Stumbling towards ecstasy ” Shapely Prose

Because of our delightfully stringent comments policy, most of the rants about fatties eating everything in a twelve-block radius never make it onto the site. Those “arguments” just aren’t worth thinking about. But we do see some genuine confusion from otherwise reasonable people who can’t see how non-restricted eating could possibly be compatible with health, or indeed with anything but disorder-level binge consumption. Of course, this is just as unfathomable to me as non-dieting is to the diet crowd — isn’t it obvious that Health At Every Size is a much more salutary way to live? — but I recognize that this is a diet-happy culture and going against the Prime Directive like that will always generate cognitive dissonance. So we do try to put some thought into where exactly the disconnect comes from, and we try to loosen some of the knots that keep people bound to a fat-is-bad pro-diet mentality.

To that end, yesterday as I passed by Starbucks I got to thinking about the four hot chocolates I’d thought about getting but not gotten in the last three days. I didn’t get them for various reasons — I was having fun with the person I was hanging out with at Starbucks and forgot to get in line, there were no comfy chairs available, it was raining and I didn’t feel like leaving the office for cocoa, etc. But I know there are people who would affect to be mildly scandalized that I thought with some seriousness about getting hot chocolate four times in three days — even though I didn’t actually get it once.  And that opened a window into the fear-of-not-dieting mindset.

See, eating what you want doesn’t mean eating everything you think of. I’ve decriminalized my thoughts about food — I’m allowed to consider getting hot chocolate, or having pie for breakfast, or taking second helpings, without any judgment or shame. But that doesn’t mean I always decide to do those things, and in fact, simply being allowed to think rationally about food means that I often don’t. (Starbucks’ Signature Hot Chocolate is amazing but tragic for my insides; breakfast pie is a brilliant invention but kind of a lot of sugar if you need sustained energy; eating too much food makes me uncomfortable.)

The point is, I think people may be terrified of unrestricted eating because they think “wow, there are so many times that I think about eating — just imagine how fat I would be if I didn’t control myself!” But you don’t have to eat everything that pops into your head, just because you may. As a non-dieter I routinely:

  • See a commercial on TV for something that looks good, and not only don’t buy and eat it right then but never buy and eat it.
  • Think about having a snack, but decide it’s too soon until dinner.
  • Have a sudden craving for something I don’t bother to scare up before the urge passes.
  • Want to eat a million Oreos, but do not eat a million Oreos because I don’t own a million Oreos and don’t feel like going to the store.
  • Think about buying something in the grocery store because it looks tasty, but don’t for whatever reason (don’t need it, can’t fit it in my basket, probably not as good as it looks, etc.).

And so forth. The point is that refusing yourself nothing is not the same as giving yourself everything. One thing, one crucial thing I do not refuse myself is the ability to turn things down. I don’t have to eat things just because I have a chance to or I have a notion to or nobody’s watching. Restriction makes you do that, not liberation. And once you’ve let go of the feast-or-famine mindset, it turns out that food is just like other pleasures and other necessities — often worth the trouble, sometimes not, sometimes foregone because it’s inconvenient or costly, sometimes overlooked out of preoccupation or stress, sometimes planned around and sometimes hampered by plans.

A few years ago, a fundamentalist Christian teen organization put out a Modesty Survey that was the subject of much mocking and some horror on the internet. The survey purported to feel out Christian teenage boys on what sorts of dress and behavior they considered “stumbling blocks” in girls — that is, what would tempt them unduly into sin. The picture painted is of a code of decorum so strict as to interfere significantly not just with sexual activity, but with any sort of activity at all. (Among the things found by the majority to be “stumbling blocks”: bending over, sitting cross-legged, lifting your skirt higher than the knee to step over something, showing any cleavage, unspecified “way a girl walks,” unspecified “attitude or behavior.”) Needless to say this was considered problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the implication that being reminded of an act that’s considered transgressive amounts to being tempted to do it. A heartening number of respondents said it was their responsibility to avoid lust, not the girl’s responsibility not to provoke it, but the very premise of the survey is that merely being alerted to the possibility of sin is effectively a call to sin, if not a sin in itself. Seeing a girl’s cleavage makes you aware that sex with her is possible, and once you know that, brother, resisting is going to take everything you’ve got.

People who assume that non-dieting is tantamount to wanton indulgence are applying the same non-logic to food that the Modesty Survey applies to sex. Both interpretations require the same unstated axiom: that thoughts about the object of temptation are enough to nullify all self-control, and that control must therefore be externally applied in the form of stringent rules. The ideal outcome is that you never think about the object of temptation in the first place. When you can be brave enough to face your stumbling blocks without a safety harness, though, it becomes clear that thinking about stuff is just thinking about stuff — it doesn’t open the door to sin, it doesn’t compel you to anything, it doesn’t enlist you in a fight you’re bound to lose. It’s not that people who don’t think in terms of “stumbling blocks” don’t think about having sex with every hot person they see — lots of them probably don’t, and lots of them probably do. But they know that thinking about it doesn’t mean they have to do it. All it takes to remain virginal or monogamous or disease-free or unrumpled, or whatever you goal is, is to just not go ahead and fuck everyone you think about fucking. (Assume, in this scenario, that everyone would give consent!) You don’t have to stop looking. You don’t have to stop thinking. You just have to not hump people indiscriminately. If you have a healthy relationship with sex, you probably weren’t going to, right?

Well, if you have — if you can develop — a healthy relationship with food, you’re not going to eat everything that crosses your mind. Forget being unhealthy; it’s not convenient. It’s not necessary. It’s not even particularly plausible. But I think this is where some of the fear comes from, the fear that letting go of restriction means embracing nonstop indulgence, and of course the assumption that that’s what we practice and advocate here. In fact, when you stop seeing everything as a stumbling block, you don’t automatically fall on your face — more often, you can pick your skirt up higher than your knees and just walk on.