Saturday, 19 September 2009

The binge that saved my ancestor

Introduction or disclaimer: I was in two minds about whether to put up this piece or not. It seems to be a complete contradiction to the last post, diametrically opposing the idea that there is no such thing as "natural fatness". That post was about being told I was fat when I was not and therefore spending my entire life feeling I was fat, even when I was, in reality, thin. In writing this post I was trying to deal with the very great shame I am carrying over my eating issues and the consequent damage to my appearance. It's unfortunate I got into using the word natural. What I was really trying to say was that EDs are an adaptive response; the interaction of natural biological and psychological responses to the behaviour of other people and the food available in our environment.

I thought about perhaps changing it all, completely rewriting it with the emphasis on adaptive responses. But what I am saying here is that eating behaviours are natural, normal and human, and only what is to be expected given the environment a person has grown up in and evolutionally potentiated biological preferences.

What I am not saying is that that means a large percentage of us should just accept being fat. This is not a fat acceptance piece. I want to be thin. I've wanted to be thin all my life. Maybe what I am saying is that the reasons a lot of us struggle with our weight are just the expected responses given our lives and circumstances, and therefore there is no need for shame. And also, that if we do understand the complex processes and interactions involved then we have more of a chance of changing them.

Am I deluded or confused? I'll leave you to decide.

The Binge That Saved My Ancestor

Shame. There's so much shame in our lives. If you are a binge eater or overeater then you know what I'm talking about. I read Pamela's post (see Uncovering Pamela, 3rd Sep) about her shame over a 30lb weight gain. My reaction and that of those who commented was that she shouldn't feel shame, that these things happen and she should not feel bad about herself for it. We can see how useless shame is, how negative it is, how it makes a person who is feeling bad already feel even worse about the situation. We want to take all that shame away from them and make them feel better.

Of course we can think all this when someone else feels shame about their weight; it's a whole different ball game when it's our own shame. When we feel the shame of having been "out of control", of having binged or eaten too much, of having visible weight gain - and especially if it comes after having lost a load of weight, then it's our dirty secret and we can never imagine being able to jettison that embarrassment over our behaviour and appearance.

It feels like our shame is a "natural" reaction to having done something terribly wrong. That being "out of control" around food means that we are "bad" in some way. That wanting to eat more than we "need" means we are behaving badly. That we are at fault.

But what if the bingeing and the overeating are the natural things, the natural responses to a particular set of circumstances in your life? No-one deliberately sets out to wilfully overeat or binge. It is a natural part of human existence.

Many women wish that they could eat "intuitively" and maintain a (UK) size 8 or 10 figure; they wish that it came "naturally" to them and that there is something inherently "wrong" with them that they can't do this. That struggling to maintain themselves at that size is a failure of sorts in itself. That this battle is unnatural.

But in fact the idea that intuitive eating means only eating small amounts of food and thus being thin is utterly unnatural. Do you think a cave man would turn down any food at all? Do you think a cave man would chose the lower fat option (assuming he had any options at all)? Do you think they would turn down a salty option? The sweet option? Humans are designed to seek out the fatty, salty, sweet options. Humans are designed to eat when there is food available. And if it's available in quantity they eat it in quantity. Because millions of years ago, thousands of years ago, even 100 years ago, that was the only way to stay alive. As Steven Pinker says, we are only evolved as far as the stone age.

And eating when you're feeling stressed, exhausted, depressed? Again entirely natural and entirely adaptive to the survival of the human race. When our ancestors were stressed it was generally because their very existence was in peril. Did they ever feel down? Well you know how bad it feels when you don't have very much to eat ... that feeling was designed to make sure that you do eat when food is available. Ditto the comforting feeling when you have eaten a good meal. And when you feel exhausted at work but just have to keep going? Eating snacks is the natural way to get your blood sugar back up.

So far from being natural, being thin in a society where food is overwhelmingly abundant, available in any quantity at any time of the day or night, in the sugariest, saltiest, fattiest combinations possible, is highly unnatural. To maintain a thin figure is to be battling your natural biology and psychology every step of the way.

And all this without even considering each individual's personal history of complex interactions with people and food. Each person will have formed their own adaption to the circumstances they have been presented with. Positive and negative connotations of different foods, acceptance or not of their own body and the different body shapes of other people, their family relationships, and the eating behaviours of their family and of society in general. A huge amount of information transmitted, neural pathways created and reinforced, interactions between biological imperatives and psychological processes; our resultant eating behaviour is not our fault. But that doesn't mean we can't change it. Change is possible. But I think understanding is necessary first.

You are a child of nature.

There is no need for shame.


In 1665 in a village in Derbyshire (UK Midlands) called Eyam, the Bubonic plague arrived in a flea infested sample of cloth sent from London. Quickly people became ill with the terrifying symptoms of black spots on the skin which actually rotted while they were still alive, vomiting and coughing blood, diarrhea, swelling, fever, pain. Whole families started to die. Instead of fleeing to safety, the villagers voluntarily agreed to quarantine themselves so as to stop the spread of this virulent disease. Food and other supplies were left for them at the edge of the village. By the time the plague burnt itself out less than a quarter of the villagers were still alive. Most of the survivors are thought to have been immune to the illness due to a particular gene mutation which is present throughout European populations. It was very rare to actually contract the disease and survive it.

But my ancestor did. She was wild with fever and in her delirium she consumed an entire piggin of bacon fat (a piggin is a large jug or pail as for collecting water). She survived. This mega pure fat binge probably gave her body the energy it needed to fight off the deadly plague. This "binge" was her body and mind's natural response. Yes, she was under the severe stress of illness and impending death, she was exhausted and despairing over the deaths of many people and the collapse of her entire world. Yes, she was "out of control".

Do you think she felt shame?


  1. wow... definitely heavy stuff after a long day... thought provoking though. I think all responses are in fact learned - regardless of our genetic footprints and centuries of 'survival instincts' we are beings of thought. we get to choose. This is the thing that separates us, not from animals but from each other. shame is only a choice like everything else, we either choose to punish ourselves for stepping outside predispositions or we choose to grant ourselves leeway. personally I find I'm rarely motivated by shame - I feel far more encouragement by celebrating my successes than mourning my losses.

  2. What a fantastic and interesting post. You really explained something important here and put the emphasis on food where it belongs. It does give you a whole new point of view about it. And hurray for your ancestor. What a survivor!

  3. That's an absolutely outstanding post - thanks for sharing it with us! I agree with everything you said - especially the part about the difference in our attitudes when other people slip out of control and when it is ourselves. I know I am able to say (and mean) that it isn't a huge sin or crime when talking to someone else while immediately afterwards practically treating myself like a murderer in my own internal conversations if I eat a chocolate biscuit... wouldn't it be nice if we could evolve a different mental filter that could see these events as part of everyday life, possibly unhealthy or unproductive in our environment and circumstances, but definitely not evil or shameful - whoever is involved?
    Thanks for your post yesterday, the answer to your question - crocodile is very tasty, somewhere between pork and chicken I would say. Its supposed to be high in protein and low in fat, but the cuts we had were a little bit fattier, otherwise it was great - I'd definitely eat it again! Plus, something tells me it will never be factory farmed - would you risk working in a battery farm for crocs???

  4. Have you read the classic children's book about Eyam called "A parcel of patterns" by Jill Paton Walsh? It's excellent. Good post, Bearfriend.

  5. I'm going to be the bitchy contradictory voice. I think shame serves a purpose. It stops you, or should stop you, from doing again what you know to be wrong.

    I think you've mixed two things here...biological nature and societal rules. It might be natural to binge (lord knows I've had my share and your ancestor's was perhaps life-saving), but the shame we feel after comes from a society that says it's not OK or healthy to be fat. If you want to fit in that society, a little shame in out of control behaviors goes a long way.

    If I didn't have shame, I might still be walking around in my 1980's Duran Duran jacket and a pair of leg-warmers, and well, we wouldn't want that.

    Shame is part of what brought me out of my prolonged food coma. I don't want to feel it anymore. I want to fit in.

    While I appreciate what you're saying, I respectfully disagree. Shame serves a needed purpose.

  6. Fantastic post, Bearfriend, and lots to think about! I'm honored to have been mentioned. Thank you for letting me know about your posts!

    After reading a book by Brene Brown (which I mentioned on my site), I have to agree with her that shame and guilt are two different things. Guilt is productive. Shame is not. If you go to there is a video at the bottom of the page where she is interviewed about if Shame Can Be a Good Thing.

    I look forward to reading more from you!

  7. Just read this post today after being away from the computer for a day. Very thought provoking. Shame is a tricky business, and different from regretting behaviors over which we feel powerless. I agree with Pamela...shame is not productive; in fact it is destructive and perpetuates self-hating behaviors. Guilt or even regret can motivate self reflection and eventual change. Shame sends me to despair about WHO I am, not WHAT I've done. Then hopelessness permeates and I stay powerless to do anything on my own behalf.

    Anyway - you sound good. Interesting stuff. What did you decide about OA? Take care -
    stay in touch!

  8. I really like this post. Thanks for sharing!

  9. This is a really complex issue - thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. I guess I do feel that shame served a purpose for me when I began my journey. I felt shame at what I had done to myself, and desired a change.

    I can totally see it from the other side as well.


All comments gratefully appreciated!