There’s a scene in "Gone with the Wind," where Hattie McDaniels’ character urges Scarlett to eat before the party she’s about to attend, so she won’t turn men off by openly displaying her ravenous appetite. Her argument is that:
“You can always tell a lady by the way she eats in front of folks like a bird.”
I learned a lot of things from Gone with the Wind, like “People in the 1930s were all kinds of racist” and “Being a bitch will only get you so far.” But as someone who has struggled with disordered eating in the past, learning the level to which women’s eating is scrutinized is the lesson that has been the most relevant to my life. And it’s one I think about every Thanksgiving.
It’s been years since I made myself throw up after every meal, but it’s been about one year since I made myself throw up -– last Thanksgiving. It’s not surprising that, since I spent most of college starving myself and binge eating, I have a complicated relationship with the holiday. It is, after all, a holiday centered around binge eating. So even though I’m over most of my body image issues and don’t give a fuck about “holiday weight gain,” I’m still dreading this Thursday. I don’t plan to overeat, or to throw up. But I acknowledge that it’s a possibility.
One of the most challenging parts of Thanksgiving is that for one meal, I relinquish control of what I eat. As a guest, I am expected to over-indulge, and frankly, I feel obligated to do so. And even though that obligation is probably all in my head, the fact of the matter is that if I don’t stuff my gourd at Thanksgiving dinner, people will probably notice. I can’t be in the mood for merely a salad. I can’t opt out of dessert.
Well, OK…could. Yet I know that if I did, someone would ask me why. And sure, I could either make up an awkward excuse or explain the history of my mental health and that after years of stuffing myself and throwing up, my stomach can no longer handle large quantities of food all at once. But I don’t want to.
I don’t want to talk about throwing up at the dinner table, and I don’t want to enlighten everyone about a part of my life I’m not proud of. But most importantly, I don’t want my food intake to be the subject of conversation. For I know all too well that no good ever comes from people’s interest in my eating habits.
In college, much like Scarlett O’Hara, I had my heart broken by a guy who would never like me as much as I liked him (unlike Ashley Wilkes, though, this guy was probably a sociopath). After he dumped me (twice!) in the period of a few short and miserable months, it became “clear” to me that I wasn’t beautiful enough and needed to lose weight. So, naturally, I stopped eating.
You can’t stop eating without people taking notice, though, especially at a small school with a small dining hall, where meal times are very social activities. Plus, most of my friends were growing young men who played intramural sports and could eat enormous lunches and still be ravenous at dinner. So when all I ate was a salad or a few bites of a sandwich, I was met with disapproving looks and disparaging comments: “Is that really all you’re eating?”
Even my ex-boyfriend mocked me, not caring enough to ask why I was only eating broccoli, but caring enough to snidely remark once that the stems I left on my plate were actually the healthiest part.
I quickly grew tired of discussions about my food intake, sick of trying to defend what I knew deep down was unhealthy. In response, I abandoned broccoli, developed a serious case of bulimia, and tragically wasted innumerable hours of the next few years of my life bent over a toilet.
After a miserable couple of years though, I got a new and wonderful boyfriend and by senior year was actively working on recovering. After graduation, I spent three months in Europe and cemented my newfound healthy relationship with eating. I basically lived happily ever after.
Except for Thanksgiving.
Despite feeling fully recovered, the past two years I have relapsed at Thanksgiving, the one day a year where I still feel that others are aware of what I eat. I’ve tried to taste everything, to have seconds, and to spend the next hour making jokes about “food babies,” but every year I’ve failed. The shame and sadness this has caused me has not been enough to ruin the holidays for me, but they’ve certainly put a damper on things.
So this year, I’m acknowledging to myself that even though I’m no longer in a bad place, Thanksgiving is an anomaly. I’m not 100% over my troubled relationship with food and still feel physical ramifications from what I did to my digestive system. I can’t eat like everyone else. And instead of feeling awkward or ashamed, I’m allowing myself to monitor the amount I eat for this one night a year. I’m making a vow not to throw up this Thursday.
It won’t be easy: the food, the alcohol, and stress that have contributed to my past failures will still be there. But I’ve got a game plan to not eat more than I can handle. And since I know I’m merely one of a million people going through the same thing, I’d love to hear any suggestions you have.
1.Talk to myself.
Well, not aloud. But after years of failure, I know I need to be very mentally present while eating. “It’s not a race” and “You’re allowed not to eat more” and “Everyone here is glad to see you -– they don’t care what you eat.” I will inundate my brain with these friendly reminders.
2.Focus on all the sensory experiences of the meal: the colors, the smells, the sound of people’s laughter.
It sounds cheesy, but if I concentrate on giving my other sense a “feast,” perhaps I won’t obsess over the food on my plate.
3.Be a healthy eater.
There’s a passage they read you when you’re in therapy for an eating disorder, about “Signs of healthy eating.” One of them always resonated with me when I was re-training myself to eat normal meals: “Healthy eating is being able to leave some cookies on the plate, because you know you can have some again tomorrow.” We sit at the Thanksgiving meal for at least an hour. If I put more food on my plate than I intend, I can snack on it later.
4.Have a strategy for saying “No thanks.”
One of the hardest parts of Thanksgiving, and public eating, is turning down offers of food – especially when you know how hard people have worked to make the meal, and when they practically beg you to eat more. But it’s important to remember that you are allowed to say no (and no one will really mind if you do).
5.Chill with the booze.
On a similar note, drinking makes it even harder to say no, and lots of wine mixed with lots of food is a surefire recipe for stomach disaster. Even though Thanksgiving is a great excuse to day-drink with the family, it’s important to remember that my priority is not vomiting.
None of these are incredibly revelatory. I know. But on this holiday, that I’m genuinely thankful to be healthy and happy for, I think a lot of mindfulness will behoove me.