Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Reclaiming the Joy of Eating and Striving for Positive Body Image

Charlotte Markey, Elizabeth Daniels, Meghan Gillen

“One of the very best things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” 

 ~Luciano Pavarotti

We are all subject to cultural prescriptions about how we should eat and what we should weigh.  Some of these prescriptions come in the form of “food rules” or norms in terms of the times of day that we eat, how much we eat, or times when we should not eat (e.g., before swimming or sleeping).  For example, most of us probably think of a cheeseburger as a lunch or dinner food and pancakes as a breakfast food.  Swapping these would seem strange to us (especially the cheeseburger for breakfast!).

We also experience countless cultural messages about body weight.  For several decades, slenderness for women has been idealized and individuals who are overweight or obese have been stigmatized.  For example, studies have shown that individuals who are overweight or obese are stigmatized in work, education, and personal relationship contexts (e.g., dating). These negative attitudes toward overweight and obesity are based on socially constructed norms in contemporary Western cultures, like the United States and Europe. Larger body sizes have been considered attractive in other time periods in history, and in other cultures (ones where there is a scarcity of resources so having more food, and therefore, more weight, is a sign of wealth and prosperity). So, the expectation that everyone should be thin, or else strive for it, is a product of our culture. This expectation is unfair and can be harmful to individuals’ mental and physical well-being; some research suggests that up to 13% of girls will experience an eating disorder by the age of 20.  Bodies naturally come in various sizes and shapes.  This point is highlighted in this year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week’s Theme:  Come As You Are.

Unfortunately, narrow cultural norms don’t take into account what would be healthiest for us, as individuals, to eat or weigh.  Further, as norms, they are insensitive to individuals’ unique needs and desires.  And, yet, we all come with genetic predispositions that lend themselves to particular body sizes and shapes and even particular appetites and food preferences.  Getting in touch with our own personal needs and preferences may be advantageous for a variety of reasons.

One way to get more in touch with our own eating and weight inclinations is to focus on eating intuitively, which entails listening to the body’s hunger cues and responding appropriately. That may involve eating or not eating at non-standard times. Intuitive eating is so important because it allows us to pay attention to what our body actually needs, not what social and media messages tell us our body needs. For some, this may be 2,000 calories a day. For others, it may be 4,000. These needs are different for different people and may also change over time for the same person. Intuitive eating ignores food fads and diet trends that often prescribe what we should be eating (e.g., no brownies!) and when we should be eating (e.g., no eating after 7pm!). We eat when we are hungry, and stop when we are full. Yet, this does not mean that we should eat whatever we want whenever we want; we should be thoughtful about these decisions. When we feel hungry, for example, we may want to satisfy that hunger with a piece of fruit and/or cheese rather than a few cookies. This does not suggest that cookies are bad, however. Sometimes cookies are what our bodies crave. It’s okay to indulge that craving, so long as we are not eating cookies all the time. A healthy body size is the desired outcome of intuitive eating.

Intuitive eating may sound easy, but it may not always be, especially if we are used to eating (or avoiding) certain foods, and eating at specific times. It’s a skill that can be practiced with some effort, and will get easier over time. Scientists who have conducted interventions to help people learn to eat intuitively have found that intuitive eating benefits both physical and psychological health.  If you’re like many people, you may spend a fair amount of time and energy thinking about what you are going to eat – even worrying about what you are going to eat – but eating intuitively could give you a lot of that time, or at least the energy you spend worrying, back.

Note:  If you are concerned about your own or some else’s eating behaviors, check out this eating disorder screening tool here:  https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool


Access Chapter 2: Positive Body Image by Gender and Across the Lifespan from Body Positive for free throughout March for International Women’s Day.

About The Authors

Charlotte Markey

Charlotte H. Markey, Ph.D., is a Psychology Professor and Director of the Health Sciences program at Rutgers University, New Jersey. She has been conducting research on eating, die...

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Elizabeth Daniels

Elizabeth A. Daniels, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She is a developmental psychologist and has been conducting re...

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Meghan Gillen

Meghan M. Gillen, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania State University, Abington. She has been conducting research on body image, gender, and physical ap...

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