On her new talk show yesterday Katie Couric admitted to struggling with bulimia as a young woman. She did it during an interview with Demi Lovato, who has also spoken openly about her bulimia and other mental health struggles. For someone as famously disciplined as Couric to join the more vulnerable young star was winningly candid, and what she had to say will sound familiar to many women:
I wrestled with bulimia all through college and for two years after that. And I know this rigidity, this feeling that if you eat one thing that’s wrong, you’re full of self-loathing and then you punish yourself, whether it’s one cookie or a stick of gum that isn’t sugarless, that I would sometimes beat myself up for that.
How do you have a healthy relationship with food, and say, “You know what, I can have one cookie and it’s OK?” That is such a huge thing for people who wrestle with this.
It seems to me that not culturally demonizing the cookie—and, of course, ourselves for liking cookies—is part of that healthy relationship with food. It’s hard to go a day without hearing someone say they’re being “bad” for eating a doughnut (or bread, or anything that isn’t undressed raw kale). In our story 13 Ways to Help Build Your Daughter’s Self-Esteem, Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair notes that when moms routinely moralize their food intake (“I was terrible today—I had pizza”) they undermine their daughters’ developing self-esteem by focusing on appearance. After all, cookies aren’t unethical. They might not be as nutritious as a salad, but that doesn’t make them bad.
Katie Couric’s comment reminded me of an anti-obesity ad that you might have read about in The Atlantic or seen if you live in Minnesota, where it’s being aired. The ad shows an overweight woman shopping at a grocery story with her overweight daughter, each loading up a cart with soft drinks, snacks, sugary cereal, and pails of ice cream. It’s a good ad with a good message: We are passing down our unhealthy eating habits to the next generation. But it’s hard not to also get the message that ice cream = fat, which is problematic. When I was a kid my family got ice cream in pails like this, and we ate it occasionally and in reasonable portions. We didn’t feel guilty for eating ice cream, nor should we have. We weren’t doing anything wrong.
Our society tells women that being fat is just about the worst thing you can be. I guarantee there are young girls out there watching this commercial and telling themselves that skinny girls don’t eat ice cream. I wish the message was more overtly about nutrition and exercise instead of about “bad” foods. Otherwise, obesity or not, we’re still passing on our unhealthy eating habits.