What brings you pleasure? Real pleasure, so rich and deep that even thinking about it creates a visceral response? Right now, see if you can list a dozen things that bring you shivers of excitement or delight, elicit little mmmmms of satisfaction or make your lights burn a little brighter.
Your sources of pleasure may be as mundane as getting a manicure, as spectacular as skydiving. But more likely than not, food is somewhere on your list. Nothing wrong with that… until there is. When food becomes the primary — or sole — source of pleasure, that’s when problems arise. Food as a source of pleasure is natural; it tastes good. It’s comforting and reliable. Compared to other sources of pleasure, it’s cheap, fast, easy and legal. And like some other pleasures, it’s addictive, shame-provoking and harmful when taken to extremes.
Food was our first pleasure. When we were babies, we cried for food; it filled our tiny bellies. It gave us comfort in other ways — we associated being fed with being embraced, with the sensuous delight of being cradled in loving arms, held close, cared for.
As toddlers and preschoolers, we were praised for eating; we were good little boys and girls for finishing our peas. We got cupcakes when our plates were cleaned. When we skinned our knees or banged our heads, we were soothed with cookies and kisses. The link between food, physical comfort and love became ever more inextricably intertwined.
Then, as we moved toward puberty, the tables turned — especially for girls. Suddenly, eating mounds of food wasn’t good after all. Suddenly, we were encouraged to minimize and restrict intake. “Don’t eat so much, or you’ll get fat,” we were cautioned by peers, mothers, fashion magazines. Being “good” no longer meant cleaning our plates. It meant restricting food in a way that was perceived to encourage slimness. We were taught to make self-denial more important than pleasure. That message was reinforced through our adult years. So, for many of us, the simple act of eating has become a torturous, tangled web of love, comfort, guilt, shame and fear.
If food is one of your great pleasures, then celebrate it, in all its lush, robust glory. Start like this:
Make it beautiful. Whatever you’re going to eat, bring an element of beauty, grace and dignity to the experience. Set the table with utensils and napkins, maybe flowers or candles, too. Arrange your meal on a plate in whatever way you find most visually appealing. There’s nothing elegant or dignified about standing in front of an open refrigerator, furtively spooning chocolate chip ice cream from the carton and into your mouth. If you’re going to eat ice cream, serve it in small, lovely dishes (or anything besides the carton). Sit down at the table and really eat your ice cream.
Savor it. The last time you had a massage, did you rush the therapist, urging him or her to go faster, to just get it over with? Probably not. The same goes for any pleasurable experience, be it a trip to Provence or a memorable erotic encounter — you don’t want the experience to end, and the last thing on your mind is rushing. But that’s often what it looks like when we use food for pleasure: we eat hurriedly, even frantically, as if we’re racing to get it over with. The next time you decide to eat for pleasure, savor the moment: Maintain a leisurely approach, chew slowly, taste each flavor, enjoy the textures. Be exquisitely conscious of the entire experience.
Really get into it. We’re afraid if we really get into food, the pleasure will be so overwhelming that we’ll never stop eating. But some studies suggest that women who get less pleasure from eating actually eat more. In one study, as women overate and gained weight, they subsequently derived less pleasure from eating — but they still continued to eat more. They were chasing that first high they got from food. Conversely, women who are really into food — who find robust pleasure in a well-designed meal — actually eat less. It’s as if they’re so acutely aware of the experience, their senses are sated long before their physical hunger is.
Release the shame. In my experience, most women would rather talk about their sex lives than their food lives; they feel guilty about the hidden chocolate bars, the binges, the bags of chips and boxes of cookies furtively consumed in a shame-filled spree. Even a shocking number of “normal” eaters are bound up by guilt, fear and shame; we know too much about food — the sugar, trans fats and pesticides. It’s hard to be fully receptive to pleasure when a big hunk of your brain is screeching “Dear God, have you gone mad? What are you thinking, eating that?!” Or the low, menacing whisper that says “You are so bad. I am ashamed of you for eating that.” If you choose to eat a food you love — food that brings you pleasure — eat it slowly and mindfully, bring an element of beauty and grace to the experience. Tell the voices that they’re not invited to the party.
Find other pleasures. It’s okay to love food — to find joy in eating — but keep it in perspective. For all its sensory pleasures, food is ultimately fuel, not entertainment. While it can (and should) delight the palate and stimulate the senses, it’s no substitute for human touch, goals reached, adventures had and love fallen into. But it does make a pleasant way to power yourself through such endeavors.