Food is…punishment – and a shout out to Plum Johnson


The notion of using food as punishment is a long and sordid tradition. Things like sending the children to bed without dinner was and still is a form of punishment with suspect results. To me, using food as punishment is a form of control that is so primal it feels like all pretence of civilization is dropped. When you consider that food is one of the three base needs that all humans require for survival, depriving a person of their food seems grossly punitive.

To me, there is nothing more powerful than being the provider of the thing that keeps us alive. Food has been used in prisons (and still is to this day) as punishment. Think the old bread and water routine, used until prisoners earned better food through good behaviour. In prisons in the US, they use something called “the loaf” to punish prisoners who have thrown food or acted in a violent way. It’s something called Nutraloaf, but each prison is free to come up with their own versions. It usually involves ground up beans, mashed vegetables and starches, baked into a brick that is then served in a brown paper bag. No seasoning. It’s just so dark ages, and frankly, unethical.

However, food is used as punishment in tiny, unconscious ways every day in households around the world. I think of my own childhood and how my poor brother, he who LOATHED most cooked vegetables, would be forced to sit at the table, threatened with no hockey on the weekend, and reduced to tears because he wouldn’t finish his vegetables. My other brother and I would sit with him and bit by bit, as our parents left the room, or turned their backs, we would help him eat his vegetables. It turned dinner into a battlefield, and I swore that it would never be so in my house.

There is something else, though, that’s even deeper. It’s the way we punish ourselves with food. Or punish ourselves after we’ve eaten food, or before we eat food we love. I used to do fairly intense exercise, as I’ve mentioned before. I confess that a great deal of my motivation was to “earn” food. If I didn’t get in my 10k run, or if I didn’t swim that day, I deprived myself of some deliciousness. I punished my laziness by denying myself food. Messed in the head, yet I’ve heard other people articulate these exact sentiments. I read a runner’s blog post that said, “I eat to run, and run to eat.” It’s the notion of earning food that I find unsettling.

Perhaps you’ve been punished with food or the withholding of food in your childhood. Or perhaps you still punish yourself by either overeating or through deprivation. Feel free to share with me.

RBC TAYLOR PRIZE - Plum Johnson Wins the 2015 RBC Taylor Prize f

Photo Tom Sandler

My hearty congratulations to Plum Johnson for winning the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction. I haven’t read the book yet, but fully intend to. What is inspiring is that Ms. Johnson is in her 60s and has never written a book before. It gives me hope that I haven’t started down this path too late. Yay, Plum!

The story link is here:


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