Eat, Darling, Eat

When I was a child, I was encouraged to finish the food on my plate. "Think of the starving children in Europe," I was told.

"Mail them my food," I replied.

"You think you're funny," I was told. I eventually internalized the habit of finishing what was on my plate. Over the years, I gained a lot of weight. When I felt full at mealtime, even though I knew I was overweight, I consumed what was in front of me. Perhaps that is why I had to undergo coronary bypass surgery in 1991.

When I was four or five, I hated fat and tried to cut it off my meat. "It's the best part," I was told. Once a doctor suggested to my parents that I wouldn't be so thin if I ate bacon. Bacon had never entered our Jewish home, but Jewish law teaches that saving a life takes precedence over other religious laws. The bacon smelled delicious, but it tasted like fat. Is there a doctor anywhere today who thinks that bacon is necessary to save a thin child's health? Nobody seems to know what the Bible says: "It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings, that ye shall eat neither fat nor blood" (Lev. 3:17).

Human beings, like all living creatures, were designed to survive. We get hungry because we need food; we feel full when we don't need food. Grownups systematically teach children to disregard the messages that their bodies send them. Everywhere in the world, children learn to ignore natural feelings of satiety. As grownups, they cannot lose this unnaturally acquired insensitivity.

My parents were kind, generous people who loved me. They were not the principal villains. The problem was the whole world. Teachers, relatives, neighbors, friends--all were conspirators in a plot to teach me to eat more. "Try it; you'll like it." My favorite food was spinach, but there was a universal conspiracy to teach me that dessert was best. "If you don't finish your vegetables, you won't get dessert," said the world. There were other parents who were really major offenders. I saw a mother, long ago, feeding her daughter by opening the girl's mouth, putting in a spoonful of food, and holding the poor child's mouth closed until she swallowed. A friend of mine told me recently that his mother made him eat the food he had spit up.

My parents worked in the defense industry, making airplane parts. Their work week was long - it was during World War II - and I was left with a woman named Charlotte. Nowadays she would be called a nanny, but I never heard that word in the 1940s. I was terrified of her. One day she was trying to get me to eat some potatoes, which I hated. I told her my mother didn't make me eat things I didn't like.

"You're lying," she said.

"I'll call my mother. She'll tell you." I didn't think Charlotte would allow me to go to the phone, but she did. She must have been sure my mother would back her up. My mother asked me to put Charlotte on the phone. After the conversation, Charlotte took away the potatoes. She never made me look at a potato again.

The grownups who tell their children to eat have nothing to gain. In 1937, when I was born, a plump child was considered healthier than a thin one, as is shown by the story of the doctor who recommended bacon. A few decades ago, when, most probably, force feeding was a great deal more common than it is now, parents thought it was for the child's good. Parents who make an issue of food nowadays don't even have the excuse of health to back them up. Then why do they do it? Lack of originality.

The thirties and forties were the years when parents used to let their helpless babies scream rather than give them milk between their regular four-hour feedings. Letting babies go hungry while force feeding toddlers showed a certain inconsistency, but both reflected a fear of spoiling children. How this parental nastiness protected children from being spoiled and just what was meant by spoiling are unclear. However, I do remember hearing people ask my parents, in my presence, "Is he a good boy? Does he eat?"

I am no longer a boy, but I certainly eat. Even when I am full, my hunger remains unsatisfied. Years of pressure damaged my body's natural signals. Years of education taught me not to waste food. I know, consciously, that eating what you neither need nor want is wasting it. My conscious mind, alas, is too weak to overcome my conditioning.

"But if children don't eat at mealtime, they will get hungry between meals," say parents. So what? Keep lots of carrots, apples and yogurt in the house. Moderately enlightened parents, who claim they would never force feed their children, instead tempt them or encourage them to clean their plates. In terms of health, coaxing is no better than forcing. Overeating is overeating.

God, in His wisdom, gave our bodies the ability to distinguish between hunger and satisfaction. Human beings, in their ingenuity, created the garbage can. Parents should accept these gifts with gratitude. If they do, perhaps, fifty years from now, their children won't need bypass surgery.

Versions of this essay appeared in And Then, Volume 5, 1993; and in the South African journal Jewish Affairs, Volume 54, Number 4, Summer 1999.