Did you know that compulsive over-eating is the number one eating disorder in the nation? It makes sense, right? But you may not have known it. It makes perfect sense although, upon hearing it, I realized I never held that in my mind as a fact. Why is that, I wonder? Well, I think I have an answer. Because it’s socially acceptable.
Compulsive over-eating -“binge eating,” if you will – is simply a social norm. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it’s the perfect example to illustrate this notion. A holiday built around one meal, after which many people end up in sweat pants and overeating is simply common practice, in no way is the act of stuffing oneself at the Thanksgiving table seen as disordered eating. Taking it further into the holidays themselves, many people take the rich, calorie-laden food as a cue to eat, eat, eat and then eat no more come January first. Ergo New Year’s resolutions. And we all know how those end up…
I totally realize that food is an expression of love. It can be such a beautiful gift to share. Making someone soup when they’re unwell, baking with apples and pears fresh off the tree, picking bits from the garden to build a glorious salad, sharing culture and tradition, mincing garlic, grinding spices, massaging herbs…the whole episode of cooking can be very sensuous, very romantic. I resonate with that. I am positively enamored by the experience of creating healthy masterpieces in my kitchen! In fact I’m working on a recipe eBook. That, however, is completely beside the point.
The point of that was to convey that I don’t abhor the holidays, by any means. I have beautiful Thanksgiving memories from my childhood! This entire notion extends far beyond the holiday season, but I couldn’t resist using these notoriously overindulgent couple of months as a prime example for socially acceptable gluttony.
What I find puzzling is that the act of compulsive overeating is validated from early childhood. Sleepovers were prime time to completely binge on candy, junk food and other nutritional terrors that would assist in a preteen attempt to stay up all night. Look at families out at restaurants, though. Even out in the light of day it’s become common practice in America to gorge oneself until one needs to unbutton one’s pants! What’s seen as abnormal behavior is asking the server to halve a dish before it’s been brought out. Asking for a meal to be made healthier. Choosing to cook more healthfully and eating normal sized portions. These are the rarities and seen as confining.
It’s interesting the things society deems acceptable. Just yesterday I was talking to a customer at work, during an ordinary late afternoon transaction in broad, albeit gloomy and rainy, daylight. She was telling me that her husband had been in a motorcycle accident last week. At the gasp of horror on my face she hurriedly assured me, oh no, he’s fine, he’s okay. She continued to tell me that her grown daughter came to stay at the house for the week, having been so rattled by almost losing her father that she needed to be near. The woman said that, while she found the whole idea rather morbid, the closeness and the way her family “holed up” and “shut down,” sort of closing out reality for those few days, was the most beautiful experience. I understood what she meant. The closing in, wrapping oneself and one’s clan in a safe little bubble, just the few of you as though no outside world existed…no job, no obligations, no school, no demands, no sense of time or space. I immediately related. I was transported back to 2008 when my Grandpappy was killed suddenly. The way the German women of my family, my Tribe, holed up in my Oma’s house in a brisk corner pocket of Colorado, just off the Army base…the way we divvied up tasks, intuitively cared for one another’s wordless requests, gave silent thanks for one another and lost all track of time of day, day of week and how long it’d been since we arrived. The woman and I shared a soulful gaze. It’s too bad that tragedy is the only real excuse to do that, to retreat in such a way, she said. I nodded emphatically. It’s not socially acceptable, I said. She nodded even more emphatically, it’s NOT! Something has to be WRONG in order for us to do that! Before leaving she seemed to snap out of a deep, introspective mood, instigated by our unexpectedly profound conversation. Sorry, she said instinctively, who’d have expected a little retreat right here at the grocery store. I smiled genuinely, resisting snapping out of my own deepened spirit and instead bottling it, nestling down into the warmth of it. Here’s to retreating for no reason, I said, and then she was gone.
What makes society deem so much of what’s actually healthy socially unacceptable or “odd,” and the acts that are emotionally, healthfully and physically damning just common practice? Overworking, too little time spent with loved ones, not enough sleep and rest, poor nutrition, not enough beneficial exercise, not enough time for wellness…
This morning I was discussing with my Mum what I’d written thus far of this essay. She brought up a brilliant point. Our society is always focusing on the flaws. Even on television, the shopping network, the ladies selling makeup…They say see how this covers up her dark circles? rather than, look how this accents her cheekbones! Or they say, you can hardly tell this is a size large, rather than look how well this skims her frame. It’s all about the covering up. Even in terms of makeup which, historically, was used in rituals, and was seen as a sacred means of adorning human bodies and faces. It was celebratory. Accentuating.
Today makeup is worn by many as a mask. Worn as a “face.” Worn because, without it, one’s face would be naked, would look tired, would be unprintable… I stopped wearing makeup over a year ago. It’s inauthentic, a character in a movie once said. This is my face, take it or leave it. I recall going through high school, feeling like makeup was the thing to wear because everyone else was wearing it. I remember relying heavily on it after high school, feeling like I wouldn’t be pretty without it. I remember sneaking out to the mirror to put on eyeliner before my boyfriend woke up. Fixing the smudged eyeliner from the night before. Preposterous!
I remember reading books where the characters didn’t wear makeup and thinking, wow…I can’t imagine just not wearing makeup…going out into the world everyday with just my own honest face to show. I wish I could… I was twenty years old and thinking this! Now, at 25, I look in the mirror and even if I’ve a blemish or didn’t get enough rest, it’s still just my face. It’s my honest face for that day. I’ve come to appreciate every single freckle and eyelash, every divot and curve. No one else has this face. It’s all mine. I can’t even remember what it was like to cover it up everyday, as just common practice.
What was the point of all that, you ask? The concept of “common practice.” We’ve come full circle back to compulsive overeating (quite a little ride I just took you on, I know). How is it possible that a full blown eating disorder, a chronic condition within our society, has become common practice? The same way cigarettes are legal, binge drinking is not only normal but supported by bars that open at 7am, and foods with five year shelf lives are sold everyday in nearly every supermarket.
Just because something is common practice doesn’t mean it ought to be blindly practiced. In fact, what’s “common practice” might be more aptly questioned. Investigated. Looked at inside and out.
Men and women who are stricken with eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia are often chastised, condemned even. Why is this? Because these are diseases misunderstood by the vast majority of society. Most people, gratefully, don’t know what it’s like to have this disease. They don’t know what it’s like to suffer, work through and recover from it. A blessing and accomplishment many who are stricken with this disease do not have the opportunity to celebrate. These beautiful beings are condemned because the cross they bear is one most people can’t understand.
This society is built around overindulgence. It’s the compulsive overeating that’s seen as normal. Those who exercise regularly and are committed to balance and health are seen as the “different” ones. Those who air on the side of strict in their dedication to wellness are the odd ones, the ones who constantly hear how do you do that, I don’t have willpower like that. It’s because balance is a foreign concept to the vast majority of the American population (the only culture I’m comfortable speaking for, despite my having witnessed a culture of beautiful balance while I lived in Europe).
So, what’s the moral here? Awareness. I think in any scenario one can emerge saying the moral is awareness. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold just as much weight as what we do understand. Just because society deems something acceptable doesn’t mean it is. Just because something is comfortable and common practice doesn’t mean it’s okay. Just because a behavior has become a crutch doesn’t mean it’s serving us.
Cultivate awareness. In everything. Every moment. Every day. Every breath. See the world, society, your own actions, the stories your own mind tells you, with clarity. Eyes wide open. Fully aware.
Because the moral is always awareness.