Every year I tell myself it will be fine, and every year it is not fine.
After over a decade of dealing with my eating issues, I've come to think of my relationship with food as my mind's other track -- the ticker tape of thoughts and anxieties that streams constantly at the edge of my life.
Did I eat too much? Too little? Am I hungry? How hungry? Should I eat now? Will I regret it if I don't, or if I do? What if I gain weight endlessly? What if I'm just not equipped to feed myself? What kind of person can't feed herself? If I were smarter/better/healthier/saner, I would be better at this...
Some days I can nearly tune it out, like news of unrest in a far-off country whose name and capital I used to know but now can barely recall. Sometimes I can almost pretend it doesn't concern me. I can choose not to see it. I can go about my day.
Except now. From Thanksgiving through New Year's, I'm forced to tune in. Festive brownies and cookies and bark and nog are everywhere. There are enormous meals with relatives who leave me questioning all of my food and life choices. There is way too much booze. There are little black dresses and glittery miniskirts that do not look like I hoped they would, and there are multiple opportunities, also known as holiday parties, to feel sized up by everyone in the room. Oh, and it'll all be on Instagram very, very soon.
This year, I haven't pretended that it's fine. Mainly because I had this piece to write, I decided to feel it and think about it and recognize the ways in which this still really sucks. At the same time, I mulled over the things I've learned in the years since I made it through the initial throes of an eating disorder, the ones I've spent physically healthy but still trying to figure out how to feel okay about eating. And I thought about the maddening divide between all that hard-won knowledge and actually putting it into practice.
This is not a list of things I know because I've figured this eating thing out -- far from it. It's a list of the things I know because of some rare moments of clarity that I remember because they felt different from everything else on the ticker tape.
17 Things To Think About When You're Obsessing About Food And Weight
BEFORE YOU EAT
More important, how much you eat at a single meal has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you're a good friend, daughter, mother, sister, aunt, thinker, worker, citizen or overall human. Nothing you consume will diminish how valuable you are in those areas that count so much more.
2. You're not wrong to want what you want.
It was an amazing moment when I realized that most healthy people like to eat and don't feel bad about that. People who aren't overweight and never will be like to eat. They want cupcakes just like overweight people want cupcakes. Goodness and wanting an enormous piece of chocolate cake aren't mutually exclusive -- despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually to convince us that food and the people who eat it are virtuous or evil, clean or dirty, indulgent or guilt-free.
You're not wrong or bad to want the cake. Who in their right mind wouldn't?
3. Why you tend to eat more than your body wants.
And what puts you into overeating mode. Stressful conversation? A food that represents escape for you? Eating while you watch TV or read? Certain restaurants?
There are two reasons to think about this. For one, identifying your triggers can help you recognize when you're vulnerable and protect yourself (more on that later). And the other reason is that thinking about what sets you off can tell you a lot about what you really want.
Geneen Roth, the author whose insights into emotional eating I find to be spot-on every time, wrote, "There is a whole universe to discover between 'I'm feeling empty' and turning to food to make it go away."
Although I resist creating food rules for myself because they remind me of the deprivation of anorexia, when I'm having an especially hard time, I throw out anything that doesn't have to be cooked before it's consumed. If I have to cook it, I have to think about it and why I want it and what desire I might be trying to displace because fulfilling that other hunger or even acknowledging it feels too difficult or inconvenient or painful.
WHILE YOU'RE EATING
4. How amazing the food tastes.
I am somehow stunned every Thanksgiving and Christmas by how good it all is. It makes sense -- I've had a whole year to forget -- but that means the flavors and textures amaze me every time. How good is cranberry sauce? It's like jam, but earthier, drier and less sweet. And can we talk about mashed potatoes, which really are god's gift, and stuffing -- lord, I love stuffing -- and the taste of real butter in food? What's a life where you don't let yourself taste real butter? Not any life I'm interested in.
5. When you stop tasting it.
If you're no longer into the flavor of what you're eating, why are you still eating it? Waste isn't ideal, but you may need to put off worrying about that until eating becomes less stressful. I've learned that if I'm not allowing myself to say no to what's on my plate, that's probably an expression of other things in my life I don't feel like I can say no to. Saying no to food I don't want right at that moment can help me begin to say no to the bigger things I need to refuse or contain.
6. It's just food.
Sure, holiday food is special, particularly if your family has its own recipes and traditions of preparing certain dishes together. And for anyone who struggles with food and weight issues, food is never -- and may never be -- "just food." That said, remember that the traditional nature of holiday food means you've had it before and will have the opportunity to have it again. It's much, much more important for you to feel good now, in the moment, and later in the day than it is for you to have a second or third helping you don't really want. Remember that you're more powerful than the food on your plate, and you matter more. Hear that? You are more powerful than the food on your plate. It's just food.
7. If you've hit any of your triggers and how you can change the situation.
Now that you know what your triggers are, consciously watch for them. When you hit one, do whatever it takes to keep it from leading to behavior that you know will make you feel terrible. I've found that focusing on one action helps. "All you have to do is leave the table," I tell myself. Or, "All you have to do is throw it away." I don't think about how I might feel after I do it. I shut off the list of potential consequences ("What if I'm hungry later? What if the host is insulted? What if people wonder why I left or where I went?").
Get up. Go to the bathroom. Make a phone call. Invent a work emergency. Do whatever it takes to get away from the food for at least a little while to remind yourself that you're in control, that it's just food and that you can take or, literally, leave it.
8. Whether you're into the people you're eating with.
In a 2011 Glamour essay on not drinking during the holidays, Sarah Hepola observed, "When you're sober, you see with utter clarity which friends you feel comfortable around and which make you itch for an open bar." Apply the same test to the role food plays in your friendships. If you have any friends you wouldn't hang out with if food weren't involved, they could be part of the problem.
AFTER YOU EAT
9. Shame doesn't motivate.
You've already started doing the thing. You know what I'm talking about. You think you ate too much, so you spend the next 12 to 36 hours berating yourself for the undisciplined, disgusting, worthless, fat (etc. etc.) waste of genetic material you think you are. You begin to plan how you'll make up for your "sins" -- you'll exercise for three hours every day, you'll restrict your calories for the rest of the week, you'll go on a cleanse.
When I spoke to Geneen Roth about this last year, she emphasized, "Shame, guilt, punishment, fear has never led anyone to change," and yet people remain convinced that it will. In her books, Roth has always advised that the day after you overeat is the time when it is most important to be kind to yourself. "Recognize the inner critic or the judge ... for what it is," she urged. "It's not your friend."
10. Bingeing isn't "for ladies."
One of the mantras that hindered my recovery from the worst of my eating disorder was a tagline I came across in (I think) a yogurt ad. The page demanded of the female consumer, "Why are you still eating like a frat boy?" That would never be me, I vowed, and I put the same question to myself every time I reached for "frat boy" foods. Smart, sophisticated, ambitious, successful women didn't eat pizza or onion rings, I told myself -- it didn't even occur to them to want those things. I extended this made-on-Madison-Avenue logic to cookies and cake, then bread, then carbs of any kind. Then I was careful not to "need" carrots or anything with fat in it, then breakfast, then lunch, then ever finishing a serving of anything.
Here's the confusing thing: As much as women are encouraged to subsist on yogurt and aspartame, romantic comedies regularly show women sobbing into pints of ice cream. Ads encourage ladies to binge, too.
No wonder women have an especially f-ed up relationship with food (and there are signs that men are catching up). But there's another reason women are prone to emotional eating, which Caitlin Moran summarized brilliantly in her book "How to Be a Woman," excerpted in the Wall Street Journal in June 2012:
by choosing food as your drug -- sugar highs, or the deep, soporific calm of carbs -- you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, stop in on your parents and then stay up all night with an ill 5-year-old...
Overeating is the addiction of choice of "carers," ... It's a way of screwing yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to ... slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn't inconvenience anyone. And that is why it's so often a woman's addiction of choice.
So the next time you overeat or have a full-on binge, think about the following:
A) It wasn't heroin.
B) There's stuff in your life you're having trouble coping with. That stuff probably deserves your attention. You, in the meantime, deserve compassion.
C) There is actually no rule condemning women to starve or binge, just lots of unhelpful suggestions that we should. Work toward being a woman who doesn't obey the insanity.
11. How big you are.
Bear with me. "Big" is an adjective most of us learn early on is something you never, ever want to be called. It's the opposite of being contained and in control. And in a culture that only puts very, very thin women on screens and in ads, big equals un-special, unworthy of attention, unseen.
After a lot of years of thinking about how much being "big" scared me, I realized the thing I feared the most wasn't my own physical size, it was the huge, seeping, unnamed emptiness that no one sees. That was the mass I was really trying to shrink or fill through various eating behaviors. I think of it as a black hole located somewhere in my stomach/chest region, the center of my body. It's freezing, ugly, abandoned, condemned, and for a long time I believed that emptiness would always be my starting point, where I was from.
But then on an ordinary afternoon when I was wondering for the nth time how I've let that emptiness motivate so much of my behavior throughout my life, a different explanation occurred to me. What if the cavity inside could be a place, not an emptiness? What if it was light and inhabitable? What if all along the space I'd been trying to fill and not feel was somewhere I wanted to live? And what if that space inside made me bigger than this war I've waged against myself as long as I remember, with food always my weapon of choice?
The moment didn't last. Of course it didn't. The impulse to fill that place, to cancel it out, returned. But now I know that it isn't vacant and doesn't need to be fixed, and I'm curious about what else is there. And that is huge.
12. The small space.
If you don't like thinking about any part of yourself as even metaphorically big, here's something small you can explore. I'm not a fan of appropriating another faith's scripture for secular Western self-coddling, but a Catholic nun originally pointed me to this quote from the Hindu Upanishads, so that boundary's already been crossed. Here it is:
In the centre of ... our own body, there is a small shrine ..., and within can be found a small space. We should find who dwells there, and we should want to know him.
No matter how much you ate, the small space remains, undamaged, and so does the person inside. She is -- you are -- still there, and we should want to know her.
THE REST OF THE TIME (WHEN YOU DON'T HAVE FOOD IN FRONT OF YOU AND AREN'T STARVING OR STUFFED)
13. How you would feel if no one, including you, could see your body.
Here's one of the simplest, most illuminating exercises I know: One weekend day, don't wear makeup or do anything to your hair. Wear the most comfortable clothes you own, which may involve some very ratty sweats. Go through a whole day like that and notice that how you look in no way inhibits your ability to operate in the world. I do this a couple of times a month and feel better about everything listed above every time I do.
14. The fact that you do have a body and how amazing that is.
For long periods of my life, I didn't want a body. I remember wishing in my teens that I could just live as a brain floating around. I resented the maintenance a female body required. I didn't mind so much the plucking and shaving and blow-drying and makeup -- some of that was fun. I resented not being able to eat what I wanted -- the women I grew up around dieted constantly, so I thought it was required of adult female humans. I resented that my body wasn't good enough as it was. I resented that, through no fault of my own, my postpubescent body required serious management.
Years later, I've finally started thinking about my body in terms of what it can do. I learned, for instance, that exercise can be not about a countdown on the elliptical machine but about health and technique and spending more time outside. To my great astonishment, the body I punished for years can run five miles. If a calorie counter were involved, I'm not sure I ever would have discovered that.
15. If you want to lose weight, why.
Is it because you're not a healthy weight (per your doctor)? Or is it because you look in the mirror and think, "I'm disgusting," because you fantasize about slicing off parts of your body (which has never done anything to you except bear witness to your actions). If the latter, you don't need to lose weight, you need to get angry at whatever made you feel like you deserve to be treated that way. No one does. And per #9, talking to yourself like that isn't going to change your eating.
16. Pretending your issues aren't your issues won't make them go away.
At some point in an episode of obsessing about how much I've eaten and how much I'm going to eat and worrying that food will always, always control my life, that I will never escape the ticker tape, I get so fed up that I swing to the opposite extreme. "I'll just shut it off," I tell myself. "Why don't I just wing it? Everyone else manages to feed themselves," I think, then add, in near-demented contradiction of all eating experiences in my life up to this point, "How hard can it be?"
Let me save us all a lot of trouble by reporting that much like shame, this has not ever, once, resolved anything for me.
17. This is hard.
Eating sanely -- I can't say normally because emotional and intellectualized eating seem to be the norm in American culture -- is an incredibly ambitious proposition. Eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full: so much easier said than done.
How sanely you eat is relative, but when I'm berating myself for the fact that I'm still struggling to do that, I try to think about how far I've come. One reason eating in December is especially hard for me has nothing to do with sparkly miniskirts and everything to do with the fact that 12 years ago at this time of year I weighed 30 pounds fewer than I do now. I was 18 and looked 11, I was freezing all the time because I had so little body fat and sometimes I brushed my teeth multiple times a day because toothpaste almost felt like food. I remember one night sitting curled up, gaunt and silent, against my mother at my university's holiday service -- she had come to take me home and put me in a hospital -- and recognizing that the way I was living wouldn't sustain me but being unable to imagine any other way of being. I remember the point when, surrounded by the music and warmth, I thought very clearly that it would be so much easier if that moment were my last.
The truth is that it would have been easier -- for me, though not my family. If I've learned anything in the aftermath of an eating disorder, it's that the day-to-day business of feeding and inhabiting an adult female body is harder than starving it ever was.
Twelve years later, there are still times when I eat until I'm ill in order not to feel, and there are times when I look in the mirror and think, "Look what you've let yourself become." So far the best thing I know to do about all of that is remind myself that I stuck around for the hard part, that I would have missed so much if I hadn't and that I'm doing the best I can.