'Everyone has an eating disorder': Lionel Shriver on food, fat and fiction


American author Lionel Shriver poses for a photograph at her home in southeast London, England, on April 27, 2010. (AP Photo/David Azia)

First aired on Q (30/5/13)


Novelist Lionel Shriver is known for tackling tough topics. She's taken on the American healthcare system in 2010's So Much for That and she explored the impact of a school shooting on the shooter's family in her most famous book, 2003's We Need to Talk About Kevin. Shriver takes on another complicated issue -- obesity -- in her latest, Big Brother.

But Big Brother isn't just about addressing what is becoming an American epidemic, it's an issue close to Shriver's heart: her own brother struggled with obesity and eventually died from obesity-related illness in 2009. She wrote a column about her brother's struggles shortly before his death, but it "didn't explore the issue sufficiently," Shriver told Q guest host Gill Deacon. "So I decided to write a book about it."

Shriver was driven by two simple, but fundamental, questions. "Why do we eat? What is it that drives us to eat? Clearly physical hunger is a small part." She makes it clear in Big Brother that binge eating is not about the enjoyment of food. In fact in many ways, it's the lack of enjoyment that results in eating so much. "Some of them throw all kinds of food that doesn't go together in a bowl and stir it up and binge on that. It's not fun. It's a compulsion. It's not about taste. It's actually about failure to be able to enjoy your food," she said. "That the last bite didn't satisfy you and you need another one. Clearly the next one will do the trick."

Shriver believes that the "obesity epidemic" (a term she despises) is directly related to the collective lack of satisfaction and overall unhappiness in North America. "If you're American you are told from a very early age that you live in the greatest country in the world, it's drummed into you," Shriver said. But America has a lot of problems right now -- high levels of unemployment, high levels of personal debt, the country is politically divided, for example -- so it can be tough for those struggling to see why America is supposedly so great. "[If] this is as good as it gets, well, that's a depressing prospect for a lot of people." To fill that void, people turn to other things, including food. "[It's] a reaction to an unfocused dissatisfaction in American culture."

However, Shriver is equally troubled by people who veer towards the opposite extreme: those who don't eat and/or exercise compulsively. She sees our cultural obsession with beauty and thinness -- and our tendency to reduce our self-worth to be just about what we look like -- as a major problem. "A person is not a body and a self is not a body and my experience of my own self is not as purely a body," she said. "Your self is larger and more interesting and not confined to its husk."

If Shriver had her way, we'd care less about what we looked like and would think less about what we eat (or don't) and when we eat (or don't). Her dream relationship with food is a simple one: "Ideally -- and this sounds fantastic now -- you'd eat when you are hungry and you'd quit when you are full," she said. But Shriver's characters don't eat that way. Her brother didn't eat that way. And even Shriver (who has only one large meal a day, in the evening) doesn't eat that way either. In fact, very few people do.

"It's shocking the few number of people who go by that rubric."

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