Recently I have been thinking a lot about pleasure. I have noticed how hard I find it hard to allow myself to experience it. If I stay in bed a little, if I take my time, if I enjoy some food or sex, all these things feel like I am being spoilt, or lazy. I have felt, all too often and for far too long, that I do not deserve pleasure, that I do not deserve to feel good or that only certain ways in which I allow myself to feel good are ‘allowed’ and that these are, interestingly, the ‘pleasures’ that my parents approved of, such as reading or learning.
When I look at how I think about food, I notice that I still see certain foods as ‘treats’. I still break a menu down into what I should eat and what I would like to eat. It was only after an argument with my son about a naan bread (he wanted some, I said no) which came shortly after the argument about ‘eating greens’ that I began to really see just how much harm this disordered thinking about food was doing.
Harm is caused by the fact that we often force broccoli on our children and berate or obliquely criticise (with me it is with sighs and annoyance) when they want chocolate mousse.
When it comes to food, I am aware now of the anxiety around fat and weight that affected my parents and myself. I can see that growing up in the ’80s amid the low-fat, WeightWatchers, ‘thin is everything’ culture, with no tools or skills or even awareness of the need to critique this, harm was caused to me, and my relationship with food was disordered. I binged or I starved. I did not have a manageable relationships with sweet things.
I have made changes with myself and within my family. I serve food that is healthy and varied and they choose what and how much of it they will eat. Yes, I sometimes still worry about broccoli consumption but I also see that forcing it on my son (and my daughter) is counterproductive. I see that I have made mistakes in how I have spoken to them abut food, and I am happy to let go and trust them and their bodies. I set an example, and enjoy a wide range of foods and I trust that they will grow up to do the same. I also trust that they are more likely to do so if I stop micro-managing, shaming and policing the food they eat.
I think that too many of the ways we police our children’s eating is a class-based fear of being judged, of being seen as having failed, of being judged, of, let’s say it out loud – fat. I am very aware of my own complex relationship with food and have written about sugar and myself here. The scene in my book where the absent father takes his children for sushi is a prime example of how performative so much of our parenting can be, how much of it is acted out in the presence of others and in fear of their judgement, silent or otherwise.
My own diet and body were policed, my habits shaped by a fear of fat as well of extreme thinness; on top of this was fear of being seen as having failed, and I have eaten sweets in private, hidden, since I was six. Something taught me that behaviour. I have ideas about what but no concrete memories to draw upon. I just learnt early on to hide that appetite, to keep that desire hidden away.
This refusal to allow pleasure unless it sits within certain boundaries that are socially ‘permitted’ by the currently dominant white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchal society, or ‘allowed’ within our tribe (many lesbian and gay people will criticise or dislike bi people for example; many people in any group will criticise or dislike those outside of it even if they are not actively causing them harm).
This othering and hatred/intolerance of difference infects every aspect of my life. My relationship with a man a decade-plus younger than me is seen as not serious mostly because he is younger. The assumption is made that I am seeking only pleasure and validation rather than seeing that relationship for what it really is: two intellectual and spiritual equals connecting with one another and growing together.
As for sex, well, I am so delighted that attitudes towards sex and women in relation to sex are slowly shifting, but I very much grew up in an atmosphere of not being allowed (or expected), as a woman, to enjoy sex. I see the role that my parents’ disapproval, lack of knowledge and their own poor parenting role models played in disconnecting me from my body and my sexual pleasure. I see the role the mainstream media played, as well as the misinformation that was treated as ‘science’ at the time. As a teenager, my healthy, developing sexual self was ignored, diminished and rejected rather than being celebrated, and this led me to make too many mistakes in my 20s and 30s and was part of the complex reasons why I drank a lot more than I should. I did not feel able to enjoy the natural pleasures of my body consciously – the conflict was too great – and so I drank to numb the difficult feelings.
I was allowed to drink and buy things I did not really need. I was allowed to work long hours as well as read. These pleasures were socially and personally sanctioned by those around me. I was (and still am) lucky I derived pleasure from reading and learning, but I have come to see that even such harmless things as books can be harmful when reading become compulsive, when I cannot feel good about myself unless I am reading.
How well do your pleasures meet the norms around you? Have you ever wondered if they are truly yours? Or if you just have been told they are, often enough, and for long enough, that you believed it?
It was only when my desires and needs started to reach out beyond what was ‘allowed’, beyond the borders of my unconsciously monogamous marriage (by that I mean we never discussed how we would manage the framework of monogamy, indeed, we did not even know, back then, in 2008 that it was a framework) and beyond the physical experiences I had known of up to that point that I began to question monogamy and my own relationship with sex to date. I was scared – scared by what my desires were speaking of, the dark and delicious things it craved, but also scared of what that would mean for the rest of my life.
Now sober and able to think more clearly, I chose not to press those desires down or push them away. I chose to explore and, in exploring, found myself. I have found out a lot about myself and have experienced much change as well as sadness but, I have also found an authentic self that I never knew was there. Allowing that I find some BDSM experiences and dynamics pleasurable is part of that bigger allowing of the self and its own, unique desires and needs. I want to own and celebrate my unique self and all of my pleasures and not to go into a panic because they do not fit my idea of how they should look.
It is possible to have a relationship with pleasure which crosses many things and many areas. One way to limit delight and joy is to ridicule, shame and criticise the things where children find joy. This is what the current social structures of imperialist, white supremacist and capitalist patriarchy does to us and our pleasures because, unless they fit the mould, unless they can be stimulated and pretend-met by the offerings of that consumerist obsessed society, then they are not allowed…
The more places that we can find pleasure and delight the richer we are as humans.
Thinking consciously about what I like and why, as well as not spiralling into a panic about what this ‘means’ or worrying that there is some long-term harm being done has made a big difference to me when it comes to enjoying my sexual life. There is social weight to preferring broccoli to white bread or missionary sex to primal, but I am not sure that there is much actual difference. And enjoying my sexual life has transformed the rest of my life in ways that even books cannot come close to. There are many ways to learn and touch and communicate which are as valuable as weighty tomes in the same way that enjoying a mousse is as valuable as enjoying broccoli. There are places and times for all things, but getting better at stripping the judgement away from ourselves, as well as in how we see and think of others – getting better at reflecting on what we are thinking and feeling without judgement – is how change happens and how life opens up to us and us to it.
Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, The Ethical Slut
Melanie Beattie, Co-dependent No More