Eat or Die: My Life in Food
This post is autobiographical. I offer it up as a way of sharing something of myself, and a way of helping any readers who pass through understand a bit about where I am coming from–especially when I bring up depictions of women’s bodies in media. Trigger Warnings for discussion of eating disorders, anxiety and body-image issues. Please keep in mind that this is a personal and subjective account of my own lived experience. Any feelings/judgments, past or present, I may discuss about my own body are not meant to be generally applied to any other bodies.
Important. Necessary for life.
Maybe because it’s so important.
It’s eat or die, folks.
When I was in third grade, I started choking on solid foods. It didn’t matter how much I chewed, but if it was solid when I started in on it, I choked.
I didn’t know why this was happening. My parents didn’t know why this was happening. They spent a lot of time, money and effort getting various medical professionals to examine me and try to figure out a cause. Eventually, the general consensus was that my classroom’s renovations (new paint job, new carpet, etc.) had triggered an allergic reaction that made it difficult to swallow.
I ate a lot of soft foods. At first, very soft. I can still remember the keen humiliation of going shopping for baby food with my mother. Not that the cashier would have had any way of knowing that my mom was buying the food for the eight-year-old daughter standing next to her in line. But, as an eight-year-old, this did not occur to me.
Not all baby food is made alike. Most of it is so bland (unseasoned due to babies’ underdeveloped palates) that its slimy and/or grainy texture becomes impossible to ignore. The fruit-based stuff (which maintains the natural favor of fruit) is not so bad.
I gradually worked my way up to more and more solid things. Broth, then “milky toast” (soppy toast pieces in a bowl of milk), then soup and cheerios. I have a particularly strong memory of eating cheerios one morning. Though I was able to swallow the food, I could not finish the bowl. The fullness of my stomach was too painful. And yet, I still had an appetite. I was desperate for more food. I began to weep with frustration.
The frustration of being both full and hungry at the same time was a very powerful feeling for me, as well as a very frightening one. And yet, I cannot say that it was an indiscriminately unpleasant feeling. At the time, I was miserable, sure. But, afterwards, as a memory, that feeling became something, at the very least, valuable. It is hard not to feel alive, when you feel like that.
I switched schools to escape the allergens.
Gradually, I ate more and more solid foods, until my eating habits eventually returned more-or-less to normal.
Middle School may still win the prize for the worst period in my life. Sadder things may have happened in my life since then, but I don’t think I have ever felt so alone or so grotesque as I did during my last two years at this three-year institution.
Strangely, I did not have an eating disorder. This only developed significance to me in later years, when I realized that stress could (and does) severely impact my relationship to food. However, I did develop a kind of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (or BDD) which hinged on my phobia of Body Horror, which I will not go into now. It was unpleasant. Not least because I had never heard of BDD and had no idea what was happening to me.
I did become a vegetarian. Or, technically, a lacto-ovo pescatarian (one who eats dairy products, eggs and fish in addition to vegetables–and minerals, if you want to get technical). So, while my relationship to food remained more-or-less normal, it did change.
I’m still a lacto-ovo pescatarian, by the by.
I was in a very large, very active Drama Club. In many ways, this was wonderful. For one, it meant I got to act and be otherwise involved in dramatic productions. (I have always loved acting.) For two, Drama Club provided me with a peer group of fellow students with whom I shared at least one interest. I couldn’t quite bring myself to call my fellows “friends” (which seemed presumptuous–remember that I was still recovering from Middle-School induced struggles with self esteem) but I was fairly confident that I had “colleagues.”
But it had its downsides.
Our drama director, who cast all the shows except for a few, student-directed ones, openly admitted that he cast people, in part, based on appropriateness for the roles at hand. Casting was race-blind but, in most cases, not gender-blind. And one’s level of attractiveness was part of one’s appropriateness for a role.
If you were a woman.
Our director claimed that, as a [heterosexual] man, he did not judge–or even “see”–the attractiveness of other men, but he could and did judge the attractiveness of women.
Now, this was a very dedicated faculty adviser, who put in a lot of hours and took pride in our seasonal school plays, and in most ways, I quite liked him. A lot of my favorite High School memories are of participating in Drama Club.
But I did not like this one policy. Or at least, I did not like knowing about it. For I was never cast as someone both young and attractive. I played a lot of middle-aged and old women. I became very proficient at age makeup. Senior year, I was given a minor role, that of a servant whose age was not specified. I dutifully put on my age makeup and grayed my hair. I did not realize until we got our notes that at no point had it been specified that “Sophie” was an old woman. I had just assumed she was. I had been given the part, after all. Didn’t I specialize in the playing of old women?
I liked the acting challenge of playing someone older than myself, but, as I slowly came to realize that I would never be cast as the beautiful female lead, I started to think, “(A) Our director casts women based on appearance. (B) I have never been cast as a beautiful woman. (C) If (A) and (B), then our director does not think I am a beautiful woman. If (C), then I am not a beautiful woman.” Which is a prime example of how teenage minds are often not-so-hot with the logic, because we are distracted at the time by feeling terrible about ourselves.
I also became more conscious of my weight. At every audition, we filled out forms that required, at the very top, our eye-color, hair-color, gender, height and weight. We were teenage girls. We compared notes. At least, I did compare notes until I realized that my weight kept climbing, while the weight of most of my fellows seemed to have stabilized.
Towards the end of High School, perhaps as I tried to recreate myself for college, I started exercising and eating “healthy.”
In retrospect, I think perhaps my eating habits were not so healthy as I thought they were. I replaced a lot of meals with protein shakes or power bars.
But I lost weight. I remember how proud I was when I realized my jeans had gotten so big on me that they were actually starting to fall off my butt.
For the first couple of years, I maintained the “healthy” eating and exercising habits that I had developed in late High School. This involved a lot of counting of carbohydrates, or “carbs,” which had been demonized in recent years.
Overall, I felt pretty good. I had energy, and a fairly positive attitude about my appearance.
Then, a few sad things happened. My cat, who had been with me since kindergarten, passed away. My grandfather had a stroke, became paralyzed on one side, and eventually passed away. But only after a year of struggling with paralysis and illness. And for most of that year, I believe he wished the stroke had killed him outright. My boyfriend at the time and I began to have the relationship troubles that would lead to our long, messy, prolonged breakup.
And I became convinced. Utterly, unshakably, illogically convinced, that if I ate, I would choke, and if I choked, I would die. I believed that if I ate, I would die.
It started with food. Just food, at first. And at first only certain kinds of food. Then all food. Then drink. When I stopped being able to drink, I realized that I had a problem and needed help.
Let me reiterate that.
I had not eaten in days, and I did not realize I needed help until I stopped being able to drink liquids.
Because I realized that, logically, if I could not take in even liquid nutrients, I was eventually going to die–whether I choked or not.
I started seeing a counselor for therapy for the first time in my life.
Have you ever broken down a simple, easy task into its component parts and found yourself daunted by how complex it is when looked at closely?
Swallowing is one of those autonomic, instinctual things that most able-bodied, able-minded people don’t need to think about. Most of us don’t learn to swallow; our bodies do it for us.
Once you’ve forgotten, though, learning how to swallow is incredibly difficult.
I started eating some food again, but it had to be something I could reduce to a completely liquid or paste consistency, like frosting or the non-crust part of a cream pie; oatmeal and grits, for example, were too grainy. At meals, I would push a tiny portion of food (mashed or liquified by chewing) back as far as I could in my mouth, tilt my head back and trick myself into choking it down. I imagine I looked like a heron gulping down fish.
Eating this way is unpleasant. I do not recommend it.
I lost a lot of weight. And I lost it quickly. My weight loss started to frighten me. I stopped weighing myself. I did not want to know.
But I kept getting skinnier. I could count my ribs by looking.
I became jealous of fat people. Even though I knew, even then, that fat was not necessarily a sign of eating happily or even plentifully, and that fat people could starve just as easily as anyone else. (I had no idea that Fat Acceptance was a thing that existed until much later.) I was just so frustrated with my own inability to keep the fat on my body. I felt like I was wasting away.
Slowly, so slowly, excruciatingly slowly, I re-taught myself to eat. I promised myself that, if I could ever truly enjoy food again, and eat it without worrying, without thinking about every awful, tortured step, I would never care about whether I gained weight. I would welcome weight as a sign that I was eating. As a sign that I had stopped starving myself. As a sign that I was staying alive.
I did learn to enjoy food again.
I did not keep my promise.
What were you expecting? This is America.
A few years ago, I had an allergy attack in a restaurant.
Or perhaps a panic attack.
Or perhaps both.
The symptoms are almost indistinguishable, you see. Except that the allergy attack can be fatal.
This triggered (A) a new series of food-related anxieties and (B) a series of full-blown panic attacks.
I did not start starving myself. But I did begin restricting my diet in bold, illogical ways, cutting some foods out entirely even when they had obviously not triggered the first attack.
And having panic attacks in more and more places made me uncomfortable in more and more places, until, without realizing it, I began struggling with agoraphobia–a new and different anxiety-induced condition that I had no idea how to handle.
More fun times.
And shifting my diet to “familiar,” “safe” foods, while spending less and less time outdoors, had at least one fairly predictable outcome: I gained weight. And when you start gaining weight after starving yourself, you gain more weight than you lost. That’s how bodies work, I believe. It’s normal and natural. I kept gaining weight.
The weight I told myself I wouldn’t mind. The weight that means that I am still comfortable enough with food to eat it, at least, and that I will not starve.
I stopped weighing myself again. The same way I did in college, though for the opposite reason.
Actually, for the exact same reason. I did not want to know.
I read a lot of Fat Acceptance blogs. They make sense to me. I believe in the core concepts behind the Health At Every Size movement as I understand them.
I am also bigger, proportionately, than I have ever been. And I struggle to accept my new body. Because it is different. (And my Body Horror phobia never quite went away.) And my face in the mirror is always a little off from what I used to be able to expect.
And when I visit with my mother and grandmother, my grandmother brings up my weight in benign ways, and points out (not in the same conversation, mind) how great and “healthy” my mother is looking, now that she has lost weight. And how it looks like I’m bigger than my mother now. She’s stealthy, my grandmother.
I feel guilty for having gained weight. I feel equally guilty for wanting to lose wight.
I’m ashamed of my body, and I’m ashamed of not loving my body.
There is a disconnect, here.
And the time in my life when my “figure” got me the most positive attention?
In my later years of college, and immediately afterward.
When I was starving.