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In my kitchen and in my life, my goal is to decriminalize food.
That sounds crazy. But for those of us who were programmed into Diet Mentality at a very early age, the world of food has been treacherous, unhealthy and illicit. We are food criminals, and food is either BAD or GOOD, and you are either bad or good depending on what you just ate. The problem of course is that food is integral to living. You need it every day to function, to breathe, to move, to sustain your life. It becomes a way to bond, nourish, show people you care about them. No wonder that food has a whole lot of emotion wrapped up in it. There are some people who see food only as nutrition and fuel. I don't know many of those people. Those people may want to go read something else now, since this will sound like "blah blah blah" to them.
I was not an overweight child. I was underweight, in fact, but I remember my first diet as clearly as I can remember my last one. I was eight years old and I tried so hard to be good, but of course I failed, because I was eight and hungry. I can remember times before that, being six years old (in pictures I am so tiny and blonde and pale) wondering why my brother was allowed to eat anything he wanted while I was told, "Be careful! You don't want to grow up to be fat, do you?" I knew early on that fat was a bad thing.
I'm not blaming anyone here, I'm too old to still be blaming someone for all my issues. At my age, there is no one playing those tapes in my mind but me. I mention the beginning because it's important to cut myself some slack and see that this situation didn't develop overnight, so it won't be fixed overnight.
Truthfully, it's a long process. I have been trapped in diet mentality since I was too young to even understand it. It has taken me years to start unraveling the kinks in my brain about food and eating and body size, and even now I'm not sure how much progress I've made.
When I was on the Atkins diet, I lost a very significant amount of weight. I also lost a very significant amount of hair and broke out in rashes all over my body, and some nights I would wake up in a panic because of nightmare dreams that I ate carbohydrates. I would tiptoe downstairs to be sure I hadn't actually eaten a bagel or a potato in my sleep. Of course I hadn't -- I had stopped buying "bad carb" foods altogether.
There was one day during that period of serious Atkins obsession when I was sitting at a lunch with my coworkers and I was carefully and neurotically picking the shredded carrots out of my salad. You would think someone at that table would have gently suggested that one teaspoon of shredded carrots wouldn't make me fat. Or at least they would have thought such a thing. But instead, I remember everyone at that table telling me, "I wish I had your willpower. You look amazing. Atkins is really working for you. I really need to lose weight, too ... "
While I am not a medical doctor, I am certain that most of the obese people in America (including myself) did not become obese by eating raw carrots. Even so, I developed an irrational fear of carrots ... and bananas, and potatoes and watermelon. Inside my purse I carried a half-cup measuring spoon (enclosed in a Ziploc baggie) so that I could measure out serving sizes of lettuce or "safe" vegetables. Again, you don't need a couch and a PhD to see that's not a healthy relationship with food.
It took years to disengage my brain from from carb counting and decriminalize the carrot. It's not just carbs, it's everything: points, fat grams, calories, nutrients, glycemic index, fiber. I've been on every diet that exists. Dieting like that is a disorder; it's saying that you can't be trusted to choose food for yourself, you need a list to tell you how to eat properly. Some people can move in and out of that world without losing their minds, but some of us become utterly warped by it. Food becomes the one thing we must never, ever trust. We cannot be trusted. You are either on a diet and eating clean (and you are good) or you are off-plan and eating bad (and you are bad, worthless, spineless, weak, fat).
Not everyone experiences this, but for people like me, it's a whole life viewed only through the prism of weight and food. Listen, everyone has their stuff. Some people have drug or alcohol problems, some gamble or spend to excess, some have issues with sex or hoarding or anger. Everyone has their stuff. This is mine.
Newsweek recently featured a story about food and class divisions in America (you can read the article here) and I thought this part of the article was right on target:
Claude Fischler, a French sociologist, believes that Americans can fight both obesity and food insecurity by being more, well, like the French.
Americans take an approach to food and eating that is unlike any other people in history. For one thing, we regard food primarily as (good or bad) nutrition. When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food — as it has been seen for millennia — as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table.
This idea of breaking food down into intangibles -- such as calories, points, carbs and fat grams -- turns food into The Enemy when taken to an extreme. It's not even food anymore; it's just a pile of fat, calories and grams of this or that. Sometimes here in Los Angeles -- where Thin is religion -- I wonder if the goal is to simply find a way to eliminate eating entirely. I know people who seem to exist on nothing but diet drinks and fat-free yogurt. I know women who would rather die than go up a size.
A few years ago when I was still very new at what I called "undieting," I wrote a little essay here about it. I also posted what I was having for lunch that week: a peanut butter sandwich and an apple and some other fruit. Two things happened: First, I realized that attaching food choices to a list was still Diet Mentality. Second, I got a ridiculous amount of comments (later deleted) warning me that peanut butter is BAD because it is full of fat and calories and sugars and that I should be careful because I was going to gain weight. That sounded awfully familiar. Even in a heartfelt essay about breaking free of dieting, I couldn't break free of it and neither could many readers. It was eye-opening.
A few months after I wrote that essay, I was contacted by a major women's magazine wanting to do a story on my "undieting" -- as a diet story, complete with a meal plan and a photo shoot. I declined in a hot, crazy panic, much to the dismay of all the publicity people around me. I just couldn't do it. I wasn't skinny. I wasn't finished, or good, or done. I couldn't open myself up to anyone's scrutiny. I was horrified. I wanted to hide. I wanted to eat. I wanted to be anyone but me.
People love to give advice about eating plans. Look at any news article online about nutrition and the comments are full of people who are EXPERTS on nutrition telling you what to do. A lot of it is angry, too, "Get off your fat ass and exercise! Stop eating!" Folks are angry about the weight of strangers. I know from my own life experience that many people like me better when there is less of me in existence.
But I bought into it. I believed -- and still do, probably -- that I would be a better person when there was so much less of me. I felt (and feel, still) embarrassed about my size, no matter what size that is. With certain friends and family members, I used to make a point to preemptively comment about my weight so they wouldn't feel the need to make comments (a bad strategy which not only didn't work but made me feel worse about myself.)
My weight is no longer a topic of discussion with those folks, the ones I felt I needed to preempt. If someone wants to talk about the size of my body or what I eat, they have to do it when I'm not around. Perhaps that's drastic or weird or crazy, but I can't get better when I'm constantly apologizing for what I look like. Dismantling the diet mentality isn't an overnight process. It takes time, it takes work and it may take professional help. I've had to make some very serious life changes -- especially this year -- and it's not been easy or painless, but it has been worthwhile in a way I can't oversell. There are no more beat-them-to-the-punch fat comments. And I'm starting to learn that being thin is not actually the only value a woman can have (even though it sometimes feels that way.) I don't apologize as much for how I look. If people don't like it, I figure they can look away. Like everyone, I can only do my best.
Telling people these deep, dark things opens one to scrutiny, which is not always easy for me. But I tell you these things because I look around and I know that I am not the only woman who has made a self-deprecating comment about her own human body as a way to beat others to the punch. I know I am not the only one out there who has had nightmares about eating a restricted food. And I know I'm not the only one who has had to put a little effort into dialing down my panic over something as simple as lunch. I guess I wanted you to know that the longer I keep at it, the better I am getting. I'm not all the way there yet (do we ever arrive at anything? really?) but I'm better. If I can improve, Lord knows it's possible for anyone.
And, at long last, I have successfully decriminalized the carrot.
Visit me at crazyauntpurl.com.
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