I was thinking about the phrase, “Food is love”; thinking about how this idea came to be. I often hear people say that food is a means by which their mothers or grandmothers expressed their love for family members. Sometimes their stories conjure images of warm kitchens filled with wonderful smells and family members connecting over delicious meals. But sometimes they’ll tell me things like, “She would keep putting food on my plate, even after I said I was full,” or, “It would hurt her feelings if someone didn’t eat everything she gave them.” When I hear things like this, I think not of love, but of boundary violations and invalidation of the eater’s feelings and needs.
To consider the notion of food as love, it’s important to clarify what love is. I like the definition M. Scott Peck offers in his book, The Road Less Traveled. Peck defines love not as a feeling, but as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” In other words, love is the willingness to go beyond our comfort zones in service of what is best for ourselves or another.
From this perspective, we see how a caregiver loving a child instills in that child the awareness of his or her own worth, value and lovableness. When we are young, we can’t feed ourselves. We are fed by our caregivers, and the act of being fed, of receiving physical nourishment from our caregivers, is entwined with receiving emotional nurturing. If, as infants, our signs of hunger are recognized and we are put to the breast or cuddled with a bottle, our caregiver gazing into our eyes, we learn from the beginnings of our lives that our needs matter, that they are being seen and heard and honored and that someone is looking out for us. The relationship between feeder and eater is tender and sweet. Our caregivers are feeding us, whether or not it’s convenient for them, because we need nourishment and our needs matter. Being fed is an act of being loved.
As we grow, we learn words for the experiences of hunger and fullness. The transaction between child and caregiver is a dance that shapes our awareness of being seen and heard. If we say we are hungry, and then we are fed or are gently told that dinner will be soon and we’re given a snack to tide us over, and if we say we are full and are validated in stopping eating, our trust in our perceptions is strengthened. If we are made to wait until mealtime regardless of how hungry we are, or if we are told to clean our plates even after we are full, we can construe that our internal experiences of hunger or fullness are wrong, unimportant, or even nonexistent.
If we are raised by someone who uses food to express her caring for us (and I say “her” because it’s usually a woman in this role) by feeding us without regard for how much food we actually need, it can become easy to confuse the overriding of our bodies’ signals that we are full with being loved. We might confuse focusing on the feelings of the person feeding us rather than our own needs, with love. We may find ourselves in relationships as adults in which we subjugate our own needs to the other person’s feelings.
As we get older and become more able to fend for ourselves, we learn to feed ourselves, perhaps first with snacks, and later with meals. We develop our own internal relationships between the “feeder” part of us and the “eater” part of us. If we see eating as a relationship between these parts of self, one in which we express to ourselves the importance of our health and well-being, then the “feeder” part will be attuned to the “eater” part, noticing our hunger and attending to our nutritional needs. If eating is about soothing ourselves emotionally or molding our bodies into a certain size or shape, then the “feeder” part is operating in response to cues other than our bodies’ needs, and the “eater” part can come to desire food for reasons other than physical sustenance.
Our relationships with food offer important clues to the nature of our relationships with ourselves, and changing our relationships with food can be instrumental in changing our relationships with ourselves. Feeding ourselves as a nurturing parent would a child, honoring our needs for nutrition with compassion, attending to both our emotional needs for comfort and soothing and our physical needs for nourishment, can communicate to ourselves that we deserve time, attention, and care, whether we believe it or not. And the more we do it—the more our “feeder” parts tend to our “eater” parts in this way—the more we’ll believe it. If food is love, then eating is the most important thing we do.
© Copyright 2011 by Deborah Klinger. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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