The anti-food post

by Alexandra Sokoloff

The eating season is upon us.  
Deck the halls with lots of calories. My favorite blogs, usually so rich
with information about writing or politics or sex, have suddenly started
posting recipes. Fa la lala  – feh.

hate that part of this season.

makes me uncomfortable.   Oh,
I’ve dined in some of the world’s best restaurants, I can appreciate a
five-star meal, I know the difference between great food and merely tolerable.   A well-crafted piece of sushi can
give me just as many orgasms as the next person.

honestly, when it comes to eating, I’d really just rather – not.

this is a combination of things.  
You grow up in California and chances are, if you’re a girl, a typical meal is
a steamed artichoke, a cube of tofu, and a six-hour workout afterward.   You grow up in California as a
dancer, and you can lose the tofu in the above equation.   There’s a highly-sought after
acting coach in L.A. who starts all his classes with the admonition:  “Wanna be a professional actor?  Then you can’t eat.”

a perfectly healthy eater now, and I guarantee I know more about  food combining, amino acids, and
getting the optimal protein out of a meal than anyone here.   I’m also just healthy in general,
thank God.   But when I was
younger I spiraled through every eating disorder on the books.

I wasn’t alone.  When I was at
Berkeley, you couldn’t go into a women’s restroom without smelling vomit.  

TMI for some of you?   But I
thought we were writers, here.  
There’s no such thing as TMI for a writer, right?  TMI is pretty much our job
description.  And eating disorders
are a serious problem for far too many girls in our culture, and increasingly,
boys as well.   If you’ve
written, say, a couple dozen characters in your writing career so far, and you
haven’t written a character who has a problem with food, or weight, you’re
probably not being very realistic.  
Think about it.

never write a female character without considering what her relationship is
with food and weight and body image. It may never come to the fore in a
particular story, but it’s as much a part of building a character for me as
family dynamics, birth order, all those things we routinely factor into

mean, please, have you ever met a woman for whom food and weight WASN’T an
issue?   Think about THAT.

I’m here to tell you what I know.

I was at Berkeley girls in the dance department taught each other how to puke;
it was part of the curriculum.  If
you were overweight, you were warned, and if you didn’t lose the weight, you
were bounced from the program. 
Period.   That’s the
job.   And I doubt all that
vomit was coming just from the dance department.   There were a few sororities at Berkeley, too,
marginalized and mocked though they were.   And a lot of women, in general.

throwing up is just hard, and after a bout with it I just learned not to eat
much.   Dieting starts as a
chore, it grows into an obsession, and then it just starts to feel like life.   It feels GOOD.

That's something I don't often hear discussed.  We hear about anorexia being a control issue, and a self-esteem issue, but I think it's more of an addiction issue.  

never been so anorexic that I’ve threatened my health or lifestyle.
   But I've been a dancer for a long
time and also have taught dance, and in case you haven’t picked up the National
Enquirer lately, for dancers, and actresses, and maybe every celebrity, anorexia
 is a pervasive problem. I've had
to pull students aside and have THE TALK with them, and I've been pulled aside
by my teachers, myself, because of my occasional flirtations with
"Ana". The thing people don't talk about is that anorexia FEELS good.
 You're constantly high as a kite
from endorphins produced by starving yourself and you don't want that feeling
to go away. You feel light and happy and in control. Then it starts to mess
with your mind and you get convinced you're LOOKING as good 
as you feel, even though your
bones are starting to show.

fact, I think it's useless to try to treat the issue without acknowledging the
pleasure aspect of it.
there’s a whole book about the addictive spiritual aspect of anorexia
– Holy
It’s a rush of endorphins probably
not unlike heroin.

a great article on the issue here,
Addiction and the Eating Disorders, that also says that
food restriction reduces anxiety – and I myself can attest to that. 

anorexia affects more than just dancers and actresses.
   Girls binge and purge, they
starve themselves, they work out compulsively, or they overeat themselves into
obesity and social oblivion.

alarming rise in the use of steroids by teenage and younger boys has been
linked to a male version of
body dysmorphia too.

disorders are often linked to sexual abuse traumas.
  It’s not necessarily a cause, but often so related that if
you’re building a character, that’s something to look at.

I’m just being perverse, the devil’s advocate, with this compulsion to shine a
light on the darker side of what for so many people is a holiday pleasure, the
ritual gorging…

what pleasure really is there in being so obese you have to book two airline
seats if you want to travel?

pleasure is there in eating if you’re compelled to throw it all up afterward,
or starve yourself for weeks, or work out to the point of injury?

I’d rather be able to button my pants the day after Thanksgiving, and I don’t
think that’s because of any mental condition.
   It just FEELS better.   

There's a little more to all this eating than comfort and joy, is what I'm saying.

lest you think I’m overlooking the obvious irony – I’m very well aware that
this is what people call a problem of success.
  Our culture is so abundant that instead of being worried
about starvation and malnutrition, we are burdened with the increasing health
problems caused by obesity and eating disorders. 

what about you all – honestly?
you ever think about your characters’ relationships to food and weight and
appearance when you’re writing?
Do you yourself take unmitigated pleasure in your food, or do you have
  Have you never given a
second’s thought to weight or appearance?

is there maybe a flip side to the holiday eating orgy for you as well?

39 thoughts on “The anti-food post

  1. billie

    I haven’t thought about this as much with the current book, but in the first one, yes, the main character’s relationship with food and her body (and the bodies of the men she becomes involved with) was wound in throughout. She is slightly obsessed with the way certain muscles look on men, and the way clothing lays against her bones.

    The interesting thing to me, still, has more to do with shining the light on this dark side of things. I definitely shined the light into a very deep dark place with that book, and although two agents repped it and a number of prominent editors read it and loved it, no one was willing to publish it.

    Maybe not the point for today’s post – but I’d be interested in reading what you have to say about “shining the light on dark subjects” in such a way that they can’t say no. 🙂

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That’s a great question, Billie. It’s a tricky balance you have to strike between being thematic and being entertaining.

    That’s I write in the thriller and mystery and horror genres, any combination of the above – because you can BE darker and more heavy-hitting without turning off your potential readers or audience.

    As long as the thrills are there, you can sneak in a lot of truth – a lot more than you can in the movie business, but that’s where I learned to think in terms of high concept premises so I could sell thematic stories. I also learned to write stories about women – with a male lead as the POV character, because Hollywood far prefers male leads.

    My strength is spooky and suspenseful and that page-turning aspect of my writing is what lets me get away with the darker stuff in a commercial market. It’s a game you learn to play. It’s unfortunate that we have to play it, but there it is.

  3. R.J. Mangahas

    Very thought provoking post here Alex.

    I guess this aspect of our culture seems so ingrained that sometime it’s almost over-looked. Personally, I think that there is way too much emphasis placed on appearance today. It’s sad that people put themselves through hell to get that “perfect” appearance. Now, I’m not saying I go and eat whatever I want and that’s it. I actually (for the most part) have a healthy diet and have been slowly increasing my physical activity (my job is a big help on this one).

    As far as my characters having issues with weight or food, I honestly never thought about it. I think part of it was that I don’t think I understood it well enough to write it without making the character with the issue a caricature rather than realistic.

    Okay, I think I’m done rambling. I hope I made some kind of sense here. I still haven’t slept from my overnight shift and I think it’s about time I do. Then maybe my thoughts will seem a little more coherent.

  4. billie

    Thanks, Alex. Funny, because I’ve said a number of times in the past year or so that if I turned the main male character into a vampire, this book would sell in a snap.

    The weird thing is, he IS a vampire, psychologically speaking, but that is apparently too intense. Taking into the realm of “fantasy” would, I suspect, make that intensity easier to take.

    The second book has its own darkness, but I have wound it into the paranormal/suspense genre a bit.

    I was thinking about the eating aspect of your post more as I fed breakfast to three horses, a pony, and two miniature donkeys. Even the 1200-lb. Hanoverian gets less food than is often served in the average restaurant meal!

    Granted, they all graze all day long, but it was striking to me this morning how very little food we humans actually NEED to consume to support our bodies in health.

    If most of our eating is for other reasons, what a wealth for developing characters in novels!

  5. PK the Bookeemonster

    Just getting this out of the way to state that I know what I’m talking about: I was anorexic my first year of college and lost a lot of weight too fast. This is not healthy and is about control issues.I think, however, the underlying point of this post is the cultural biases we carry with us. The weight bias, I think, is media-driven: the average American woman is a size twelve; in modeling, a plus size model is a size 10 — not big by any means in the real world. Because Alexandra’s formative years were in a dance culture in California, she has a strong bias toward thinness. Somebody else perhaps growing up in another part of the country with a different background grew up with the concept that the more curves the better. Perhaps the question or the point to ponder is as a writer have you unconsciously incorporated your own cultural biases in your works or created truly that of the characters’ who are/should be separate entities from the author.On a side note, isn’t it strange that to celebrate that the Pilgrims finally had enough to eat to hold feast we eat waaay too much. I think it’s similar to celebrating Labor Day by not working. 🙂

  6. tess

    Whoa, this is a fascinating post!

    My characters’ relationships with food? I scarcely stop to think about this, because my characters automatically reflect my own personal relationship with food:

    I love it. All forms of it, from corndogs to sushi. (well, okay, I’ll skip the insects.) I take sheer, unmitigated pleasure from sitting down at the dinner table. But then, I’m Chinese-American, and the daughter of a professional restaurant chef, and while I was growing up, to not taste everything on the table was considered a sin. I suspect that my cultural background is what gives me permission to feel good about food — the same permission that women in Italy probably feel when they sit down to a plate of pasta.

    It saddens me, to hear that so many American women feel conflicted about one of the greatest pleasures in life. It couldn’t hurt to gain a few pounds and enjoy the Nigella Lawson philosophy of eating.

    I know quite a few men who think that Nigella Lawson has the perfect figure.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    PK, I’m not sure how you get that I have a strong bias toward thinness from my post. What is more accurate to say is that I have a strong personal preference for keeping MYSELF thin – or at least, not overweight. I hate the way excess weight feels.

    I also think I’m more horrified by too-thinness than most people because I know the mental trauma that’s going on with it – as you probably do as well.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I believe you, Tess, but actually I would disagree that all your female characters have as healthy a relationship with food as you do. At least in early books, the way you portrayed Jane Rizzoli and her eating habits was very hauntingly realistic of driven single women – eating tuna fish and crackers standing up in her kitchen after an exhausting day, for example; not caring about herself enough to do anything more. It was specific and true details like that that made me fall in love with Jane.

    Now that she’s more settled I’m sure she eats better!

  9. pari

    Alex,Sasha, the lead of my NM series, definitely has food issues; she adores it and overeats and feels overweight. She also doesn’t do much to change the situation.

    Darnda doesn’t care much about how she looks. It’s fun to write a character who enjoys food but DOESN’T have issues.

    And awareness of body weight starts pretty early. My 4th grader had friends in her 2nd grade class that were already counting calories.

    Now, – that – made me sick.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari – I know, it’s shocking how aware some little girls are about calories and weight. And equally shocking to me to go outside L.A. and see little girls and boys who can’t even run or play normally because of all the weight they’re carrying.

    It’s a lot about family, and what your family passes on. There are also weird dynamics between couples about food. For example, I have male friends who press their wives to eat more because they want to make sure they’re truly “off the market”.

    I mean, wow. That’s fascinating.

  11. Louise Ure

    I do take a character’s body dysmorphia into account in my work, although it may not always show up as food-related. Sometimes it’s the style of dress, the slump to the shoulders, the desire to be invisible in social situations.

    And the endorphin high of starvation? Oh yeah. I remember one particularly severe diet I was on and the great pleasure I took in the sound of my stomach growling. I pictured my organs as devouring themselves.

  12. R.J. Mangahas

    Now that I think on it, perhaps “stereotype” was the word I was looking for.—“And awareness of body weight starts pretty early. My 4th grader had friends in her 2nd grade class that were already counting calories.”

    Pari — That’s absolutely horrible.

  13. Naomi

    I give my Mama a lot of credit because she hardly harped on my appearance growing up. My weight did go up a little up and down — a little is a lot for a short person! But since I was active with sports, I didn’t have to worry about it too much.

    So when it came time for me to write a middle-grade book from a 12-year-old girl’s perspective, I didn’t want her to be too obsessed with body issues. Sure, she recognizes that she’s not a stick like some Asian girls, but it’s not a big deal.

    My eyes were open with what a serious issue eating disorders are when I was a resident assistant (basically a dorm counselor) my senior year at Stanford. Anorexia, bulemia–it was endemic and very painful to watch. We counselors could step in when “their problem” became another person’s problem (making a mess in the bathrooms, etc.), but basically, other than recommending professional counseling on campus, there was little we could do. We also came across some men with bulemia — very few, of course, in comparison with women –evidence to me that control, especially in a stressful academic environment, is what these young ambitious students hang onto.

  14. R.J. Mangahas

    “For example, I have male friends who press their wives to eat more because they want to make sure they’re truly “off the market”.”

    Wow, I really don’t know what to say about that. Although I remember this subject coming up in a psych class one time. The professor said it had a lit to do with the guy’s own insecurities and issues.

  15. tess

    Alex,I recall a few times in my own life when I came home from the hospital exhausted and ate tuna straight out of a can. But it had more to do with my relationship to hunger!

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Naomi – I think involvement with sports or some kind of fun physical activity is key to developing a good relationship with your body.

    Yeah, the eating disorder thing seems to hit hardest in college. Yike.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Tess, fair enough!

    Do you even remember writing the scene when Jane has to peel a head of lettuce all the way down to practically the core to find some edible leaves for her little sandwich?

    I mean, things like that… so evocative.

    I think the point I’m trying to make is that a character’s relationship with food can say SO much about that character.

  18. Becky Lejeune

    Interesting post. I expect if I had a character, the food relationship would probably seem quite normal, but I am a total food addict. Sucks because I had a fairly high metabolism (and played soccer) when I was young. Have gained weight steadily since college and the only diet that seems to work for me is to just make sure that I am too busy to eat anything! Not healthy at all.

    But, I try to bring my books to the gym and read there when I am motivated! I will say that my food issues extend so far as to include being influenced by what the people in my books and movies are eating, too! Someone eating barbecue in a Southern mystery, I want barbecue; sushi, even the tuna from a can would do it. I had some India based books recently and I wanted naan and saag paneer like you wouldn’t believe.

  19. woodstock

    As a Type 2 diabetic, I would have to say that there is definitely a “flip side” to the holiday emphasis on food, especially rich, sugary food. I have up close and unpleasant, personal experience with what complacency in managing diabetes can do. It hasn’t happened to me, but close enough to scare me silly when I was diagnosed.

    The ironic thing about diabetes is that is one of the few chronic diseases which can be managed in such a way to make the patient symptom free. But it takes work, unceasing attention, and that wonderfully overused and hackneyed phrase “a change in lifestyle.” As an experiment a couple of weeks ago, I brought home a quart of “lite” egg nog. Big mistake. I can’t bring myself to pour it down the drain, so I’m having about a 1/4 cup every other day or so. I won’t buy any more.

    Interestingly enough, because of the way one’s liver manages sugar for an ongoing energy supply, it’s a mistake for a diabetic NOT to eat. And a great many yummy things, and even some indulgences, don’t send blood sugar up too high, or indeed, send it up at all. Mr Woodstock and I are gradually building an inventory of local restaurants where we can enjoy an evening out. When we find a menu which has a variety of choices we can enjoy, we always tell the management that we apprciate finding foods which are sensible for us on their menus.

    But it’s not a walk in the park, or a slam dunk, or a lead pipe cinch, or any other of a myriad of hackneyed phrases. I told a friend a week or so ago that I didn’t want unhelpful sympathy from my friends, but I did want dismay on my behalf. And some understanding as I try to navigate the holidays.

    And you’re right about another thing – this whole issue, including the increase in diagnosed Type 2 diabetes in the US, is a problem of success. Michael Pollan’s recent book IN DEFENSE OF FOOD discusses that exact issue, and I recommend all of his books to those who are interested in this topic.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Gosh, Woodstock, that’s a whole other facet to all this – when food can actually be dangerous. We take so much for granted!

    I appreciate your sharing your experience, and the book sounds really worth taking a look at.

    Good luck with the season!

  21. Kathryn Lilley

    I think about weight and body issues so much that I built a book series around it! As I’ve gotten older, my personal obsession with weight has receded, and has been replaced with a new obsession–body and skin tone. Then you get into cosmetic treatments, then plastic surgery, and Aagh!! It never ends…

  22. Rae

    Characters’ relationship with food can tell the reader a lot about them. I’m thinking of Spenser’s love of good food; and there’s a great scene in one of the Elvis Cole stories that involves a geoduck clam (ewww 😉 and a whole bunch of hot sauce. When writers show their characters doing every day things and enjoying every day pleasures, it makes it all more real to us, I think.

    There’s been a fair amount of conversation here about anorexia and bulimia. I think it’s important to remember that the other side of that, i.e. obesity, is every bit as much an eating disorder as the other two, with similar mental health and control issues. Most obese people don’t enjoy their size, and don’t really like food or eating all that much. For those of us who are smaller to say ‘well, they should just stop eating’ doesn’t address the issue, in the same way that ‘get that girl a hamburger’ doesn’t speak to the underlying issues of anorexia and bulimia.

    The thing that fascinates me about food in America is portion size. Most restaurants put enough food on your plate to feed a family of four – I was once presented with a six-egg omelet, as if that was a good thing. Gak.

    For myself, I like good food and I like social occasions that involve something yummy to eat, and a nice reserve red. And yeah, I worry about how I look, and my weight, and how I appear to others. I guess the good news is that as I’m growing older I’m more interested in being healthy than being cute 😉

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Very interesting post, Alex!

    Warped self-image in all its forms is a fascinating character trait to explore.

    I’m always being reminded by my editors that I describe my main character’s physical appearance very little in the books, apart from a rough idea of her age and build. It’s deliberate on my part, I admit. Not only is it hard to do in a first-person narrative without sounding very self-conscious, but I’m more interested in the reactions and preconceptions of other characters to my protag, partly based on her looks and gender, and her struggles with her own awareness of being ugly on the inside.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Kathryn, I didn’t know that was what your series is about! How did that get by me? Will have to check it out.

    Z, I think that’s an interesting choice, to only describe Charlie by the reactions of others to her. That’s much more revealing, really.

  25. Alexandra Sokoloff

    OMG, Rae, you are so right about portion size. What are there, something like a thousand calories in a Big Gulp soda? That’s half the calories you need in a day. How can people maintain healthy weight if that’s considered one serving?

    (A six-egg omelette? Heart attack on a plate…)

    And compulsive eating is definitely an eating disorder. I know that there’s a 12-Step program for it, modeled on the AA program. But I wonder how that really works, because you can’t be abstinent with food. We all, inescapably have to eat.

  26. Allison Brennan

    I never consciously thought about my characters relationship with food. I have a lot of eating scenes, though, because once someone told me you can’t have scenes when people are eating and I hate being told I can’t do something. But it’s usually a plot turning point.

    For me, I used to be trim and very active–never skinny (but playing soccer you tend to get more muscular than skin and bones) and I never thought twice about what I ate. I ate what I wanted. But after having kids, I couldn’t just shed the pounds like I did before. Woe to growing old. I’m very active naturally, so I went to the doctor and he said the only way to lose weight was to eat 1200 calories a day. I didn’t know if that was a lot or not (I’ve never counted a calorie in my life) but when I started, I couldn’t do it. After two weeks I was miserable, had chronic headaches, couldn’t concentrate, and couldn’t write. I’d rather be chubby and happy than skinny and miserable.

    But this year I’ve changed a few things in my eating habits and lost 20 pounds and working on the next 20. But I’m not obsessed with it.

    I do like to shine the light on the dark side, though. I’ve explored a lot of darker topics and I have more to explore in the future. The supernatural thriller series is probably going to be the darkest as even my good guys have more flaws than I normally write.

    Thanks for the interesting post, Alex. (And I agree with you about Jane Rizzoli!! And every time Maura grills a cheese sandwich, all I think about is: Daniel is not the right man for you!!! Can’t you see that Anthony Sansone is far sexier AND he loves you AND he can give you 100%? hint hint. 😉

  27. JT Ellison

    Fascinating post, Alex.

    I would never survive in an environment that placed importance on an emaciated physique. Those Hollywood girls look like bobblehead dolls to me.

    My relationship to food has always been complicated, but not in any problematic way. I like it. When I don’t eat right, I gain weight. When I eat right and exercise, I feel good. At my age, I’m past the constant worry about what my ass looks like. I love to cook, love to eat out, and do eat healthy – very little processed, whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean meat, no caffeine. I was an athlete, still play golf. Weight comes and goes, and it’s just not something I can get myself too worked up about. I’m tall, have broad shoulders and generous curves, and always have. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to lose 20 pounds, but I’d rather be healthy and happy than constantly dieting. It’s too draining.

    It was easier for me to handle Taylor. She’s naturally thin, and has started running to relive stress. I had actually envisioned her losing too much weight at one point, so we’ll see how that works itself into the book.

  28. Jen Brubacher

    Thanks very much for writing this. I actually hadn’t considered my characters’ relationships to food and eating – obviously a massive oversight – and now I certainly will!

  29. Fran

    Woodstock, thank you for bringing up the Type 2 issue. Since Lillian was diagnosed, we’ve had to watch our menus and a lot of our favorite restaurants are now off limits. It’s been interesting and no small challenge to look at pastas and breads and potatoes and train ourselves to see them as sugar bombs, waiting to explode and do damage. But they are.

    And this season is the worst, because everyone brings breads and cookies and cakes to share, and they’re yummy and tempting, and being raised to be polite, it’s hard to explain why she has to say no. And I’m trying to join her in it, partly because it’s healthy but mostly in support.

    Between body image and food-related illnesses, this is a great topic, and it’s good information for people who don’t think about these issues when creating characters. Good topic, Alex!

  30. rgiraffe

    “The thing people don’t talk about is that anorexia FEELS good. You’re constantly high as a kite from endorphins produced by starving yourself and you don’t want that feeling to go away.”

    I was fascinated by this – because for me, I get a terrible brain-crunching soul-sucking migraine when I don’t eat. I’ve often wished I could be the kind of person who could skip meals and not feel horrible. To realize anorexics don’t just “not feel horrible” – but “feel good” is quite a startling realization.

    It reminds me of what I’ve read/heard about alcoholics – they are much less likely to have hangovers than non-alcoholics. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I do know I couldn’t ever be an alcoholic because drinking makes me feel horrible (again with the migraine).

    I don’t enjoy overeating, but I do enjoy eating.

  31. Catherine

    I think rgiraffe makes an important distinction…that there can be enjoyment of food, without the overeating of food.

    I see overeating of food usually as a either a compulsion or bordering on one. In a group setting when celebrating there can be a touch of the, if you don’t clear your plate you must not of enjoyed Auntie Joan’s special dish…(which may or may not bother you)…or maybe a bit of food frenzy brought on by the multitude of reasons people sometimes overeat( to escape the moment, to overstimulate)…lots of stuff attached to food. Good topic Alex.

  32. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “When I don’t eat right, I gain weight. When I eat right and exercise, I feel good.”

    Me, too, JT, exactly – it really is as simple as that.

    Oh, you have no idea about these Hollywood girls, it’s truly horrifying. Remember that the camera adds ten pounds – so these skeletal actresses in person are actually THINNER than you think.

  33. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That’s a good analogy with the alcoholics and hangovers, r giraffe. I guess with addictions, the body does its best to adjust.

    And Catherine and Fran, you both bring up a really important point about the pressure we get to eat so as not to offend anyone, I mean, please. Stuff yourself or endanger your health to make someone else feel good? It’s twisted, but we’re expected to do it.

  34. Harley


    What I kept thinking about, as I read this, is how much I admire your relationship to your own body, in all its sensuality, and also your posture and your consciousness.

    I’m cooking for the masses this Thanksgiving, and planning to eat salad. I’m a vegetarian and a resident of Hollywood and for me, overeating is the equivalent of a really bad hangover. I admire people who can throw caution to the wind for the day and have no residual guilt. But I don’t seem to be one of them.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *