Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but chocolate is never just chocolate.
It's love, it's guilt, it's solace, it's reward. And it shows that -- when it comes to women and eating -- nothing is quite what it seems.
"I use it as a reward for a long day or a stressful situation that I've overcome. It adds a richness to my life that's lacking when I starve myself with yogurt and an apple for lunch," said Anya Harris, one of 69 respondents to a Sun telephone poll on women's relationships with food. "And it has to be pure milk chocolate, Swiss is best, and don't mess it up with caramel or nuts."
Ms. Harris, who does public relations in Baltimore, said that while she and her girlfriends have been eagerly awaiting "Eating," the movie, opening today at the Charles, they're already living "Eating," the lifestyle.
"All the women I know are obsessed with food. We can't wait to see this movie, and we have no intention of bringing our husbands or boyfriends," said Ms. Harris. "It's not the central issue in their lives the way it is for women.
"When women go out, there's such a pressure to appear uninterested in food. 'I can't eat another bite.' They watch each other, and if someone eats too much, she has to say something, like 'God, I can't believe I'm such a pig.' It's terrible. When I see my sisters, the first thing they'll say is, 'What have you had to eat today?' It's this competition -- who can eat the least?"
Women seem to have a complex relationship with food: They might love it, but hate the weight that comes with it. Or they may eat to feed a hunger that's not necessarily for food. Or they may eat and feel guilty or not eat and feel deprived. Which, of course, leads to more eating, more guilt, and on and on.
And it's the kind of relationship that, al-though not unknown among men, is much rarer, experts say.
"At some level, women are closer to food than men because we are food on a certain biological level," said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a Cornell University professor and author of "Fasting JTC Girls," a book about body image and anorexia. "Women in most cultures are the ones who prepare the food and nurture with food and love with food. But women's relationship to food has changed because women are increasingly judged by their bodies. So now they have an ambivalent and complex relationship with food.
"Most women in America," she concluded, "don't know if they love or hate food."
As one respondent to the poll, a Johns Hopkins University student, put it: "Food is my enemy; food is my best friend."
A recovered bulimic, the 20-year-old said food is like alcohol to her. "It makes me feel high," she said, "and it scares me."
While anorexia and bulimia are the most extreme cases, even women who don't suffer from those illnesses are prey to the pressure to deprive themselves of food in order to fit the current ideal of slenderness. An estimated 40 percent to 80 percent of all women will diet at some point in their lives, said David Roth, a psychologist who directs the eating disorders programs at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.
"In our culture, the ideal of beauty and gender identity is different for men and women," Mr. Roth said. "If women are to be seen as beautiful, they have to be thin, and to have an identity, they have to have a man. For men, to be seen as beautiful, they have to be seen as strong, and to have an identity they have to have a powerful position in the world."
As a result, women seem always to be on a diet -- or thinking they should be on one.
"I've probably attempted to diet more than 100 times in my lifetime," said Susan Duvall, a 38-year-old actress and apartment leasing agent. "I've been on Stillman's, Atkins, Diet Workshop, Weight Watchers, Pritikin . . ."
"I'm on a diet, I'm not fat, I don't know why I'm on a diet," said Carol, a respondent who asked that her last name not be used. "I had breakfast today, Special K with skim milk, wheat toast and juice, then I gave my kids blueberry waffles and when I cleaned up the table, I actually licked their plates. I'm a pig. I'm so embarrassed. I actually licked their plates! I blew more calories licking my childrens' plates than if I'd just gone ahead and had the blueberry waffles."
Feeding family or friends is undeniably at odds with dieting, several women said.
"I'm constantly preparing food because my husband and children areon different eating schedules," said Georgia Corso of Lauraville in northeast Baltimore. "I've been on a diet, and the hardest part is training myself not to eat while I'm cooking. The thing that drives me wild is peanut butter, since I constantly have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my children, and I have to remind myself I'm not allowed to keep taking little fingerfuls of peanut butter. Sometimes I just go to bed early because that's the only way to get out of the kitchen."
Children indeed appear to be driving many women if not to drink then to peanut butter.
"I have four children, and they're basically grown now, but there was a time when I'd buy three jars of peanut butter a week, one for the two girls, one for the two boys and one just for me," said Pat Wiskman, a legal secretary and part-time usher at Memorial Stadium. She ate so much peanut butter, in fact, that she noticed immediately when her favorite brand changed its recipe.
Several women thought their food habits date back to childhood.
"My mother gave me chocolate when we celebrated or to cheer && me up if I was upset," said Tammi Bryant, a collections specialist with an insurance company. "And now that I think of it, my brother and sister and I have this same craving. We've gotten together on weekends and made brownies or chocolate chip cookies or just bought a bag of those little candy bars. I have eaten a whole bag of Baby Ruths by myself."
Veroneca Burgess, a 35-year-old Baltimore lawyer, thinks her eating habits may be a way of retrieving happy memories of big family dinners, from homemade bread to fresh vegetables to lovingly baked desserts.
"I think I'm trying to fill a void. I think what I really want is a husband and children, but you can't find them in a bag of potato chips," Ms. Burgess said, adding that she's working on more conventional ways of finding a family.
Food can indeed be a case of loving the one you're with.
"I'm obsessed with sweets," said one anonymous caller. "When my husband is home, I hardly eat any, but when he's gone, I just eat, eat, eat."
If women eat less than they want because of the pressure to be slim, then perhaps the reverse is also true and some eat as empowerment.
"I find that whenever I want to show my independence," one anonymous caller said defiantly, "I eat what I want to eat."
'What food means to me . . .'
We asked Sun readers to call in to tell us about their relationship with food. These are a few of the 69 responses:
* "When I go out to brunch where they have a buffet, I get everything I want the first time around because what if they clear it all away?"
* "I'm obsessed with potato chips. I can eat a whole bag. And not one at a time -- I literally stuff them in my mouth."
* "I am a chocoholic. If there's anything better to eat than chocolate, I have not found it. It just consumes me, thinking when I'm going to get my next piece of chocolate."
* "My obsession is pizza and anything Italian, and I have no idea why because I'm not Italian. My husband thinks I'm crazy."
* "My life revolves around my eating. The best thing is hot buttered popcorn with tons of salt. If I don't have it, I go through withdrawal."
* "Whenever there's a party and there's a buffet and it's free, I can't stop eating. I eat until I'm sick. People around me, they're not the same way. They sneak it. That's just the way it is."
* "I have to have chocolate cake all the time. I bake my chocolate cake on Sunday, and it [is] gone by Tuesday."
* "I have an obsession with all types of food. I really enjoy eating, and I don't know why."
* "I feel deprived when I don't eat. I feel guilty when I do eat. I have everything. I have a big house, two beautiful children, a nice car. I'm educated. But food is driving me crazy."