Are you someone who stashes food in hidden nooks around the house so you can eat in peace? Do you hoard cookies, cakes, chips, and other yummy stuff so you can eat in privacy away from prying eyes? Are you a closet eater?
At around age twelve I learned to eat in the closet, literally. I adored sweets. Before school I'd fake like I'd eaten a bowl of cereal by putting a few flakes and a dash of milk in the bowl and deposit it in the sink. Then I'd get into my father's Tupperware (tm) cookie container and take 10 Oreos up to my bedroom and savor them privately, in my walk-in closet...with guilt. I was 5'2" 105 pounds. I was athletic, popular, and it never occured to me to throw up. I wanted to lose 5 pounds. But I wasn't about to give up cookies to do it.
What drove me into the closet was shame. Disapproving looks came first. Then words. Early on questions from my parents and relatives like, "Are you sure you want a second helping?" "Do you want to eat that?" "What, another cookie?" turned me into a sneak. I wanted to eat where I could enjoy myself. In private.
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I ate because of the luxurious deliciousness of sugar. I ate for the pleasure of companionship with other girls my age when we bought Ho Hos and Ding Dongs and boxes of Entenmann's cookies and talked for hours together about intimate things. Dessert and confidential conversations became synonymous with the creation of a secret world, the secret world of girls, soft and dreamy, behind locked bedroom doors where we could share our thoughts -- without adult intrusion or snooping. This was short lived.
The intrusion of mothers came by example. One chubby mother would eat a whole box of chocolates and then say, "I hate myself." Another friend's slim mother would smoke cigarettes at the kitchen table lost in thought, easy in our presence, while my friend and I would eat home made bialys smeared with lox and cream cheese happily chattering away.
In time I came to recognize the difference between self destruction and punishment through food and eating food for nourishment and deepening the bonds of intimacy through shared experience and pleasure.
But I still have remnants of the sneak eating. The other day I bought a flourless chocolate cake for my book group meeting at our home. There were a few pieces left over so I put them in the laundry room out of sight so I would only eat a piece if I really wanted it. I found myself waiting until my sweetie left the kitchen to seek out those last morsels. I caught myself feeling the familiar impulse to hide.
So I put the cake back and waited until he returned and then ate a piece while enjoying his company. I'm building new neural pathways in my brain to eradicate the shame. Continuing to associate the pleasure of companionship with the enjoyment of food gives me those same good feelings I had with my girlfriends, filmy, fluid and fun. I even tell my sweetie a secret or two over pudding, lemon curd, or cake, and feel good about it.
Susan Harrow is the author of Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul. She runs a Media Consultancy where she helps everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to celebrity chefs, entrepreneurs to authors grow their business through media coaching and the power of PR. For more