Ladies. (And gentlemen, but I don't feel qualified to write about gentlemen.) Is there anyone, at least anyone of our generation (I'm 44), who has NOT, at some point in their lives, developed fucked-up eating patterns (or starving patterns, or purging patterns, or food-obsessional patterns) that would qualify as an eating disorder? Obviously, some of us have suffered more intensely, or endangered our health more seriously, than others. But, on a very large scale, something went terribly wrong with the way whole generations of women interacted with food and nourishment.
Here's a quick history of me. When I was a little girl-- about 10 years old-- I started counting calories. I had some baby fat, the kind that hangs on right before you hit puberty and sprout into a lovely teenager. Most of my friends were a bit older, and I think I felt that, like them, I should already be a lovely teenager. I don't remember anybody pointing out that I, too, would probably become lovely in a couple of years. Probably they didn't really get what my problem was: that I still looked soft and formless in a way that didn't fit right in designer jeans or bikinis.
Among my mom's recipe books on the shelf, she had a paperback that purported to tell you exactly how many calories were in things. How many in one chicken breast. How many in 1/2 a cup of ice cream. How many in one grape. This was part two of the problem. The grownup women of this period were collecting diet books, going to Gloria Stevens at the mall to have their thighs jiggled, and trying to cook without fat. Ultimately, the grownups moved on from these trends, but-- unbeknownst to them-- many of them have daughters who now know, off the top of their heads, exactly how many calories are in everything. Just like the capital cities of the U.S., which I learned at about the same time, this information is in my brain forever.
When my mom tried to diet with her calorie-counting book, she aimed for 1200 calories a day, so I did too. I remember evenings when, looking for an after-dinner snack, I parceled out my remaining 33 or 56 allotted calories into a certain number of peapods or strawberries. 1200 exactly, that was the goal. I don't know if my mom was this precise in her own diet, but I doubt it. Calorie counting fitted in nicely with my general tendency towards monitoring, measuring, regimentation. I am still this way. At 44, I have figured out some ways to make it work for me, but compulsive monitoring is still a beast that needs to be carefully tamed.
So... yeah, I write this blog in which I record absolutely everything I eat. That is totally different.
Anyway. Back to 10. I probably overestimate in my mind how much of the time I was "on a diet" at this age. Because there were also plenty of times I came home from school and whipped up a quick bowl of "cookie dough" (really just the flour and sugar and milk, I rarely bothered with butter or eggs), and ate that while I watched my soaps and late-afternoon comedy reruns. Or ice cream. Lots and lots of Breyers mint chocolate chip ice cream. Afterwards, my beloved cat Louie licked the bowl.
I was a pretty enough teenager and young woman, neither fat nor thin. I would give a lot to be able to go back and appreciate the way I looked then, enjoy that body while I had it. But, like most of us, I spent much more energy on hate and disgust. With my short, solid build, my thighs looked thick in a bathing suit. I had a weak double chin in profile. My hips were wide in relation to my waist, making jeans-shopping difficult in the juniors' stores.
I knew I looked more or less okay, though. So the disgust was about much more than looks. It was about lack of self-control, the essential wrongness of eating secret candy bars and chips from the vending machines at college (I hid them in my shirt so people wouldn't know how many I was buying), the shame of whole pints of Ben & Jerry's. I realize that my version of binging was pretty tame (a whole box of macaroni and cheese? Two apple fritters from the supermarket?). There was no purging, only guilt. But the pattern remained, throughout high school and college. There was the bad, uncontrolled girl, the weak girl, who ate ice cream and giant bowls of buttered popcorn and, that one time, hoarded an entire birthday cake and giant fruit basket in her dorm room and didn't go to class or the dining hall for a week, preferring to stay in the dark and reread Jane Eyre. And then there was the virtuous girl, who tried to undo all that by diets and resolutions, by choosing, on one occasion when she went to her mom's house for a meal, to have only a single glass of milk for dinner. Which one of these was the real girl? Oh surely, surely the former.
For me, as for so many people, none of this was front-and-center, not really. The drama of food was a backdrop to the drama of life, making me feel vaguely bad about myself and filling up the empty corners of time with little binges and little pledges.
And then there came anorexic autumn.
What happened was simple enough. I got sad. First, I graduated from college. A summer ensued, a summer of drifting and flailing. Plans were made, plans cancelled. I attended half of a Chinese poetry course, then dropped it. My best friend and I admitted we were not actually going to move together to Portland, Oregon. I drove around Maine and Vermont, looking for a town I wanted to move to, by myself. I took a road trip with my college boyfriend, who was an emotional leech I couldn't wait to be rid of and couldn't seem to unequivocally dump. Then, I was alone in the house, my parents' house. They had gone away on some international trip, for several weeks. I was meant to pack up in the meantime, drive to Brunswick, Maine, find an apartment.
Instead, some other stuff happened. I hooked up with an old boyfriend who lived in town, finally dumped college guy once and for all. The hooking up was more emotionally gripping for me than for old boyfriend. It made me a) not want to leave town, b) not want to leave his couch, and c) feel very sad when it became clear he was not serious about me, as usual. Also. If I was not leaving town, I had to find a fucking job. All the stress and sadness made me not feel like eating. Actually, it became a struggle just to ingest something, to chew and swallow. The new routine, while I sat in my parents' empty house, in my stepfather's favorite armchair, became this: coffee, coffee, coffee. Cook a frozen burrito for lunch, cut it in half, eat half very slowly. Save the other half to choke down for dinner. Coffee, coffee. The other half of the frozen burrito. Cry.
I found a job through the unemployment office. It was a terrible job, working nights in a basement in the dark, answering phones. Soon it also involved two other factors: 1) sleeping with my boss, and 2) an awareness that the business was somehow a cover for something else. Something was wrong-- wrong with the business, and wrong with the boss, who carried a little pistol in a fancy holster under his jacket. I'd wondered why he always went into another room to take off his clothes. This is a true story.
All of it didn't do much for my appetite. I'd bring lunches to work that consisted of things like: 3 cherry tomatoes, a few slices of cucumber, and 6 saltines. But I skipped most meals. Occasionally my coworkers would send me out for fast food (for them) and I'd randomly eat a bacon cheeseburger. But mostly I lived on coffee and adrenaline. And I lost a lot of weight, along with a certain amount of hair. All kinds of jeans and other clothes fit perfectly now, even those in the juniors' section. Even while miserable in my sinister job, first dating and then not-dating my confusing and well-armed boss, pining for my erstwhile boyfriend who wasn't interested in anything besides hooking up, and facing an entire adult life full of uncertainty-- even while looking in the bathroom mirror at the way my hair had gone flat, and my skin dry and colorless-- I celebrated my weight loss. It was a victory pulled from the jaws of defeat.
After a few months, I left that job for something healthier, and the ability to eat also gradually returned. But now emotional not-eating was part of my arsenal, along with emotional eating, and it was a weapon I could sometimes use to deal with pain. I still got to express my feelings somatically, but not-eating had the advantage of making me feel strong, not weak; virtuous, not guilty. Chaos, stress, and sadness, bad break-up? I could go the ascetic route, eat very little, sleep on the floor, refuse to indulge in ordinary comforts until I was ready to feel comforted. I learned to moderate not-eating so that I could cast myself as waif-like but not become ill or unattractive. In my mid-twenties, cigarettes made an inevitable entrance. By then, I ate what I wanted, but at unreasonably long intervals, and smoking (and, still, coffee) filled the gaps. Smoking was perfect because it was both emotional eating and not-eating. Oral fixation? Check. Waifish? Check. Zero calories? Check.
Fortunately for me and my health, in my late twenties I also got married and then got pregnant. I quit smoking. I started eating more. I gained 10 pounds at first, then another 70 pounds in nine months of pregnancy.
As a mom and a woman running a household, my relationship with food changed utterly then. Suddenly, food was a resource to be managed for the good of all; it was a source of positive nourishment; for a family of four living on a low income, it was not to be taken for granted. I stopped engaging in either emotional eating or emotional not-eating. I ate what was available to eat and what would not take key resources out of the mouths of my family. And I ate regularly, in order to keep my energy levels consistent, and function as a parent, worker and student all at the same time. It finally became apparent to me that food was fuel. Food made milk for my baby; a banana or piece of cheese kept me from losing my shit when I was forced to be awake at 2 am. My then-husband came home on his lunch break and fueled his insanely high metabolism with eggs, peanut butter, and cereal. Our foster teenager asked nothing more than a bottomless supply of ramen noodle packets, and this worried me, because he wasn't getting proper nutrition. What kind of hypocrisy was this?
Most of the 70 pounds fell right back off again, but the new attitude stayed. I was still neither fat nor thin. I was still short and sturdy. But there were now so many things more important than my weight.
But wait... wasn't I still obsessed with food? I can't remember precisely when I first decided that I would cook every single recipe in the cookbooks I owned (an impossible task), starting with... which one? Maybe this one. I read book after book about organic gardening and farming. I began to write regularly about food politics on the progressive blog Daily Kos. I thought about food. I watched documentaries about food. After I split up with my first husband and had more disposable income of my own, I bought better quality food, joined a CSA, spent three years as a professional cheesemonger. I worked out regularly and ate pretty much whatever I enjoyed.
That was a (relatively) healthy time.
And now... I am not sure. Some things have changed. I still like cooking my way through cookbooks (okay, feel compelled to cook my way through cookbooks); I belong to a CSA and buy high-quality food for the most part. I write about food still, though in a different way. But middle-aged spread means I have gone back to worrying about my weight, and I don't work out or run as much, and I am prone to going on "cleanses" or special diets (while claiming they are healthful diets and not for weight loss). A focus on nutrition or food-as-medicine, and in particular our national focus on eliminating certain foods (sugar, gluten, dairy) has become a preoccupation to replace counting calories (though, shh, I still make approximations of calories in my head). In extreme cases, this preoccupation even has a name: orthorexia.
People! Please take note of this. I find that almost no one I know has heard of it, even though everyone knows, in a sense, what I mean. But I am a waitress in a town filled with health nuts and vegetarians, and I can definitely affirm that this disorder is becoming more prevalent every moment. It is encouraged, too, in the media, who have largely replaced a discourse about the desirability of thinness with one about the desirability of healthy or "clean" eating. It doesn't matter what exactly your obsession is, whether calories or organics or gluten (and yes, I know some people really have celiac disease-- my sister, for example)-- if you are spending all your time thinking about what you put in your mouth, and don't have a good medical reason to do so, you are flirting with an eating disorder.
When my husband is depressed and my first instinct is to nag him about whether he's been drinking too much milk, my perspective may be skewed.
So here I am, with my blog (almost) entirely about food, and my time-consuming daily food diary, and my compulsive approach to recipes, chronicling the story of how I finally developed a healthy relationship with food. Eating is important. Yes. But is it that important? A question I should remember to ask myself periodically. If you have bothered to read this far, perhaps you should too. Happy (day after) World Eating Disorders Action Day.
love, your host
*I have just discovered that the famous "who among us" construction that was used to paint John Kerry as an elitist in 2004 was a total fabrication by Maureen Dowd.