A friend shared the Vice article “I was a 90s Fat Kid, a Harbinger of the Childhood Obesity Crisis” on Facebook this past week. My friend Chloë Mirfield added her own caption that said she identified with the author: “Food was totally my best friend […] As a kid who was always a big bit different and out there, I wonder if it wasn’t for food, if these feelings would have manifest them self [sic] in (perhaps) more harming ways.”
I messaged her, and we started discussing what it meant to grow up with these relationships with food. In our conversation, she revealed complexities and dissonances many of us never consider: the negotiations that condition how, what, when and with whom we eat. Some points seemed relatively unassuming, apolitical: In a neighbourhood of classmates for whom a child is a friend only out of convenience, food (and, perhaps, the grandparents who feed) is the only option for companionship. Yet the depth of these dramatic differences, accumulated through targeted interventions by society, between our lived experiences as children, was something I had not fully considered. There is a sociality to these images against which we compare ourselves—images of the physical form to which our body might adhere, of the social narratives we might experience, images of the practices we might follow. Of course, among the outcomes of these comparisons, our food practices are also affected.
Early on in our conversation, Chloë brought up the role of gender. That the female body is a politicized subject regulated by social mores is largely an uncontested understanding. Yet the visceral experiences in which this manifests must always retain our attention: the lack of attention from people who have learned that weight and beauty are mutually exclusive, the ordeal of finding (gendered) clothing which fits the body, the time spent interpreting the figures in Oprah magazines as figures to attain at all costs. The toxicity of these experiences compounds and accumulates, as does the sense of alienation from the negotiated images (one may also consider race, ability, class, etc.) against which we measure ourselves.
Perhaps, at a surface level, the corollaries of those social pathological relationships – between body, image and food – may be dismissed as obvious. Hence, media narratives of girls with eating disorders deprive those subjects of their interiority: How could an anorexic youth possibly navigate any complex relationships with food? Bodies that starve themselves, in other words, are not imagined as being skilled cooks or as subjects that enjoy (or have enjoyed) relationships with food: as friend, nutrition, toxic substance, and the stuff of family dinners.
Listening to Chloë, the beauty of her story – as someone who had built, lost and relocated a positive relationship with food over the course of her youth – was that it presented a fully human picture. In other words, those relationships are not independent of our environment, of our society—of, in other words, that which makes us human.