How Can You Feel Lust if You’re Suppressing Your Hunger?
Melissa Broder, author of "Milk Fed," on sexual desire, female hunger, God as infinite yogurt, and the self-love industrial complex
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Walking into a frozen yogurt shop is akin to arriving in a land of possibility. Rows of gleaming machines hum with a veritable buffet of flavor. The toppings bar is all texture and color and heat. But for Rachel, the protagonist of Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed, her wildest fantasies are only imagined: “red velvet yogurt dripping in caramel, freckled with slivers of Snickers,” and “a dulce de leche yogurt in marshmallow sauce.” Day after day, she returns to Yo!Good for the same plain serving of yogurt, ensuring that the Orthodox boy behind the counter doesn’t fill her cup beyond the lip. She finds meaning in the withholding of pleasure; the only thing she consumes with abandon is the illusion of control.
Rachel’s kingdom of calorie counts and arduous gym sessions begins to crumble when she meets Miriam, a zaftig young woman who takes over for her brother at Yo!Good and fills Rachel’s cup beyond measure. Once Rachel gets a taste of pleasure, she wants more. She not only starts to crave the ice-cold Scorpion Bowls and abundant pu pu platters that she eats with Miriam at the Golden Dragon, but she hungers for validation from her estranged mother. Good sex. Fulfillment. As Rachel begins to undo the myths about thinness instilled in her from a young age, she is forced to reckon with who she is and come clean about what she really desires.
Broder, who has authored hits like The Pisces, So Sad Today, and Last Sext, brings her characteristic humor and whip-smart cultural commentary to her latest novel in order to explore rich intersections between food, sex, and religion. As Pickles, her dog, fought off one of his archnemeses (a leaf blower), Broder and I talked by phone about what it means to be devoted to control, unmaking harmful myths, and the weirdness of living in a human body.
Jacqueline Alnes: Milk Fed was the kind of book that I couldn’t look away from but also didn’t want to look at all the way because it felt too real. Because of the diet-obsessed culture we live in, I’m sure a lot of people, like me, see themselves in Rachel who vacillates between eating nothing and binging. She is always calorie counting.
Melissa Broder: I say that my oldest relationship is my challenging relationship with food and my body. It wasn’t something I had to go research on Wikipedia or interview anyone. I had all of the resources within me to write this book.
JA: You have said that eating disorders are a “monotheistic religion” which I find to be so compelling. Rachel, who is a lapsed Jew, views food––and her perceived control over it–– as salvation, while Miriam finds pleasure in consumption. What intersections between Judaism and food or observations about the idea of religion in general came to light while you were writing this book?
MB: My own relationship to the Jewish religion is inextricably connected to food. It’s a very tuna-salady religion. That’s number one. Number two: I remember reading my dad’s copy of Goodbye, Columbus when I was young and reading about Neil Klugman’s diagnosis of his Aunt Gladys as a mayonnaise-salad kind of Jew, sort of like an OG Newark versus Brenda Patimkin as a clean, fresh-fruit eating, nose-job sporting goods Jew. Never in my eleven-year-old life had I felt something to be so true on a bones-level.
In the same way that we use a religion to help us make sense of the world and to also compartmentalize existential anxiety, so too does an eating disorder, at least in my own experience. There is a comfort in the reductive. It is a reason people love religion. The human mind wants to simplify and I think that an “answer” is more comfortable to us, even if it’s not the truth. An answer that we can perceive as the truth, like an eating disorder, like certain myths we are raised on––I do think parents are our first gods––there’s something soothing about that, even in its pain. There’s a sort of devotion; you have to be an orthodox disordered eater to really fulfill all the commandments.
JA: The rules are so familiar to me. I was reading a study about how during this pandemic more people have returned to eating disorders, and I think it’s partly because we cannot control so much right now that food becomes this magic system. In an eating disorder, you believe you have control: there are results, and it’s kind of comforting.
MB: 100%. It’s a way to make order out of the chaos. It may only be an illusion of control, but so is religion. It works until it doesn’t. And I think that’s the problem. My relationship with eating disorders is ultimately different than with a god of my choosing because god is the only thing I can have infinite quantities of. God is the infinite frozen yogurt, the religion is not. God, whatever that is to me on a given day, is the ultimate buffet. But how do you remember that the buffet is even in there?
JA: There is less instant gratification there.
MB: It’s a lot slower than food. It’s nebulous. You can’t see it, can’t taste it, can’t buy it, can’t put it in your pocket. Who is going to turn to that nebulous buffet when there are so many things easier than that? We make gods out of so many other things: eating disorders, validation, shopping. I mean, I find new ones every day.
JA: I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of religion and food in the way that conceptions of women’s purity are tied up in food or tied up with sex. If you abstain from either, we have these harmful myths that tell us we are cleaner, better, people.
JA: Rachel’s mother instills those ideas in her, and the mothers are so important in this book. Why the mother instead of the father?
MB: Probably because I don’t have daddy issues. We write our obsessions, so what can I tell you.
Our parents are our first gods and I think particularly the mother creates a lot of the liturgy, so to speak, about how much pleasure we are entitled to and how whether it has to be earned or our birthright for existing. I wanted to explore the way that all these appetites––our actual hunger, spiritual hunger, desire, familial yearning––are all interconnected. You can’t separate them. For Rachel, I mean Rachel has performed sexuality during her eating disorder. I’m going to go so far as to say, even though this isn’t in the book, that Rachel is a woman who has mimicked things she has seen on porn. She has performed pleasure but she has not allowed herself to experience pleasure with another human being because that’s a loss of control. That’s parallel to her experience with food.
JA: The idea of control is so prevalent in this book. It pops up at the gym, with food, during sex, with her mother, at therapy; it’s so pervasive. I was interested in that tension between comfort and control. Comfort means this loosening of boundaries in regard to food and sex––it allows for lust––while control means relying on a denial of pleasure. Have food, sex, and longing always been a holy trinity of sorts?
MB: If my longest relationship has been between food and my body, then my second longest relationship is with longing and desire. They have gone hand in hand. Again, the performance of desire and pleasure and what we are supposed to look like is very synonymous and wrapped up in what I as a woman believed was the truth about what I was supposed to look like. How, if you’re not allowing yourself to feel your hunger, are you supposed to feel other things? It’s not like all the other things are going to make their way through. How are you going to feel pleasure or lust?
I’m not a huge fan of feelings. I’m scared of negative feelings. But then, once I have one, it’s not that bad. I think that the problem with cutting off the negative feelings is that you don’t get to experience the heights of joy that are their antithesis. It’s similar: if you’re numbing your feelings of hunger because it is a danger to you, how are you then going to be able to feel your sexual desire? It’s another feeling of equal intensity. When we cut off one sensation or one appetite, we are also cutting off others.
JA: What was interesting while reading is that Miriam and Rachel are almost foils to each other in the beginning. They seem so oppositional, but in reading, you start to realize that they are both harmed by these myths that have kept them where they are.
MB: Absolutely. At first, to Rachel and the reader––and me––it seems like Miriam is so free while Rachel is not. As we progress, we begin to wonder: who among us is totally free? No one. Miriam may be free in some ways that Rachel is not, but she would have to be a mythological creature in order to be completely free from all ties. There’s a sort of self-love industrial complex we all are sold where it’s like, “Buy the ticket and you shall arrive!” Self-love becomes a product and a destination.
In my experience of recovery, it’s quite the opposite. Every day, self-love takes a slightly different recipe and there is not an arrival. Instead, it’s more a question of how you live with it and how you do things to make yourself okay. We decide how much we are willing to sacrifice, especially when we are giving up messages that have been imparted to us as the truth by our families. Even if the messages are wrong, there is love there. It makes it so hard to give up. You don’t dismantle it like it’s a game of Operation; it’s very gooey and sticky.
JA: And untangling those beliefs is an untangling of the self. Once you do, it’s like, who am I now? What am I without these things?
MB: Right. It’s like when people leave a church. Who am I without my eating disorder? I’ve just been numbers for a really long time.
There are things that we begin to question as we grow up, like we understand that some things we were taught as truth are just opinions, but then I start to wonder: how much of how we view the world is still based on “truths” that were instilled in us at a young age? I enjoyed exploring the notion of certitude in Milk Fed. Right now, certitude is very trendy: moral certitude, political certitude. But what about when two groups are certain of opposite things? Can they both be true? Maybe. Or when we hold opposite beliefs within ourselves, what do we do then?
JA: The discomfort that you have to get comfortable with means that it’s hard to get away from the black and white myths we make for ourselves. It’s easier to navigate the world when you are sure of something.
MB: You’re right. I think that’s why we latch onto certitudes and eating disorders and religion. It is painful to not know. We feel weird in uncertainty.
JA: I love that this book is set in L.A. because we’re sold this idea that we are our best selves, as you write, when we’re drinking “Moon Juice and using organic lip tint.” What was it like writing a book set in such an aesthetic-obsessed place?
MB: Here’s the thing. We all live in bodies, so we take these issues with us wherever we go. The challenges of living in a body can come up any place. However, I will say that on an archetypal level, L.A. was an awesome place to set this. It’s a little extra focused on the external, so that dichotomy can be more pronounced. The performative versus the felt.
JA: That’s a perfect way of putting it. Alexandra Kleeman wrote about the fluidity of humans versus the norms we are supposed to adhere to and the tension between control versus wildness in your book. What prompted you to explore the line between these things?
MB: I feel like that’s the struggle of my existence. The experience of being a soul in a body who didn’t ask to be here—I don’t remember asking to be here in this incarnation—that’s a challenge to begin with. The body feels finite and the body is finite. You’re born and you’re like, “Thanks for the gift of death!” But then, to pile all of these other expectations on a body, it’s quite an undertaking being a human. For me, it’s all very natural to write into these dichotomies. That tension is the itch that drives me to make something. It’s very itchy.