Why Do We Fear Over-Eaters?

Why do people who eat a lot and eat often scare us?

Posted May 29, 2012

It's difficult to imagine how an apparently amateur evil like gluttony got onto a list with big-time sins like envy and greed. Chowing down at the Pizza Hut salad bar doesn't mean anyone else will go hungry that night because of your hankering for croutons. Eating 46 canapes (without even knowing how to pronounce the word) at a work-related social event is probably better than positioning yourself next to the bar, asking them to fill you up with single-malt scotch and then driving home.

If you stuff yourself, probably the worst that will happen is that you will feel as if you could expand enough to fill a rumpus room by merely breathing deeply. But nobody else will be damaged.

After the breakup of an affair, isn't it as perfectly acceptable to eat an entire bag of Hershey's kisses in one sitting as it is to rent "Brief Encounter" and "Moonstruck"? By the way, if it's the end of a long-term relationship, you are then allowed to eat everything in the house that doesn't move or have a given name, since your only secure belief at the moment is that no one will ever love you anyway, pretty much ruling out the idea that you will have to show your naked body to a stranger ever again.

And yet it seems as if we're unwilling to embrace gluttony, even though it's the roly-poly Santa Claus of sin, full of goodies given to us as rewards. No doubt it's because we associate gluttony with incontinence and rapacity. Anything that blurs the clearly delineated boundaries between self-indulgence (giving in to your own desire) and self-denial (giving up on ever getting your desire) is frightening to us as a culture. We view self-indulgence with contempt and often confuse self-denial with discipline. "Fat is bad and skinny is good; spending is bad and saving is good; crying is bad and holding back the tears is good: This is the machinery of Puritanism that is stalled at the heart of America," says Michael as he eats another cannoli and sips a fully caffeinated espresso. There's an important distinction to be made between self-denial and self-control, but we usually factor it out, as if life were some kind of math problem where we merely need to get to the common denominator. We simplify out the complex relationship between needing, wanting and getting until we become afraid not only of our own cravings but those of others.

"I don't like a woman who eats too much," my skinny friend Nick says nervously. "Women who always want to snack make me nervous." He says "snack" with the visible distaste most folks reserve for phrases like "eat their young." "They always want something. First, it's popcorn at the movies, then a full dinner out, and then she's got you peeling potatoes at the kitchen table for the rest of your life, never letting you go out with your buddies."

We fear the devouring figure because on some level we recognize the unappeasable nature of the need beneath the act. What we read as their excessive demands set off alarms in our own regulating systems not because we think they might take something from us but because we're terrified we might become like them. Most of us believe that we have satisfactorily muffled the voice that cries "Feed Me!" or, even more basically, "I Need!" until we hear that voice echoed as if it is merely amplified from inside ourselves. We condemn those who have "let themselves go" because we're concerned that, given half a chance, or a bad day or a lonely night, they might just take us with them.