Home Social Construct Portraits of Addiction: What Do Your See?

Portraits of Addiction: What Do Your See?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Here’s what I see.

Firstly, I see all white women, almost all brunettes.

I also see emotional eating.

You know why I see emotional eating? Look at what they’re “indulging” in. They’re indulging in cupcakes. Cakes. Pies. Comfort food. Things that are good for making you feel. You can’t eat emotionally on broccoli (unless your Mom loved you with broccoli… and that’s a tad bit rare.) It doesn’t have the tools – read: sugar and fat and salt – to give you what you’re looking for.

I see women eating in silence. In hiding. I mean, because you’re overindulging so much that surely, you can’t eat this way in front of another human being, right?

I see women who were never raised to understand that there’s no shame in enjoying the pleasures of food. I see women who were never given the tools to destress and detach themselves from their day.

There was a movie I saw once, where the girl was an active cutter. She used cutting herself as a way of relaxing and decoupling from the stresses in her day to day life. I bring this up because she was painfully meticulous about it. She’d carry her cutting kit with her everywhere she went. She had a little routine to her set up, too – she’d retrieve her kit, open it, lay out her tools (first aid, blade, sharpener), sharpen her cutting tool, exhale… and go to work.

This reminds me of that.

I see addiction. From the DSM IV:

  • Preoccupation with use of the chemical between periods of use.
  • Using more of the chemical than had been anticipated.
  • The development of tolerance to the chemical in question.
  • A characteristic withdrawal syndrome from the chemical.
  • Use of the chemical to avoid or control withdrawal symptoms.
  • Repeated efforts to cut back or stop the drug use.
  • Intoxication at inappropriate times (such as at work), or when withdrawal interferes with daily functioning (such as when hangover makes person too sick to go to work).
  • A reduction in social, occupational or recreational activities in favor of further substance use.
  • Continued substance use in spite of the individual having suffered social, emotional, or physical problems related to drug use.

I see a few of those embodied in this picture.

Can you imagine seeking pleasure from something that, when you finally bite into it, doesn’t even compel you to crack a smile? I mean, I wrote a while back a post about being afraid of food… and this is what I see, here. Women who are afraid of food in a sense that compels them to deal with the duality of “knowing better” but being addicted to the feeling they get from the food… and having no one to talk to about food addiction do things like this. (the people around them may even say things like “you’re supposed to be addicted to food! duh!” or “food isn’t an addiction. you just have no self control.”)

I know lots of people normalize this kind of behavior – “There’s nothing wrong with this… I do this all the time, and I’m just fine…” but it worries me. The woman sitting in the bathroom near the toilet? Terribly troubling. The woman hugging the pie in the bathroom? Cringeworthy. Food shouldn’t “love you” like that.

The Society Pages opens their post on these paintings as follows:

Growing up in America, we learn that sweets and junk food are “guilty pleasures.” Women, especially, are supposed to refrain from such indulgences.  And, if they cannot — if they, for example, desire more than that modest slice of cake served to each birthday guest — then they should feel not only guilt, but shame.  For overindulging is grotesque and it, accordingly, should be hidden and kept secret.

This is the cultural background to Lee Price‘s realist paintings of women (mostly her) eating sweets and junk food.  She draws two contrasts.  First, she makes very public something we are supposed to do only in private.  Not only do the paintings literally display the transgression, the birds eye view and frequent nudity exaggerates the sheer display of the indulgence.  And, second, she takes something that is supposedly disgusting and shameful and presents it in a medium associated with (high) art, challenging the association of indulgence with poor character and a lack of refinement.  Fascinating. [source]

I must admit, though, that the fact that they don’t bring up the fact that these images embody the characteristics of addiction or the visuals of emotional eating is troublesome.. but it just lets me know that there’s a lot of work to do in regards to getting out the message.

What do you see, here? Do you see yourself in any of these images? I know I did.

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Keelah June 3, 2011 - 11:08 AM

I see wild passions being restrained.

I see women who have been conditioned to believe that its wrong or shameful to indulge in pleasures and true sensuality.

I see secrets that yearn to be FREE.

I see me.

Drea June 3, 2011 - 11:11 AM

I totally saw myself here too. I realized I had a problem with food when I’d wake up to wrappers and empty bags of chips and candy everywhere. I’d start to yell at my boo about leaving a mess in the kitchen only to look at my hands and see chocolate on my nails or cupcake icing on my hands. i was doing it and not even noticing. I was zombie eating, and wasn’t even aware of it. It scared me to the core. I still find myself getting out of bed at the same time every night subconsciously looking to sabotage my daytime efforts. It’s almost like I’m sleepwalking ( which I used to do all the time as a kid when i was stressed, so I can almost be sure there’s a connection). The power of food and the guilt that shames us into secrecy is immense. Craziness =(

SN: I spent about six hours straight going thru all of your posts. I laughed, I cried (cried alot) and finally broke down and broke thru. I’d like to say in advance thank you for speaking to me and changing my life. You are hundred kinds of awesome.

Biolobri June 3, 2011 - 11:18 AM

I see women so consumed with these feelings that they are not “indulging.” That would, to me, mean getting a lot of pleasure from a small to moderate amount of some food; but they are instead drowning themselves in these drugs. I see helplessness and shame. Locking oneself in the one place we can be assured privacy – the bathroom – to eat? That’s not just indulging in private, where we can be alone with ourselves and our pleasures; that’s jumping down into the darkest, loneliest place we can find to drown out the noise of our lives and focus ourselves entirely upon something else that feels loving.

I didn’t really understand what you were getting at with food hugging us until I looked at the 2nd picture (with the donuts). My first thought was “holy crap that’s too many donuts, which ones would be mine?” – I realized when I approach food I don’t just grab a donut, or an orange, or whatever. I inspect each one to see which ones call to me, which ones feel right. I’m sure this began as a child in the grocery store with my mom picking out the perfect apples (or whatever) but when it comes to sweets and things like donuts, I truly feel like there is one that calls my name, one that belongs to me. This realization that I have a sincerely more intimate relationship with food (whether fruit or donuts) than I ever even realized is astounding to me. I may be ON IT, but this rabbit hole runs so much deeper than I ever realized.

LBC June 3, 2011 - 5:01 PM

That’s what I see, too, only you said it much better than I was thinking it.

I definitely decide which one is “mine” before I actually eat. Sometimes, though, none of them are and I end up walking away. I’m absolutely with you that this looks like “drowning” rather than indulgence. I occasionally indulge in cheap Champagne and peanut M&M’s–yeah, I’m tacky–but that means that I eat a little bit of each, slowly, in front of a good movie. I’m not locking myself in the bathroom and mainlining bubbly and milk chocolate.

I get that it’s well-documented that eating is at least temporarily soothing, but isn’t this a one-sided, empty, relationship? Doughnuts can’t really do for me what I want them to do for me. We’re looking for The One and they’re more of a booty call. Worse, when you eat them in bed, they’re a booty call who gets jelly in your hair and powdered sugar in places I don’t want to imagine. (I think. I never eat in bed. Sleeping in crumbs is too close to something my dog would do. And eating in the bathroom? Even my dog wouldn’t eat where she, uh, pottied.)

I saw an article about these not too long ago in Bust. I’ll confess to not really “feeling” Bust in general, but . . . I don’t know. I understand these paintings intellectually but they don’t resonate with me emotionally. I can’t say, of course, that it doesn’t mean anything to the artist or to a lot of other people simply because it doesn’t mean much to me, but part of me really resents that, as a young[ish] white woman, I’m probably included here in a stereotype of women and food that isn’t actually a problem in my life. (I did notice, too, that they were all white.)

Basically, I see desperation but I don’t see indulgence or even enjoyment. I bet they’re not tasting a single bite of what they’re eating.

Misty June 7, 2011 - 6:34 PM

Comparing eating in bed or in the bathroom to things either dogs do or things that are below even dogs? Hmm. A little awareness goes a long way. Some people do eat in bed (I used to) and in the bathroom. I know someone with bulimia who does that “on occasion.” The message your words are sending to me, and perhaps to others who engage in these behaviors, is that we are animal-like and totally gross. That is not OK, but I think (hope) you just weren’t aware of the implications of your words. Moral of the comment: Thoughtless and seemingly innocuous words can turn out to be triggering to others.

Biolobri June 9, 2011 - 11:55 AM

I don’t disagree at all, Misty. I think that’s the point. We’re driven to such a low, shameful level that we’ve resorted to eating in places surely not designed for dining. I think that’s where Erika (and myself) are seeing the clear connection between drug abuse and eating. (Side note, I’m actually planning on pursuing a PhD on this very topic). This need to fill the hole is so strong that we resort to these kinds of behaviors and because food never actually solves any of these problems, we need more and more of it – which is what I see when I see them surrounded in cakes and pies. It’s like trying so hard to cork a hole with sand.

LBC July 28, 2011 - 9:47 AM

You don’t find eating in the bathroom gross? I find it pretty gross. And unnecessary. I’d rather wait five minutes until I can be comfortable somewhere, instead of hiding out in the most private room in the house. Maybe I’m more fastidious than some but, no, I was not unaware.

And, yes, I find these pictures basically animalistic. Rolling around in more food than one could possibly eat, for whatever reason, has nothing to do with enjoyment or conscious indulgence–it’s just eating until you’re stuffed.

Tiera August 13, 2011 - 10:39 AM

I totally agree! I, too, found it disturbing to be eating in the bathroom. However, to each is own. I do think the pictures depict reality in the sense that we cannot display our true selves in the public eye for fear of humiliation and sabotage. So when we leave the dinner table full of, say, work colleagues, we generally stop somewhere on the way home and grab something just to satisfy us. I do at least. It does not depict reality in the sense that the woman eats all this junk and doesn’t gain a single pound. If she has an eating disorder, then it goes beyond mere indulgence and into the psychological. Most of us women eat because of a psychological disorder and we may not know about it (i.e depression). This depression could stem from physical stress like work, bills, family, friends, etc. or it could stem from the fact that we are shameful of our weight and feel like we can’t do anything about it so we eat some more. I know I used to do that. Then I would justify my being overweight by saying “There’s nothing wrong with a little junk in the trunk. Mo’Nique is a big girl and she’s a celebrity. So is Jennifer Hudson.” But then they both lost weight. Go figure. Needlesss to say, I got my butt up and started doing something about my weight. 38 more lbs until I get to my goal weight!

Kirsten June 3, 2011 - 11:58 AM

Since I started reading your site, I felt inspired to get more serious about my nutrition–not just losing weight. I joined a 12-step group, because the more I tried, the harder it seemed, and I found myself acting out with food.

I’d eat healthy all day, and then it was like I was overwhelmed with an urge to binge. It started to become self-destructive, like I was a child acting out.

I could see myself in these images, because when I would binge, I could only do it alone. I never wanted anyone to witness me “using” not even my 3 year old. I would feel tremendous guilt and self-loathing.

I’ve only be working with the 12-steps for a few months now, but what a difference. I’m not totally abstinent, but my level of consciousness around eating and what is eating me has made a tremendous difference. I’ve lost 20-pounds just because I’m not more aware of what I’m doing.

I don’t think addiction is addressed enough when it comes to eating. There is a woman in my group who had weight loss surgery last year and is already 30 pounds over the weight she was before she got the surgery.

The Standard American Diet is filled with substances that are addictive: white flours, corn and it’s byproducts, sugars (sucrose, hi-fructose, all those -oses). These substances create as stronger desire in us to eat, especially compulsive overeaters, because they never trigger the full signal. It’s not just fats, and carbs. Clean eating helps because the focus is on ‘real’ food, but it is also helpful to address those triggers that keep us coming back for those trigger foods.

This site is a tremendous help because along with my 12-steps, it helps me to remain focused on what I’m eating and making it less of an obsession.

Alovelydai June 3, 2011 - 1:45 PM

“Clean eating helps because the focus is on ‘real’ food, but it is also helpful to address those triggers that keep us coming back for those trigger foods.”

This is what I tell people all the time!! Furthermore, I had no idea that I HAD triggers in the 1st place. HA! Drinking sweet teas made me crave something salty. Eating something salty & fatty made me crave something sweet & rich. The cycle was endless until I gave it all up in favor of clean whole foods.

Truthfully, I barely noticed the food in the pictures but I do see a lot of unhappy women.

curious June 3, 2011 - 2:38 PM

i think a lot of what fine art has going for it is the “what do you see?” aspect. the artist herself is putting her reality and what she sees out there for others to observe and criticize, and not everyone is going to see the same thing. it speaks volumes about what is in a person’s mind and how they view things. the author of the article you posted sounds as if she feels the art pieces are a “take that” stab at society and it’s values (the site it was originally posted on, i would say, supports this idea). you see it as bringing to light a very important topic in mental, physical, and emotional health (the same applies here). fine are is very subjective, which makes it something everyone can consume because everyone is capable of formulating an opinion. then it becomes a topic of discussion because of all the different opinions floating around, allowing also a place to discuss problems and solutions. there needs to be more art like this.

after looking through all the paintings on her website, the one thing that really hit me was that this subject is very… this is hard to say in one sentence. indulgence is something in her life, and she’s making it public. it’s very close to her, not necessarily in a good way, as you can tell by the paintings’ subject (most of these are self portraits, excluding one, and in quite a few she is naked), the location (these take place in very private places), the content (these paintings focus in on the subject and her indulgence, nothing more) and the context (she is surrounded/trapped/encased by food/indulgence, it is always there, and there is nothing else, no escape). it makes me feel there is more than just shame, but that she is trapped by her surroundings. overindulgence is her problem (indicated by the quantity of food in the paintings), and she can’t get away from it.

one of the paintings on her website is not a self-portrait. it is of an older woman eating breakfast at a table. the breakfast consists of oatmeal with bananas. that painting has a completely different feel to it altogether. when i looked at it and took it all in, i felt release and freedom. the subject is not surrounded by food, making it seem like their is more space in the painting all around. the painting takes place in a more public spot in the home (the table), and because of the size of the table it implies that more people are supposed to be there. why get a big table for one person? or, why get a small table for many people? a large table is more inviting. in all, the painting was in complete contrast to all of lisa price’s self-portraits, showing us what she is not, possibly. maybe even something she wants to be.

but yeah, i saw myself in those pictures. it’s easy to dismiss them because they are so intense, but when all is said and done, those pictures could be anyone.

Eva June 3, 2011 - 2:38 PM

Most of those images make me sick. I don’t eat sweets anymore, and if I have a cookie, I can only eat one small one; sweets make me ill now.

What I see are a lot of women who I want to take to O.A.

So many people are taught that if something’s bothering them, they can’t talk about it to anybody, because you don’t want anybody to know that you’re not perfect. It’s so sad to think that we believe other people are so perfect that if we’re not we think we won’t be loved. The truth is that we all have our “stuff” and the more we learn that, the less unique we realize we are and that’s a good thing.

LBC June 3, 2011 - 5:08 PM

I went to her website.

Am I the only one who thinks that Cherry cheesecake II (under “previous works”) looks as though she’s been disemboweled?

Jem June 4, 2011 - 4:50 PM

Honestly, I looked at those photos and thought, “That can’t be real.”

I am overweight. And I totally understand the Flannery O’Connor-esque stylizing. But sometimes I think overdoing it actually makes people like me, who have been fat since childhood, think they don’t have a problem.

When I binge it’s on a package of Twizzlers, or Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches, or a big plate of pasta. I wish she would show some more “realistic” binges, too.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 4, 2011 - 10:48 PM

Unfortunately, that is realistic for a lot of people. Specifically binge-and-purgers.

The last thing I think we should do, is compare ourselves to the stories of others to determine whether or not our “problem” is worth reflection. It’s worth reflection because of how it affects our lives, not because “it’s worse than Jane Doe over there.” Conversely, something that’s affecting our own lives shouldn’t be overlooked because “Jane Doe over there is much worse.” If we did that, considering how we can always find someone out there worse off, we’d never address anything harmful in our lives, y’know?

Meta June 7, 2011 - 9:40 PM

Hey ladies,
One of the pictures doesn’t fit here…to me. The pick with the clean bed and cinammon buns in the box……
That photo doesn’t say food addiction to me. It definitely does say over indulgence though. I don’t battle with my weight often. I assess what I think I need to change and then try to take steps to eat right or exercise. I’m a big girl. I’m tall and thick. My waist is visible from the front…lol not so much from the sides lol.
There are days when I’ve just had enough, and I will go buy two cinnabons and eat them both slooowwwllly. Or not. I don’t get mad at myself or angry at myself. But it does make me feel better for the moment.
The picture i’m speaking of says that to me. The other with the messier bed and food all over and on the sheets says something sad and painful to me. But again, those are just my observations.

kay June 9, 2011 - 10:22 AM

These are self portraits. That’s why only a white woman is featured, because the artist is painting herself. I like critical race theory too, but let’s leave criticism for where it’s due.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 9, 2011 - 10:32 AM

As quoted in the post: “This is the cultural background to Lee Price‘s realist paintings of women (mostly her) eating sweets and junk food.”

Check the artist’s site. They’re not all self-portraits. All of the ones I chose to feature here, however, were of the artist.

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify that.

And, either way, it’s not “critical race theory” to mention race. I wrote what I “saw.” In all honesty, I need us to have a higher standard than “mentions race” for what classifies as “critical race theory.” I’ve got plenty of blog posts for that. This wasn’t one of them.

Allyson June 18, 2011 - 5:04 PM

I see the pain and struggle of addiction and the shame of it all. While we acknowledge drugs and alcohol as true addictions, many few food as something we can control. They have no idea of the control it can have over us. I see shame in the addiction while pretending to be free. The idea of lying on white sheets and eating food that will definitely soil them is a person that is openly defying something or someone. It is a contradiction of emotions in its purest form.

Angela A July 28, 2011 - 10:37 AM

Sorry I see something totally diff.! I see skinny women! I don’t see and realism that is truly going on in this country of over indulgence. I would have much rather see true portraits of women who really do over indulge in these foods and actions. I see fake!

Erika Nicole Kendall July 28, 2011 - 10:52 AM

But, and this is just a question… but the fact that they engage in overindulging (assumedly) doesn’t lend itself to the fact that they may also suffer from bulimia, which is also a “realistic” issue in this country? 🙁

Janine April 22, 2013 - 8:19 PM

I see where you’re coming from, but I am thin (at the moment) and have had emotional eating moments similar to the ones in these paintings. I know a few friends for which this is true, too. We exercise enough and space out the binges enough that we don’t gain much and have a chance to recoup. But do these moments exist for us? Absolutely. Do we feel guilt and shame about them? Absolutely. Do we know how bad it is, and do it anyway? Absolutely.
These paintings are realistic for some of us, even if they are not for all.

Tiera August 13, 2011 - 10:21 AM

I’m sure there is a deeper meaning here but I can’t get past the sheer fact that looking at all those sweets make me sick to my stomach. It only makes me feel shameful because I’m sure that in my lifetime, I have consumed more junk food than that and if these very fake pictures look scary and sickening, then I can only imagine how my “life” pictures look. Not to mention, these pictures don’t even come close to what my life has been like because she ate all those sweets and didn’t gain a pound while I gained 80 🙁 I don’t think, by any means, that there is anything wrong with the occassional doughnut or slice of cheesecake but we must learn to enjoy them in moderation because while we love our sweets, the feeling is NOT mutual. If we want to continue enjoying sweets without injecting insulin in our bodies, then we must control ourselves. Hard, but not impossible.

marie February 26, 2012 - 5:52 PM

I see a total lack of pleasure, I see emptiness particularly in her eyes.It is like you eat, you eat and it gives you the illusion that you will feel better… and you actually don’t.
She is surrounded with plenty of food but so lonely… That’s terrible…. I don’t see myself when I fall into binge eating but I am pretty sure I look like that 🙁

Mary Ann MacKay February 26, 2012 - 8:24 PM

I could easily be in these pictures. I have certainly been known to (over) indulge in sweets in private and to have my secret stashes.

Knowing that I’m not unusual does help – perhaps by bringing the issue more in the public eye we can at least address the underlying causes. Awareness is the first step to change, after all.

Essemmess October 17, 2012 - 7:41 AM

I see exaggeration. I am just seriously coming to terms with the fact that I am a food addict, so the fact is that I am in the same place as the woman in these pictures, but honestly these pictures seem quite disturbing. I don’t care how much “Mr Clean”, “Flash” or “Cillit Bang” you use, eating in the bathroom CANNOT be hygienic! And I am an addict not an animal!!
Maybe people actually live like this, but I think the majority probably would more identify with depictions of laden dinner tables or overflowing shopping baskets? Or maybe a series of photos where there is clock in the background showing the passing of just 1 hour between each picture?
In the end, it seems a bit farcical and to me distracts from what the author is actually trying to highlight. It doesn’t resonate with me at all.
Or maybe I just still in denial?

Erika Nicole Kendall October 17, 2012 - 7:02 PM

I think your comment speaks to the reality that so many people overlook, that overindulgence without self-control is a problem that many face every day… but also to the naivete many people have with regard to how bad it can get for some people.

Adrienne June 5, 2013 - 8:12 PM

I agree that these images should be provoking a bigger issue that is not often talked about, which is the issue of eating disorders. Bulimia is the first thought that came to mind when I saw the pictures, especially the picture in the bathroom. As a young woman suffering from severe bulimia, I find it hard to believe that the behavior depicted in the photos can be normalized or looked at as anything other than disordered eating. I think these women in the photos are yearning for much more than the sugary fixes being crammed in their mouths, and that is true for many who indulge in binge eating. I hope the artwork continues the discussion on emotional eating and disordered eating.

Lena April 28, 2013 - 2:57 AM

I see a girl consumed with pain and so much fear. Fear of failure, fear of love, fear of success, fear of being seen as desirable, fear of not being seen as desirable, fear of men, fear of women.
I see a girl who receives no love from anyone that she loves. A girl that gives her heart and soul to others…always putting them before herself, but is always last on everyone else’s list.
I see a girl who is so numb inside that she can’t even cry, despite the pain in her heart and in her soul.
I see a girl who is her own WORST enemy…
A girl longing so desperately to be free.

Alissa May 6, 2013 - 6:02 PM

I’m sorry. I’m sure this isn’t what I was supposed to see, but I thought those images were sickening. I have a sweet tooth for sure, it’s really my only eating issue, but damn. How can anyone eat that much sugar at one time? Honestly had a physical reaction to the thought of doing that…

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