This article deals with an account of learning to overcome an eating disorder and finding ways to enjoy food again. Its content may be triggering to some people.
I used to do this thing. Maybe you also used to do this thing. Maybe you still do.
I kept a diary of every bite of food that went into my mouth, the margins scrawled with discouraging messages to my future self. A Diet Dr. Pepper and an apple was considered a passable lunch (dinner, too). I taped down my bra so I’d look flatter and more “waif-like.” I avoided being photographed at all costs. And, above all, I abhorred a full meal—whatever, let’s be honest, I abhorred food in general. I was fucking miserable, but for some reason, I felt like I had no other choice.
All of this started when I was about twelve. Growing up, I never really had the whole “your body is becoming something beautiful” chat (though who knows if it would’ve made much of a difference). I felt like my body was turning into something unfamiliar, something grotesque and lumpy and disproportionate. I had daily panic attacks that went undetected by my parents for at least a year. They probably thought I was way too young to have any real issues—they were holding out until high school for that. But it made sense: I’d always been a bit of a control freak, and this was just another facet of my life that I was desperate to have control over—i.e. “No, body. Stop that. You are not in charge. I AM.” So I started starving myself. The whole thing was pretty cut and dry. I don’t think we need to go down the rabbit hole of “why” and “how” this kind of thing happens. The internet is already chock full of that: “Why do we allow our daughters suffer from poor self image? Is the media to blame? Are other women to blame?” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
But this isn’t about that. This is about how I learned to love food again and how, 15 years later, I even began identifying as an amateur Foodie. This is the peace treaty I negotiated with food.
Hey, food. So as it turns out my body really, really needs you. Like, a lot. Like I will actually physically cease to be without you. So let’s start there…
Because I absolutely must eat food, because I do not have a choice in the matter despite how long I withhold it, I might as well not treat dinnertime like a trip to a renaissance-era torture chamber. I might as well eat stuff that doesn’t suck.
And by “stuff that doesn’t suck,” I don’t necessarily mean indulgence 24/7. I’m not talking about In-N-Out Burger or Girl Scout Cookies (although sometimes, yes, I absolutely am talking about those things). But in this particular instance, I’m talking about awesome, unique, complex flavors. Food that goes crunch! Food that melts in your mouth, spices that clear up that sinus infection in 5 seconds flat, or just the perfect amount of saltiness. I’m talking about the experience of eating.
Regardless of whether it was a carrot I consumed fridge-side on my way out the door or lasagna and red wine at my favorite Italian restaurant, I forced myself to enjoy fueling my body. I re-tooled my brain with enjoyment. Recently, while training my dog, I learned that this is what is referred to as “counter conditioning.” Give the dog a treat every time she sees a skateboard? Eventually she’ll stop howling at the skater kids.
Do I have off-days? Yeah, obviously. Anyone who tells you there’s such a thing as being 100% free of such a warped perspective is bullshitting you—I’ll probably never pound that coveted In-N-Out burger without having to silence those dumb, self-deprecating thoughts at least once. I have to remind myself, time and time again, that eating is wonderful and good for me and fun.
I think that’s one of the reasons I became such a Food-Network-Watching-Restaurant-Week-Enthusiast: it was a way to make food fun. Thank God we live in the age of Alton Brown and Gordon Ramsay and her holiness, GIADA. Learning how to cook is an awesome, totally viable hobby, and more importantly: eating is cool. Seeking out hidden culinary gems in my city and telling people about them is so exciting for me, like passing on a juicy rumor. The pleasurable experience of eating, as a whole, is what helps me keep it together. There’s so, so much more to it than forcing calories into a body that’s running on fumes. This might sound like a no-brainer to most people, but for someone like me, it’s taken 15 years to wrap my head around.
Learning to love the body you’ve got can be hard. A lot of people can’t ever fully master that, try as they might, despite what their families and friends tell them. I think maybe this is because “love” is too strong a word: it’s too tall an order. We’re told to love our bodies. But sometimes we don’t love ourselves, and we feel like we have failed somehow when people tell us that we should. I think “acceptance” is a much better word to use. We can all learn to accept what we’re working with. But learning to love food… that, in my opinion, is totally within reach—the same way you might fall in love with a new band or a series of books. When a person with an eating disorder eats something they think they shouldn’t, there’s a tendency to tie the event to the very definition of their self worth. But to me, viewing eating as a hobby keeps me from internalizing the experience in a negative way. It’s something you do, not who you are, so it’s somehow easier to swallow (pun absolutely intended).
If you’re trying to claw your way out of a similar hole, I highly recommend cozying up to a marathon of Chopped, Yelping your neighborhood’s newest gastropub, or learning to make some really crazy dish, like paella or homemade pasta from scratch. Food is going to be a part of your life if you want to continue having a life, so you might as well make peace with it. You might even surprise yourself in the process: you might even have fun.
Photo by Michelle White