Our innate temperaments reveal if we eat to live or live to eat. Some babies internalize the joy of clutching the breast or bottle as core to their being; others see the business of feeding as a mere requisite to the more important work of exploring the larger world. Certainly, much is anchored when we are merely minutes, days and months old.
Then, soon enough, we are small children. By the age of four, by my calculations, we have already had at least eight thousand, seven hundred and sixty eating encounters–and we are already pretty savvy little humans. We have begun to glean that food serves a greater purpose than fueling our bodies for play. It is somehow powerfully linked with love and affection and has powers way beyond its nutrient content. Candy can mend a hurt, ice cream can cool our heated outbursts of emotion and creamy, warm, familiar foods will bring comfort in a heartbeat. We know if food is abundant or if it is scarce.
Another message we receive at this time is that our own bodily sensations are secondary to behaving according to the rules. This ensues when we are told we must wait until mealtime to eat and that we must clean our plates; or, that we are eating too much or too little. These common parenting practices can serve to teach us that our own feelings are not valid and can begin to detach us from natural signals of hunger and fullness. Age-appropriate feeding should match and support the normal physiological and growth needs of young children. (An understanding of the principles of feeding dynamics are best gleaned by reading the work of Ellyn Satter, social worker and dietitian who pioneered research in this area. Her Division of Responsibility in Feeding should be the crux of all childhood nutrition education.)
When we are a little older we may begin to experience disconnects regarding food and our bodies. As little children, we do not differentiate ourselves from our environment. This sense of separation–and its attendant self-awareness–does not occur until a child reaches the age of eight or nine. But, with the early introduction of media and abstract reasoning in both schooling and socialization, this change is happening at an earlier age. I believe this is why eating disorders now manifest in younger kids.
Exposure to a barrage of images with distorted messages about feeding, body image, and personal values affects everyone, but it is particularly detrimental to at-risk individuals. Unfortunately, we cannot identify who is at risk. Interestingly, non-industrialized cultures only begin to show eating disordered behaviors after television becomes available.
With self-awakening, we are catapulted into self-reflection. Girls navigating through this time yearn to be let into the “club”. We enter the kitchen; we sidle up to our mothers, their friends, the aunties, and the older sisters. We listen to their rich stories and are sensitive to their attitudes and judgments. Often we hear women dissect and belittle their bodies, and the chant of the societal and personal mantra “I’m so fat” begins to penetrate our beings. We take all of this and figuratively stuff it into our new training bras and bikini underpants as our bodies begin to take on form and shape.
This is a very vulnerable period in the evolution of feeding behaviors. As a girl’s body begins to change rapidly, and she experiences the emotional and physical hunger that accompanies that growth, any chaos, fear, abuse or significant uncertainty in the outer environment can cause the body to become the battlefield for unexpressed emotions. We can stuff emotions down by overeating or we can deaden them by starvation. For some, negative comments from important male figures can solidify maladaptive behaviors that might have otherwise remained transient. Though girls may be more susceptible to this change, boys are by no means immune when they begin their maturation.
By adolescence, the stage is essentially set as the cascade of sex hormones takes up residence, settles in and rounds out the edges of our physical and emotional beings. After this huge developmental landmark, barring a few other components like what we eat, we just ride the waves, responding to food based on the summation of our earlier nature and nurture experiences.
Does this resonate with you? In honor of this week, please take a moment to think about your own story. No judgment, no blame, just acknowledge it. There may be much to actually appreciate. Practice replacing bitter feelings about your body with kind thoughts. Refrain from all trash talk about other people’s size as well as your own. If you suffer, or if you know someone who does, or if you just care about this subject, please find appropriate and supportive resources including the National Eating Disorder Association.
All sharings will be deeply honored.
In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
In the dark places
I ask courage to believe
I am beautiful.