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Does eating make women happy?

By FIONA WELDON
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Food, shopping and chocolate. They make women happy. But for how long? What happens next? Bills and fat. Guilt and anxiety.

I looked in the fruit bowl and found a bunch of bananas, rapidly going brown from lack of anyone's interest. It seemed a pity to waste them.

So I took the over-ripe bananas, peeled them, sliced them in two down the middle, criss-crossed the halves in an oven dish, added butter and sugar, and slid them into a very hot oven.

Thirty minutes later I removed the dish and squeezed lemon juice over the now caramelised, buttery, amazingly interesting bananas. I put them to one side. The struggle with the self began. Do I eat? Do I not eat?

Food makes you fat. It also keeps you alive. Wanting to eat is instinctive. It's like sex, you find yourself wanting to do it. If you didn't want to, you wouldn't do it and you'd starve to death. How unfair that it makes you fat. But very little in life is fair.

Some of us are born with longer legs than others. Some of us are born into poverty in the Sahara desert, others into prosperity in leafy suburbs.

It's unfair that some are born thin, active, nervy ectomorphs, while others are born rounded, smiling endomorphs.

Society these days smiles on the former rather than the latter, who have to spend their lives on diets, never eating what they want.

See the ectomorphs with their long legs putting aside their hamburgers before shimmying down the catwalk. They can live off fish and chips and Mars bars if they want.

See them sitting in reception while mesomorphs, athletic, muscly and busy, haul the post and the endomorphs hide behind the filing cabinets.

Mind you, it can be quite exciting back there - think President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, an endomorph if ever there was one. And they're the ones people like to have around. They're spontaneous and lovable.

Forbidden

The tribe unites in making fat people unwelcome, uncomfortable. You will mostly find endomorphs (I'm one) on the Atkins diet, in which you're allowed to drink alcohol and eat everything that was previously forbidden.

It is also probably going to ruin your health and make you ill (what do you care?) and you will put all the weight back on and more when you stop.

Atkins dieters are self-indulgent and hopeful. Their self-discipline is not good. They should certainly not be eating caramelised banana that's been cooked to stop good fruit going to waste.

But it is no use beating yourself up, reproaching yourself about being greedy. That is what you are. "Eat!" says nature. "Eat!" You do.

At the same time it is not good to be fat. It's bad news in the mating game. Slim wins the alpha male, fat gets the leftovers.

You have to eat to be fit to bear a baby, you want to be thin to get the best mate and keep him. Two instincts clash. You suffer. Like sex, food, being such a basic source of the most wonderful pleasure, is also a source of exquisite anxiety and all-pervasive guilt.

The pursuit of it is so hard-wired into our systems - "If you see it, eat it" - and yet so in conflict with society's current loathing of fat, it is not surprising the conflict tears us to pieces.

Body mass index not within normal limits? Hang your head in shame, you fat person. Guilt and anxiety race in almost after the first mouthful of delight. As if life wasn't hard enough without this.

Did evolution stop just before the first good harvest? Is that it? Before the age of plenty? To all intents and purposes, the answer is yes.

Greed

Evolution bred greed into us - "Take while you can, as much as you can, who knows when it will come again" - and the pleasure of satisfying appetite - "Oh yummy, yummy" - and the yawning repletion of appetite satisfied - "My, that was good!"

It has not yet had time to evolve us into fit people for the age of McDonald's. That may take another millennium or two, left to nature, although no doubt the genetic scientists will get there first and turn us into a race of skinnies who can eat what they like.

As it is now, nature says forage, cook, feed the man who keeps the children fed, keep strong, keep fat.

Nurture says push away the plate half-eaten. Keep thin, welcome hunger; the skinnier you are, the more you'll get paid at the office. (Fact: Obesity lowers perceived status - the higher your status, the longer you live and the healthier you are. A vicious circle.)

Nurture and nature should go hand in hand in a perfect world. But when it comes to food, they simply do not. It's not surprising that the country is in the grip of a big eating problem.

The more we feel distaste for fat, the more cookery books we read. The more we long to be thin, the more obese we get.

Fat is associated with poverty, depression, ignorance and anyone on benefit. Slim is associated with the Duchess of Windsor - "No one can be too rich or too thin".

The phrase has stuck - 70 years or so after it was uttered by Wallis Simpson - because everyone believes it to be true, other than the families of anorexics, who are in great distress.

Fashion dictates thin is best, slimness being associated with wealth, choice and purchase power. Designers challenge us: "Fit into our clothes, don't expect us to make clothes to fit you."

If you feel guilty and anxious about eating, stop eating. Who are you trying to destroy there? Yourself?

Easily said, and people say it, but the trouble is that food breeds anxiety and anxiety requires food to quell it. It is a vicious circle. But people do break it.

Remember what research tells us: that skinny woman earn more than fat women, marry richer husbands, have more lovers, go to smarter restaurants, die with more jewellery. They wear more designer clothes than fat women and look far, far better in them.

Tallness is to men as skinniness is to women. Tall men earn more, live longer and marry prettier wives than short men. They tend not to accumulate so much jewellery, though.

So be thin. Convince yourself it's winter and that there's no food to be had. That it's an eternal winter. That you can take it.

Ectomorphs, you lightly muscled things, effortlessly slim, realise that though summer is always here for you, the rest of us can't afford to think like that. You see us as greedy, without self-control: you don't understand.

The way through, if I could venture so outrageous an idea, lies not in this diet or that, but in seeking virtue.

Not "I've eaten no carbohydrates today, aren't I good", but going back to the idea our grandparents had that the body is the temple of the soul, and that your preoccupation should be looking after the soul rather than the body.

Pleasures

It is your duty to look after the temple. Keep it not too fat, not too thin, well-exercised, allowed its proper pleasures, indulged a little - in as perfect and cheerful a state as age will permit. Pursue a fit shelter for the soul, and the body will look after itself.

Our bodies lay down fat in order for us to feed from it in times of scarcity. Think of the brown bear, plump as can be after a good autumn. Skinny as a rake when the thaw comes and she emerges, skin hanging in folds, from hibernation.

So it is with shopping, that other great source of women's happiness - and guilt. We gather in stores in good times to keep ourselves going through hard times. Well, we like to have the cave nicely filled. In case we run out.

A hefty pile of moss to put the baby on. An extra bear fur. Wood for the fire. Gather in, preserve, save, collect. Of course we shop. Always have. Or bartered. Your nose bone for my beads.

It's instinct, at it again. The urge to ornament the self. Get yourself a super man. He brings the meat back, you gather the berries. "That's a pretty red! Lets have it!"

The earliest excavations of prehistoric man always turn up with some female ornament. Socialisation has brought us the credit card, the bank account, the bargain offer. How can we resist? Some men like us to spend - it's male pride. "My wife, she shops till she drops!"

Just remember, 12 pairs of shoes are fine, 24 is pushing it. It offends the laws of proportion. Sell your surplus shoes on eBay and give to charity. You're never going to wear them and only a few of them fit.

What happens next? Bills. And the anxiety of shopping.

How am I going to buy the children's clothes? Why on earth did I do that? It's the wrong colour, too large, too small, too cheap, too dear.

Anxiety

On the way home on the bus, the seat next to you piled with store bags bursting with folds of white tissue, or the soft cloth of a shoe bag, your breath starts coming in short gasps. A fully fledged anxiety attack: sweats, trembles and all.

You could step off the bus and leave the bags, and with them the evidence of your guilt, except it would be a wicked waste of money.

It's not as if you actually needed anything you bought; but that's not the point. The normal advice - "If it makes you guilty, don't do it" - doesn't seem to apply. "Stopping it" would make you extremely unhappy.

I have a bright blue and yellow mug which carries the slogan: "Shopping? Just do it!" It is my favourite mug.

On it is a giddy-looking and totally happy girl of the garage pin-up kind. Emma, in Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, was driven to suicide by her passion for shopping.

It wasn't disclosure to her husband of her many affairs which made her do it. It wasn't the boredom of his presence. It was because she brought ruination on him by buying pretty things.

Mind you, the story was written by a man. I think if it had been written by a woman, Emma would have got away with it.

I was brought up in a poverty-stricken household. I've never quite got over it. School friends would look in shop windows and say "I rather like that" and buy whatever it was.

It seemed an infinitely desirable kind of life and I assumed it would never be mine.

I was accustomed to averting my eyes when passing a window in case I was overwhelmed with longing for something I couldn't have. Yet in the end I, too, could say: "I like that, I'll take it. Let's go by taxi, it's quicker."

I am simply not good any more at frugality, and not inclined to wish it on others. Who wants to drink from a mug that says "Shopping? Don't do it!" Not me.

All I'm going to say is that if you want to shop, shop. Put up with the boring details later. Debt, ruin, misery. Shopping? Just do it.

I all but bought a pair of Roman earrings once, a bunch of purple grapes in a gold setting. I didn't buy them. When I went back to the shop, they were gone. I've lamented them since, and that was eight years ago.

You know how it is. When it comes to shopping, those who hesitate are lost.

Sex or chocolate?

Some of us are lost in any case, especially when it comes to chocolate. Six women out of ten, according to research, prefer chocolate to sex. But is that really so surprising?

An exhausted woman of 35, with children and a career, might well prefer chocolate to what feels like male mauling. Choose the soft melting of the sensuous stuff in the mouth over the demands of another's flesh.

A girl unhappy because her boyfriend has betrayed her, who never wants to have another man, might well claim to prefer chocolate to sex (though experience suggests she will not feel like this for long).

A woman bored by the same sex with the same man in the same bed for too long a time might well prefer chocolate. But again, the situation is not likely to go on for long. One or the other will break it off. Probably him.

Chocolate. You eat it because you like it, because it's sold to you by skilful mindwashing and advertising, because you shouldn't, because you want to spoil your dinner, because life around you seems vaguely unsatisfactory, because it is there.

And life has spited you in some way and so you deserve a little treat. Well, perhaps you do.

Chocolate comes under the heading of little treats, of whatever gets you through the night, of feast days and holidays, of trinkets and bangles and new lipsticks, new face cream, new nail polish.

Little exercises in hope and betterment, the very pleasure of frittering away what should be saved. The denial of prudence. Delinquency.

Delinquency may be what pushes the tribe forward to better things. A refusal to accept things the way they are. Boredom with the status quo.

Let's do it this way, not that. And so we end up with carts, trains, cars, aircraft, television, space travel, nuclear fission, modern warfare, wind-farms... and boxes of chocolate.

Personally, I capitulate to the bananas. I prefer present pleasure to future benefit. Nothing, I know from experience, is more delicious than caramelised bananas eaten in the privacy of one's own home. It's like forbidden sex - all the more delicious for the prohibition.

I ate. I was happy for three minutes. Yummy!

Then, oh, guilt and anxiety dawning! The fleeting happiness food brings. I have enjoyed myself. I don't deserve to be happy. I will be punished. I shouldn't have bought the bananas in the first place if I didn't mean to eat them properly.

Did I just say yummy? Revolting. I remember the girl who used to come in and help with the children, years back, and how she'd rub my three-year-old's tummy after he'd eaten and say: "Yummy!"

I never liked it. It then transpired she was having an affair with my then husband. And now I feel sick, and it serves me right.

Food, shopping, chocolate. They make women happy, if only for a few minutes. But those perfect minutes are worth living for - savour them.