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Is It Binge Eating or Just Eating?

Figurative painter Lee Price creates hyperrealistic images to explore women’s relationships to food. When a friend showed me this particular assemblage of paintings, my response was to be intrigued. But after googling a few interviews with the artist, I was feeling somewhat offended, not by the paintings but by how they are being viewed and interpreted. You can look at Price’s paintings without commentary on her website. Click here to see a collection of recent work and click here  and here to see earlier paintings from the same body of work.

The first thing I notice about Price’s paintings is that the woman depicted is slim and attractive. It is, in fact, the artist herself. I know that from reading interviews with Price but anyone will notice that all the images except two are of the same woman. The artist’s limbs are long and lithe, her knees and wrists are even a bit bony. Her skin is flawless, her hair is a thick tumble of chestnut curls.

Detail from Lee Price's "Cherry Cheesecake"

Detail from Lee Price’s “Cherry Cheesecake”

Price’s work is described in typical art-speak as “addressing the intersections of food with body image, addiction, and unabating desire.” I think that’s what we want to see in Price’s images but without certain biases, we would be able to see other things. Our culture applies a natural negative bias to any images of women eating.

In all of the images, the woman is in a personal space. She’s either lounging in bed among voluminous sheets or soaking in a large, pristine bathtub. In just one image, she’s comfortably ensconced in a big, overstuffed-style club chair. One bathroom image is significantly different from the others. I will address that one separately. For now, consider the overall majority of the images. In several of the paintings, particularly the more recent images, Price is not eating indulgently at all. She’s holding a tea cup or submerged in a bath filled with lemon slices. She’s holding a single cupcake, an ice cream cone, a piece of strawberry shortcake, or a marshmallow-filled mug of hot chocolate. In the painter’s only triptych, she is asleep with a plate of peach slices in her bed. None of these images would suggest furtive indulgence. When I look at them, I see a woman who appears to seriously enjoy the bathtub. I imagine that drinking tea and eating cake are not all she likes to do while soaking in hot water. It made me think of the back cover of the Go-Go’s iconic 1981 album, “Beauty and the Beat.”

GO GO S Beauty and the beat2

The bathtub represents a place of indulgent comfort. It is a haven, a refuge, a place of privacy and solitude that’s available to just about everyone. The bathtub is a simple space to feel clean, refreshed, and calmed. If I’d not read any of the interviews with the artist and seen the many references to her work interpreted as representing binge eating, I would make a positive association with the bathtub images. They look to me like a woman happily indulging her favorite pastime, eating her favorite foods in her favorite place. In each bathtub image, the tub itself is sparkling enamel; the space is clear of the usual soaps and bottles. There is not so much as a crumb in the water. In some images, the woman has made a little bit of a mess with boxes of cereal or hot chocolate that’s been freshly ladled from a pot. Again, I would not have read a negative connotation into this. To me, it seems more indicative of the fun and enjoyment taken in this moment of simple pleasure.

The bed images also do not represent binge eating to me. Some of Price’s earlier paintings do depict the artist surrounded by junk food treats or pastries. She is asleep in a fetal position among empty cupcake wrappers. She looks up at us in a few images and her gaze is open to interpretation. In other paintings, I see her as blissfully unconcerned about anything but her favorite foods so when taken as a body of work, in those images where the subject looks out at us, I imagine her feeling intruded upon. We don’t have any business looking into her private moment of enjoyment. As in the bathtub images, the sheets may be a bit disheveled in the bed paintings but for the most part, the images do not communicate disorder to me. If I were to associate any sort of binging to these images, I’d imagine that the subject is in bed with her favorite treats,binge watching Netflix. I see her surrounding herself with comfort in a private world.

The one image I see as different from the others is “Refuge” from Price’s earlier work:

Refuge_44x64

The title tells us the subject needs to escape from something. She is looking for peace and quiet and the place she tries to find it is in a tiny, cramped bathroom. She sits on the floor against the door which indicates she may be worried someone will try to intrude so she has to be sure to block them out. Unlike the immaculate tubs of Price’s other paintings, this one is chipped. Bottles sit on the edge. We observe other accouterments of a typical bathroom.

Still, I do not see binge eating in this image. I see a bathroom that would be in a modest home or apartment. I see a woman desperate to find a few minutes of alone time to enjoy a simple pleasurable indulgence. She has neither the time nor the means to treat herself to a shopping trip or a manicure. Cheetos and soda, alone in a bathroom, are all she can give herself. At any moment, her solitude may be interrupted.

My interpretations of these paintings are wholly influenced by the fact that the subject is not fat. It is perhaps a kind of bias on my part that I do not see the woman as someone who might be hiding in shame to eat. I believe she could be eating in a private space for many reasons; my initial reaction is that she is freely indulging herself in something she enjoys. I do not see addiction, conflicted body image, or even “unabating desire” in any of these images.

All of the Lee Price interviews I found except one make references to binge eating. The artist described that she buys the food specifically to create the scene she paints. She does not say that she is representing situations from her life though she does discuss her own struggles with body image, particularly in her youth, which is quite common. I believe our culture wants to read pain, conflict, anxiety, self-loathing, and lack of control into virtually any pairing of women with food. When women eat, it is assumed they eat in shame. The one interview that did not reference binge eating was from a European magazine.

How do you interpret these paintings? Click the links above and post your comments.