“Our food related narratives give access to many ingredients that can contribute to our identity, communities we belong to, family culture and dynamics, identification, reaction, choices, values, aspirations, …. and our intergenerational inheritance.” Linda Cundy
“As late capitalism and social media rewrite the terms of engagement and what it means to be seen and heard, so too the body becomes a battleground.” (From The Guardian by Susie Orbach)
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard &Juana Martinez-Neal
Listen / Watch at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MibEeGiFThM
Food like oxygen provides us with the very basic sustenance that keeps us alive. Food also features in most of our relationships: between newborns and mothers, parents and children, couples, families, and every other context, where we share food with others. Food and food habits serve as a channel of display of affection, and the sharing of food optimally signals a bridge of connection and acceptance. For young children mealtimes can provide an opportunity for the development of social interaction and language learning, as well as, oral motor skills by being introduced to a variety of tastes and textures, On the other hand, mealtimes can become contexts of control and conflict, and food or the lack of it can become a tool of oppression and control at a societal and global level. Either way our dependence on food is inescapable and universal. In this post today I have decided to lightly touch upon a great number of food related themes and lens through which to view food, such as, early attachment and feeding, adverse childhood experiences and food disorders, especially, during adolescence, food, mealtimes and relational dynamics, food as an expression of identity, values, and way of life, Kitchen Therapy and how cooking has had a profound evolutionary effect for humans, how home food-making, gathering around meals, belonging and identity are negotiated by immigrants, our relationship with growing food and our planet, social oppression and food, and how historical contexts of hunger and famine do not only victimize those going through it, but the detrimental effects are passed on horizontally and vertically, and can affect all aspects of life, including the biology and functioning of future generations, as research relevant to the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852), for instance, has shown.
The feeding of the baby does not only literally keep it alive, but when the attachment is secure enough it provides the earliest experiences of pleasure, intimacy and safety. This first experience with nourishment, food and feeding can often, to one extent or another, become the site of unconscious representations, feelings and sensations. All of us learn safety, comfort, satisfaction or / and anxiety, hostility, or rejection in this early experience of interdependence. In her book, Trauma and the Body, Pat Ogden writes “The physical experience of the caregiver’s gentle, attuned ministrations to the infant’s signals pertaining to sensation, touch, movement, and physiological arousal, as well as to his or her sensitivities/ vulnerabilities regarding sensory input and other physical needs (e.g., food, warmth, fluids) establishes the infant’s initial sense of self and sense of his or her body (Gergely & Watson, 1996, 1999). Our early relationship with food and feeding provides one context for secure attachment to develop or not. It may also influence our later experiences with eating, food and our bodies. These early experiences with food can become associated with connection, intimacy, sense of been seen and cherished, pleasure and satisfaction or conflict, rejection, deprivation, control or both. How we nurture and take care of our self or deprive ourselves later on in life, how we treat others around meal times or how giving and generous we are can often, at least partly, be traced to our early experiences. We often unconsciously re-enact or repeat attitudes and behaviours we experienced early on.
Food and meal times are very important in family life, and apart from the physical sustenance they provide, they also convey both benign and harmful messages and modes of communication. In, The Mindful Home, Dr Craig Hassed claims that studies suggest that, from the perspective of child and adolescent wellbeing, the most important time in the day is the evening mealtime. Our experience of food, eating and gathering around a table can be grounded in love, care, connection, generosity, gratitude, sharing of knowledge, celebration and coming together, but also, explicit or implicit hostility, conflict, control, punishment and manipulation. Around the table, especially, when we are young we absorb messages, even if they are not verbally articulated. Non verbal communication is the sending of information through our body language, facial expressions and gestures, friendly eye contact or lack of it, or tone of voice. Mealtimes can reflect family dynamics, attachment patterns and role distributions. Among friends and in other social settings we can also observe various dynamics and hierarchies or social practices and customs. In a couple’s relationship food and feeding can shed light on how individual preferences, equality, intimacy and other dynamics are negotiated or not. For people who have a lot of narcissistic traits food will be used to channel abuse and exert control, wearing down people, emotionally and physically, over time. Making someone go hungry, controlling how much they eat, displaying aggression around food and meal times or projecting unconscious issues can give a false sense of empowerment, but can be detrimental for those on the receiving end.
It is interesting to observe how traumatic childhood experiences are entangled with food or how food is used as a coping mechanism and even defense against feeling or living. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes: “When we’re anxious, disconnected, vulnerable, alone, and feeling helpless, the booze and food and work and endless hours online feel like comfort, but in reality they’re only casting their long shadows over our lives.” The well known Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study that involved 17, 337 adults, who were followed for the next two decades, revealed how early traumatic experiences often lead to adult health risks, auto immune diseases and addictions, including eating disorders and obesity. I’d like to add that in this post I am mostly concentrating on the psychosocial aspects of our experiences around food and eating, and there are many other factors that contribute to health concerns around weight issues, for instance, that go beyond the focus of this post. Factors like genetics, a variety of health conditions, side-effects from medication, and so on, can also be at play.
Also, addiction to food and over-eating are not the result of psychological factors only. Dr Craig Hassed claims that in recent times three things have happened in relation to food in developed countries: “food has become readily available; the energy required to get food has decreased significantly; and food has become much more processed so that much of its nutritional value is refined out and empty calories pumped in. The problem with this arrangement is that it causes the brain’s pleasure centre to be over-stimulated in such a way that we feel compelled to keep seeking such readily available pleasure…. beyond what is healthy or reasonable. This leads on to addiction. Another issue is that when we feel sad or stressed we get short-term relief by stimulating the brain’s pleasure centre. So we might eat for comfort, consolation or pleasure but we don’t often eat for need or health. Yet while eating stimulates the brain’s pleasure centre, the strange paradox is that poor quality nutrition is a significant risk factor for poor mental health. Healthy nutrition is therapeutic for mental health because the brain needs the right nutrients to function well and make all the neurotransmitters and hormones it must make to keep us happy.”
Adolescents seem to be the most at risk group to develop eating disorders due to social, biological and psychological factors. Attachment theory provides a basis to understand the role that early childhood experiences and familial dynamics can play. Linda Cundy writes: “One of the earliest opportunities for expressing agency is provided by the small child’s mealtimes.” Our sense of self is forged in early relationships and attachment experiences. Attachment that is significantly inadequate can leave children struggling for safety and identity, and an eating disorder may be a coping mechanism for an absent or overly negative self-definition. In their paper, Eating disorders in adolescence: attachment issues from a developmental perspective, Manuela Gander, Kathrin Sevecke and Anna Buchheim write that attachment has an important influence on how young people can deal with the challenging transformations during adolescence because secure attachment relationships provide emotional support, comfort and availability during stressful situations and moments of important change. In securely attached infants, attachment events have led them to anticipate their caregivers’ availability, understanding and responsiveness. As a result they will experience themselves as competent and valuable, but when caregivers respond in a rejecting manner or inconsistently, children tend to experience themselves as incompetent and unlovable. They write that “According to attachment theory, a secure quality of attachment relationship is crucial in solving developmental tasks in adolescence like adjusting to physical changes, creating their own identity or defining goals for the future and thus represents an important buffer for psychological risks.”
In relation to anorexia, bulimia and other eating issues, they write that the overall pattern of results from adolescent samples suggest that most of the adolescents with eating disorders have insecure attachment. Results regarding links between diagnostic subgroups and the two different insecure attachment styles are not consistent. Some authors found a higher prevalence of the avoidant and others found more anxious individuals among adolescents with eating disorders. There are of course other contributing factors apart from our early upbringing like culture, collective intergenerational trauma, societal ideals and media trends that influence our relationship with food and eating, for better or for worse.
Food and eating is a universal experience and it is an expression of identity, values, and way of life. In some sense our relationship with food, food choices and relationship to growing, preparing and consuming food become part of our identity. Psychotherapist Linda Cundy claims that we can understand a lot about people through learning about how they eat, but this area is usually ignored unless they present with a serious eating disorder or weight issues. By exploring the bigger picture of food and eating, and the relational environment in a person’s life we go beyond the symptoms. People’s relationship with food in relationships can provide insight into relational dynamics and their own narrative about themselves and their life. Also, our childhood memories of dishes and recipes, and particular food related to our ethnic group or local kitchen, cultural and socio-political values around food production, our own or our family’s involvement in food production or preparation all become part of our identity and life narrative. In the book, Attachment, Relationships and Foods: From Cradle to Kitchen, Linda Cundy writes: “Positive memories of food can become precious and sustaining memories: a secure foundation for our sense of identity.”
While reading for this post I came upon Kitchen Therapy, which is defined by Charlotte Hastings as a creative approach for exploring relationships with food and people, the kitchen providing a setting for resolving internal and interpersonal conflicts. She writes: “it is a way of using food, cooking and eating to explore clients’ inner worlds, support mental health and enhance their relationships – whilst making great food for the table.” She adds that this resulted from her training as a psychodynamic therapeutic counsellor, while teaching adults domestic cookery, where the potential of talking therapy and cookery became apparent. She observed that how we cook, give and share food or not is the way we live. Food can be used as a metaphor, exploring our histories around food, feeding and being fed or a particular dish can be explored or there can be a combination of teaching and learning about themselves, food and cooking.
In relation to cooking and the broader process of preparing meals anthropologist, primatologist and professor at Harvard, Richard W. Wrangham, PhD, believes that the transformative moment that gave rise to the genus Homo, one of the great transitions in the history of life, stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals. His theory suggests that the human brain became significantly bigger than our ancestor’s through the process of cooking with fire. He believes that cooking had a profound evolutionary effect because it allowed our human ancestors the ability to process food more efficiently, which in turn allowed for less time spent on foraging, chewing, and processing foods. This extra energy facilitated survival and reproduction. Meanwhile, the bodies of these early ancestors responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. Eating cooked foods and meat made it easier for our guts to absorb calories. Cooked meat also increased energy that would have been otherwise used to chew raw foods throughout the day and allowed for a smaller more efficient digestive tract. As a result less energy was spent in digesting foods and instead was diverted toward the expansion of the human brain.
Also, what we cook is an expression of who we are and where we come from, and often traditional dishes or rituals around eating are preserved outside their original cultural confines. Thus, family connection, cultural and geographical ancestral links are maintained through certain foods and meals. A study conducted by Hsien-Ming Lin, Ching Lin Pangand Da-Chi Liao in Belgium sheds light on how home food-making, gathering around meals, belonging and identity are negotiated by immigrants. From experience being brought up in an immigrant household I have witnessed the interesting dynamics between food, identity and belonging, and how food can facilitate the creation of bridges with the past, the homeland and the host country. For my mother cooking traditional meals created a sense of continuity and connection to her roots. She also integrated Australian recipes or ideas into her Greek repertoire and shared Greek dishes with people from the host country. In the study there is mention to the lengths that the participants went to obtain ethnic products and when they could not find them in the local market they grew their own produce. I have vivid memories of the Greek deli and a few other shops that imported Greek products from sweets to books and records that were not yet widely available in shops.
This particular study involved Taiwanese immigrant women in Belgium and it examined their daily food practices and experiences of making home/ethnic foods while living in a foreign land, their subjective meaning-making regarding home foods, especially in the immigrant context, the social and emotional functions of food. Many studies have explored the role that home/ethnic foods play in immigrants’ adjustment journeys. For instance, the tastes of home/ethnic foods can release and decrease the emotions of nostalgia. In this regard, in this article, it is said that “immigrants refer to foods derived from their home country as “comfort foods” in their foreign life, since these foods provide positive psychological effects and further improve people’s wellbeing.”
In terms of relational dynamics it is suggested that the daily food arrangements and the negotiation of different tastes in intercultural spousal relations could be regarded as the reflection of immigrant women’s position and its power hierarchy within the family. Moreover, it is noted that immigrant women’s family and power position could be demonstrated through the consequences of whether their family members accept the foods cooked by their immigrant family members or not. In the study some participants talked about how they negotiated their home cuisine with the Belgium cuisine within their familial or couple contexts. Also, the researchers of this study refer to research that has found that eating home and ethnic foods can successfully reduce immigrants’ sense of loss and up-rootedness and further enhance their sense of belonging toward their host society and immigrant life, and also, that consuming home/ethnic foods is a crucial strategy adopted by immigrants to connect their previous life with their present one. Researchers have further found that many immigrants consider sharing traditional or ethnic foods from their home country with friends or neighbors in the host society to be a useful strategy for expanding their social networks and cultivating interpersonal relations in their immigrant life. So, home/ethnic foods become tools used by immigrants to cultivate and manage friendships and social networks in the host society and to construct their new place-identity and sense of belonging in the host society.
In this research paper it is also suggested that from the viewpoint of Social Identity Theory, home/ethnic foods are vital resources and references used by people in delineating the boundaries that ethnically distinguish between “us” and “others,” since different ethnic groups have their own special food cuisine cultures and food consumption habits. In this regard, for some people, eating home and ethnic foods may become the strategy for performing their ethnicity or social group identity. The research authors write: “People may attach their sense of belonging to, or even construct place-identity with, a particular place or space by utilizing specific foods as their linkages or references.” Additionally, it has been found that when immigrants face discrimination in the host society due to their immigrant or ethnic minority backgrounds, they may increase the possibility of choosing the “downplaying” strategy to decrease the importance of their ethnic characteristics, by insisting on speaking the host society’s local language in front of others rather their mother tongue or lowering their willingness to consume home/ethnic foods. This means that contextual factors like different living circumstances and the level of local residents’ tolerance regarding cultural/ethnic differences and immigrant groups impact immigrants’ attitude toward their own cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and food consumption habits.
Another topic related to food is how the lack of it is linked to oppression. Hunger in its various forms can be a means to control and to weaken masses of people through what is often “un-survivable” lack. Food oppression can be systemic. Hunger is a potentially deadly form of oppression and causes a lot of suffering. As we all know across the globe one form of oppression is malnutrition, which is widespread, especially, in developing countries. Malnutrition, while not as obvious as famine and starvation that happen around an event and can often wipe out whole families, is widespread and can be passed down from generation to generation, Social oppression, which among other things can include racism, economic oppression, persecution on account of one’s beliefs, determines to a great degree who suffers from hunger and who doesn’t. Social oppression and inequity influence where you go to school, what you do in your free time, what work you get or not, what or how much information is available to you, where you live and what food you can buy (while I was gathering information for this post I read that one aspect of the high food insecurity among Native Americans in tribal lands comes from lack of access to full service grocery stores. For example, Navajo Nation reservation, spans 17 million acres and the total amount of grocery stores is about 13, which practically, means a resident would have to drive around 3 hours one-way for a trip to the grocery store),
In the book mentioned above Linda Cundy gives an example of how oppressive and detrimental hunger can be for people for generations to come, and in particular, how epigenetic changes due to starvation may have affected the mental health of later generations in Ireland, and changed the basic biological make-up along with all other aspects of life. Cundy refers to the high statistically measured incidence of mental distress and more serious mental disorders among the Irish and claims that it has been traced back to the Great Famine (1845-1852). She writes: “the consequences of massive unresolved grief, along with rage against those who allowed such a catastrophe to happen, could inevitably influence an individual’s parenting: trauma handed down to the next generation through disorganised attachment between a parent who survived the famine and a child” Extreme poverty does not only impact biology and development, but it can also impact relationship with food later on, even when conditions have changed for an individual or a group.
There are certainly more ways to explore food in connection to many other themes like growing food and community and how people’s identity changes when they grow food, and how the physical labour involved and the contact with nature can have an impact on people’s bodies, psyches and sense of identity. Another area of concern and exploration is our dysfunctional relationship with our planet, which reflects broader dysfunctional beliefs and systems that are related to our consumerist trends, industrial agriculture and abuse of animals. However, I think this is a good place to end this post.
Meanwhile, I’ll share a short extract from an article by Susie Orbach, British psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, writer and social critic, in The Guardian:
“An understanding of the bodies we inhabit as biological organisms with limits is no longer enough. As late capitalism and social media rewrite the terms of engagement and what it means to be seen and heard, so too the body becomes a battleground. It is being stretched and pressed into new forms of service, display and identity as, at the same moment, we are coached towards a dematerialized existence, where almost everything we understand about living – eating, breathing, moving, feeling, relating – will occur in the realm of thought, not in the physical, worldly body……
To address these dilemmas, restoring the body as a reliable place to live from, requires a challenge to our current beliefs and aspirations. The conditions of late modernity are not inevitable. The very tools that have given rise to the narrowing aesthetic could be redeployed to include the wide variety of bodies people actually have: diversity not conformity. In our belief that the body is almost infinitely modifiable, we have become prey to industries and practices that frequently increase our sense of insecurity. We aren’t being creative with our bodies and having fun with them. We are, rather, attempting to create bodies that make us feel better about ourselves……
We need bodies sufficiently stable to allow us moments of bliss and adventure when, secure in the knowledge that they exist, we can then take leave of them……”