Friday, November 2, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 19.2 The symbolic value of food

19.2 The symbolic value of food

Another aspect of food has to do with associations that different types of food can have because of childhood sexual abuse. Ruth speaks of the problems a woman had because she had to swallow semen as a child. When admitted to a psychiatric clinic, she was expected to eat food that she associated with semen, but was not able to tell the staff why she couldn’t. Instead she phoned the Incest Centre in Vestfold for help.

Ruth_1:           She has diabetes and it’s very important that she eat according to a regulated time schedule. Last summer everything went wrong for her. She hadn’t eaten for several weeks. (.) Umm her body became inflated, very swollen. She had to be admitted to a psychiatric clinic ((Scratches her arm)). She was too sick to stay here with us at that time. She was unsteady, dizzy and we couldn’t take responsibility for her. Umm she had cut herself and had to go to the emergency ward, and that’s where the doctor admitted her. She was there for a short period. (.) I got a telephone call from her. She was in a phase where she was working through having to swallow semen. She called me and said that it was so difficult to be on the ward, because they made her eat yogurt. They had lots of butter on the bread there and made her drink milk. She couldn’t eat any of it.

The story told by Ruth seems to suggest that patients with psychiatric problems sometimes have problems when being inpatients and having to eat institutional meal consisting of types of food which they feel they can not eat. The feeling of shame connected to eating and types of food may make it difficult for some patients to talk about their eating problems, and thereby resulting in misunderstandings between patient and ward.  Linda and Margaret elaborate on the different types of food that they find difficult to eat because of the sexual abuse they experienced as children.

Linda_1:         It’s usually guilt and shame that leads to…eating disorders and bulimia and everything… some people punish themselves by not eating, I mean anorexia and bulimia are ways of harming one’s body…It’s all about punishing oneself by eating too much, they’re so ugly anyway, they make their bodies look even worse intentionally. Or some don’t eat at all. They feel fat and they’re really real thin...And then there are those who don’t eat special things because they relate them to the abuse. ((Bites her lips)) (.) I can’t drink milk, for example. (  ) Yogurt and milk are things I know about because of the conversations I’ve had here and with myself, it’s usually milk and yogurt that people have problems with, mayonnaise and stuff. I never eat tartar sauce either. ((Bites her lips)) It’s more because of the consistency than the taste.

Margaret_1:    People seem to remember how things smell almost forever, but it diminishes over time, it’s not so strong after you get hold of it and work with the emotions around the smells. Smell and taste become less and less important, but I’ve never heard anyone say that the problem disappears completely. I’ve also experienced this. It has to do with some types of food that you relate to memories or a smell or a consistency that reminds you of other things you’ve had in your mouth. And then it’s just impossible to eat. Think about experiences involving excrements and that sort of thing, it might be ((Scratches her neck and looks away)) casseroles and different sorts of meat. No it’s just impossible… You just have to stay away from certain kinds of food for periods of time.

Food may according to these accounts have the function of being symbols for semen, urine, faeces, which the person relates to experiences from their childhood sexual abuse. Innis (2005) explains that different kinds of food functions as signs. He argues that when a person who is:

Presented with a bowl of yoghurt gags, refuses to eat or even continues eating, albeit unwillingly, and says that it will make him/her sick, the yoghurt, with its configuration of qualities and perceptional properties, functions as an iconic sign for semen. The gagging is an indexical sign, a reaction, released by the sight of the yoghurt and by associated experiences. The linguistic utterance is a symbolic sign that must be understood by relying upon a shared linguistic code (2005:501).

In this section I have focused on the relation between food and shame. Food can be used as a control mechanism for those who feel that they have lost control. They can regain control both by eating too little or too much. They may feel shame about their bodies and use food to control them. Others feel shame about food, over the associations that different types of food arouse, represented as signs.  

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