Tag Archives: Food

Thank you Caitlin Moran

15 Sep


Every now and then you come across a viewpoint which you have been feeling for a while, but haven’t articulated, and then when you read it in someone else’s words it goes bang! and you say ‘that’s it!’ out loud to yourself in your empty sitting room. For me, reading Caitlin Moran’s book How to be a Woman was filled with such moments. The other day she did one of Mumsnet’s ‘Live Webchats’ (which seems to have gone slightly better than Naomi Wolf’s the week before!), and someone quoted a brief passage from her book which resonated with so much of what I’ve been thinking recently.

Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of fucking yourself up whilst still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the ‘luxury’ of their addiction making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that’s why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice. (Moran 2010: 117)

It’s spot on:

It’s a way of fucking yourself up whilst still remaining fully functional, because you have to.”

One of the more horrifying moments in my single-mum life to date was when I realised a long time ago that there is no point in a cry for help because no one will help. My daughter’s dad has on several occasions dropped her back home and literally legged it down the path to get away while I was either crying or at least very obviously having a rubbish time. One of my best friends changes the subject when the conversation moves towards a difficult area. I occasionally consider allowing myself to feel all my negative feelings, hoping that the people around me will realise that I’m struggling and give me a hug or step in to make things easier. But eventually I realised that if I let myself wallow, the only person who is going to be there to pick up the pieces will be me, so it’s best to limit the number of pieces to pick up. Because I have to remain fully functional.

I have been really dissatisfied with how I look and feel recently. I was going to the gym twice a week for several months and enjoyed it, but I stopped going when I kept getting cold after cold, and when I had not had a consistently healthy week for three months I gave up counting. So now it’s been half a year and none of my clothes fit properly. Partly I’m still trying to get used to my body after rapidly losing weight during my pregnancy, the obvious changes pregnancy brings with it, and the aftermath when everything is a different shape. Because of the serious food deprivation my pregnancy brought with it, I told myself after giving birth that I would be allowed to indulge for a little while, and after all, everyone tells you that breastfeeding uses up 500 extra calories so you have to eat when baby is eating, and what’s easier to eat one-handed than a biscuit. Three years later I’m still not out of those habits, and now I already have an answer prepared in case anyone points at my tummy and asks when my next baby is due (thankfully this hasn’t happened yet): ‘it’s my biscuit baby’.

Eating too much doesn’t affect anyone except the person who is doing it. I don’t get drunk or shag random guys, I’ve moved away from the drug dealer neighbours. I feel bad for having breakfast in my dressing gown. I am in charge of everything and it’s all sorted. I simply like a family-size bag of crisps and a chocolate bar on the sofa of an evening.

I know all sizes are beautiful, and I love the body positivity campaigned for by blogs like Already PrettyThe Beheld, and Women Against Non-essential Grooming (the latter being on the more kooky end of the scale). One huge eye-opener for me, after spending my childhood being indoctrinated by my mother that being even just solidly built inevitably signified crushing self-loathing, really bad health and a lack of self-control, was a blog post on Sociological Images about how overweight and obese people can be just as healthy as thin people if all have four healthy habits. ‘Healthy’ in this case means ‘at risk of premature death’, and the healthy habits are regular exercise, eating at least five portions of fruit and veg daily, moderate alcohol consumption and no smoking. It’s great. I started quoting the study at my mother every time she pointed out a ‘fat’ person (she really does this), and during her most recent visit she did it a lot less. Result!

However, the thing is, I just don’t feel great. I never smoke and hardly ever drink, but there is a serious lack of fruit and veg in my diet, and my only exercise is walking. Perhaps I am actively sabotaging myself because two important people in my life (my mother and the man I married) have made it clear they think I am an awful person. Clearly all that negativity had to go somewhere while I was busy coping. So now it’s time to get back to the gym. All this food has been masking issues, so perhaps when I feel better ‘in myself’, everything will magically be better.


Book Review! Gabrielle Palmer: Complementary Feeding: Nutrition, Culture and Politics, London: Pinter & Martin (128p., £9.99)

2 Mar


Having helped established Baby Milk Action, co-directed the International Breastfeeding: Practice and Policy Course at the Institute of Child Health in London, and served as HIV and Infant Feeding Officer for UNICEF New York, Gabrielle Palmer can speak with authority on infant feeding. At just 128 pages (including appendices and references) her 2011 book is much briefer than the impressive Politics of Breastfeeding (Pinter & Martin 2009; originally Pandora Press 1988), but no less thought-provoking.

The book is divided into three sections. Part one, ‘The Big Picture’, covers aspects such as entitlement to food and water, as well as an explanation of what Palmer means by ‘Complementary Feeding’: she decided against the use of the word ‘weaning’ as this suggests that food replaces breastmilk in the baby’s diet – ideally, babies continue to receive breastmilk while trying out their first foods.

Part two, ‘A Closer Look’, gives an overview of the industrialisation of food systems: how brand power exploits consumers’ trust, and de-skilling and poor access to healthy food leads to dependency on processed products.

Part three, ‘Processes For Change’, discusses the importance of clearly-worded legislation (‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ can be used in surprising ways) and the benefits of eating primarily locally grown food. This section also contains a brief overview of Great Britain’s food distribution policy during the Second World War which led to remarkable improvements in mother and child health. The success of this policy is contrasted with the US Special Supplemental Programme for Women and Children (WIC) which despite preventing undernutrition in economically disadvantaged people, Palmer states, is likely to have had a negative effect on breastfeeding rates and contributed to obesity problems in the US.

Particularly fascinating was how Palmer neatly linked a discussion of the complexities of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods in developing countries with children’s malnutrition in richer countries due to marketing and misinformation: in developing countries babies starve when breastmilk is replaced with substitutes which cannot be prepared safely because of inadequate water supply or watering down; in developed countries babies are overfed when breastmilk or formula are replaced too early with baby rice or mashed food.

Palmer repeatedly highlights the fact that healthy and adequate nutrition is not simply achieved through the provision of food: complementary feeding is also a learning process for the child during which she becomes part of the community, forms taste preferences and learns appetite control. An astonishing fact mentioned by Palmer is that our oxytocin levels increase and the digestion and metabolism of food becomes more efficient when we eat together with others.

Palmer states several times throughout the book that her aim is not to be prescriptive, but rather to stimulate thought. In this she is certainly successful. At no point does she admonish parents for their feeding choices; instead she places blame for both starvation and obesity on political decisions and companies’ unethical behaviour. The tone of the book is factual: it is for information purposes rather than an attempt to make mothers feel good about their choices, thus I would imagine that, for example, puree-feeding mothers would be uncomfortable with hard-hitting facts such as “[p]ureed, semi-liquid and diluted foods are unnecessary, because if a child cannot chew, he is not ready to have anything other than breastmilk (or the best possible breastmilk substitute)” (49).

I was pleased to see Palmer repeatedly mention the benefits of delayed cord-clamping as this is a rare practice whose benefits do not seem to be widely known outside ‘earth mother’ circles. The volume of blood a baby receives when the cord is cut only once it has stopped pulsating provides a vital amount of iron. While babies are born with sufficient iron stores to see them through ca. the first six months of their life and breastmilk provides a large percentage of a baby’s micronutrient requirements throughout the first and even second year of her life, delayed cord clamping makes a significant difference to the baby’s long-term iron stores: Palmer notes that 100ml of blood from a newborn is the equivalent of taking over a litre from an adult.

All of Palmer’s statements are backed up by a solid grounding in research, details of which can be found at the end of the book, together with an index. This makes Complementary Feeding a good choice for readers who have a special interest in nutrition and its politics.

One aspect of the book about which I’m not quite sure is its structure. First, the purpose of the appendices is not clear: they are written in the same style as the main part of the book and contain information which simply could have been included in the chapter to which they pertain. Similarly, the inclusion of both an introduction and a foreword is confusing, especially as they are separated by the acknowledgements.

Second, although Palmer’s arguments in general are very clear, I find that in some instances the chapters’ internal structure is not strict enough for my taste which makes it difficult to understand the particular chapter’s aim (e.g. why are the benefits of fermented milk products included in the chapter on cereal?). I suppose the book’s great strength, the wealth of information it contains, means that it is sometimes difficult to separate interlinked facts in favour of structure.

I can’t help the impression that most of the book consists of the paper which Palmer wrote for the International Baby Food Action Network mentioned in the introduction with added black and white photos of eating children to make it marketable to the average reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing though, as thanks to Pinter and Martin we can have access to this information too. It is worth having a look at the other books by this publisher, by the way, as they include influential works by Grantley Dick-Read, Sheila Kitzinger and Ina May Gaskin.

All in all, then, in my opinion Complementary Feeding is a great book: Palmer’s accessible style, as well as the short chapters and lists of key points at the end of each of the three sections (both presumably leftovers of the book’s original purpose), make it easy to read in short bursts while Palmer’s arguments and the way in which she questions public policy makes it particularly satisfying.

Although the style of Complementary Feeding is very matter-of-fact, Palmer occasionally uses humour in a way which reminds us that, despite being fact-heavy, this is not a book about dry biological processes, but about children – small vulnerable people with funny quirks who need our protection to let them develop into strong adults with healthy attitudes and access to good food.

Disclaimer: I was sent this book for free by the publisher as part of their reviewers’ book club. (But I probably would have bought it myself at some point anyway as I enjoyed The Politics of Breastfeeding!)