I am occasionally called upon to do college gigs, usually on Eating Disorders Awareness Week, or Love Your Body Week, or some other theme week when deconstructing these sorts of ideas is the main event. Most recently, I visited a small college in northern New Jersey as their Eating Disorders Awareness Week keynote speaker.
But it always goes better than I expect, and at the end of this particular talk, a young woman raised her hand to thank me for speaking her experiences so well. And then she burst into tears. And asked me for a hug.
I’d like to pretend like this is unusual, but it’s not. And I get it. I know how overwhelming it can be, to feel trapped alone inside one’s head with a bunch of self-loathing and social pressure, and to then suddenly hear from someone else that it’s not just you, and you’re not alone.
The pressure that young women in particular find themselves under at that age is astounding, and it’s common that even in the midst of asking a question -- “My boyfriend says he’ll break up with me if I gain any more weight, what should I do?”; “My dad keeps telling me I’ll never get a job after graduation unless I lose 20 pounds, how can I make him stop?”; “I think my best friend might be bulimic, how can I help her?” -- their voices sometimes crack, they blink back tears, they barely hold it together long enough to get their need out in the open.
This young woman in particular was overcome; her mom had been pressuring her to think about getting weight loss surgery, and she wasn’t interested, but she was struggling with saying no. We all want our parents to love us unconditionally, but sometimes their plans for us -- even if well-intentioned -- can make us doubt that they’d love us quite so much if we don’t fit their expectations. I hugged the crying young woman, and told her she gets to decide what is best for her, and she gets to set boundaries with her mom, and to expect her mom to respect them.
Of course a few other people wanted hugs after that. Luckily I’m a pretty generous hugger.
I have long felt that there is a powerful link between diet culture and eating disorders; although eating disorders are usually about far more than food, it’s very easy for the former to expedite a transition into the latter, and the fact that so many of us choose food as both carrot and stick for bodily discipline and self control is not merely a coincidence.
I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, probably for one simple reason: I was fat.
Even in the eighth grade I was having to lie down on the bed to zip up my size-18 floral-tapestry-print jeans from Lerner’s; I was terrified of what would happen when I eventually sized out the upper end of misses clothing.
My having an eating disorder seemed impossible to me because of my size; after all, if I truly had an eating disorder, it would have “worked” -- i.e., I’d be thin. Back then binge eating was not commonly associated with the traditional ED forms of anorexia and bulimia, at least, it wasn’t on the ground level amongst the social groups where I spent my time.
“Eating disorder” meant “dangerously skinny,” girls with visible skeletons and a persistent refusal to eat, girls in hospitals with sunken eyes and the simmering rage of a person who has denied themselves their own needs in the interest of reaching an impossible goal for too long.
Fat girls didn’t starve themselves. OBVIOUSLY. Fat girls had no self control. Fat girls could learn a few things about effective dieting from the girls with eating disorders. To quote my own book
(I KNOW, INSUFFERABLE, but bear with me):
“The reality is that fat people are often supported in hating their bodies, in starving themselves, in engaging in unsafe exercise, and in seeking out weight loss by any means necessary. A thin person who does these things is considered mentally ill. A fat person who does these things is redeemed by them. This is why our culture has no concept of a fat person who also has an eating disorder. If you’re fat, it’s not an eating disorder -- it’s a lifestyle change.”
Whether or not I had a diagnosable eating disorder in those years -- from roughly 12 years of age through 19 or 20 -- is unknown; I certainly had some disordered eating patterns. I began to restrict my food intake even outside of a specified diet in the seventh grade; the idea was to try to get through the whole day without eating anything (or, sometimes, one granola bar, but those were bad days) until dinner.
It took on a pattern, where I would succeed at starving for a week or two and then falter under my mounting hunger, at which point I would gather my saved allowance funds to secretly buy and eat all the “bad” foods I could stomach -- Doritos, snack cakes, whole boxes of sugary breakfast cereal, all non-perishable things I could hide in my room. I ate these things even when I didn’t like them, even when they made me feel terrible, because that was what I deserved. I could not fathom a life in which food was not my enemy.
Curiously, though I decided well over a decade ago that this was no way to live, and that eating food I didn’t like simply because it was “bad” and therefore a means of silently rebelling against my self-imposed diet/starvation regime was self-destructive, it still affects me in a very concrete way.
The lingering result? I’m a food hoarder.
It starts like this: My husband will uncover a box of cookies in the cupboard, and -- being a normal human -- go to eat them.
"You probably don't want to do that," I'll say.
"YOU CAN'T STOP ME," he'll shout merrily. He’s found cookies! It’s like Christmas morning! He’ll start to eat one, and then he will bellow in horrified disgust when he realizes the cookies are practically fossilized. Because they’ve been in the cabinet for six months. Or a year. Because I don’t keep the cookies for eating; I keep them to know that they’re there.
I don't actually eat cookies all that often. Nor chips, sugary cereals, gross snack cakes, ice cream, etc. -- all of the stuff I was forbidden from eating as a kid, all the stuff I took to as a revolt against my strict eating rules. There's nothing wrong with these foods, I just don't dig them. I'm not a big fan of soda, either, the sole exception being overpriced imports (MEXICOKES FOREVER), because they have actual sugar in them instead of corn syrup.
In general I prefer a salad or a stir-fry or a beautifully roasted chicken or sweet corn on the grill or a big bowl of roasted Brussels sprouts or kale chips to anything else. It took me a long time to realize that I enjoy these foods more, and that I feel good when I eat them.
The fact that many of these are considered "diet” foods, or at least “healthy” foods, made it all the more complicated, as I was trying to escape my diet associations. I didn’t want to prefer those foods, but I do. (Example: Why is everyone so mean to celery, honestly? Celery is delicious.)
It took me a long time to make peace with the knowledge that if given the choice between a fresh-off-the-vine still-warm-from-the-sun tomato, and a big slice of cake, I honestly want the tomato more. I want the tomato right now, in fact. This might not make sense to a bunch of you, and that’s fine. It probably never will.
I've spent over a decade trying to explain this to my cohabitating partner: Sometimes I just need to buy cookies. Not to eat them. Just to know that they exist. Just to know that if I want to eat a cookie, I am allowed to eat a fucking cookie. The fact that I want to so rarely is irrelevant, as is the fact that more often than not they go stale over months, forgotten in the back of a high cabinet, behind a stack of pickling jars and the teapots I don't regularly use. I purchased the cookies for a purpose, albeit one unrelated to actual human consumption, and that purpose has been fulfilled.
The sum total is that childhood dieting fucked me up.
And as much as I've come back from it, and figured out what foods I honestly do like, I still have this compulsive need to know that so-called "bad" food
exists somewhere, and that I am allowed to eat it, to make my own choices, for my own reasons.
I no longer think of food as my enemy, and I’m working on being less territorial about what I eat (being married to a half-Italian guy with a fork constantly approaching my plate has helped with this). And someday I’d like to be able to find satisfaction with the knowledge that cookies can exist somewhere out in the world, and I can always buy some if I want them, but I don’t need to know there’s a box of cookies buried somewhere in my house as a means of keeping a long-forgotten appointment.
I no longer need to make dates with cookies just so I can stand them up; I don’t need to prove anything, not to myself, and not to anyone else. But it fascinates me that it’s been 15 years since I formally quit dieting, and I am now a freaking noted expert in body image and self esteem issues, and STILL, this is a hill I continue to climb.
When those young women (and folks of all genders) ask me for hugs, I don’t hug them just because I’m being kind, or because I want to prop them up, although those are two good reasons I do.
The primary reason I do is because I want the hug, too. Because these are subjects that we don’t talk about openly enough, that we rarely discuss without shame and self-recrimination, and every time we can do so, we’re scrubbing just a bit of that self-loathing sickness away.
Just as they need to know that they’re not alone in their fight, I need to know that I’m not alone in mine either. So we hug. And that helps.
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