Powerless

“Hi, I’m Mags and I’m a compulsive overeater.” That’s how I introduced myself at meetings of the twelve step fellowship I was part of for over nine years. At the age of 31, at perhaps the lowest point in my life, I entered residential treatment for food addiction. After the five-week residential program, I did an aftercare program of group therapy, and began attending regular Twelve Step meetings, two, three times a week, and sometimes every day. I got a sponsor, and I worked the twelve steps, using the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the age of 40, after almost a decade, I stopped attending meetings. The fact is, I no longer identify as a compulsive overeater or food addict. I can eat one biscuit, or two Cadbury’s Roses, and I don’t have to finish the packet, and I don’t think about it for the rest of the day. I’m learning (slowly, painstakingly, with a lot of zigzagging and reversing) to eat intuitively, to listen to my body and not my head when it comes to food. But even though I no longer feel at home in “the rooms”, even though I no longer feel I can honestly say “I’m Mags and I’m a compulsive overeater”, in many ways, I still feel like a twelve-stepper. The program and the people I met taught me so much. I hope I never unlearn their lessons. The humility, the solidarity, the practicality of the twelve-step approach is not just a good way to deal with addiction, it’s a good way to deal with life. The twelve steps, and their lesser-known sibling the twelve traditions, are indeed as AA founder Bill W. said, “a design for living that works in rough going.”

It’s been over a year since I stopped attending meetings, and lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on my spiritual journey in the fellowship and since leaving. In particular, I’ve been thinking philosophically about the wisdom I found in the rooms, in the fellowship and, most of all, in the steps. I want to write something about this. It may become a series, it may not, but I have decided to start, as every twelve step recovery must, with Step One:

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol; that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Of course, in my fellowship, we substituted “food” for “alcohol” when working the steps. But many of us still used the Big Book of AA as the basis of our ‘program’. The twelve-step approach tells us that addiction is not really about the substance, it’s about the spirit. It’s about the need we’re trying to fill, not the exact nature of our attempts to fill it. What matters is not so much what we’re powerless over, but that we’re powerless over something, and that our lives have become unmanageable. I had no problem relating to this. My life had shrivelled down to my small apartment in Milwaukee where I was studying for my PhD. I hated leaving my safe zone – in my bed, or at my desk watching Netflix on my laptop, eating, eating, eating. My coping mechanisms had withered to the point where all I could do was drag myself to work, get food, drag myself home, eat until I physically couldn’t eat any more, sleep, repeat. Every day was survival mode. Every day I told myself tomorrow would be different. But it never was. I couldn’t keep going, and I couldn’t stop. I lay on my bed, rocking back and forth, praying to I knew not what, “I’m not okay, please help me; I’m not okay, please help me…” And, the funny thing is, it worked. I did get help, thanks to the concern of friends and family members I hadn’t managed to alienate despite my best efforts, and thanks, I choose to believe, to a Higher Power.

I found myself in treatment, in a group therapy circle with what I thought of as ‘real’ addicts, people struggling with using heroin or cocaine, people who had to undergo horrific withdrawal from drugs or alcohol before coming into treatment, people on their court-ordered “last chance.” To say treatment was an eye-opener doesn’t quite capture it. It’s more like it awakened some entirely new sense I didn’t know I had. If I had to name the sense, I’d probably say ‘emotions’. Of course I had felt emotions before, but I wasn’t able to cope with them so I didn’t allow myself to pay attention to them. I can almost pinpoint the moment when I tried to push emotion out of my life. I was in sixth class in primary school and I was being bullied at school. My beloved grandmother, my greatest companion and supporter, was gravely ill in hospital, and my parents were sick with worry and grief about her. When she died, I shut down. It was like I just decided the whole ‘feelings’ thing wasn’t for me. I was done with that bullshit. It was just too much. One day, I came home from school, to what had been my grandmother’s house, and ate a loaf of bread with Flora, alone, in the kitchen. Then I went to the shop and replaced the loaf so nobody would know. This wasn’t the first time I overate – everybody overeats. But I remember it as the moment I gave up and let the food take over and protect me. I was eleven years old.

For the next twenty years, food was my comfort, my go-to and my survival. I didn’t know that; I just thought I was fat. For years, I thought the next diet or weight loss plan would save me. I thought the medication the GP gave me would sort me out, but it just gave me oily diarrhoea. I stopped taking it because I needed the food. I thought the program that promised to focus on “why you eat” would fix me. At first, when they gave me the ‘herbal’ appetite suppressants, I thought I’d found the answer at last. The buzz of weight loss was a good substitute for food while it lasted. But then it came time to wean off the appetite suppressants, and food took control again. Later, in the rooms of the fellowship, when telling my story, I often disclosed that I felt lucky. I felt lucky because I saw people coming through the doors who either weren’t really fucked yet or perhaps didn’t know they were. By 2011, when I started working the Twelve Steps, I knew I was goosed. I knew food was in charge of my life, and I knew I hadn’t a clue how to be an adult and live a normal, healthy life. To me, Step One was a blessed relief, like water in the desert.

Many newcomers find Step One strange. “Why would I say I’m powerless? Doesn’t that mean giving up?” I’ve heard many great explanations in answer to this question. One of the most profound is that powerless does not mean helpless or hopeless. As a philosopher, however, Step One made sense to me, because it reflected ideas I was already familiar with from schools of thought as diverse as existentialism and stoicism. My old favourite Simone De Beauvoir had already taught me that accepting reality and wanting to change it are perfectly compatible. “There is hardly a sadder virtue than resignation,” she writes in The Ethics of Ambiguity, but she couches this in an explanation about the fundamental ambiguity of humans. We’re never fully free, and in some sense all our plans will fail. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, that’s what makes the trying worth something. If success was guaranteed, our projects and plans would be meaningless, we wouldn’t be free at all, we would be robots or gods. But we’re not; we’re messy, puny, confused, ambiguous little humans, muddling through, doing our best, one day, one decision at a time. For Beauvoir, the way through the mess of existence is to strive for authenticity. By this she means embracing both our freedom and its limitations. I can’t imagine she’d be much of a fan of some of the Steps (she was an atheist, for one thing), but Step One at least is pure existentialist: If you want out of the shit, you’re going to have to start by acknowledging that you’re in it.

Step One is only the first of twelve, but it is special. Some say it’s the only step you ever really take – all the others flow naturally from an honest admission of powerlessness and unmanageability. I no longer feel powerless over food, and most of the time my life is manageable, as long as I take it one day at a time, talk to people, pray and meditate, and try to keep my side of the street clean. But when I was powerless, paradoxically, the admission in Step One gave me power, strength and hope. It wasn’t resignation, it was reinvention. It gave me a second chance to grow up. I will never be able to express my gratitude to AA (where the Steps originated) and to the fellowship I was part of for all I learned. By saying I’m no longer an addict, of course, I am putting myself at odds with the twelve step approach. Many twelve steppers would say that either I’m deluding myself and I’m not really cured of food addiction, or else that I was never a true food addict to begin with. Maybe they’re right. I accept that I’m doing my best to figure things out one day at a time. I accept that I might be wrong, and more importantly that whether I’m right or wrong, I will have to change my mind and my heart again and again as I go through life. That’s just how it is, and there’s no point fighting what is. I feel confident Simone de B and Bill W would agree on that, if not on much else.

Well excuuuuuse me!

Just saw yet ANOTHER example of a fitness professional talking about how people ‘make excuses’ not to prioritise exercise and I. Just. Cannot. With these people. (#notallPTs — there some amazing ones!*) I had to rant, I’m sorry.

Petition to ban the word ‘excuses’ from all fitness-related settings, anyone?

This time it was a personal trainer talking about how parents use their children as an ‘excuse’ not to train, but the whole ‘excuses’ thing pervades fitness culture.

One of my personal favourites was the time a (male) trainer told a roomful of women taking his HIIT class that he ‘knew all our tricks’. One of these tricks was apparently pretending to adjust our ponytails as a way to get an extra break between exercises. Have you ever heard anything so patronizing?? I told him (silently, in my head), Dude I am literally paying money for the privilege of sweating through my heavy-duty sports bra here. Why would I be looking for excuses *not* to do what I came here to do? Has it occurred to you, (I continued, giving him a quick glare while he had his back to me) that there might be other reasons why women feel the need to pay more attention to our appearances while training in public? And one more thing (I added later, in the shower, as I angrily shampooed my hair), I DON’T NEED AN EXCUSE NOT TO DO BURPEES. NOBODY DOES.

So embarrassing when you can’t make it to the salon and have to style your own hair for a gym session.

Whether it’s taking a walk break during your run or just not getting much exercise for a while, you don’t need an excuse. Dismissing your reasons as mere ‘excuses’ seems counterproductive to me. It’s mean, it’s disempowering, and it’s just going to make you feel less motivated. Yes, you probably would feel better if you were able to push yourself a bit more. Humans are made to move. We evolved to move A LOT. (Think hunting and gathering.)

But there is a catch to this. We are extremely well adapted for movement, but we are also adapted for situations in which movement is inevitable. So we’re adapted to avoid unnecessary movement. When we’re wrapped in a blanket two seasons deep in something mediocre on Netflix, our cave brains are going, “Yes, great stuff, keep resting now because tomorrow we’ll probably have to run 20 miles to hunt for meat!” And incidentally should we also happen to find ourselves bate into a ‘sharing’ (lol) bag of Maltesers, that same inner cave person is thrilled with us! “This is brilliant, sooo much sugar and fat; now we’ll definitely survive that 20 mile run. Keep going!” We get a lot of short-term physiological rewards and reenforcement for NOT moving. That’s not an excuse, that’s biology. If we want to address the reasons we are not moving as much as we’d like, we need to work with that biology, not deny it and give out to ourselves. Self-acceptance, gentleness, starting from where we are — these are all ways to be kind and change things. Beating ourselves up for doing what comes naturally? Well, there’s no excuse for that.

*Off the top of my head: If you’re in Cork, Aclaí is a really inclusive and friendly place which encompasses genuine diversity and works with people of all abilities. Online, I love Emma Green PhD and Jake Gifford to name but two.

Stigma, shame and movement

Image Source: UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

Decided to post the slides from a presentation I gave at the British Society for Phenomenology annual conference. I was very disappointed that Covid19 took away my excuse to go to Exeter for the conference, but the organisers did a great job of making it work online. I’m working on writing this up as a paper, so I’d love to get people’s thoughts and feedback.

My main point is that living in a fatphobic society can make people feel so ashamed of their bodies that they don’t want to move as much. This is bad enough, but this problem continually reinforces itself, because the less you move the less you can move. Movement of all kinds is so important for health that body shame caused by weight stigma can actually be said to be affecting the health of fat people.

Good Food and the Good Life

How ancient philosophy can help us cultivate an excellent relationship with food

Online workshop (on Google Hangouts), Tuesday 14th April 2020, 7.30 – 9.00 pm (Irish time). The workshop is free but places are limited. Please email mags@margaretsteele.ie to register.

What does it mean to eat well? Is it just a matter of meeting your body’s nutritional needs, or is there more to it than that? This workshop invites you to reflect on your relationship to food — what it is and what you would like it to be. We will consider this question using ideas from Plato and Aristotle.

Surely our first and greatest need is to provide food to sustain life.

Plato, Republic 369d

First, we will look at part of Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates compares the human soul to a city, and gives some warnings about what happens when appetites run amok. Then, we will look at Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and see how it is possible to build good habits which bring us closer to a happy, flourishing life. For Plato and Aristotle, philosophy was not just a school subject; it was meant to help us understand and achieve the good life. You might be surprised just how well these philosophers capture the eternal challenges and joys of being human, not least with respect to food. After all, whether you’re working in customer service or inventing metaphysics, you need to eat.

Please note this is not a nutrition or dietetics workshop. I am not a dietitian and I don’t know what you should eat! This workshop is about how philosophy can help you figure out how you would like to eat!

Image credit: Olives from Jordan by Nick Fraser CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2208405

Deceiving the mirror

By Moshe Milner CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39952804

We don’t usally see mirrors as modern technology, but, as far as I know, they were not part of most people’s everyday lives until very recently. For most people in most times and places, seeing oneself as others might see one was not a common experience. These days, it’s hard to avoid. Shiny plate glass shop-fronts and office blocks line our streets. Clothes shops, gyms, hair salons and beauty clinics have floor-to-ceiling mirrors. We never stop seeing ourselves, even when we don’t want to.

In neuro-biological terms, recognising one’s own reflection is a remarkable accomplishment. Very few species have been shown to be able to do so, and even humans typically cannot do it until around 18 months. But this accomplishment comes at a price. In order to recognise that ‘that is me’ I must see myself as a ‘that’ – an object, a thing for others to look at. It is not a coincidence that, in ordinary conversation, we use ‘self-conscious’ to describe the feeling of being vulnerable to the observations and judgements of others. Our ability to be self-aware and our tendency to be self-conscious are two sides of the same coin. Of course, humans felt like this long before there were mirrors. But the mirror allows me (kind of) to see myself as others might see me, and thus gives me a new way to think about what other might think of me. In the story of Snow White, the wicked queen’s magic mirror tells her how she compares with all the other women in the kingdom. The mirror literally talks to her and tells her that she is – or is not – ‘the fairest of them all.’ Real mirrors don’t interpret or narrate, but it can feel like they are passing judgement on us.

Beauvoir argues that women, in particular, feel this judgement. This is because women have always been taught that we are our appearances, our images, our bodies. We are first and foremost things to be looked at, and our value lies in how we appear to others, especially to men. What we look like is who we are. Every ‘flaw’ in our appearance thus reveals a flaw in our character. Wrinkles, stretch marks, cellulite – they are all evidence of the ways in which we have failed. A spot on my chin says I am not eating correctly or not undergoing the correct cleanse-tone-and-moisturise routine. I must work harder and be better. (Also, of course, I must buy more stuff.) In the meantime, I must cover the spot so others cannot see how greedy and lazy I am. For men (especially, as Beauvoir would readily acknowledge, white, gender-conforming, able-bodied men), the reflection in the mirror just shows how they look, not who they are. But for women, looking in the mirror is an opportunity to see my true self. It becomes an exercise in moral discernment, an examination of conscience.

Our attempts to deceive our mirrors are also attempts at self-deception. If how I look is who I am, then looking good enough literally means being good enough. If I can convince others that I woke up like this, then I will really be #flawless. But really, tis only ourselves we’re codding. (I would like to suggest this as the official Hiberno-English translation of ‘mauvaise foi’ or ‘bad faith.’) In reality, I know that I cannot really control how others see me, and I know that how they see me does not define me. This doesn’t mean I can’t, in good faith, change my appearance in the mirror. It’s not our fault that we have grown up in a society that judges us by how we look, and in any case, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best. But as free indivduals, we do have a responsibility to choose how we react to this judgement. We can choose to take it seriously, to treat ‘looking your best’ as an absolute, objective standard, increasing its harm to ourselves and others. Or we can change what ‘looking your best’ means, so that it’s a standard that we use to help each other. Mirrors are just things. We, absolutely, inescapably, are not. We decide what things mean and whether and how they matter. Our mirrors can’t tell us who we are. It’s up to us to choose that for ourselves.

Ethics and anti-obesity campaigns

I got to present the first seminar in the SHAPE series this past Wednesday (edited slides below). SHAPE, Society, Health and Political Economy, is a research cluster at UCC operating under the aegis of ISS21, the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century.

In my talk, I argued that public health campaigns advocating individual weight loss are unjust. My claim is that it is not possible for most people to achieve or (especially) to maintain clinically significant weight loss. By sending the message that it is possible, public bodies contribute to fat stigma and weight bias, while also obscuring the crucial role of social and environmental factors in obesity and in health more generally.

Photo by Eluska Fernandez

I really enjoyed giving this talk, and I got some great feedback. It’s given me a lot to think about. My reading of Venkatapuram and the capabilities approach more generally still needs to be refined. Among a lot of great questions and comments, I was especially grateful to hear from Prof. Ivan Perry, who argued that the problem I identify is not coming from public health (the discipline) but government/state bodies who want quick, low-cost fixes to complex issues. This makes a lot of sense to me, as I don’t think any reputable public health expert seriously thinks obesity is going to be solved by everyone going on diets, yet that is the message the keeps getting reinforced to the public. So it seems I need to target my accusations of injustice more carefully! Overall, I am really happy with how this talk went, and I am excited to get back to work on this project.

That said, one thing I’m uncomfortable with on reflection is that, throughout the discussion, both I and other contributors spoke as though it is obviously bad for people to be fat. But actually I am not convinced of that. I still think we need to consider the possiblity that this is just how the population looks when everyone has enough to eat. The problem with our eating habits may be quality, not quantity, and it seems likely to me that, in a perfect society where everyone had the capability to be healthy, there would still be fat people. Possibly there would be fewer of them, and they would certainly be healthier — in this imaginary ideal society, everyone would be — but they’d still be fat, and that’s ok.

Intuitive-ish Eating

Happy new diet, everyone! Tis the season for deprivation and beach body dreams. And we all know what we need to do, right? Calorie deficit. Eat less and move more. And, yes, it kind of is that simple — for a short while. But, as every dieter knows, it gets harder and harder to keep losing, and eventually it grinds to a halt. Often, you find your eating habits are even worse than they were before you started trying to restrict your intake. Most weight loss attempts do not work, and many end in weight gain. This is because diets don’t work.

Diets. *clap emoji* Don’t. *clap emoji* Work. *clap emoji*

But you knew this. We all know this. Even diet companies like Slimming World and Weight Watchers know this, which is why they try to say that their diets are not really diets. (Someone explain to me how counting points is different to counting calories in any meaningful way? And, let’s be honest, referring to non-diet foods as ‘syns‘ is just weird, oddly sexualised food moralising.)

The bad news: If you are deliberately restricting your caloric intake with a view to losing weight and keeping it off, you are on a diet, and you are wasting your time at best. At worst, you are destroying your relationship with food and your body, putting your physical and mental health at risk, and buying into the misogynist beauty myth. As long as your “healthy eating” plan is tied in to trying to control your weight, it is probably doomed to failure, and it’s probably just going to make you hate yourself more not less.

The good news: There are other ways. It is possible to have a healthy relationship with food and with your body. Thankfully, more and more people seem to be waking up to this and there are tons of great resources online to help you work on this yourself. For me, the key to this is to stop focusing on weight loss. I’m maintaining a huge weight loss (possibly about 11 stone, but I don’t weigh myself so I’m not sure) for the last five years or so, but my weight didn’t start to drop until I stopped worrying about it and started really focusing on my health. We tend to think that health will inevitably come with weight loss, like a little added bonus, the cherry on top of the syn-free cake. But for me it has never worked this way. My attempts to lose weight were never really about health, and so any health improvements got thrown out along with the bathwater of another failed diet. I desperately needed a new way, something that worked beyond January, beyond Monday, beyond ‘plateaus’, ‘bad weeks’ and ‘failures’.

One thing that seems to really, properly, long-term work for a lot of people is intuitive eating. This is a philosophy of nutrition aimed at undoing the damage of diet culture and repairing your relationship with food. I know people for whom this has done wonders. For me, it has huge appeal, and in many respects I do eat intuitively. However, I have never committed fully to it, and I’m not sure I ever could. I am a compulsive overeater. When I first came into recovery from my eating disorder, I had virtually no ability to stop eating, particularly when it came to sweets and ‘treat’ foods. I regularly ate to the point of vomiting — not to purge, just to relieve the pain in my stomach so I could sleep. Then I woke up and binged again. I was self-harming with food, killing myself, slowly at first but by the end it was getting quicker. When my gallbladder was removed, the surgeon told me some of the tissue was dead. This came as no surprise to me. I’d felt dead inside for years. My point is, I didn’t feel able to embark on the long journey to intuitive eating, despite my faith in its rewards. I just desperately needed to stop self-harming with food.

What worked for me was to give up all my binge foods completely. Cut them out like the surgeon cut out that dead flesh. Sweets, biscuits, cake — gone. I haven’t eaten a bar of chocolate in over seven years. Never, not one bite. Not at Christmas, not on my birthday. My mother and my husband did the tastings for our wedding cake. I didn’t even eat dessert at the wedding. I didn’t just do this cold turkey all on my own. I had tons of support from dietitians, doctors, therapists and others in ED recovery online and in person. Maybe this sounds insane to you, and maybe you’re right. But it works for me.

It wasn’t easy to get rid of the crap, but it has changed my life. Most Christmases in my adult life, I ate sweets and biscuits until I was sick, until all I could taste was a sickly mix of saccharine and bile. This past Christmas, and for the last few Christmases, when I see sweets and biscuits, there is a kind, gentle voice in my head that says, “not for me.” It sounds like the voice my mother would use steering me away from one of my allergy foods when I was a child. No guilt, no anger, just a soft, “That doesn’t suit you, love. It’ll make you sick.”

I understand why my way of eating can look restrictive from the outside, that, in fact, it can look like another form of disordered eating. But I know it’s different because the voice that regulates it is so different from the eating disorder voice. The ED voice told me things like, “You know you’re going to eat it anyway, because you’re pathetic, you’re weak, you’re bad, you’re disgusting, you’re FAT, FAT, FAT.” My eating disorder was driven by self-loathing. My new way of eating might seem rigid, but it’s driven entirely by self-care. I don’t eat my binge foods now because I love myself too much, because I believe I am a good person who deserves better than the pain that overeating causes me. My ED kept me in thrall to the dream of a future me who would be good enough (i.e. thin enough) to deserve good food, nice clothes and other positive things. My new way of eating centres on the notion that I am good enough, that I was always already good enough, that we are all good enough, and we should all get to have good food and other good things.

And let me tell you something. Eating junk food, you forget just how good good food can taste. I always liked raspberries. They were among my favourite foods. But I was never going to choose raspberries over MnMs or Swedish Fish or a few Galaxy Caramels. But when I took those options off my table, suddenly I could really appreciate what you might call the natural treats. The refreshing bittersweet of raspberries. The crunch of fresh green grapes just out of the fridge. The sharp explosive bite of citrus. The sweet snap of a carrot. These things give me real pleasure now, far more than the junk food did, because they don’t come with a side order of physical and emotional pain. If you are a person who can eat MnMs without an extra helping of pain, that is wonderful and you should eat them and enjoy them and not worry about it one bit. But I am not like you. I can’t do that. Maybe one day I could, but to be honest, at least for now, it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

Intuitive eating practitioners rightly point out that food is not just for nutrition. Healthy eating also involves eating for pleasure, for social reasons, for comfort and for many other reasons. Humans have always eaten this way, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But for me, any comfort I might find in food beyond my nutritional needs is shortlived and ambiguous. Of course I could take pleasure in tasting delicious foods like dark chocolate. It’s just that I can’t imagine the pleasure being better than the pleasure I get from waking up every day knowing that food is no longer in charge of me, knowing that I can be present with others, not looking over their shoulders to the next binge beckoning me back to the solitary darkness.

For me, eating the way I do is pretty much effortless now. I eat three meals a day, every day. I make them as nutritious and healthy as I can, without obsessing or worrying too much. For the most part, I don’t measure portions, but occasionally I do, if I’m unsure how much of something I’ll need. Most days I make meals like stir fry, stew or raw veg salad with quinoa and tofu. But sometimes I just grab a sandwich or a burrito bowl or occasionally (three times in all of 2018, for example) a pizza. That’s ok too. Just once I don’t eat the foods that trigger my eating disorder, it’s all good. I eat snacks between meals if I need them. Mostly fruit or yoghurt or a green juice does me fine; occasionally I need something a bit more substantial like rice cakes and tahini. I eat a meal or a snack and then I don’t think about food again until it’s time for the next one.

Usually my body tells me when it’s time. I start to feel a little bit hungry about an hour or so before my meals. I rarely get to the point of being really starving and I try very hard to avoid the feeling of being overfull. (Being over-stuffed actually triggers a desire to binge in me, which gives you a sense of how dodgy my neurological wiring still is with respect to food.) The fact that I can and do feel moderate hunger now is a sign of my improving health and relationship with food. In the bad old days, I was either starving on some diet or else I would go days and weeks without ever letting myself feel hunger. When I came into recovery first, my brain no longer associated hunger with eating at all. They were separate phenomena with only a passing acquaintance. I ate when my eating disorder told me to, or when my diet allowed me to. Hunger and satiety were irrelevant. Now, for the most part, I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m comfortably full. By eating regular nutritious meals, I have come to trust that it is safe to stop eating when I’m full, knowing that there will be no more starving, deprivation or punishment, that instead there will be more healthy, tasty food when it comes time to eat again. In many ways, I do eat intuitively. I just don’t practice intuitive eating in the full sense.

I suppose you could say that, if intuitive eating is like cycling, my avoidance of my binge foods is like stabilisers (or training wheels for the Americans). Sure, you’re never going to hit your cycling PBs with them on, but keeping them on a bit longer is ok if the alternative could be a fatal crash. Intuitive eating is about finding what works for you, what your body and spirit need and want in a given moment, what feels right. What feels right for me is to keep the stabilisers on for now. Maybe some day I won’t need them, but for now, they feel supportive, not restrictive. Like everyone else, I’ve got a lot going on and I just need to be able to keep pedaling.

A Sad, Quiet Yes

Back in 2015, I voted ‘yes’ to marriage equality with joy, and pride in my country. There was sadness and regret too; it was hard not to think how lesbian, gay and bisexual people had suffered – and still suffer – in this country. But this felt like a huge step in the right direction, a collective decision to acknowledge and embrace a long-marginalised community, and I, like much of the country, celebrated. On Friday next, I will vote ‘yes’ in the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment, but it feels different. If the people vote to make this change, I will be relieved rather than joyful. I am not pro-abortion any more than I am pro-antibiotics. These are not things I enjoy or celebrate. Even when they are the right answer, they’re not an easy answer. They are not without side effects, and I believe there are moral questions over their use, and the questions around antibiotic use pale in comparison to those around abortion. I’m not saying the two carry equal moral weight, just that I see each as, to a greater or lesser extent, a grim necessity rather than something to be celebrated.

I can’t imagine anybody celebrating the end of any pregnancy unless that end comes in the form of a healthy new baby. I don’t think anybody is ‘pro-abortion’ as such, and I certainly am not. I understand that many people sincerely believe the unborn baby is a person with a right to life. I am not sure that they are wrong. I would personally be very uncomfortable with the idea of a healthy mother terminating a healthy pregnancy at, say, 24 weeks. Babies are great. Bring on the babies, like. But I am suspicious of the attitude that seems to value ‘life’ as a pure, abstract concept to the point that it precludes an appreciation of the complexity of actual lives, actual people. How can someone value ‘Life’ so much that they would force a 13-year-old girl, pregnant through rape (and how else could a 13-year-old be pregnant, legally or morally speaking?) to carry a baby to term? Why is the unborn baby so important that its needs trump those of the actual, already living person carrying it? It smacks of a weird preference for the potential over the actual, a prioritising of ‘Life’ over somebody’s actual lived, embodied, conscious reality. I cannot pretend to know what is in the mind and heart of another person but sometimes it seems to me that pro-life advocates think the pregnant person has been sullied by the world and is beyond help, but this pure, clean, new Life might somehow be better and so deserves a chance.

I get why people are afraid of the consequences of repealing the eighth amendment, I really do. Personally, I am scared at the thought of a future in which the right to life rests on some utilitarian calculus. I hate the idea of poor women being forced to abort wanted pregnancies due simply to economic disadvantage. I find the idea of abortion as contraception disquieting, whether I think about the wellbeing of the baby or that of the pregnant person. I consider it tragic that people might feel unable to raise a child with special needs in our society, and that they might feel they have to terminate a wanted pregnancy on that basis. But these are hypotheticals — outcomes that MIGHT come about if we skidded obliviously down some theoretical slippery slope. They are not inevitable outcomes of a ‘yes’ vote. What is inevitable is that, if we vote ‘no’, we, as a society, will be completely unable to help pregnant people who desperately need to terminate their pregnancy, no matter how ‘good’ any of us might judge their reasons to be. The eighth amendment, and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy act, have not worked. If we want anything whatsoever to change in how we care for pregnant people, we must vote ‘yes’. In this referendum, ‘no’ is radical. ‘Yes’ is the middle ground. ‘Yes’ is the safe option. ‘Yes’ is the conservative, prudent choice. Perhaps, for you, like for me, it may be a slightly trepidatious ‘yes’. A ‘reluctant’ yes. A gritted-teeth ‘yes’. An I-don’t-trust-politicans ‘yes’.  A small, quiet ‘yes’.

Fine. So be it. Any ‘yes’ at all keeps our options open, individually and collectively. But a ‘no’ shuts off much-needed choices for individual girls and women, and for us as a society. After all this is over, when the posters have come down and the hashtags peter out, if we vote ‘yes’, it will still be possible to work to prevent abortion in almost all circumstances. There will still be charities, NGOs and civic groups crying out for resources to help families in difficult situations, trying to make it easier for people to raise children. There will still be scientists seeking to improve the outlook for mothers and babies in all kinds of pregnancies. There will still be opportunities to teach young people to deal with their sexuality in healthy and responsible ways. It will still be possible to eliminate the need for abortion in many cases, if that is what we truly want. Despite the rhetoric of the pro-life side, there are no ‘easy’ cases of unwanted pregnancy. If you are pregnant and cannot or do not want to continue the pregnancy, you are in a crisis pretty much by definition. If we repeal the 8th amendment, there is still so much we can do to drastically reduce the number of crisis pregnancies. But we will never be able to eliminate the need for abortion entirely. There will, tragically, always be cases of rape or incest, and cases where there is no prospect of a baby surviving outside the womb. If we vote ‘no’, there will be no way to help people in these so-called ‘hard’ cases. If we vote ‘yes’, we can still have a meaningful debate about how we, as a society, want to deal with reproductive ethics. We can still try to limit the need for abortion. We can still help both the unborn and the born. But if we vote ‘no’, there is no going back. There is no wiggle room, no ‘hard’ cases, no second chance. We will have made up our minds, and, in my view, we will have closed our hearts and minds in a sad and frightening way.

For me and most people of my generation, the ‘yes’ to marriage equality was an easy, joyful, unequivocal ‘yes’. This time around, it may not feel quite so celebratory. But it is, if anything, even more necessary. This is life and death.

Sugar sugar

Today, the tax on sugar-sweetened drinks (SSDs) comes into effect in Ireland. This will mean a 2 litre bottle of Coca Cola, for example, will cost 60 cent more. On balance, I welcome this move. It is clear that we consume too much sugar, and that this is particularly injurious to the health of children. On its own, this measure will not eliminate any threat to the health of the population, but – with rare exceptions such as vaccination programs – this is not how public health campaigns work. Instead, public health is improved by subjecting a given threat to a death of a thousand cuts. The decline in smoking prevalence, for example, cannot be attributed solely to the workplace smoking ban, or to the provision of supports for smoking cessation, or to the increased tax on cigarettes, or to packaging and advertising laws. But taken together, measures like these have a significant impact. The tax on SSDs could function in the same way: Alone, it won’t dramatically reduce the amount of excess sugar consumption, but in conjunction with other interventions, it just might have a positive effect. If I had any doubts about the effectiveness of these taxes, they are put to rest by the fact that the industry opposes them. Their opposition suggests to me that they believe it can reduce consumption, and they, with their billion dollar market research budgets, should know.

So SSD taxes might play a part in reducing excess sugar consumption. Good. I’m all in favour of that. But. But. The point of the SSD tax is not to reduce consumption of sugar; it is, we are told, to reduce childhood obesity. This is where I find myself getting uncomfortable. I believe this is harmful to both slim and fat people. First, when public health messaging constantly links SSD taxes with obesity, it sends the message that SSDs and other high-sugar ‘foods’ like sweets and cakes are only bad for you if they make you fat. It is the case that, if you are genetically predisposed to weight gain, environmental and behavioural factors will cause you to gain weight. But it doesn’t follow that SSDs and other sugary junk are perfectly safe to consume as long as they don’t cause you to gain weight, and it is disingenuous to push this message on parents and the public in general.

In fact, there are lots of good reasons not to let children consume too much sugar, even if they never become overweight. For one thing, the link between sugar and tooth decay is well established. But I think there are deeper worries that deserve consideration here too. I admit this is somewhat intuitive, and requires both more evidence and more argument than I can give here, but my sense is that it is just not healthy to encourage children to develop a taste for extremely sweet junk foods many of which are, in my opinion, deliberately engineered to be ‘more-ish’. I think there is a danger that letting kids consume these things on a regular basis inhibits their ability to appreciate real, healthy food, and disrupts the natural relationship between their bodies, food and drinks. If you are constantly consuming high-calorie ‘foods’ that don’t give you a feeling of satiety, mightn’t this affect your ability to regulate your behaviour in response to hunger and satiety cues? This is potentially most dangerous to families in poverty, who may lack the resources to make a habit of eating fresh, home-cooked food. (Imagine trying to avoid giving your kids SSDs and sugary, processed foods while living in emergency accommodation.) As has been pointed out time and again, unless it is accompanied by measures to improve health education and access to good food, an SSD tax is basically just another regressive tax, impacting hardest on those who can least afford it. In short, the idea that SSDs – and rubbishy ‘treats’ in general – are fine as long as you don’t get fat seems potentially harmful to me.

But if this messaging is potentially harmful to slim people (and slim children in particular), it is even more harmful to fat people, including overweight and fat children. This is because it reinforces the stigmatising conflation of unhealthy eating with fatness. Yet again, our public health institutions are pushing the notion that, if you are fat, you must be over-consuming, and if you are not fat, your consumption must be fine. Yet again, we are being encouraged (subtly, implicitly) to consider weight as the be-all, end-all of health, and to consider fatness as the greatest threat to our collective health. Yet again, fat people – including children – are being constructed as the living embodiment of all that is wrong with western society. But, it is not clear that fatness is always so dangerous, and it is not clear that weight loss is the best or only solution to the problems that are associated with overweight and obesity. In fact, many of those who maintain clinically-significant weight loss certainly would not look slim or healthy to the average person on the street, who has learned what ‘healthy’ looks like from our public health messaging. In short, as fat acceptance advocates are weary from saying, you can’t tell how healthy somebody is just by looking at them. Yet governments and others, whether by accident or design, keep pushing the idea that body size and shape are clear and direct manifestations of over-eating, under-exercising and other unhealthy behaviours. This contributes to the shame and stigma experienced by fat people. Shame and stigma are harmful in themselves, and they are not good motivators for positive behavioural change of any sort.

This kind of problematic anti-obesity messaging is presumably justified on the grounds that it leads to an overall improvement in the health of the population and that this is good for individuals. I think of this as ‘trickle-down’ ethics, and to me it is just as worrisome as its economic counterpart. Just as, in Reaganomic-type economies, the money stops trickling down well before it reaches those who need it most, so the benefits of anti-obesity policies do not make it to fat people. Rather, I suggest, public health anti-obesity messaging is extremely harmful to actual fat people. In short, while this tax may be a good thing for our collective health, the way it has been announced and justified seems to be yet another case of an ‘anti-obesity’ policy that looks, walks and quacks like an ‘anti-obese-people’ policy.

Phenomenal

My preferred method of philosophy is phenomenology. “What is philosophy?” and “What is phenomenology?” are love-hate questions for me. I want to explain, because I think they’re beautiful and important. But they’re so beautiful and important that, no matter what I say, it seems clumsy and ignorant and ugly compared to the answer I feel I should be able to give. But, feck it, we’re on snow lockdown here — and my health has not been great lately so I don’t have any interesting new fitness activities to reflect on — so here goes. What is phenomenology, you ask? Well…

A lot of people seem to like the idea of phenomenology. It has been taken up in disciplines like psychology and nursing studies, where researchers want to do serious theoretical research without getting too far away the real experiences of actual people who might be affected by their research. Philosophy can often seem arcane and confusing, so there is something appealing about a method of philosophy that prioritises concrete experience over abstract theory. But there is more to phenomenology than just talking about individual experiences. To do phenomenology is not just to pay attention to experience, but to carefully and critically sift through that experience, looking for patterns and structures, thinking not just about particular experiences but about experience in general.

There are different ways of doing phenomenology, but what they all have in common is that focus on direct experience. My kind of phenomenology is that described by Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century. Husserl said that every experience we have can be a source of real, certain knowledge – if we learn how to analyse it properly. Lots of people are familiar with Descartes’ famous claim, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes meant that I cannot fail to believe in my own existence, because even by doubting that I exist, I’m proving that I exist. I might be completely mistaken about my true nature – maybe I’m dreaming, maybe I’m in the Matrix, maybe I’m a Cylon … – but I must be something because something must be doing this wondering right now. For Husserl, this was the beginning of a whole new approach to philosophy. Descartes (according to Husserl) went off on the wrong track, trying to use logic and inference to argue that if I exist, other things must also be true. But Husserl thought that, instead of trying to use my existence as logical proof of something else, I could just stay with the experience itself, and examine it to see what else it might be able to teach me.

In a way, Husserlian phenomenology is a bit like mindfulness meditation. (Oddly, I don’t mind talking about meditation even though I’m absolutely not an expert and I’m almost certainly getting it wrong or only giving a very limited account of it. I suppose I feel with philosophy and phenomenology I should be able to explain, but with mindfulness, it’s okay that I’m not an expert.) In meditation, as I understand it, we try to simply be receptive to our experience as it comes to us, without judgement, without getting caught up in stories of the past or the future. We try to simply be with what is here now. We focus on what it is like to be breathing, what it is like to have hands or feet, what it is like to be able to hear sounds or watch a candle flame. It doesn’t matter what we focus on. Meditation (at least in the Buddhist-influenced mindfulness tradition as it’s come to be taught in the west) is not about withdrawal from the world. It is not about falling asleep. It is about waking up to the present moment. The same is true of phenomenology. The goal is see what is really given in experience. Husserl says we need to ‘bracket’ our assumptions and prejudices. We can’t just decide not to have them. They are there. But we can choose not to act as if they are true. A person in the desert might realise that the oasis she sees in the distance is probably just a mirage, but that doesn’t mean her experience of the mirage vanishes. She might still see it. But she can choose not to waste her energy trying to get to it. In the same way, in meditation, I might have a thought that I need to immediately get up from my cushion and go running off to make a phone call or take out the rubbish or whatever. But I can recognise that this is just a thought and I can choose not to act on it. I can choose to stay on the cushion for a few more minutes, knowing that the phone and the rubbish will still be there when I’m finished. I can choose not to waste energy on fighting the thought. I don’t have to tell myself I’m a failure for getting distracted. I can just let the thought be there, but refrain from acting on it.

Phenomenology, as Husserl describes it, can be said to begin with a kind of philosophical meditation. In order to do phenomenological investigation, I start with my own experience, as best I can letting it all be there, without assuming it is real or illusory, without feeling I need to rush to argue with it or act on it. In meditation, if I am focusing on my breathing, I’m focusing on my experience of breath. My goal is not to think about breathing. I’m not trying to label my breathing with words (shallow, deep, even, ragged), and I’m not trying to figure out how breathing works from a biological point of view. I may find myself doing these things, but once I realise I’m doing them, I gently try to shift my focus back to the direct experience itself.

Meditation works by accepting that we cannot stop thoughts or distractions or reactions, but we can cultivate a state of mind in which we are able to ‘wake up’ again and again. Over time, we become more awake, more able to stay with our experience itself. Phenomenology is a method of applying this ‘woken up’ state to philosophical questions. It starts with the recognition that we never get outside our own experience. Even when we think we’re being ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’, this is just another kind of experience. That doesn’t make it wrong or illusory, but it does mean I must be careful to distinguish what is really happening in the experience from what I am just assuming about it.

Like meditation, phenomenology reveals that our experience is more all-encompassing than we think, but also more limited than we think. If I look out the window, I can only see one side of my neighbour’s house, but I experience this as a whole house. When I look out the window, I don’t think, “Oh look, the neighbour’s put up that Blazing Saddles fake house façade again today.” I really do experience the whole house – and any knowledge or access to this house that I ever have will always come to me via some form of experience. Yet even if I explored it from foundation to attic, I could only ever see the house in partial, fragmented views. We could go hard-line sceptical and say this means all our experience is some kind of crazy delusion. Or we can take this as a pretty useful piece of knowledge: Whatever houses are, this is how they are experienced.

Meditation and phenomenology are not the same in every respect. They don’t always have the same goals. Phenomenology can be used for strictly academic purposes, while meditation is often undertaken for spiritual reasons. But both meditation and phenomenology can be seen as philosophical methods. Philosophy is, literally, etymologically, the love of wisdom. What is wisdom but the ability to know and accept what really is, as it is, in all its isness?