Updated: Jan 10
(Biffie here again with a story just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday in the US. If you don’t know, I’m a helpful gut microbe living inside Larry. Check out my full story here.)
Oh Aunt Rita . . . I have to tell you the story of Aunt Rita. It was Thanksgiving Day and Larry was just minding his own business making a wonderful plate of food. My microbe friends and I were getting really excited for the sweet potatoes, spinach leaves, cranberries, and those delicious baked beans. Larry started to add the pumpkin pie, when I hear this voice say, “I wish I was as skinny as you, Larry, so that I can pile food on my plate and eat whatever I want too”. All Larry said at first was, “Oh hello Aunt Rita”.
I could tell Larry was annoyed. I don’t care how wide or thin Larry is. My microbe friends and I just want him to listen to us and feed us. Along with his brain and gut cells, we send messages telling Larry when to feel hungry and when to feel satisfied. Does Aunt Rita think Larry ignores our messages? Larry does a great job listening to us. I don’t want him to feel guilt or shame about what he eats or how much.
After a long pause, Larry said, “You may not know this Aunt Rita, but I have worked really hard at listening to my gut and feeding it well. I like to enjoy my food. When you say things like that, it makes me feel guilty for enjoying my meal.”
“Oh Larry, I am sorry. I don’t want you to feel guilty. I guess I am just jealous that you are so skinny and I am not” responded Aunt Rita.
“Aunt Rita, thank you for saying sorry. We all have to feed our gut no matter what size we are.” said Larry.
“You are right Larry. I shouldn’t comment about other people’s bodies. I need to trust and listen to my own gut.” said Aunt Rita.
With that, both Aunt Rita and Larry enjoyed their meal while talking about all the things they are grateful for this year. Of course, I know Larry is grateful for his favorite microbe....me.
If the goal is to have kids who grow up into adults that trust themselves around food, then give them the opportunity to build trust within themselves. Adults may not realize that they undermine this trust with certain comments. While there are many things people can say or do that can harm someone’s relationship with food, the two in this story focus on shame and identity confusion.
Attaching the emotion of shame to a food does not allow someone to enjoy their food experience. We hear people very casually say “I’m so bad for eating” or “I really shouldn’t eat” a certain food. Then often, they eat it and the kids see it. These are very mixed messages and may lead to eating in secret and feeling shame while eating. Having body shame and shame around eating increases one’s risk for an eating disorder.
Associating people’s size to their identity may lead to worse identity confusion. Identity confusion may be normal during adolescence, but too much identity confusion may lead to eating disorders and depression. In this example, Aunt Rita is linking Larry with being skinny and declaring that skinny people are able to eat what they want.
What will happen after puberty, when Larry likely changes sizes?
Will he not feel like himself anymore because he no longer thinks of himself as skinny?
If he no longer identifies himself as skinny, does he still listen to his own hunger and satiety signals or does he need to follow a diet plan?
Is he still allowed to enjoy his food or do “non-skinny” people have to suffer through diet food?
If Larry begins to distrust himself around food, then does he start judging other people’s food choices and body sizes out of jealousy like Aunt Rita?
Or maybe he just went through puberty and being called skinny made him feel less “manly”. Does he ignore his hunger and satiety signals and just focus on “bulking up” to feel like a “man”?
Either scenario will create a gap between who he thought he was and who he actually is. The larger this gap between who we think we are and who we want to be, the less mentally well we feel.
Let us all be empowered to enjoy our meals without shame and to choose our own identities without others choosing for us.
To learn more about identity confusion, shame, and eating disorders, check out the references below:
Eating Disorder Symptomatology and Identity Formation in Adolescence: A Cross-Lagged Longitudinal Approach
Shame and eating disorders symptoms: A meta-analysis
A comprehensive model of disordered eating among aesthetic athletic girls: Exploring the role of body image-related cognitive fusion and perfectionistic self- presentation