Food and Feelings

by Mary Montaut

Although there seems to be a reasonable consensus among the various
 humanistic theories of psychotherapy that early feeding experiences are of 
the most vital importance to the development of a person’s psychology,  I 
believe there is nevertheless a good deal of reluctance among therapists to
 explore the issues around food which are so often presented by clients. It 
is commonly said, for instance, that humanistic psychotherapy is not very 
effective in helping people with eating disorders. Perhaps part of the
 reason for this could be that food is taken as a metaphor – we speak of 
’comfort eating’ as if food in itself were not a genuine source of comfort 
[hot soup on a cold night]. We may describe our therapy sessions as 
’nourishment’. Conversely, we use hunger and starvation as metaphors to
 indicate very complex clusters of ideas about masochism, control and
 conflicted relationships. I feel that it may be helpful for once to return 
some of these metaphorical uses to their literal significances, and look 
again at some of the theoretical ideas from which the metaphors spring.

Perhaps the best-known theoretical statements about the importance of
 food in the establishment of a person’s psychology occur in the work of 
Melanie Klein. Writing about the development of object relations in very 
young babies, she says: “…the attitude towards food is fundamentally 
bound up with the relation to the mother and involves the whole of the 
infant’s emotional life…” [Melanie Klein, ‘The Behaviour of Young Infants’ 
in Envy and Gratitude and other works, 1946-63, (1975) Hogarth Press.]
 Within this large claim, she differentiates the baby’s experience of food
 into two types: from ‘good breast’ or ‘bad breast’. In her view, the basic 
tenets of personality are laid down in the way the child develops
 emotionally through this schizoid phase. “…Let us take inhibitions and 
anxieties about food… The anxiety of absorbing dangerous substances 
destructive to one’s inside will be paranoiac, while the anxiety of 
destroying the external good objects by biting and chewing, or of
 endangering the internal good object by introducing bad substances from 
outside into it, will be depressive…” [Melanie Klein, ‘The Psychogenesis of
 Manic-Depressive States’ in Love, Guilt and Reparation and other works
 1921-45, (1975) Hogarth Press.] Klein thus evolves the concept of a 
complete emotional life around food which is fundamental to the later 
development of personality. She is also consistent in her analyses, in that 
she enquires about the feeding habits of her patients when they were 
babies:….”He had had an exceptionally unsatisfactory and disturbed time 
as a sucking infant, for his mother kept up for some weeks a fruitless
 attempt to nurse him, and he nearly died of starvation…” [Melanie Klein
, ‘The Importance of Symbol Formation in Ego Development’ in Love, Guilt
 and Reparation]. Information about this disturbed feeding relationship
 enables her to interpret aspects of the current behaviour of her patient as
 metaphorical expressions of that original relationship. Perhaps it is the fact 
that food is uniquely an object which can be eaten up to become part of
 ourselves, thereby crossing the boundary of separation between object and
 subject, that enables her to derive so many strong metaphors about 
personality from these early experiences.

She uses these metaphors, I think, to re-invent an unseparated relationship 
with the (mother’s) breast, thereby solipsistically enforcing her statement
 that ‘the whole of the emotional life of the infant’ is bound up with food 
and feeding.

In her poem, Dreaming the Breasts, Anne Sexton seems to relive the various complexities of the Kleinian relationship with the mother’s breasts:

Dreaming the Breasts

strange-goddess face-
above my milky home,
that delicate asylum,
I ate you up.
All my need took
you down like a meal.
What you gave
I remember in a dream:
the freckled arms binding me,
the laugh somewhere over my woolly hat,
the blood fingers tying my shoe,
the breasts hanging down like two bats
and then darting at me,
bending me down.
The breasts I knew at midnight
beat like the sea in me now.
Mother, I put bees in my mouth
to keep from eating
yet it did you no good.
In the end they cut off your breasts
and milk poured from them
into the surgeon’s hand
and he embraced them.
I took them from him
and planted them.
I have put a padlock
on you, Mother, dear dead human,
so that your great bells,
those dear white ponies,
can go galloping, galloping
wherever you are.
[Anne Sexton, Collected Poems]

Although I expect that Anne Sexton had never read Melanie Klein’s works, the cluster of emotions which she explores in this poem matches exactly Klein’s theory of the feelings of young infants about feeding. The extremely wonderful and idealized figure of the nurturant mother as the milky goddess of the first verse immediately gives rise to the shocking, “ate you up” – followed by less comfortable emotions and memories of mother’s arms ‘binding’ her and her breasts, now like ‘bats’, aggressively ‘darting’ at the child. Immediately in the next verse, Sexton struggles to re-
imagine the ideal mother (‘breasts I knew at midnight’), but this time the vision is coloured by guilt; she even ‘put bees in my mouth’ to stop herself from eating (the mother) – ‘yet it did you no good.’ We learn that the mother died anyway, of breast cancer. The guilt remains dominant, mixed up with grief and loss.

This cluster of conflicting emotions in the infant, which Klein explores in many papers, is generally accepted by her and by other theorists to be of vital importance to the development of a healthy personality in the child. The fact that what is entailed is a complex, lifelong relationship to food, as well as to other ‘objects’, is rarely examined with the care which is lavished on the development of other aspects of ourselves, such as our sexuality or our intelligence. At the same time, food provides a frequent metaphor for those other aspects of our development; we talk of ‘food for thought’ and ‘sexual appetite’ almost without noticing the old image we are coining, But it seems to me that this constant reliance on the metaphor of food/nourishment in talking about all sorts of other things may in turn make it difficult for us to  focus food and nourishment in themselves. The feelings of guilt in Sexton’s poem when she realizes, ‘I ate you up,’ seem to be reinforced in all eating; paradoxically, she tries to stop eating to save her mother. Falling back into an unseparated and schizoid place, she becomes trapped in the Kleinian ‘depressive’ position, and her attempts at reparation (in planting the severed breasts and padlocking the mother away) seem to fail. The bells/bats/breasts must gallop away.

Klein has very little to say about what a woman may feel about the situation; she notes failures in mothering as if they were impersonal, avoiding actual blame. Yet one is left with the feeling that it is a very risky system. On the other hand, Winnicott, although he subscribes to the same theory that the basic object relation is with the breast and food (rather than with a whole human being, mother), traces in some feelings on the mother’s part as well. “… the sense of achievement which the mother may feel when physiology and anatomy … suddenly make sense and she is able to deal with the fear that the baby will eat her by finding that in fact she has something called milk with which to fob the baby off.” [D.W. Winnicott, Babies & their Mothers, 1988, Free Association Books]. He seems concerned to reassure women that they can be food, without being themselves destroyed. In many papers, he emphasises the need for the breast to withstand destruction, to survive the ‘breast feeding orgy’ and aggression of the young baby. But like Klein, he views the whole matter primarily from the baby’s point of view (which must be imaginary, in all cases). He describes an almost mystical ability which women naturally have, to ‘sense’ when the baby begins to want food, and he puts any failures in this department down to the undermining effect of social conditioning on women. For him, as for Klein, the main reason why it is so important for the breast (mother) to survive is so that the child’s development from the schizoid (good/bad breast) position and through the depressive (‘I ate you up’) position is not impeded.

This aspect of the relationship to food has provided much material for feminist discussion. I was interested to notice that, in her landmark of a book on Mothering (1978), Nancy Chodorow has no index entries under ‘breast’, ‘milk’ or ‘food’, though she does include ‘nurturance.’ Her basic case is that mothering is a socially-controlled and conventional activity which, under the present patriarchal system, necessarily disserves women. Similar ideas are also aired in a book which openly and deliberately tackles food issues, Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue (1978): “…If a woman’s social role is to become a mother, nurturing – feeding the family in the widest possible sense – is a mother’s central job… The mother, who has been prepared for a life of giving, finds her feeding, nurturing and child-rearing capacity – so integral to her success in her social role – satisfied. She needs to be needed and has indeed fulfilled herself as a ‘good mother’ by attentively feeding her child…

Within the whole spectrum of nurturing activities expected of mothers, physical feeding is the most fundamental – indeed, instinctive. A mother’s breasts provide food for her children, virtually without any conscious act on her own part… “There does not seem to be any basic difference between this view of women’s ‘instinct’ and Winnicott’s belief that women ‘sense’ and can therefore fulfil their babies’ needs. It is a bit like those fantasies we find in some children’s books, of food which wants to be eaten. “Eat-me,” says the magic mushroom in Alice in Wonderland. But this very idea, at first so alluring, rebounds of course when the mushroom alters your state of mind.

The most potent of these images of dangerous foods must be the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, much suspected by feminists: “The woman tempted me and I did eat,” as Germaine Greer quotes [in The Female Eunuch, 1971] to prove how much Adam hated Eve. I find it startling to realize that here too, in the most vehement of feminist analysis, food can never represent itself, it always ends up as good or bad, as mother, as social repression, as anything almost except food. And yet, our theoretical base was surely that in some very profound way, it is the relation to actual food which is fundamental and the other structures of values are in fact metaphors derived from this. In more process-orientated theories, it is the activity of feeding which provides the basic metaphors. I was extremely struck by the following passage in Fritz Perls’ Ego, Hunger & Aggression, a Beginning of Gestalt Therapy (1947, rev 1969), which I quote at length:

“… Let me once more explain in brief the fundamental difference between the pre-dental and dental stages. The suckling is actively concentrated on one action only – the hanging-on bite. This hanging-on bite means the creation of a vacuum which is similar to that of a rubber cap when pressed against a window. There is no need to hold it there as long as the suction action continues. After the preliminary hanging-on bite, the conscious activity of the baby ceases. The suckling, to keep up the vacuum continues with unconscious, subcortical movements… Suckling needs only a short spell of concentration, while the adult, in his need for coping with solid food, has to concentrate during the entire eating process. The proper assimilation of solid food requires the continuous and conscious concentration on the destruction, the taste, and the ‘feel’ of the permanently changing ingested material. It is of no use attempting to correct one’s eating until this fundamental difference is completely understood. This should not be difficult, as at some time you must have seen a greedy, impatient eater behaving like a suckling, displaying real interest in the food only before the meal; as soon as he sits down at the table, his behaviour shows the characteristics of the hanging-on bite; he
 concentrates only on the first taste … He will never gain independence, the confluence with his environment being as desirable to him as the confluence with its mother is to the drinking suckling. The feeling of individuality which demands the awareness of separating boundaries has not been achieved. Or else, an artificial wall, represented by the tightening of the mouth, the refusal to have any contact with the world at all, has been built, leading to loneliness, lack of interest and contact, misanthropy and boredom… What methods have we at our disposal to sail through the Scylla of confluence and the Charybdis of seclusion? How can we achieve that change which makes such substance of the outside world as we require our own, without becoming Nazi-like destructionists? How do we set out to achieve the transition from the pre-dental to the dental stage? The answer is simple: we have to use our teeth.

“… To understand and assimilate the world you have to make full use of your teeth. Learn to cut right through until the front teeth meet. If you are in the habit of tearing and nibbling, get out of it. If you tear your food apart instead of biting through it, you remain in a state of confluence instead of contact… This concerns especially those people who cannot make a clean cut, who cannot bite off their share of it… If you are afraid to hurt people, to attack them, to say ‘No’ when the situation demands it, you should attend to the following exercise: imagine yourself biting a piece of flesh out of someone’s body…”

In a number of ways, this passage from Perls relies on the same assumptions about the child’s early emotional life as Klein has postulated; the alternatives of ‘confluence’ and ‘seclusion’ can be easily viewed as parallelling the feelings she believes the infant must have towards the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ breasts. I therefore found it very interesting to realize that Perls is quite seriously advocating changing our eating habits as a form of therapy – not the food itself, of course, that is not his focus, but the way in which the food is devoured. At the end of this passage, he encourages us to imagine taking a cannibal bite out of the person we must resist if we are to maintain our individuality. How strikingly this compares to the observation which Klein makes about the emotional conflicts experienced by the young infant moving in and out of the schizoid position:

“… The object world of the child in the first two or three months of its life could be described as consisting of hostile and persecuting, or else of gratifying parts and portions of the real world. Before long the child perceives more and more of the whole person of the mother, and this more realistic perception extends to the world beyond the mother… But when this happens, its sadistic phantasies and feelings, especially its cannibalistic ones, are at their height…” [from ‘The Psychogenesis of
 Manic-Depressive States’, op. cit.]

In some way, it is as if Perls believes that we never lose the right to eat another person up, that the guilt which haunts Anne Sexton as she dreams of her mother’s breasts could be overcome if she would only take the bees out of her mouth and learn to bite properly. If only she would overcome her fear of hurting her mother, she could separate and establish herself independently, he infers. In all this, of course, Perls sensibly relies on the fact that people do not usually let other people bite them – but the feminist case, and the case put by Winnicott, is that nursing mothers suspend this basic law of individual self-defence and agree to be eaten. For Orbach and Chodorow, this collusion provides the model for all the other social disadvantages which women suffer:

“… A mother’s fears of inadequacy may cause her to overfeed her child by feeding it automatically every time it cries, just as her resentment at being its sole nurse may make her neglect it… If the early distortion in the feeding relationship is attributable to the social forces present in the mother-
daughter relationship, then this will be as true for our mothers as daughters, and our mother’s mothers as daughters.

As long as a patriarchal culture demands that women bring up their daughters to accept an inferior social position, the mother’s job will be fraught with tension and confusion which are often made manifest in the way mothers and daughters interact over the subject of food.” [Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue, 1978]

It is interesting to compare this account of the arrangement with Winnicott’s notion of the relief mothers may feel at being able to ‘fob off’ the baby with milk, because at bottom they seem to me to be the same; there is some anomaly present which makes it necessary to postulate a totally exceptional psychology to enable women to feed their infants. In Winnicott’s view, this exceptional state is strictly temporary:

“… a special ability, which (mothers) lose after a few months, to be identified with the infant that is in their care.” [D.W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family and the Outside World, 1964]. But of course from Orbach’s point of view, this state which is at once ‘instinctive’ and socially constructed, provides the patriarchal model with its self-perpetuating misogynistic power; she perceives women as literally taking in the system with their mothers’ milk. In this way, it seems to me that the multifarious metaphors which are coined from feeding and from food are themselves extremely over-determined. Perhaps, I fear, it might seem as if a client has no sooner opened his mouth about food than the therapist is off on some theoretical concept of human development or other.

Ironically, even the most medically determined therapies for eating disorders employ theories of this same sort; women may be informed that they are enmeshed in control issues, that they wish to deny their sexuality, and so on, based in the same theoretical assumption that somehow the relationship of human beings to food and eating is not able to move away from mother. Even though the approaches I have cited are extremely varied in many ways, they all seem to agree that the basic social relation of our lives is with food. If this is the case, then it is not surprising that the entire subject is fraught with ambivalence – it has the same status, I would
 suggest, as other basic and ‘instinctive’ drives and is capable of entirely contradictory forms of expression, as other fundamental energies in our make-up also have.

If nourishment is not only a metaphor in therapy, but also a source of psychological dynamics, surely there is work to be done regarding it. I feel that Freud’s interpretation of one of his daughter, Anna’s dreams when she was a child might provide some guidance here. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), he reported a dream in which Anna awarded herself some bars of chocolate. Freud notes: “… the children had stopped in front of a 
slot-machine from which they were accustomed to obtain bars of chocolate of that very kind, wrapped in shiny metallic paper. They had wanted to get some; but their mother rightly decided that the day had already fulfilled enough wishes and left this one over to be fulfilled by the dream…”
 Obviously, from this dream he could have interpreted a good deal about relations with mother and probably even with breasts – but he chose instead to remain with the wish for chocolate. The important part for him was the way in which the chocolate bars in the dream fulfilled the child’s wish; he even implies that a real point had been achieved by Anna in fulfilling her own wish in this way. Psychic work, one might say, has been done.

By treating the dream-image of a chocolate bar as relating to the real wish for a chocolate bar, it seems to me, Freud has been able to perceive the child’s increased ability to deal with her own feelings. He simply does not take the food item as a metaphor for those feelings, or for some other relationship with reality. In short, he finds her relationship to this desired item of food sufficiently important in itself to merit his attention. In fact, it still intrigues him as he closes the analysis: “… It was of course impossible to discover without questioning her why the bars of chocolate were thrown under the beds.” The temptation to ask her is plainly there, but he resists. It is Anna s dream-work, and not his.