My six-year-old daughter likes to stuff her cheeks full like a ravenous chipmunk when she eats. She will take several big bites in a row until her mouth can no longer close. No matter how many times I tell her to take smaller bites, she persists in filling her mouth to beyond capacity as if she is starving. This used to terrify me. I would sit across the table from her and imagine her future if the habit persisted. She'd weigh 300 pounds by the time she was eleven, unable to sit in normal chairs at school or run at recess. I wondered why she'd picked up this gluttonous habit. My mother also has a tendency to overfill her mouth and I pondered whether it was genetic or coincidental. But below the surface, I was also incredibly aware of the real source of my fear: that she would be like me.
When I was her age I never wanted to eat. I was picky. Meat repulsed me. The whites of eggs were disgusting. Anything set in front of me was met with suspicion. My sister, on the other hand, ate with gusto and would help me out by stealing food off my plate when my mother's back was turned. But my Greek mother had eyes in the back of her head and would spend mealtimes yelling, "Georgia, EAT! Sula, STOP eating!" I was usually grateful for my sister's thievery, except for the occasional times when she stole something from my plate that I actually wanted to eat.
I don't know why I never wanted to eat. Perhaps I was unhappy. Mealtime was also one of the times when my parents argued. Over time, my habit of not eating morphed into overeating to cope with my emotions. To this day, when I eat at my mother's home I scarf down my food so quickly that I am plagued with continual burping as I recover. I went from being a skinny, sickly little girl with bad breath and dark circles under my eyes, to a plump tween forced to shop for husky girls' clothing. And when my mother changed her tune from "Don't eat!" to "You need to go on a diet" when I turned ten, my war with my body began. I was trapped in a negative cycle with food: feeling guilty for eating, weighing myself, hating myself, binge eating, finding solace and acrimony in eating, disassociating while eating, hearing my distant voice in my head begging me to stop eating while my hand continued bringing more and more to my mouth. It's exhausting thinking about how many years I have wasted held hostage by my relationship with food.
When you hate yourself for eating too much, there is no time for much else. It is crippling. Time that could be spent daydreaming, planning, creating, exploring is instead co-opted by thoughts of self-disgust, desperation, and entrapment, which lead to more emotional eating. It's a nasty loop that is hard to break. So no wonder my daughter's stuffed cheeks terrified me. I do not want her to spend her life squared up in battle against food, instead of pursuing her dreams and practicing daily self-love. I never want her to look in the mirror with disdain, or to feel helpless in the face of a food addiction.
A few weeks ago, we happened to catch an episode of Kids Baking Championship. There were children, just five years her senior, whipping up macaroons, creating recipes on the spot, dazzling the judges with their creations. She was fascinated. She watched the episode multiple times. I could see her future was sealed. She is, through and through, just like her mother, a foodie. When she makes herself hot chocolate, she breaks squares of gourmet chocolate off the bar and tosses them into the milk with authority. She taste tests and stirs with a sure hand. When she toasts her bread, it must be perfectly golden without any brown edges. She melts the butter into a lovely glass bowl and dips the perfectly toasted bread in with great pleasure. She has an affinity with food and it brings her satisfaction. I know that I cannot fight it, and I wouldn't want to.
Instead, I am choosing to encourage her love of food. But not as a panacea, a balm for her hurt feelings, a friend when she is lonely, or a way to stuff her feelings down until they disappear. I will teach her to love food for the magic it can create--the alchemy of combining ingredients and creating something entirely new and wondrous. Food will not be a metaphor for an unhappy childhood. It will be the paint for her canvas and the wings that help her soar. It will be something she can master, and not be a slave to.
At this age, my daughter loves food just because. She is not me. She is not growing up around constant hostility. She is not unhappy. She does not want to either starve herself into disappearing or eat herself into oblivion. She simply loves food. I will still encourage her to take smaller bites so she can savor the flavors longer. But I will no longer be terrified that she will be like me. Because I am finally okay with myself, and she is free.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.