Food is not your enemy. Exercise is not a moral victory.

I’m in the midst of getting into it on Tumblr with a person who thinks that OF COURSE exercise is a better coping mechanism than comfort eating and, you know, I’m glad that works for that individual. I am NOT glad that somehow this turns into blanket advice for everyone in every situation.

You can’t turn a hammer into a screwdriver and when what I need is comfort? Exercise isn’t going to cut it.

It’s all so very either/or for critics, it seems. If I advocate for mindful comfort eating, well, obviously I must not think people should get out and move. The two can exist. One coping mechanism doesn’t fit every situation in our very individual lives any more than one blanket statement about exercise does.

Sometimes, I cope by walking around IKEA. It’s indoors, it’s safe, and it’s ginormous. Sometimes I cope by having some meatballs. Sometimes I cope by having sex with my husband. Or myself! That’s an AWESOME coping mechanism, I’m not gonna lie.

I said on Tumblr that I think our culture DISREPECTS food – more and more that is the conclusion that I cannot avoid. Food and everything associated with it.

The irony of me being a champion of eating is, like, making me laugh so hard right now, you don’t even know. I’d opt for a little nuclear reactor instead of a digestive system if I had the option. But I feel really protective of eating lately because it seems like other people want to define it, limit it, and, even in the context of body acceptance, tell me what is good or bad about it compared to other things.

Food is not your enemy. It isn’t my enemy. It isn’t our enemy.

It’s when I try to place myself in opposition to food that I wind up most unhappy – and increasingly disordered not only in my thinking about my food and my body but in my actual food practices. You don’t have to be a gourmet to respect that food is not only a necessary component of, you know, staying alive; it’s also a vital part of our cultural well-being – both as distinct ethnic heritages and as smaller… kinship groups, for lack of a better term.

I have long been tired of the resentment I feel towards food preparation. I take a few steps forward, a few steps back, I renegotiate my relationship with eating on a pretty regular basis – because if I don’t, I just don’t eat. And that doesn’t do anyone any good. *laugh*

But the fundamental thing that keeps me engaged with the subject is that food nourishes me in more ways than can be simply enumerated.

Exercise does some great things for me. There are issues of classism and ableism that must be addressed when discussing activity – as there are with so many topics. But if there is a real hierarchy? Then food wins out. Because I live without exercise. I cannot live – none of us can – without food.

But I’m not a fan of hierarchies. I think they are bullshit and they force us into binarisms. This OR that. I am greedy, maybe – I want food AND movement. And all sorts of other things.

Food is not the enemy.

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  1. Nicole
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff, Marianne.

    I had a hearty laugh today at a story pitch that I saw wanting to find people who are “addicted” to food and have overcome that “addiction”. I wanted to write back, “Dude, the only people who have overcome addiction to food are dead. We ALL need food to survive. We’re all hopelessly addicted.”

    • Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      You could ask if next they want people who’ve overcome an “addiction” to breathing.

  2. Posted January 19, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Sometimes, exercising robs me of energy so completely that I can barely move for days (chronic fatigue, hypothyroidism, bipolar.. all of it can rob me of energy). All of the time it leaves me in excruciating pain from various injuries (two shoulders and an ankle), and sometimes, especially if i’m already depressed, it triggers exercise obsession and disordered eating. The bottom line is you’re absolutely right- it doesn’t work for everything and it doesn’t work for every situation. I hope you’re able to get your point across to this person- good luck.

  3. Posted January 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I LOVE these last two posts. Of course food can be comforting. Loved your examples. I am happy with a stew bubbling and anticipating the warm, steamy kitchen. I will eat it tonight with my little family and feel good and safe. I got on the treadmill yesterday for my walk. It’s fine. I watch design shows, it helps me manage my back issues. I skated this weekend with my daughter (my feet kind of hurt), cross-country skid with her a few weeks ago, enjoy walks in the summer, those are fun and pleasant, but I don’t know that I would ever say exercise has “comforted” me in the same way food has. Your post exudes common sense and reality, not moralizing and judgment which helps no one.

  4. Posted January 19, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I will never, ever, be the kind of person who can find exercise “comforting”. Food, HELL YES. Exercise, NO FUCKING WAY. But that’s ME. People who are not ME need to stop trying to make what works for THEM be the only thing that works for everyone (and therefore ME). GAH!

  5. Cherry
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Gosh, you mean you can’t do both? What gets me is when people get all weird about eating the food they love because they worked out and now they’re “destroying their hard work” if they eat a treat. What, so your blood is not flowing better, your heart rate isn’t elevated and your muscles weren’t worked because you ate a cookie? As a person with lots of sensory issues involving textures which lead to finicky eating, I eat the things that I can stand to put in my mouth. Sometimes, it’s… a cookie! Or, heaven forbid, a doughnut. I’m a sinner ladies, I confess. Sometimes I don’t even work out long enough to burn the dirty, wicked calories away!

  6. Posted January 19, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this, Marianne. I have a really hard time with exercise as a coping mechanism for mental health reasons–both because the energy involved in getting myself to exercise is so disproportionate and because I have some really negative associations with it. I really appreciate how lucidly and articulately you’re handling this, because I couldn’t handle it as well, if it were me.

  7. Posted January 19, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    I just returned to the gym to get myself all fat and healthy for roller derby (a big booty is a benefit in that sport) and I get so paranoid that people think that, because I am fat, I must be working out to lose weight. I’m not! I also find that a lot of people are surprise that a fatty genuinely enjoys using the elliptical trainer and working out, and that these activities can be motivated by something other than guilt or shame.

    And even as someone who love exercise, let me clearly say that I NEVER use it for comfort. Gack. That sounds awful. I use it to feel powerful and strong. I do use food for comfort though. Haven’t these people ever heard of the phrase “just like mom used to make”?

  8. Posted January 19, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Marianne, I think you are fabulous and I am a long time reader but first time commenter here (I think). I also love fatcast and check daily at work for new episodes!

    Anyway, this entry was exactly what I needed to hear right now. Food and body stuff has basically been a life-long struggle for me, some points in my life more disordered than others. At the moment, I am in the middle of a pretty gnarly breakup and I just don’t have it in me all the time to cook all of the healthy food I ‘should’ be eating, and then I feel like a failure. I’ve recently decided to just eat what my body feels like it’s craving and you know what? Even in convenience-food land, I am generally getting a balanced diet because my body knows what I want. Even when sometimes I am eating for ‘comfort’.

    The other thing that I think you completely hit the nail on the head: not all coping skills work in every situation. And sometimes food is an appropriate coping mechanism. It is most healthy to have a variety of coping techniques that you are practiced in using because sometimes some are just not going to work, and sometimes it’s just not going to be possible (if you are freaking out on a plane, going for a run is just not an option).

    Ok well this has become long and rambly but let me just say, Thank you! for continuing to be awesome.

  9. Posted January 19, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Exercise is comfort for me sometimes. If I’m angry, then a brisk walk or run usually calms me down and puts me in a better mood. If I’m in an overly energetic mood, exercise feels great and calms me down. If I’ve had a shitty day at work, then going to dance class makes me feel better.

    But when I’m tired or feeling sick, exercise is just going to make me feel worse. At that point, bring on the grilled cheese, tomato soup, and ice cream. Mmm…or REAL hot chocolate.

    Different tools for different needs. I guess I’m also greedy.

    • Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      I do this too, but I don’t think of it as “comfort”. It’s “stress reduction”, yeah, and “calming”, because it’s a way to burn off excess physical energy. Could be I just don’t associate those things with “comfort”.

      (One thing about spending a lot of time on computers is that I’ve become more aware of the difference between being tired mentally and being tired physically. When I’m tired mentally but physically restless is when weight lifting or a walk will REALLY help me sleep better ;)

  10. Posted January 19, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    This is probably a total tangent derail but your first paragraph triggered my experiences.

    When I think about having two infants, both of whom were breastfeeding, and I used about a berjillion extra calories a day to feed them, let alone the laundry and housework and dishes and sleep deprivation etc etc, and I was always, always hungry, and I was overworked (and underhelped as are most carers of little ones – underhelped by every single person, esp. in public, except my husband), and dealing with postpartum depression, and not having enough money to pay the water bill (cloth diapering without water service, whee!) -

    Well, I was slim so no one gave me gross weight loss advice. BUT! I heard a lot of how exercise would “cure” pesky little problems like the heaps of mine related above (in every Parenting mag at the doctor’s office too- magazines heaped with mommy-directives left and right).

    The idea one can just COPE with life’s problems by making that time for the gym and getting out and having a run? FARK OFF. Some people can and do, and that’s wonderful (I just went for a run this afternoon, leaving my now-can-care-for-themselves-aged children at home). I wonder if the diet-and-exercise espousers give even two shites about how this endemic language often further serves to oppress those who need help and support (esp. those caring for other human beings, elderly parents – or those struggling with serious poverty or money or mental health issues) – not more adages, prescribed guilt, and platitudes.

    When my youngest was 6 months we prioritized a student mommy’s helper to hire for 2 hours a week at $5 / hour. The first time she came over, I gave the baby to her and made a huge salad with about eight kinds of meat, avocado, nuts, and ranch dressing. And sat down and ate and soon the swimming darkened vision cleared and I could think rationally about what I needed next.

  11. Posted January 19, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Exercise a treat?

    Well, it depends…on what kind of exercise we’re talking about, and how I feel.

    If I’m feeling all stimmy and antsy, and it’s a nice sunny day out — and my stomach is allowing me to be more than 50 feet from the john that day — then yeah, you bet I want to get out there and have a walk. That IS a treat…under those circumstances.

    Sometimes dancing can be a treat, if I love the music. Or swimming, if the water’s warm and I’m not required to swim laps. Again, I have to have belly cooperation, and no migraine that day.

    But I can’t see any set of circumstances under which I would find it a “treat” to go to some hypey gym pumping music I find annoying, surrounded by people who act like I’m a turd some elephant just dropped in the room, and getting on some hamster wheel for an hour. Do we really ALL have to love that? And all the time?

    Seriously? Give me some chicken soup and a Conchords DVD, please. Right now my stomach feels like shit, and that sounds really good.

  12. Tiferet
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    I have used exercise for comfort, working myself up into a lather and waiting for the endorphins to numb everything out. As a teenager, horrified to weigh *140 POUNDS*!!! (lol) I started starving myself and switched to over-exercising for comfort. I’d dance, music blaring, and not have to think about my alcoholic, fat-hating, abusive parents and their divorce drama, or the fact that I was bullied at school. I thought of myself as a weightless being of light, with rays surrounding a burning core that were head, hands and feet. I injured myself a lot and ignored that.

    It is a LOT more like an addiction than having a cupcake because you have had a bad day.

    I enjoy a good workout now, don’t get me wrong. Just like I enjoy food and don’t starve myself any more.

    But exercise can be used to induce actual endorphins that will get you just as high as opium if you are miserable, and while a certain amount of endorphins are good for you, exercising until you’re high as a kite is not.

    • Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      On a purely practical note, researchers have found that not everyone gets a high from exercise. Some do. Some don’t.

      (*gasp* It’s almost like humans have individual variations!)

      • Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, that was supposed to go down at the bottom…

      • Ankaret
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

        Honestly, I don’t get the high. I have fun while I’m exercising, I like the way it makes my body feel afterwards and I’m pretty certain it helps me feel calmer in general, but I don’t remember ever experiencing a high from it.

        I bought pizza last week to celebrate managing to cope with my phobia of medical stuff for long enough to make an appointment and say to my doctor ‘I have this phobia of medical stuff. What can we do about it?’ and I’m not ashamed.

  13. Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    You don’t have to be a gourmet to respect that food is not only a necessary component of, you know, staying alive; it’s also a vital part of our cultural well-being

    God, yes.

    Also, the idea that food is the anti-exercise, or that exercise is the anti-food, is really troubling to me.

    They are something that work TOGETHER to produce self-care. They are not at odds with each other. If you look at them in terms of this sort of dichotomy, something is going on…most likely, it’s the cultural Kool-Aid that says food is bad and exercise is good.

  14. Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    You know, I find comfort in a lot of different things, depending on what I need comforting for. Sometimes it’s a nice bowl of homemade soup, sometimes it’s a slice of pie or a piece of fresh-baked bread, sometimes it’s a familiar book or movie, sometimes it’s a warm blanket and my cat, and sometimes it’s writing things down.

    Most of us have multiple ways of comforting ourselves in rough moments. The idea that there’s only two options and one of them is WRONG is just plain bizarre to me… not to mention inaccurate.

  15. Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    I really hate the idea that we must all exercise in order to negate the food we eat. To me, that’s completely backwards. It’s on par with driving a car miles and miles out of town for no other reason than to use up the fuel you just put in it. But it seems to be the dominant idea at the moment and it’s absolutely a part of this whole ‘food vs exercise’ thing.

    And, keeping with the car analogy, as someone living with chronic illness I often find I use a lot of fuel without leaving my local area (and, some days, my driveway). Driving out of town for fun or stress relief is great for those who want to and can do it, but my car is in no condition to do that all the time and I don’t want to be stranded by the side of the road.

  16. Posted January 20, 2011 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    I find this really interesting. What you are saying about your culture disrespecting food, confirms something that’s been laying at the back of my head and not really solidifying. Because I’m so used to American culture and my culture, Norwegian, being alike, and this is something we do not have in common. Sure we have the good food bad food thing, but deep down we definitely respect food. Now, it should be a homecooked meal, or a healthy meal, or traditional foods in a specific social setting, but still. Maybe that is why diet culture has not reached the point where it’s expected here, the way it seems with you.

    • Cherry
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      I really think Americans are still just as much of a bunch of moralizing Puritans as ever. The nature of the things we go into a moral panic about is all that has changed. Now it’s about food instead of sex, but it’s still just as intrusive and judgmental as ever. Sometimes I feel it’s like fat people are the ones going around with a scarlet letter on our chest.

  17. Biljana
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Why do you constantly remind us that you don’t eat, don’t like to eat, hate eating, struggle with eating, forget to eat, would prefer not to eat.

    I know the undertone is ‘I’m not fat because I eat too much, just so you know’ but it’s a bit desperate and perhaps even damaging to those of us who are fat because we DO eat too much. And are okay with that.

    No need to publish, just something to think about.

    • Posted January 23, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

      Interesting. I took it to mean that Marianne’s venting about her own food issues (not wanting to eat what she doesn’t like and not really wanting to have to bother with food anyway).

  18. sandrad
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    There are a LOT of people who just don’t get that we are all different. For me coffee is a migraine trigger, so I avoid it. But just ’cause thats true for me, doesn’t mean it’s true for any one else – So it would be illogical for me to proclaim that “Every one who has ever had a migraine MUST AVOID COFFEE – if you don’t you are a bad person who doesn’t CARE about your HEALTH!!!”

  19. Merry
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    This is a timely post for me. I’m having a difficult hormonal day and really craved chocolate. Ate some and actually felt better (doesn’t matter if it’s emotional for me or genuinely chemical, whatever). At the same time, my coworkers have begun a renewed obsession with BMI and weight, all of them doing the New Year’s Resolution thing and going on doomed diets. I tried discussing my views of how BMI is a crock with them but my opinion/advice was not wanted, so I’m feeling all alone in my right to abstain from disparaging my body. Interesting how people will say you are “in denial” for trying to be healthy at whatever weight you may be, while they are embarking on a fad diet that has been proven to fail over 90% of the time. Who is in denial? Oh well, I realize it’s not my job to fix anyone….just feeling really alone in this today and appreciate your blog and the fatosphere.

  20. Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    I am one of those people for whom exercise is a source of stress release, but not “comfort” in the traditional sense. I’ve also never gotten the idea that food is meant to be the opposite of exercise, and that exercise is supposed to be some sort of penance, or worse, an “antidote” for eating. It reminds me of alchemy. Except alchemy is fun in fictional settings. Not as fun when I tried to perform this sort of strange Exercise/Food Alchemy on my person, as I have learned that it does not work that way.

  21. FemmeForever
    Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why most people can’t see that enjoying food is NORMAL AND HEALTHY. How can they not see that it’s the compulsive restricting, dieting, and guilt that is unhealthy. It is NOT a healthy psychological relationship with food. I view it as it’s own mental illness because that is exactly what it would be labeled if we lived in a society that honored women’s bodies instead of considering them public property to be controlled by the collective.

  22. Posted January 23, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this, Marianne. I’m a private chef, and I happen to specialize in health-supportive cooking (i.e., I cook for people with special dietary needs and people who just want to eat organically, etc.). The thing I find absolutely miraculous about food is that, in addition to needing it for survival, it can provide so much pleasure; and meals set the stage for so much communal interaction. It’s no coincidence that every holiday in the Jewish calendar (to give a cultural example that I’m most familiar with) revolves around the *harvest* — meaning, it revolves around the food that gives us life. Also, theoretically (if you have the means and the will to do so), you could actually take pleasure in every meal you eat. You can’t say that about air and water. (You can, however, say that about sex [although some may argue you don't, technically, need sex to survive, but I beg to differ.]) The fact that you can actually gain comfort and joy from something you have to do three times a day is amazing! It’s a reminder of how life doesn’t have to be just about survival.

    • Datura
      Posted January 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      My grandmother has a summary of every Jewish holiday “They tried to kill us. We won. Lets eat!”

  23. Siobhan
    Posted January 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    (Tried to comment earlier and it got eaten by Firefox panicking over your site. Apologies if this turns up twice.)

    I find it interesting that in debates like this people always bring up the potentially detrimental health impact of eating too much of certain kinds of food.

    Because you know that there are dangerous potential health effects from doing too much exercising – expecially those types of exercise that are very stressful on bones and joints. But nobody ever suggests that as an argument.

    • Posted January 29, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Yes! This is so important. I see a personal trainer twice a week, and she’s extremely cautious about the kinds of exercises she endorses. She talks about her conflicted views on running, and she thinks marathon runners are acting recklessly towards their bodies.

  24. Posted February 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never posted here before but I just wanted to say I fucking love your blog so much. I’m not really fat, nor am I really thin; I’m just kinda somewhere in between. Still, I am totally in support of FA because I think the paradigms regarding food, exercise, body image, “ideal” body shapes, etc. are all bullshit. Diversity is something wonderful and beautiful, not something horrid and ugly. Anyway, I’ll shut up now, but seriously, thanks for your writings.

  25. Mallory
    Posted February 28, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    I found this somehow…comforting to read. Normally I’m bolstered by things that affirm my self-hatred (in a childish fear of feeling good because the world has only told me to feel badly about who I am), but this hit me differently. I only just started reading your blog and so far it’s actually made me begin to reconsider the way I hide behind my cowardly intolerance for myself.

    I’m a college student and I usually eat dinner at the school cafeteria. I take a “normal” (for me) amount of food for one meal (a salad, maybe a side of french fries or pasta, and a bowl of fruit). Despite knowing that I take food responsibly, I still struggle with the shame of actually eating everything on my plate. Everything here is “eat less, exercise more, feel badly about who you are unless we approve you” and it’s hard not to hold myself to those terms and feel that I have failed.

    I love that you noted the cultural importance of food, because I grew up with that and had no trouble accepting it as a child. But living with skinny, weight-concerned girls in college has made me lose that feeling. I miss being emotionally connected to certain tastes, and not forcing myself to think that food is only a fuel source and not meant to be enjoyed.

    This was far more tangential than I intended. This entry hit home for me and this blog in general is actually changing the way I think. I wanted to share my appreciation.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marianne Kirby, Katja Rowell. Katja Rowell said: i like these posts about food, comfort and exercise. What are your comfort foods? Mine are spaghetti bolognese,… [...]

  2. [...] För sanningen är ju att det till viss del kan vara skönt att använda mat för just dessa syften. Inte så att man tar till mat i ren desperation, men att det kan bli något fint också. Typ att man äter ett gott när någon fyller år eller man har lyckats med något särskilt. Det är väldigt svårt att beskriva det här, men Marianne Kirby bloggade precis om det där med att det ibland är okej att använda mat just som en coping mechanism, här och här. [...]

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