Sitting in an airport terminal a few weeks back, I found myself drawn – more by sheer proximity than by particular interest – into a conversation playing out between two women reclining against a row of seats a few feet to my right.
“I’m trying not to binge,” the brown-haired woman was telling the gray-haired woman with a hint of sheepish self-recrimination in her voice. “But it’s so hard!”
Needless to say, her lamentation got my quick and undivided attention. The contemporary curse of uber-connectedness verily guarantees that we’ll regularly be unintentionally privy to confessionals not intended for us, but it never stops astonishing me.
In airports, in cafes, on street corners, life is going on, right before one’s very ears. We are up in each other’s business like it’s nobody’s business, and it’s hard not to listen in. Especially when you’re a writer. And especially when some stranger a few steps away has just confessed to an eating disorder.
I felt awash with pity for this woman, for her battles. How she must struggle. How we all do struggle! I pitied her. I admired her. She looked so road-weary and resolute, sitting there in that charmless airport terminal, leaning in to receive her friend’s support and sympathy.
The gray-haired woman was nodding enthusiastically in agreement. “I know what you mean, though,” she replied confidentially. “Game of Thrones is so addictive!”
I’ve never had an eating disorder, per se, but growing up female in the Western world represents its own kind of undifferentiated body dysmorphic disorder, specific assigned pathology or none.
I haven’t starved myself, but I’ve certainly toyed with crash diets: cabbage soup, crudités, calorie restriction, nothing but fiber bars and Slimfast for a week or so straight until I passed out in an antiques store.
I’ve haven’t ever binged and purged, but I’ve certainly felt ashamed and uncomfortable after over-indulging. I’ve certainly felt guilty and gigantic and ill after scarfing down a fistful of cookies or half a cheese pizza. Certainly, the thought of vomiting it all back up has crossed my mind.
I haven’t ever hated my body, but to be honest, I’ve never liked it all that much, either, and every time I hear someone use the phrase “binge-watching” to refer to their all-at-once consumption of a television program, it makes me squirm. It makes me think of all the ways I’ve ever felt out of control, of all of the things I’ve ever wanted to expel from my insides but lacked the ultimate gumption to exorcise.
Runaway consumption is, apparently, very much of the mode these days. Insatiable, unapologetic, unmitigated consumption.
I hail from the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve definitely noticed a recent embracing of all things gluttonous. Everyone is stupidly obsessed with cheese and fatty pork products. Hipsters even sport tattoos of bacon and other cuts of swine on their calves and forearms, like a boast or an injunction. Potbellies are par for the course.
Sausage, fried chicken and waffles abound, and When a Portland restaurant puts a triple-decker egg-sausage-cheese biscuit smothered in gravy on its menu, it earns itself a write-up in the food-section of every newspaper and magazine in town. (Hello, Pine State!) Food comas are things of honor.
I just don’t get it. Yes, fried chicken is tasty. Yes, cheese is glorious. But didn’t we all agree some decades ago that they sort of, well, kill you?
Calling someone a “gourmand” used to be an insult. Now it’s a testament to a person’s ability to relish life. But excess isn’t a boon. It’s just … excessive.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a rant about fat people. I am by no means ultra-thin myself, and I loathe fat-shaming. What I take hearty issue with is any socio-cultural zeitgeist that feeds itself on fat jokes and perpetuates the cheap humor of offhand references to bingeing and purging.
This is a rant about a popular culture that sees eating disorders and our contemporary struggle to mitigate the excess as fodder for cheap giggles.
A few years ago, when I was still working as a journalist, I wrote a story about several people who had lost massive amounts of weight over the courses of their lifetimes.
Jeannie’s problems began when, as a teenager in the ‘70s, she read in an issue of The Inquirer about a new diet Elizabeth Taylor invented: you chewed up food – any food, and as much as you wanted – and then you spit it out instead of swallowing it. Voila! Weight problems solved. Jeannie gave it a try, and soon she was battling full-blown bulimia. She’d wolf down cartons of ice cream and jars of peanut butter, then she’d purge. After awhile, the vomiting became involuntary. She was fired from a job at a bank because she got caught hiding food in her bank till. By 21, Jeannine feared for her life.
I also interviewed Bob, a man who had lost 250 pounds and had managed to keep it off for almost four decades – a rare feat among the morbidly obese.
How had he beat the odds? He reinvented himself as a health and weight-loss coach, and he banned junk foods of any kind from his cupboards and his line of sight. Having them on hand was just too tempting.
“A saint I ain’t!” Bob told me in his gravelly voice. “I set my environments up so I don’t have to have a lot of supreme strength … Small things add up or down.”
This concept – that little things still matter in the big picture – seems to be getting lost these days.
But, oh, how I tend toward the overblown. Binge-watching. Maybe it’s just a clever term for a modern penchant to consume our entertainment media in massive, super-sized quantities. It’s clever, visually striking, and it neatly packages up two great weaknesses: food and television. Both, most often, of the junky variety.
Does it really matter what we call anything? I think it does. I think it matters a lot.
Every single time I hear the term “binge-watching,” I think of Jeannie and Bob. I think of the time in junior high when I consumed nothing but peanuts and Snapple for a week and I think of time a month or so ago when I ate a whole bag of barbecue-flavored potato chips in two days and felt so ashamed that I hid the bag in the bottom of the trash so my partner wouldn’t see. I think of all the times I have felt addicted, fat, ugly and clean out of will-power.
Poking at the sources of our collective social shame with the sharp stick of cultural co-optation is short-sighted, and even a bit cruel. It may be too much to ask for us to stop congratulating-and-then-flagellating ourselves on our collective excesses.
But can we please, please, please at least just stop referring to our television-watching marathons as “Binge-Watching”?
It’s making me sick to my stomach. This is not a funny re-appropriation of terms. It’s a huge, sad, saggy expression that carts behind it a truckload of painful cultural baggage.
Are we really not clever enough to think of a better euphemism?
“Oh, man, I just finished an excessive bout of media consumption” doesn’t roll off the tongue, I know. So how about calling it a “media mind-meld” or something? Or maybe we refer to the act of excessive, all-at-once television consumption as “Mike Teavee-ing” it, a la the pint-sized, television-obsessed terror dreamed up by that old conjurer Roald Dahl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? He gobbled up spaghetti Westerns like they were literal noodles and then was dashed into a million tiny fragments when he tried to transmit himself by Television Chocolate camera.
Don’t like those stand-ins? Coin a better one. I’m all ears and eyes.
Our words matter. And the small things really do add up or down, infinitely, infinitely, infinitely.