My parents will tell you that I love to plan and organise things and that I appointed myself (unofficially) as the family trip planner extraordinaire at a young age. More specifically, they’ll tell you that I love to plan and organise trips around food. I love spending hours researching local cuisines and the best restaurants, reviewing menus, and narrowing options down. My parents will also tell you that I love to cook and that I began experimenting and tinkering in the kitchen at a young age. I quickly developed a penchant for baking that then expanded to encompass all realms of the kitchen.
I love to cook and share good food—I’m rubbish at telling people I love them and appreciate them, so instead I make them food. (After all, food is easily one of the most appreciated and universal gifts one can give.) Most people who know me have probably figured that out by now, what with all of my cake-baking, sourdough bread-sharing, and fangirling over The Great British Baking Show. I don’t know what my love language is, but making and giving food is definitely up there. As my favourite theology professor once said, “You’re the first student I’ve had who brought treats for everyone for our final exam, and I think that says a lot about you.”
I love to cook, but somewhere along the way I made food into numbers, and that’s all it has been for me ever since. In some ways, this is certainly contradictory. But as actual professional chef Maya Erickson puts it, “In some ways it makes sense: we as chefs obsess over food; it consumes all aspects of our life.” I’m no professional chef, but Erickson’s words still ring true in my pedestrian life. I obsessively scour weekly grocery sales and do in-depth research on how to spatchcock a 25-pound turkey and read Samin Nostrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. I do it all with vigour and alacrity but also with the awareness of my Damocles’ sword, the unending march of numbers in my head that spoils the joy and community that’s meant to be in the breaking of bread.
I hesitate to use the term “eating disorder.” I hesitate because I don’t know if it’s a term I can take ownership of, and I am fearful of what the label actually means, all stigma aside. There are many people worse off than me—there is always someone worse off than you—so maybe my problems aren’t valid, or, at the very least, they aren’t as important. My fear makes me shy away from using such a stark label, even if I were to fill all the clinical checkboxes. Anorexia and bulimia are the primary diagnoses, but they fail to capture all of the in-betweenness that people like me find themselves in. I don’t want to take up any of the resources that go towards inpatient treatment and therapy and things that people who are actually killing themselves really need, but I also don’t want my relationship with food to be labelled as “normal,” because I know food is meant to bring life, not despair—to be celebrated, not feared.
No one wants to say “Hey, my relationship with food is deeply broken!” I both admire and envy Kyric’s ability to name and expose the suicidal makeup of his brain. I’ll add that while concepts like suicide and eating disorders are difficult to receive, they are also terribly difficult to give voice to in the first place. Sure, there’s the external social stigma, but there’s the appalling self-confrontation that also has to take place. I find that to be my sticking point, especially given that eating disorders overlap with classic addiction on the cheerful Venn diagram of psychology. I am not underweight. I still have good teeth and decent muscles. I eat food and I cook for my husband and have a palate for good food. For all intents and purposes, I am a normal 21-year-old woman with a healthy appetite who is maybe even just a touch overweight according to her BMI.
And yet, somehow it’s normal to go on a liquid detox bender and talk about how miserable you are; it’s normal to say “I can’t have a dessert because I didn’t go to the gym today” in the college dining hall with your friends; it’s normal to cave to all of the propaganda and rhetoric about how you’ve got to lose weight and exercise and go on a crash diet for the month of January. This year, normal looks like losing the “quarantine fifteen” and going on a veggie detox and buying an expensive gym membership you can’t even use. What’s even the point if the world is still shut down for at least another six months? It is an odious time of year when it comes to food; it is the month when supermarkets run ads for chia seeds and yoga mats only to only run ads for pizza and alcohol two weeks later. The stigma and fear of such a stark label as “eating disorder” are still alive and well, but the symptoms have propagated and spread like an insidious disease. Our culture is riddled with all kinds of expectations and constructs about how you must physically appear in order to maintain the status quo—and that’s not even getting into clothes and gender performances. You do not have to have a clinical label to have a deeply problematic relationship with food and all kinds of people associate guilt with food and disgust with their bodies that it’s trending normal.
If you’ve been feeling guilty and conflicted and depressed because of your body and the eating habits you’ve developed over the past six months, you are not alone. If you’ve been wondering how the hell you’re going to ever regain a sense of normalcy with your own body, you are not alone. If you’ve been wondering about trying a crash diet or doing some grueling workout routine you found on Popsugar, I want to tell you that you owe exactly zero shit to diet culture and all its predatory, subversive underpinnings. And that you should also check out r/InstagramReality for, well, a reality check on all those Instagram models you scroll hopelessly past.
I hope you recognize, or can begin to recognize, the forces in your life that make you feel guilty or stressed or depressed about your body and what you put into it. I have always loved cooking and sharing food because it brings people together in joy and community, not in guilt and calorie-counting. So I really hope that I can begin to bring more joy to the table and less of the fear.
P.S. Yes, eating healthy and exercising in a healthy way are great things and can certainly be done in safe, constructive ways that contribute to your happiness and well-being. But doing things you don’t actually want to do and that erode and distort your sense of self-worth are not contributing anything positive to your life. The steep and slippery slope that leads you into the toxic and unhealthy headspace of calorie-counting and exercising and chasing the number on the scale comes like a wolf in sheep’s clothing carrying a sign that says “healthy.”