Culture & Society

Self-Love And Food

Beauty standards and emotional eating: much better tastes await us

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Illustration%3A%20Chaitanya%20Rukumpur
Photo: Illustration: Chaitanya Rukumpur
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Sketch love? A tubby-chubby ‘Katie-girl’ aged 10. She’s enjoying a scoop of banana pudding ice cream. Her dad has sneaked her into the parlour, behind mom’s back. It’s their ‘place’. Describe love? Her dad brea­king the rules of diet-watch to keep the rules of being her top cheerleader.

An episode on NBC drama, This is Us, is déjà vu to many of us. It brings back mixed emotions—about food and love, acceptance and judgement, beauty standards and weight issues.

The Cotton Candy Cave

Have you noticed how many generations of parents and grandparents unite in their love language? It is food. Reaching inside their wobbly old talcum-scented purses and bringing out candy. Sneaking in chocolate bars. Late night, early morning or odd-timed walks, bus rides, scooter rides. To this ice-cream parlour, that street food joint, the sweets shop. Birthday special. Family celebrations. Shady, ritual regulars’ restaurants. Unaffordable, photo frame worthy, culinary indulgence places. Socio-economic fault lines don’t break this code. It could be as simple as a lollipop made out of rice and honey. But our elders always manage to say, ‘I love you’. Handing us something to lick—something that makes both our stomachs and our eyes light up at once.

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In the show as well, Kate Pearson and her father Jack have a pact. To the naked eye, it’s about food. The episode captures the pre-teen come a full circle. She starts with demanding cookies endlessly in carefree abandon. She experiences the dejection of facing diet judgement from her one undying supporter—her dad. She finds herself alone in the metaphorical and ‘literal’ woods questioning if ‘Derek from down the street’, who called her ‘fat’, may have been right. To finally resolve her inner turmoil is easy. When she asks her dad if he too thinks she’s fat, her dad looks straight into her eyes and tells her without a pause: “Katie-girl, I think, I think that you are my favourite looking person, on the whole planet.” Then he takes her, out of turn, to the ice-cream parlour, which is their ‘place’.

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Shared treats with our elders were a retreat. They were more than food. Here, there was total acceptance, even appreciation. There was security, stability, for our pace, build, and perception.

Our elders choose to transport themselves into our future. Through the time machine of gastronomy. Food memories stick like few other memories, as they involve all five senses. Elders prefer to watch over us forever. Forty years later, we may find ourselves alone in the woods. It would be less scary, if to have someone say: “I am here at the table while you finish eating. If everybody else leaves, I will wait while you tie your shoelace. Are you a little behind on the walking path? Don’t worry, I will hold my hand out and wait for you to catch up.”

Shared treats with our elders were a retreat. They were more than food. Here, there was total acceptance, even appreciation. There was security, stability, for our pace, build, and perception. So they chose the time machine of butter, sweet and savoury on our tongues, to be by our side, always.

Food Became a Safe Place

It’s all cream-puff roses, until it is not. It’s not when food remains as the only solace. The only warm familial embrace to hide into. In the face of an unkind, judgmental, anxiety-evoking world.

The Villain

When did your world view first crack? For me, it was the awareness of odd physical traits that had missed my notice until then. Made aware by scrawny boys and feisty girls at school. Also by extended family members—both adults and less experienced. By everyone who, in those days, seemed to relish a punchy body-shaming jibe. A shattering diet-portion shaming jeer. The more unpredictable its arrival, the better they enjoyed it, it seemed. Sometimes slicing right through a meal, out of nowhere. Like a paper cut.

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Beauty may not be skin deep, but the comprehension of beauty is—in the mind of a child with developing cognition. It is often the first value judgment for wider community acceptance. How may an elementary schooler blend in, when her clothes curve in places when they hang straight on the bodies of most of her mates? Her generous parents likened her to a rock star. Now she begs and pleads with parents for ‘fashion clothing’. She saw it on beautiful actresses on TV and thought she could look as ‘beautiful’. Only now her skin bulges out of the seams in the same places where it curved inward on the on-screen beauties. And her off-screen friends too.

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To rise to the impossible body type standard of the community, starvation was the way to go.

Food earned its first anti-hero role. It was a trigger for abstinence, even deprivation.

The Hustle Culture

Join your legs, soften your decibels inside a room, don’t overstay your welcome. Forget about that treat until you bring home a winning school report card. Awake before your body truly wakes up. Sprint to catch the school bus while guzzling a toast before your stomach wakes up. Four months to board exams? Let’s cancel the sports and the art periods. Go to the movies once the boards are over. Want good grades? No, actually, you ‘need’ them. Prove you deserve them as much as a hermit does. Or don’t, but then Sharmaji ka prodigal ladka would be more deserving. These are a mix of our experiences—me and my friends.

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Without defending the values that the industry endorses, let’s consider that they still are businesses. They’re here for capitalistic gains. Because standards are made in a factory, humans are customised.

We came of age when the song Only Happy When It Rains by rock band Garbage was a hit.

We were raised to idolise sufferance and abstinence as the routes to ‘success’. To be fair, each generation bygone harboured this belief with a progressively greater mania. So our parents did a lot better with us. And yet.

The thing about suffering is that the human body was designed to resist. The challenge may help us grow character. But it is scientifically unsustainable over a prolonged basis. Wired for survival, we seek our way out of it. We escape towards pleasure. Even if not willing.

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I, eventually, accepted this rule. It happened when I looked back at my first five years as a rookie entrepreneur. Five fitness-destroying, balanced eating habit reversing years later, I gave into facts. Fact: I am one of those with a traumatised world view around who is deserving of success. Fact: I compare myself to that friend who made his ‘first crore rupees in cash collected’, within the first year of starting his business. And I overlook my own journey. Fact: I believe pushing away everything that brings me joy and to focus with a tunnel vision on revenue-growth for my own business, will validate me. Fact: I was under unnatural, prolonged stress. Fact: It was avoidable and had meagre links, if any, as to how successful my business could be.

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Guess which addiction my pleasure-seeking body turned to? The cotton-candy-cave-anti-hero! Food was in the vicinity. You see, I could remove travel, art, parties, social calls, gardening and what not but, could I remove the fridge? The Swiggy notifications on my home screen? I don’t think so. I would go from junk binging sprees to extreme-diet-cleansing spells like a hardened yo-yo each year. I would pay for it in metabolism and frustrating reversals of effort each year. But I would re-start the same cycle with a renewed zeal.

When we remove balanced modes of relief from our environment, the body seeks addictions. I was addicted to the warmth of acceptance that textures and flavours on my tongue made me travel back to. At a time when everything else seemed like a continuous test. Where life seemed like walking through a shrivelling hellhole of judgement.

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I’m Only Happy When it Rains, I’m Only Happy When It’s Complicated (Garbage)

You know who does not suffer public activism enough times, relative to the beauty industry and the film industry? It is the guardians of future-adults who derive pleasure in body-shaming. And it is the guardians of future-adults who aim for standards they know deep down they’ll never live up to. Because standards are made in a factory, humans are customised. Metaphorically speaking.

Without defending the values that the industry endorses, let’s consider that they still are businesses. They’re here for capitalistic gains. Unrelated by blood or will to impressionable potential customers. Shouldn’t our best shot at immunity from the ideals of capitalism be the love of our own? Why succumb on the race track? When you’d find a cheerleader, under all circumstances, if only you glanced sideways.

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And if the said love was slightly misguided, no worries. As we’re our own guardians as adults. Can we give our inner child this simple affirmation: “You may celebrate the unique you, with all the tastes of life that you love, every single day. Because you deserve to, the most, every single day. I will walk you to our favourite parlour, where you get those joys. This time, no sneaking around.”

I try. Signed, love.

(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Self-Love And Food')

Prachi Shrivastava is a marketing entrepreneur

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