“One gender-related theme that stood out was related to caretaking. Every woman in the study, but none of the men, reported putting others before themselves…
Tina was a compulsive eater who used food as a way to practise self-care. During the second interview, she began to realise how taking care of others led her to eat: “I had no down time. I had no time for myself and I think I was using food more than I had been to take the edge off and medicate myself, reward myself, treat myself”.
– Patricia Goodspeed Grant, “Social and Emotional Origins of Comfort Eating”*
Tina was a 54-year-old psychiatric nurse who took part in a small research study looking at how social and cultural factors contribute to overeating. Tina had spent all her life taking care of others and turning to food to take care of herself.
Another participant, Lottie, learnt to be self-sacrificing from watching her mother who she described as “the ultimate caretaker”. Lottie explained: “you teach the lessons that you live better than those that you say. You tell your children you should do this or do that but they’re watching you and that’s what they pick up”.
Girls are often taught from a young age that putting other people’s needs ahead of their own is a virtue, while identifying and meeting their own needs is selfish and shameful.
It’s no surprise the vast majority of my clients are women. Many, many of them work in caring professions – as nurses, social workers, occupational therapists and support workers to name but a few. They spend their working day taking care of others. The rest of their time is often devoted to looking after family members.
Is it any wonder then they repeatedly find themselves mindlessly emptying the contents of the fridge into their mouths? Like Tina, it’s the only way they can “medicate”, “reward” and “treat” themselves. There’s simply no space in their lives for their own needs, not that they would consider them anyway.
If we truly want to solve the so-called “obesity epidemic”, in addition to putting an end to dieting, we must correct the message to young girls that their needs should be sacrificed in favour of taking care of others.
It’s not right.
It’s not fair.
But it’s not enough to say it. We have to show it. We need to model the self-compassion necessary to identify our emotional needs and demonstrate the self-confidence to meet them appropriately.
There’s no need for women to be self-sacrificing and there’s no reason why men can’t be nurturing (many of them are).
Self-care isn’t selfish, it’s self-preservation.
We all have the right to look after ourselves.
All of us.
*From Buckroyd, J. & Rother, S. (eds) (2008) “Psychological Responses to Eating Disorders and Obesity” (Chichester: Wiley).