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October 25, 2004


Jeff JP

I want them to understand that while pleasing others is indeed a source of joy, it ought never be the sole source of delight in their lives.

Hey Hugo,

I agree with that, but it applies to men, too. How many men work at one, two, sometimes three less-than-satisfying jobs to provide for their families? (That's a rhetorical question.)

Furthermore, living one's life primarily--or even solely--to please others is a lifestyle that cannot sustain itself. Eventually such an approach to living will spawn anger, resentment, and discontent.

And so this week, I'm giving them the following optional assignment: While out with friends or family or others whose opinion they value, I want my students to eat as much as they want of something they truly, deeply, crave. And they need to do so without describing themselves as "bad". (This is a tough one for most of my students, I've found.)

While I agree that self-disparagement is very unhealthy, the cultivation of craving is also very unhealthy. Indeed, in Buddhism craving is viewed as the cause of all of human suffering. That viewpoint is compatible with Christianity, too. Recall how "sin" and suffering entered the world through humans' craving to know good and evil and humans' craving to become "like gods."

Again, I'm absolutely convinced that real liberation comes in the bold assertion of one's right to pleasure

That's debatable. Perhaps "happiness" or "contentment" works better here because pleasure, by its very nature, is transient. Furthermore, pleasure is really a different aspect of the same reality that is pain, so I have trouble calling the bold assertion of "one's right to pleasure" a kind of "real liberation."

These are not mere semantical differences. The indulgence of sensual pleasures can lead to tremendous suffering, rather than to happiness. For example, the recreational use of various narcotics can give us a great deal of pleasure. However, such use of narcotics can also lead us to terrible addictions that I see as a form of bondage rather than liberation.

On the other hand, asceticism and self-denial also lead to suffering. I could be misreading you, but my gut tells me you're really talking about moderation and happiness, rather than about indulgence and pleasure.

Just my 2 cents.

Jeff JP


I could be misreading you, but my gut tells me you're really talking about moderation and happiness, rather than about indulgence and pleasure.

Of course. I don't advocate excess. I advocate delight. The problem is not that "my girls" overeat, the problem is eating even modest amounts of delicious foods leave many of them feeling guilty. Forget excess -- they can't enjoy moderation!


While I agree that self-disparagement is very unhealthy, the cultivation of craving is also very unhealthy.

The problem is, the more you deny your cravings, the more power you give to the thing you're craving. If you can learn that you can have the thing you're craving and enjoy it, and there will be more, and you don't have to feel guilty about wanting it, that thing becomes much less invested with moral judgment.

In this culture, food has been given such symbolism and power that it's not a source of nourishment but a source of guilt or virtue. We become disconnected from our appetites, we can't tell when we're hungry and when we're full because we've stopped listening to our bodies and started listening to cultural messages.


Hugo--a thought--when you suggest that food brings more consistent pleasure than sex, the wording makes it seem like eating somehow will cause one's sex life to suffer.

Moderate consumption of good food will not cause weight gain. Zuzu has an excellent point--most bulemics I know just would not eat, not eat, not eat and then go bonkers with the food.


Great post. As someone who loves good food, it saddens me when the people around me can't seem to allow themselves to enjoy it. I saddens me even more to reflect on the fact that such self deprivation is an entirely understandable and perhaps rational response to the expectations of the culture in which they live.


Wow, another great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


My bad, Amanda; not my goal at all.


Great post. Many people left your class starving. I hate to burst your bubble, but while most of your female students really are fantasizing about food, some are also fantasizing about their teacher (funny, the things you hear as a gal around campus).

As to the first comment, "While I agree that self-disparagement is very unhealthy, the cultivation of craving is also very unhealthy"-- you're not really "cultivating" cravings if you just indulge them. It's not a craving, then-- merely a strong preference. As humans, we naturally have preferences and desires for a lot of things, so why should the desire for a particular food be any different? IMO, "cultivating" a craving is feeling the desire, trying to suppress it, not succeeding very well, and continuing to obsess about it until you finally give (or don't give) in-- then continuing the same behavior whenever the idea of that particular food comes up. That's a lot of wasted thought and energy. If you want something, then eat it, be it bread or ice cream or chicken feet, you're simply taking care of the business of feeding yourself, and that's that.


Did you tell your class you ate 25-30 cookies? That's downright inspirational!


I liked this post, Hugo, and it reminded me of an experience I had back in February (wow, that seems so long ago right now). We went one day to visit a coworker who is battling cancer, and learned that she might never be able to eat again (she has a feeding tube). After listening to her talk about that, I decided that I would try never to feel guilty about eating again. Of course I don't always do very well with that goal, but this post was a good reminder. Thank you for writing it.

Not to push my own site or anything, but I wrote about the whole thing in more detail here. I'm not paraphrasing very well today.

Barbara Preuninger

Wow. What a great post. I've also noticed that parallel between controlling sex in women and controlling women's eating. But you put it in such a good, concise way.

I think self-indulgence can be good or bad and self-denial can be good or bad depending on context. Self-denial feels good to me when I do things like the Oxfam hunger fast (where you give the money you would have spent on meals for a day to Oxfam instead). On the other hand, denying oneself food is putting as much a focus on food as overindulging in it. Maybe it's no coincidence that obesity rates have risen as the diet industry grows...

Miss O'Hara

Good post, Hugo. As a former anorexic (really, it never goes away), I definitely understand the whole good food/bad food thing. Even now...when I go out to eat with a bunch of the gals, I notice myself not eating as much - often, not even enough to end my hunger. If I were to eat as much as I need even to do THAT (which isn't much), I would feel guilty.

I don't know if we need to overindulge - well, we don't, but that isn't what you were advocating! - but just for women to eat enough to satiate their hunger is pretty rare (at least in public).


Great post, Hugo.

A thought about journals, though--I suspect that your students wouldn't feel as comfortable writing about sex as about food, given that you'll be looking at those journals. It's considered appropriate for a woman to bemoan how much she eats, but not to talk about how she spent all of last lecture fantastizing about the guy in the next row over.


mythago, that's fair. Still, I don't think it undervalues sexual longing to say that "food longing" is critically important. I'm just aware that the former will be less often disclosed than the latter.


I think it's great that you're doing this Hugo, and I agree with you that it's *so* important. I try to teach myself this and make myself really believe it.

Anyway one thing I want to say is that I think people are too critical of overeating (I know you weren't suggesting overeating, Hugo, although sometimes satisfying a craving or eating til it doesn't taste good anymore entails overeating).

Overeating is just not that bad.

I overeat as a response to stress. I usually gain a dress size or two when I am really stressed out, and lose it again when things are better. What's the big deal?

There are lots of responses to stress, many of them a lot more destructive or self destructive than overeating. Overeating will generally not make you dangerously obese, as I understand it, that usually involves some other medical condition. It will make you fatter.


I don't think I have one ideal weight, I think I have a range of healthy weights. And I have a top size that I have never gone over, even after my mom died, because my body just seems to stop there. And it's fine. Yes, I'm bigger, but I'm still fine, I'm still me, and I still look fine, too. (And you know it's about looks because otherwise people wouldn't have brought up overeating, but exercise and a healthy lifestyle.) I keep a closet with three different sizes in it, and that's it.

Overeating isn't great, but it's not so bad either. Sure, there are better ways of dealing with stress, like exercise, but especially when I'm stressed is when I find I have the least time or energy for exercise and constantly thinking I ought to be exercising doesn't do any good for my stress level!

Think about it, if you knew your son was upset, distressed, stressed, which would you rather you see? He gets violent and unreliable? He turns in and is uncommunicative and isolated, or self destructive? He engages in very risky activity? He becomes anorexic? Or he overeats?


Or your daughter, or anyone you love.

Or is being fatter really that horrible?


As is often the case, I sort of agree and sort of disagree. I've inveighed myself against this attitude that equates dieting with virtue, and overeating with sin. But I think you're buying into it a little yourself by accepting the idea that women eat for themselves but diet for other people. Some of them do, maybe, but I'll be honest. When I've wanted to look good, when I've done myself up and looked pleased at what I've seen in the mirror, it wasn't the spirit of self-denial that moved me. It was the sense of power that comes with having sexual allure.

Now you'd probably say that's the wrong reason for a woman to have power, and you'd be right. But my point is it's far from the sort of wifely self-giving that you seem to be implying here. The fact is, both eating too much and eating too little are self-centered activities. Unless it's for health reasons, I think most people want to lose weight because of vanity, period. So my feeling is that the problem isn't that women are too self-giving and need to indulge themselves once in a while, but that we're all totally confused about what self-giving really means.


I'll happily grant you at least the second half of your last sentence!

It's absolutely true that distinguishing between what we do "for ourselves" and what we do "for others" gets easily mixed up for all of us -- and for none more so than for young women, who are fed messages of sexual empowerment and feminine submissiveness in equal measure.

In AA, there's a fine old wise axiom: "You can't give what you haven't got." Women have been told time and again to give to others, nurture others, think of others -- and aren't told often enough to meet their own needs, and to do so without guilt or shame.

Again, I'm not endorsing over-eating. That's an issue of quantity. I am endorsing guilt-free delight in eating whatever it is that you are consuming, even in small amounts. That's an issue of honoring ourselves as creation, and honoring the God who made us.


I agree, and I don't think it's as tied into weight as one might think--thin women aren't supposed to have an appetite, either. Appetite (sexual or for food) isn't "feminine."


thin women aren't supposed to have an appetite, either. Appetite (sexual or for food) isn't "feminine."

This makes me think of the scene in Gone With the Wind where Mammy makes Scarlett eat before she goes to the barbecue at Twelve Oaks because she won't have people thinking that Scarlett does anything but eat like a bird.

This also makes me think of a comment some guy directed at me at dinner in the law school cafeteria (he was a guest of a friend of mine) that I "ate like a man." He was horrified. I played it off like I didn't care, but it bugged me, enough to remember 10 years later. It tied in with two things: a) that as a woman, I'm not supposed to be seen to enjoy eating or eat enough to satisfy my hunger; and b) having grown up overweight, I was sick to death of people commenting on what I ate. I'm still overweight, though less so than when I was younger, and I still have these anxieties when eating in public or shopping for food. I feel like I'm being judged (and probably am) for the contents of my shopping cart, and I don't feel comfortable, say, walking down the street having an ice cream cone even if that's what I really wanted and was hungry for. I also feel guilty if I go to a restaurant and don't leave something on my plate.


I've attended early morning meetings with groups of women and early morning meetings with groups of men and the different attitudes towards the inevitable plate of breakfast pastries is always striking. The plate of danishes at the women's meetings is always approached with palpable anxiety by the group. Someone *has* to make a "joke" that the pastries are fat-free or that she will start a diet tomorrow before a pastry can be touched. Then everyone laughs nervously and looks anywhere but at the plate. If someone else takes a pastry, she also has to make a joke about being a pig or being bad that day.

At meetings that are mostly men, they generally dive into the plate without a comment. Once I sat across from a man who was licking his fingers then using a wet finger to get up every last crumb from his napkin. No thought whatsoever but enjoyment of the food in front of him. I cannot imagine a woman doing the same thing in a group setting.


Thanks for the comments, all -- obviously, it touches a nerve. How we respond in our own lives -- how we eat and encourage others to eat -- is an important topic for reflection here.


Interestingly, it just dawned on me that this discussion is taking place in Ramadan. Many of my colleagues are fasting, and some of the Muslim students in town and at my univ. have an interfaith "buddy fast" to raise money for charity. And the Yom Kippur 25 hr fast was last month. Of course, the key is that these are communal acts of faith, prayer, charity. And there are SERIOUS feasts afterwards ;)

There might also be some cross-cultural issues in Christian populations. It is my general impression that African-American women are much less hung up about weight, at least the 5 # variations that really bug many white women (I am white, bet most of the blog readers are white, and I work in a central city medical center). There are other looks obsessions of course, but a little avoirdupois doesn't prevent the average black woman from dressing in whatever bright colors she wishes - none of this "black or vertical stripes for slimming" dress code.


Interesting point, Nancy.

Being weird, and being 'naturally thin' (I'm not actually, but I look that way, due to bone structure), I've always been comfortable being the first one to grab a Danish off the plate, or ordering a "man-sized" meal. It's been very interesting to see the reactions I get to this. zuzu, it may amuse you to know that I was a popular date as a teenager, because I actually ATE the entire expensive meal the guy paid for. ;)


For what it's worth, here is the breakdown on my TuTh women's studies class:

29 women
6 men
of the women, 6 are "white", 4 are African-American, 10 are Hispanic, 8 are Asian, and 1 is clearly a mix of many things. The fact that women of color have different body image issues does not mean that they are any less anxious -- trust me.

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