Preparing food and the sharing of it aren’t just acts of sustenance—we must eat in order to survive—but highly symbolic. We “break bread” together to signal communality; we express our affections and caring through food brought to symbolic occasions, such as celebratory parties and bereavement gatherings. Food can be used to signal closeness but, as I’ve already written in another post (link below), unloving mothers can also use food and eating as a way to control, dismiss, or shame a child or children.
In every household, what an individual likes to eat—and what he or she doesn’t—is part of knowing who that person is, and having those preferences recognized constitutes part of a child’s sense of being seen and heard. Some years ago, at a dinner I gave, an adult son turned to his father who’d just asked which part of the chicken he wanted, his voice rising: “You don’t know me at all. I grew up in your house, at your table, and you don’t even know what part of the chicken I like. Man, that says it all for me.” Of course, he really wasn’t talking about chicken but about something larger.
Children who grow up in large families often report that what you are served—and when you are served—can often be understood as part of the pecking order, as well as who’s in and who’s out in terms of behavior. One daughter told me that “I was served first and got parts of the meal Mom knew I liked. My brothers and sisters were served on the basis of reward—who’d behaved best and acted out least by our mother’s lights at least. Woe to the rule-breaker at dinnertime—that was the message.”
Using food as a reward or gift can, of course, be utterly benign in a loving household; what’s wrong with serving your child her favorite foods for a job well-done or good grades? Or an ice cream treat for the captain of the winning team? In these homes, though, food is just a side dish to a larger picture of love, attention, and being heard and seen. In the unloving household, food is the only course, and using it as a reward to manipulate or assert control shapes and affects the daughter’s attitude toward food, eating, and, ultimately, her own body. This is what Angela recounted: “My mother used food as a way of keeping me in line—making sure I understood that pleasing her, doing things her way, was the road to being loved. I was really little when I first connected love with food, I think. If I made her happy, I’d get my favorite things to eat and, if I didn’t, she served up everything I hated. Unfortunately, I got the message. I eat when I’m stressed, anxious, needy and keep gaining and losing the same fifty pounds. A setback in my life is always good for twenty-five pounds, no problem. At the same time, I associate eating with being controlled.”
Food can be used both as a reward for the child who loses herself in order to please her mother and to reconfirm the mother’s power in the household and over her children. Here’s what Joanna had to say: “My mother also used food as a reward. But she also always had to have the best for herself first. She would make a big plate for herself before calling the rest of us to dinner always hogging all the white meat, gravy, or anything else someone else might want. She would hide pop in the fridge so she had an extra share, drink the last can every time you name it. If someone else got a chance to have something first, she would pout and carry on.”
In her book, When Food is Love, Geneen Roth writes about how daughters use food as way of denying the truth of their pain, turning away from the lack of love that surrounds them: “We began defining love, then, as something elusive, something we could only get if we pretended we were not who we were. We learned at an early age to mold ourselves into our image of the perfect child—the one we imagined would get all the love that we, in our imperfections, were not receiving. When we ate, we felt both victorious and desperate—victorious because it was our way, sometimes our only way, of being ourselves, and desperate because being ourselves seemed to us further and further away from that we wanted more than anything else: to be loved.”
Isn’t any wonder that so many unloved daughters have a complicated, sometimes torturous relationship to food? And that many, raised in a household where sweets were only for those deemed” sweet,” continue to eat in the same ways until they finally recognize and break the pattern? Here’s one woman’s story: “My mother used food as a reward and I came to associate it as the only way I could feel ‘love’ from her even though I was harming myself by overeating. It took going no-contact and getting rid of all my toxic family before I could put down the sugary treats I was using as a substitute for loving myself. Now I spend my time doing things that make me happy and feel good, but it never would have been possible without going no-contact. That saved my life, even though in the process I lost my whole family it is still worth it to me.”
There are symbolic exchanges between the unloving mother and her child—many of them having to do with food and eating—which shape her as indelibly as that which is said aloud or acted out more directly. All too often, a daughter’s body becomes the battleground where the fight to reclaim her own voice and to renounce the maternal voice she’s internalized takes place.
Photograph by Alex Jones. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Roth, Geneen. When Food is Love: Exploring the Relationship between Food and Intimacy.
New York: Plume Books, 1991.
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