The common denominator of all abuse is control. Of course, it’s no wonder that the things that are within our realm of control on a daily basis are also the things abusers want to control for us the most.
My mother was a very thin, petite woman. She dutifully put a hot meal in front of my narcissistic father every night. As a covert narcissist, her choices about “healthy” food appeared well within the range of normal to an outsider, but they were far from it.
She was fiercely anti-sugar, not out of love and concern for health, but because it was something I liked and enjoyed that she could keep away from me. We rarely ever had dessert, but carob instead of chocolate was the “treat.” Or raisins. I actually have always liked and enjoyed natural foods, but her excessive control over my eating anything sweet backfired. As a child, I was obsessed about the opportunity to eat dessert or go trick or treating. I would go to my friend’s house and down sugary cereals with lustful abandon. I learned to bake before I was old enough to touch an oven, only because I saw the opportunity to but some sugar in my belly.
My mother was also anti-flavor. Her approach to food was also her approach to life. Food was an impersonal, chemical metabolic exchange, not ever something to be enjoyed or shared over human connection. Although technically nutritious, her food was consistently bland and disgusting. Boiled soy beans, anyone? Unseasoned, microwaved chicken and plain brown rice? It sat like a lump in my gut over the dinner table tension that was ever- present.
As a young child, I quickly learned the more I resisted the food she gave me, the more I would see it around. No one liked liver, yet there it was every week, waiting for me to choke it down while my dad barked on about how ungrateful I was. My father ate expensive lunches in restaurants and drank his way through dinner. My mother neither let us have lunch money nor stocked the pantry with anything but stale whole wheat bread, so I often opted to go without lunch.
For me, food became a metaphor for the love and comfort that was lacking in my home. When I first went away to college, I indulged in all the Count Chocula and Ben and Jerry’s that was ever denied me, but I also discovered the connection of food and people. In so many cultures except the one I knew at home, sharing a meal together was an opportunity to feel close to others. It makes sense now that my mother was incapable of nurturing with food. She once made an offhand comment that I had almost starved to death as an infant before the doctor pointed out that I wasn’t getting any milk. If that isn’t the metaphor or all metaphors to describe my relationship with my mother, I don’t know what is.
I saw early on that the problem was not the food, but the intent behind the food. Unlike my mother, I am neither thin nor petite, but I am far more in control of being my authentic self than she ever was. My mother mentioned to me once that she was always careful to be thin because when she was growing up, her father often said, “You want to be fat like your mother?!” How abusers are weird about weight and body image deserves its own post. For me, I believe it’s more important to watch my attitudes around food than the food itself. Is what I put in my body an act of love, connection, or enjoyment, or is it an act of resentment, self-pity, or punishment?
As a mother, I am careful not to over-control what my children eat. I cook healthy meals that taste good, and I make sure the environment in which they are eaten is warm and welcoming. And then we enjoy dessert. To me, that is the greatest victory.