Compulsive Overeating: All the Addiction, None of the Street Cred

Caitlin Moran's personal essay "I Know Why the Fat Lady Sings," calls compulsive overeating "the most pointlessly secret of miseries" for women.

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Caitlin Moran's personal essay "I Know Why the Fat Lady Sings," calls compulsive overeating "the most pointlessly secret of miseries" for women. Her words continue to make the Facebook, Twitter, and angry-commenter rounds, two days after they were published in The Wall Street Street Journal.

The discussion surrounding Moran's words, excerpted from her book How to be a Woman, may actually prove Moran's point: Despite our culture's obsession with food and weight loss, we are still uncomfortable placing food in the context of addiction.

In her essay, Moran says that people compulsively overeat for the same reasons they take drugs, but that we are more quick to accept, and even fetishize, the idea of the drug-addicted rockstar.

Of all the overwhelming compulsions you can be ruined by, all of them have some potential for some perverted, self-destructive fascination—except eating.

She makes it clear that she is not talking about "cheerful greed," the kind of overindulgence that has become a celebrated part of American culture, like eating one too many hotdogs at an Independence Day cookout.

No—I'm talking about those for whom the whole idea of food isn't one of pleasure, but one of compulsion. For whom thoughts of food, and the effects of food, are the constant, dreary background static to normal thought. Those who walk into the kitchen in a state bordering on panic and breathlessly eat slice after slice of bread and butter—not even tasting it—until the panic can be drowned in an almost meditative routine of chewing and swallowing, spooning and swallowing.

She calls overeating the addiction choice of "carers," or people who funnel their addictive tendencies into something that won't inconvenience anyone other than themselves.

In a nutshell, then, by choosing food as your drug—sugar highs, or the deep, soporific calm of carbs—you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, stop in on your parents and then stay up all night with an ill 5-year-old—something that is not an option if you're regularly climbing into the cupboard under the stairs and knocking back quarts of scotch...And that is why it's so often a woman's addiction of choice.

It's not like food addiction is something we never discuss. Recent studies found that binge eaters' brains surge with dopamine at the sight and smell of food, in the same way that cocaine addicts' brains respond to lines on a mirror. A June opinion piece in The New York Times said that binge eating is not only a human phenomenon: Tamarin monkeys often consume so many berries in one sitting that they overwhelm their intestines and excrete the berries whole. And it's hard to ignore the recent pop culture attention given to the addiction: overeating factored into the most recent seasons of both Girls and Mad Men.

But the magic of narrative television is that it can tackle the complexities of an issue without saying its name. Without giving us the framework to categorically object to the term "food addiction."

In the churn of the news-cycle, much more attention is paid to fat and fat loss than to the reasons why we're fat. This may be in part because of the secrecy that Moran discusses. There's also an obvious factor: you can't get clean from food, unless you intend to starve.

Food abstinence in not an option. You can't cut off ties with dealers, who are everywhere, and police aren't even on the hunt for them. It's much easier to explain how to do a side plank, or the six new ways to cut down on your carb intake, than how to face your psychological demons.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.