sublimation ain’t always sublime

This post went live when it was merely notes, and was not scheduled to do so.  Sometimes I’ll copy/paste something, an idea, a paragraph, etc. from somewhere else, from a document I once drafted or an IM conversation, reminding me to blog about it at some point.  Well, this post happened to go live before it’s time.  So please pardon the mess of it. 

Freud believed artists became artists to satiate their anal fixations.  An artist was unable to be released from the anal stage of sexual development, and has hence become fixated with it. He argued an artist’s true desire was to smear fecal matter (literally a creation from within), and this desire did not dissipate as they matured from their infancy.  It was, however, sublimated, their impulses modified into a socially acceptable format.  Sublimation is a subliminal defense mechanism.  Those anally fixated became sculptors, painters, or chefs because these vocations were more readily accepted by society than say, shit flinging.

Now play along.  Our society is prejudiced against fat.  So those of us who are orally fixated have received some not so subtle clues that our overeating could stand to be curbed, for our health.  For our jobs.  For fair treatment.  For our social and sex lives.  So we diet.  We exercise.  We change eating habits and purchase the magazines promising reduction secrets of the stars. And we then obsess over that.  It’s the same obsession, just a new flavor.  Sublime with a hint of sublimation.  Only that if it were truly sublimation, it wouldn’t be something we chose or decided to do.  We wouldn’t be aware we were even doing it.

When I was my thinnest, people assumed I’d lost the weight because I stopped obsessing over food.  That, they argued, or some internal conflict had been settled.  Whatever else in me was broken had been fixed, allowing me to lead a healthier, balanced life.  Well, that’s not how it went.  I hadn’t stopped obsessing.  I simply pulled a lever and sent the runaway train down a different track. 

I’ve heard it argued that obsession is a symptom that something else is wrong.  "Well, you overeat because you’re secretly afraid of sex, and that extra layer of fat keeps the opposite sex away and allows you to remain a child."  Almost always, I’ve heard people theorize with any addiction, that it’s  a sign that something else is broken.  Addiction, they say, is a manifestation, a coping mechanism for something else.  What if that’s not quite right? 

What if it goes back to the antiquated, and faulty, theories of Freud?  That really we develop a fixation (anal, oral, phallic, or shoes) early in life?  And instead of spending our lives trying to excise our impulses, we simply work on either driving them to a socially acceptable place or work on learning to stop giving a shit (pun intended) what society thinks of them.

I, for one, much prefer to spend my time with those obsessed with meals and menus and morsels to those who’ve taken that same need and refocused it toward dieting.  I read cookbooks for fun, keep them on my bedside table, and when I’m not eating, I’m thinking of my next meal, how it can be improved, planning where it will be.  Not all the time, but generally, in the course (and courses) of my life.  There are others who choose to use their powers for "good," who instead of planning feasts, plan and count and research how little food they can eat while still feeling satiated.  They funnel the obsession, alter it so it’s acceptable, but it doesn’t go away. They scour the internet looking at calorie counters and tips for eating guilty snacks sans guilt.  It’s their version of sublimation.  The habit might be licked, but the driving force is still the same.  And maybe that’s all any of us do in life.  Maybe our needs don’t really change, just our methods for having the needs met. 

And FYI, although I’m an artist, I’m hardly anally fixated.  I’m quite clearly an orally receptive person (despite actually deriving little to no pleasure when receiving oral sex!).  According, again, to Freud (I found this at changeminds dot org):

Those who are orally fixated have two possible outcomes:

  • The Oral receptive personality is preoccupied with eating/drinking and reduces tension through oral activity such as eating, drinking, smoking,   biting nails. They are generally passive, needy and sensitive to rejection. They will easily ‘swallow’ other people’s ideas.
  • The Oral aggressive personality is hostile and verbally abusive to others, using mouth-based aggression.

Anal fixation, which may be caused by too much punishment during toilet training, has two possible outcomes:

  • The Anal retentive personality is stingy, with a compulsive seeking of order and tidiness. The person is generally stubborn and perfectionist.
  • The Anal expulsive personality is an opposite of the Anal retentive   personality, and has a lack of self control, being generally messy and careless.



  1. Where does Freud's hypothesis end and yours begin? I know Freud didn't cover internet diets, but I can't find the clear line where it becomes your "life observation" and not his theory.

  2. That makes sense to me. My mom is an artist and doesn't care anything about food. She said she loves to dig her hands in dirt — or anything like dirt. Sculpture is her favorite. I usually obssess about food. Well, I obssess about all of the food I can't eat. I also read cookbooks for fun but no way would I actually make key lime pie. Because that would make 8 slices and … there's only one me.

  3. As a foodie, this totally makes sense to me. I used to cook with abandon, not thinking for a second about calories or fats all while being very slim. Now, I do as you describe above, diligently entering my food eat to see the cold calculations of my days into grams, proteins, fats, and carbs. I think I was better off not caring.

  4. Freud's full of crap. The oral fixation is a stretch. Or generalized commentary on his part because I love reading cookbooks and am not obsessed with food, dieting, etc… Interesting blog post.

    BTW, was that you at Target? I didn't want to interrupt you. If so, love the blog. Thank you for sharing yourself with us. Lucas is in my thoughts. Sweet Abigail too!

  5. Arielle – you made me nearly choke to death on my afternoon diet coke! Thanks for the laugh.

    I have just lost about 45 lbs – about 7 more to go – so I am the queen of food obsession. Thinking about it, dreaming about it, and not eating it…or at least not eating ALL of it, which is what got me plump in the first place.

    You can tell when you've accepted celibacy when your deepest, darkest fantasies involve creme' brulee, homemade caramels and brie en croute. Daytime dreams consist of fried cheese, KFC, deep fried jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese – er…anything fried.

    Now back to my carrot sticks and sugar snap peas.

  6. By this theory, I have both an oral and anal fixation. It's nice to know I'd make such a good pornstar!….Okay, it's not nice, really.

  7. I am a chef and I funneled my obsession into a career and lifestyle. I think that food can be art, the texture, the aroma can be the words that describe the meal. Food is three dimensional, encapsulating a basic human need with experience's that can be fufilling and unbelievably memorable. To say that to be obsessed with food is bad or vulgar is sad. I am most suspicious of people who eat to live rather than live to eat. It is a hedonistic pleasure that is embraced everywhere else but in America. Where diets and rib bones are the ideal. Where Nicole Ritchie is admired for her chic. I would RATHER an hour on the treadmill and hard ass situps to maintain my frame, then to give up one bite of white truffle pasta, glass upon glass of good wine, or the orgasmic first bite of Chocolate Sin Torte. I like to believe I channel my Powers for good, My talent, into creating a meal for my customers. This is the first time your weight obsession has offended me as a reader. To eat, even to eat heartily should not be such a crime. The shit is, that no matter skinny or fat, the quality of a person lies in their demeanor, not there fat count or how much celliulite they possess.

  8. Another one of the best parts of having kids: you're going to pass the best parts of this "obsession" on. In a few years, they'll watch Lemony Snicket, and ask you about Pasta Puttanesca. And you'll get to whomp it up and let them scarf it. But take it from me — don't try to translate the name. You'll be sorry!

  9. I am exactly as you've described: obsessed with food, and have channeled my obsession into learning about food and its preparation rather than just consuming it. Either way, it's still an obsession, and I still enjoy it. I totally "get" the analogy between Freud's art theory and your food theory. I may have read this differently, but I'm not seeing where there was a judgment made about whether being food-obsessed, in its various forms, is a bad thing.

    Poop-smearing. Yeech. That brings back memories from my childcare-employment days. :)

  10. I am so glad the original post wast edited and expanded. After reading your book and your blog for so long, I was flabbergated when I read the original post as you always have so much to say about a dining experience, a set of knives, a drink or a fabulous menu that you have slaved over and creatively put together. I, as a reader, have so enjoyed that facet of your personality.
    I thought perhaps in preparation for your Moose book, the need to be thinnest had drowned out a character trait that makes you charming and interesting and changed it into a flaw. So true your expanded post is, as I have never met an artist in any venue or form who was not obsessed. I hope that Lucas is Doing better and that Abigail is well also. Cheers

  11. i think that we think too much, me included. i love food, yet i am on the thin side and always have been, but once i had a very bad breakup and i gained 30 pounds in under 6 weeks. when people would see me they would ask what the hell happened, which as an aside ALWAYS shocked me…those mothers were bold in their intended meanness, and i would say dunkin donuts. oh and i broke up with my fiance because he was banging someone else.

    funny thing is i always look back on that period with my donuts (at the height i could eat an entire dozen, with milk, no problem) with fondness. those donuts were freakin' delicious!

    and sometimes, what seems like something complex, really isn't.

  12. This is not related to topic but a question for artistic Stephanie
    Do you know anything about making silhouettes of children's profiles. Any photography aides to help the process? Just thought you might have a tip?

  13. I am probably the only one who actually liked the first draft better. This version reads like an unwanted assignment. The flow of the original draft is completely gone.

  14. rosemary- try backlighting. (lit background, subject in the foreground.)The background image will be bright while the child will be black. this is common. Maybe a screen in front of the subject, followed by a light shining onto the screen. This creates a shadow effect.

  15. I'm an italian girl, I've just finished your book it's great I loved it and look forward to read the next.

  16. I am obsessed with food. The more I diet, the more I obsess. Planning my meals for the week, picking out nice ingredients, browsing at the grocery store, picking restaurants. I totally understand this post.

  17. Bang on the money there, Steph. Obsession.
    All eating disorders – be they Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive eating – are manifestations of oral-based obsessions. But the Freudian take on the subject is very basic and limited.

    Obsessions are anxieties incarnate. We all suffer from anxieties to a degree, the questions is their origins. Substituting one obsession (eating) with another (talking about food and eating) doesn’t get to the bottom of our anxiety and its origins. Functionally it may serve the purpose (in this case – dieting) but the underlying anxiety, the emotional hole previously filled by food, is still there.

    I am an overeater myself, and have always had food obsessions. In my case – the trick of substituting food to talking about it – didn't work, and I am painfully aware that an obsession for an obsession will not fill the void. I am still trying to find other things that might.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

  18. While i find that some of what Freud said was interesting, most of it is total BS (excuse the pun) and in this day and age, with the advances in science, etc., many things can be read into or out of his work, JUST per the passage of time and circumstances(think Nostromdamus predictions, et al).
    As for food…I have a very odd relationship with the same, but i really do not know why. I used to blame it on my mother, with her gastric bypass at 28 and the health issues that she developed (back in those days, they just did the surgery, no mental help,no after the fact help at all…and in long term, she develeped eating disorders, anxiety disorders, heart problems, etc., etc., which aged her an extra 20+ years v. the age she really is (57 in December). YET, after so many years of blaming it on that, I wonder. I LOVE to cook, and if i had the time, i would read cookbooks too (i get my "fix" from my mags, and used to watch lots of food network, but currenlty on an HGTV binge per "nesting"). Yet, the fact that i live to eat (v. eat to live) often disturbs me. I HATE that I eat when I'm not hungry. I just LOVE food, love to taste, love to share my thoughts on all of it. My husband and I have FUN eating together (and we BOTH come from families with weight issues). When I first met him, he was from a "boring" food family. I've turned him on to a whole new world…and turns out HE is an AWESOME cook, and has gotten so good at "at least try it" type stuff. Currently, as i'm 7+ months pregs., I'm trying to be very careful about what i eat, etc. Yet, i still have bad days… I sure hope my kids don't have my issues. Yet, is it inevitable? Ugh.

  19. I am obsessed with food, fat and cigarettes but mainly I am obsessed with wondering how Lucas is doing. An update, please… (-;

  20. I only check this site now for baby updates. Even though I'm not one of those that send well wishes and all that stuff. Before the baby got sick I only checked the site for non-baby reads!

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