science of us

What If My Food Intuition Is Mangled?

Photo: lisegagne/Getty Images

I very much enjoyed Jessica Knoll’s essay in the New York Times this past weekend about the benefits of intuitive eating after decades spent obsessing over food and diets and eating plans. I was nodding along, like, “Hell, yeah,” and, “Ugh, I know,” and it all does feel insane that so much (largely female) energy is spent thinking and talking about food and bodies. It’s so insane that it’s almost painful to think about.

I’m fast-forwarding to my own deathbed, imagining some angel (or demon) coming to me and saying, “Edith, you spent a collective 19 years worrying about food and the shape of your own body, which never even changed that much anyway, and literally no one else cared. What do you think about that?” And I’d want to kill myself if I weren’t on my deathbed anyway.

Why do we do this? I don’t know, the culture’s all messed up. Magazines, dolls, who cares. It’s in deep, and we can only move forward. That’s how I feel, anyway. At this point I wonder if any American female has been spared the plague of body hatred. Or, if not hatred, body suspicion. Is it gross? Am I gross? Could it be better?

It does seem natural that a way around all of this is to just drop the ideas of what we should do, or how we should look, and instead do what feels right. The only problem with intuitive eating is that … what if your intuition is all messed up? I don’t know all that much about intuitive eating (and I’m imagining that’s part of the point), but it sounds right to me — and to a certain extent I’m pretty sure it’s what I’m doing already — although I also love rules. I love routine. I like not having to think about my intuition and just doing what I did yesterday. I don’t think rules have to be inherently bad — and I suppose “follow your intuition” is itself a rule.

I think what Knoll’s piece underlines is that there can be different kinds of intuitive eating for everyone. Maybe liking rules is its own set of intuition. And maybe these things change over time, too. And maybe it’s okay for everyone to be a little insane, always. Madness can be amusing. I have always found it charming when tremendously successful people complain about pathetic, absurd little things that so obviously mean nothing — like their arms, or their stomachs, or some dumb thing they said eight years ago. In fact, I like Knoll — who is herself tremendously successful — even more after reading this piece. I was already a fan, but to think that she spends time worrying about something as small as how to eat, when she has so much else going on, made me feel more tender toward her. She is just a person, too, with human insecurities like mine.

What If My Food Intuition Is Mangled?