Moving To America (Almost) Gave Me An Eating Disorder
I've never been unhappy with my body -- but after a year living in New York City, I was noticeably the skinniest I'd ever been, with a screwed-up relationship to eating.
When I moved to NYC from Australia, I had no money, no nearby family and no health insurance. I was very conscious of the importance of taking care of myself, since no one would be able to take care of me if I got sick. So for the most part I tried to be sensible and eat healthy. But healthy foods tend to be low in calories -- and even processed foods are increasingly only available in "diet" configurations (try to buy yogurt that isn't low-fat, I dare you).
Being a healthy weight to begin with, I didn't count on having to eat twice as much to stay that way.
Being poor also meant no ordering in, minimal eating out, and lots of cooking for myself. Which would have been okay - I know how! I like doing it! I even had time at first, when I was looking for a job and knew almost no one.
But I quickly learned that the ingredients I was used to seeing on supermarket shelves (borlotti beans, beef sausages, lamb cutlets, nutmeg, white pepper, turmeric) in the southern hemisphere were nowhere to be found.
Plus I wanted to avoid factory farming and big evil corporations -- something I worried about less in Australia where the food industry is smaller & more regulated. Things have different names here (cilantro, arugula, peppers, squash, scallions, and what is up with Greek yogurt being so dry?), but the whole set of staple ingredients is different. None of my recipes would work anymore. I was intimidated in grocery stores and delis and my repertoire got narrower and narrower.
Making rent each month meant planning every expense down to the cent and food was one of the only things that wasn't a fixed cost. So increasingly I found myself cutting it out of my budget, and just not organizing to have something to eat every day.
My personal austerity policy started to become a way to punish myself, because I couldn't control much else in my financial life. I'm one of those people who doesn't stress-eat -- I disconnect from my hunger and tend to forget my physical needs.
People noticed; my new friends started to gently offer to feed me or pay for dinner when we were out together. I dismissed this, since they hadn't known me all my life -- I've always been thin -- and they just never saw me eat (at home, before meeting them for drinks). But when I went home to visit, lifelong friends commented on my weight loss & new cheekbones -- with compliments, but mild shock.
Alarmed, I started counting calories - just to find out how this had happened. I discovered I was eating about 650 calories a day -- three super-healthy meals (or snacks instead of meals) when I needed 2000. But I was also aware that counting calories (even to try & eat more) would convince anyone in my life that I was, actually, anorexic, if they suspected it. So I did it furtively, in secret. Which I realized only made it seem sketchier.
I think that's pretty disordered eating - I was eating cheap garbage to get enough calories, then eating kale & spinach to get nutrients, thinking about food as an expensive chore (when I used to really enjoy it!) and worrying about what other people must think! How did I get like this?
I've never needed to lose weight or thought I was fat in my life, but I think eating disorders are probably more complicated than that. Now I understand it's about feeling not good enough in some way, not about vanity. In my case, the thoughts were about not taking enough care of myself, not wanting to burden my new friends & not wanting to stick out as a clueless foreigner. I internalized all of that and ended up starving myself without even realizing.
I've decided now not to worry about calories any more. I have promised myself that food spending isn't something I can cut down on - that wasn't really taking care of myself at all. And I bought a cookbook with ingredients I can actually find here. It's even written by underground performer Lydia Lunch, and full of healthy recipes with a decadent, hedonistic approach -- exactly what I needed to put my body and attitude to food back together again.