The Social Roots of Compulsive Overeating


“A fat woman is a warm quilt for the winter.” Inuit proverb


Obesity research is in its infancy compared to other health issues. Obesity became a problem in the population only after World War II, so study is not yet a hundred years old. Even so, research was conducted based on male models of medicine, women’s health not deemed important enough or different enough for specialized study until recently. Women’s bodies generally retain more fat because of survival genetics. In addition pregnancy changes women’s bodies in ways not yet fully understood. But men in other cultures have not generally shown this loathing for women of physical substance except where American (Anglo) culture has been exported. (The first diet book was published in Britain in the 1850s).

The  “one calorie in, one calorie burned” model has been found  deficient in understanding obesity. Only recently has the role of synthetically modified food also been recognized. All of these factors and others are physiological concerns. Serious health concerns like blood pressure, heart attacks, and other issues are of course important, but these are not what are motivating the fat shaming of women today.

Fat shaming (and accusing non-overweight women)  is a relatively recent cultural trend. I personally know of several women well under or within the insurance range for healthy body weights who have been told by their doctors, when they had problems that the medical field did not have an answer for, that they were too fat. One woman, 110 lbs and 5’4”, was suffering from fibromyalgia, before it was well known, and was told her symptoms were due to her excess weight. The modeling industry is rabid, the charge of “fat” hurled by women at each other and by men at them, even as they faint from hunger and their ribs are clearly outlined on the runway. The irony of placing dessert recipes next to diet plans in women’s magazines is familiar but sadly accepted. Business, entertainment, education: there is no field that is not affected by the insanity. And now children are also under the pressure. One commercial diet program advertises “special rates for your child.”

Fat shaming in our culture emerged not coincidentally at the same time period, after World War II. I have not found any study about whether this was a reaction to exposure to smaller women around the world who did not have access to quantity or quality of food, men’s need to feel stronger (bigger) than women, the birth of visual media, a backlash against the women’s movement, or other reasons.  But whatever the cause(s), like many contradictory expectations of women, fat shaming is now an American obsession. It has become a slur used irrespective of the body weight of a woman.  Barbara Hermann writes in a post on International Business Times, May 28, 2015:

“While fat became public enemy number one, it was women’s bodies that largely became the site of cultural, racial and class anxieties of which fat phobia is a sign. These anxieties and their contradictions are alive today, in a culture that, on one hand, tells women that “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and celebrates “thigh gaps” in photos. On the other hand, it tells women that it’s the age of the butt or that they need large breasts — not often found (naturally) on ultra-thin bodies.”


This constitutes widespread societal abuse of women and especially young girls, who are already struggling with developing secure identities in the world. Bullies routinely use what their victims cannot control as tools of shame and intimidation, as any child with observable differences will tell. Mothers who cannot accept their bodies monitor their daughters’ weight. Double-binds like “eat the cake I made for you but not too much because you don’t want to get fat” are heard. Dictums about “she let herself go” (gained weight) are standards for a girl’s training, in the belief that her body must be kept thin to be attractive to men as her primary purpose in life. The obsession is passed down as surely as any other predisposition. What are women to do? In an impossible no-win, they are in bodies that are constantly scrutinized and found to be the reason for their rejection.  She cannot step outside her body quickly enough  to avoid the slander and there is no agreement on what her body should be even if she could. But she does disappear from her body in another way.

Women are primarily relational beings. Love is the presence of optimal relationship dynamics. Like other human beings in no-win situations, the psyche escapes within. Told her role is to relate supportively to others, but rejected as unworthy of human association, she turns to food. Expected to nurture others unconditionally, yet ask for nothing, she turns to nurturing herself. Pie eating competitions are a primarily illustration. Women bake the pies and men eat them. Women are raised believing that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” and if he eats with a “heaty appetite,” her cooking has been effective. But she is not to focus on eating the food she prepares for others.

Even without artificial appetite enhancers and enzyme disruptors found in processed foods, many women overuse food to buffer themselves from the constant societal onslaught of hatred. They slowly learn to abuse themselves with excess food or live in constant fear of gaining a pound. Geneen Roth wrote about this reaction in Love Hunger and Suzie Orbach in Fat is a Feminist issue. The nation watched like spectators at gladiator games shows like “Biggest Loser”, featuring contestants willing to humiliate themselves to escape their pain. While the almost $60 billion diet industry prospers (“banking on failure” is how a BBC headline expressed it February 5, 2003), women are slowly dying inside. If she gains a pound, she eats because she is demoralized; if she loses a pound, she eats to celebrate. Bottom line: the measure of her worth is outside herself, a number that is never definitive, always suspect.

Women (and some men) have come together to support one another in healing from society’s abuse in a twelve step program, Overeaters Anonymous, which focuses, not on food and weight, but on recovering self-love. Although the name emerged from a previous, less informed period in history, it does speak to the “presenting problem” of food obsession and treats the full range of attempts to overcome hopelessness, from anorexics to the morbidly obese. Any approach that promises salvation through weight loss only is a mirage, because she will never be thin enough to escape being called fat. OA understands this and offers recovery.

The extremes of food focused disorders, from starvation to immobility, are not healed through more obsessive compulsive imbalances of diet and exercise. Only after a woman receives a lifesaving resuscitation of acceptance and continues to access it regularly as in other addiction treatments can she then address health issues.* The answer to all her health issues are not necessarily diet and exercise. Someday more in the medical community will admit “I don’t know what is wrong with you, but I am going to try to help you” rather than defaulting to the lame excuse of “Lose weight” while investing in stocks of synthetic sugar companies.

We can overcome the fat shamers: the first step is to stop shaming ourselves and support each other.


*All addictions are attempts to manage psychic pain: mental obsessions combined with  physical cravings. Alcoholics report realizing they were “drinking their sugar” and that their addiction was at root a food issue. Recovering women drug addicts have admitted they used so they could be around people who would not notice their eating or for weight control.

Leave a Reply