Emotional Eating: Love, Chocolate, and History

Debbie says:

I’ve had this bookmarked to write about for over a month, and I’m still thinking about it.

ice cream ad:

Larkin Callaghan at Sociological Images says:

The gendered notions of this ad are clear, as it makes sure to emphasize that these issues of emotional eating are befalling women. ‘Him,’ we are supposed to assume, is the man who left/dumped/broke the heart of ‘you,’ the woman. And ‘you’ are coping with this tragedy, of course, by eating copious amounts of delicious ice cream – that’s how women deal with stress and disappointment, right?

The association in the … ad implies that a woman’s desire for intimacy isn’t something dynamic and fulfilling, based on a real connection with a human being, but rather a desire that can be filled with anything that won’t desert her, or that can be easily replenished, drawing on larger cultural message and stereotype of men being unable to emotionally connect and of women being too needy.

(I’m not sure that “men being unable to emotionally connect” is in this ad, but it’s certainly a larger cultural message.)

Neither Laurie nor I remembers anything like this message about women and emotional eating when we were young. “Stress eating” was a concept at that time–that people (mostly women) ate to deal with anxieties and fears. If eating to get over a romance was considered, it would have been eating to mask unhappiness, to have some kind of sensual stimulation to take your mind off your troubles. But this is different: not eating as distraction, but eating as solution.

A little bit of historical digging bears out our memory. In 1977, psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the word “limerence”: “an involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated.” Although Tennov doesn’t seem to have described this specifically as “chemical,” nonetheless the concept that it is “involuntary” takes the whole framing of love away from a mind-over-matter view of emotion and toward the neurochemical concepts that so affect our thinking today.

I first remember the word limerence in what must have been the early 1980s, when it was widely banded about due to the “chocolate theory of love,” , which basically stated that phenylethylamine, a chemical in chocolate, causes the same responses as love, and that’s why people (women) who have been dumped eat chocolate. That one got a lot of play in the headlines, and may well be a major source of today’s assumptions about how love works. It also (surprise!) got a lot of play from the chocolate manufacturers.

I am amused to note that the research methodology involved researchers eating pounds of chocolate and measuring the phenylethylamine in their urine. Rough life. (And the levels didn’t change, which did no harm to the theory, although apparently it was later established that levels in parts of the bloodstream do change.)

We don’t hear much any more about how chocolate mimics the chemical responses of love–because it’s now something “everybody knows.” And Duane Reade (a New York City pharmacy chain) can post its billboard without mentioning flavor or taste and “everybody knows” the ice cream is chocolate and it helps women manage their involuntary responses to being frustrated in love.

“Emotional eating” is a cultural construct. So is “love” (that one is about 900 years old now; its beginnings in European culture are well studied). So are many of our current notions of neurochemistry. In a century or so, it will all look very different, and it will be hard to imagine that people believed many of the things we believe now, just as it is hard to imagine now that in 1900, many Western people swore by arranged marriages as the best (or often the only) way things should be done.

It’s easy to look back and see cultural constructs in the past; it’s infinitely harder to notice them in the present. Watch for cues and prompts that tell you about “emotional eating”; once you start seeing them, you’ll notice that they are everywhere.