It’s worth saying that Western women generally have a complicated relationship to food, especially since, for roughly the last hundred years, it has been fashionable to be thin. (This constitutes a historical reversal since, in earlier centuries, having a rounded body displayed how wealthy you were—only poor people were thin because they didn’t have enough to eat.) What constitutes a beautiful body type varies, of course, from decade to decade, and has much to do with the cult of celebrity and media attention.
For some women, eating is a pleasure; for others, it is bound up with many varied and ambivalent thoughts and feelings. The latter is often the case for the unloved daughter.
Feeding: Control and manipulation
For the unloved daughter, the act of eating often takes on special meaning because, in almost every household, it’s the mother who’s in charge of feeding the family. Food can be used symbolically in mother-daughter exchanges and often is. One daughter, now in her fifties, recounted how her mother’s ignoring her always played out at the table: “She would ask if I were hungry and when I said I wasn’t, she’d act as if I hadn’t said a word and pile food on my plate. You can imagine how invisible I felt and this happened regularly. Even worse, she’d get angry if I didn’t eat it all and accuse me of wastefulness. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I don’t like eating much and derive no pleasure from it the way other people do.”
Forcing a child to finish what’s on her plate no matter the circumstances is sometimes used to control a daughter and put her in her place, although it’s usually rationalized as something else like “discipline” or “good manners” or “waste not, want not.” Famously that control figured in a scene in the movie Mommie Dearest when Christina Crawford refused to eat a bloody rare steak but it happens in ordinary households too, as Gabby told me in an email: “I hated dinner as a kid. I was a slow eater, as my two brothers were not, and it irritated my mother because she thought I was being contrarian. If I left anything on my plate, I was yelled at for being ungrateful, for not recognizing how hard my parents worked to put food on the table, and it would escalate from there. Eventually, the harangue wouldn’t be about food but about me and my brothers would join in, calling me stupid and such. And, yes, if I didn’t finish a meal, it was served to me cold for breakfast. I don’t think I had a single meal in childhood that I didn’t anticipate with high anxiety.”
Food and shaming
Appetite or the lack of it is also used by some unloving mothers to point out their daughters’ flaws or to disparage their looks. My eternally thin mother—one of those people who could eat anything and never gain an ounce—mocked me for eating too much and for being “fat,” although childhood photos don’t seem to confirm her observation. The truth is that I believed her and went into adolescence and adulthood feeling fat and always on a diet. In this, I am hardly alone. Many daughters report that much of their internalized self-criticism—the result of belittling or marginalizing comments made on a consistent basis during childhood—has to do with food, weight, and body image.
“Comfort” food and managing emotion
Lacking a secure base in childhood, the insecurely attached daughter struggles with managing her negative emotions and using food as a way to self-soothe is fairly common. Of course, eating doesn’t really manage your feelings—that pint of ice cream just momentarily distracts you from the painful issues at hand. And, as someone who eats when she’s anxious, I can report that chocolate tastes great but it doesn’t actually quell angst very effectively.
Worse still, while eating may make the unloved daughter feel momentarily better, it may also make her feel guilty and awaken all the internalized self-criticism: “No wonder you’re such a fat cow and a failure. You ate the whole box of cookies.”
The connection between food and love (or the lack of it)
In her groundbreaking book When Food is Love, Geneen Roth explained that disordered eating—being obsessed with food—was a defense against intimacy, a coat of armor to prevent the self from getting close enough to get hurt. Studies have long shown that insecurely attached women are more prone to patterns of disordered eating than securely attached ones, although there doesn’t seem to be a pattern of causation. In fact, one study showed that only those with anxious-fearful attachment (who have both a negative vision of self and of others) were at a heightened risk for disordered eating.
That said, the relationship between the hunger for love and food—as Kim Chernin put it in her book The Hungry Self— isn’t just metaphorical either; dieting strenuously or even engaging in disordered eating can give a daughter a sense of control in a household where she feels completely controlled in the day-to-day. Given that the relationship of the unloved daughter to her mother remains torturously complicated—she still hopes and wishes for her mother’s love even as she tries to pull away because her mother doesn’t love her—so too might her relationship to food and eating. That’s what Lacey, 46, confirmed in a private message: “For years, my weight yo-yoed back and forth. I’d eat to comfort myself and then I’d stop eating to punish myself. My mother hounded me relentlessly when I was even a just a bit overweight, telling me that no one would ever love me if I didn’t look good. I must have gained and lost the same twenty-five pounds fifty times in a decade. Finally, therapy helped me see that I used food to beat myself up, like a stand-in for Mom so that I always felt lousy, no matter what. By cutting my mother out of my life, I was able to finally make peace with myself and with food.”
The uneasy relationship many unloved daughters have to food and eating is one place where the mother wound can be glimpsed and seen. For some, that glimpse is the beginning of the way out.
Photograph by Brian Chan. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.
Roth, Geneen. When Food is Love: Exploring the Relationship between Eating and Intimacy. New York: Plume Books, 1991.
Chernin, Kim. The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity. New York: Harper&