In recent months, I’ve shared some of my culinary adventures on Facebook – my first attempts at making soup or my forays into baking coconut and banana bread – and a few friends have expressed surprise that I got to 42 without exploring the joys of cooking.
But for me, making soup and baking – and inviting friends around to share what I make – are major steps.
Because for most of my life, food was my enemy, not my friend.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while or if you read its predecessor (Just As I Am – An Experiment in Self Acceptance), you’ll know my problems with eating disorders, erratic food consumption and body image began in my early teens, if not sooner, and continued through my 30s, when I got in to recovery and began to come to terms with my eating issues, explore their root causes and learn tools to help me make peace with food.
So until relatively recently, I had little interest in food for its nutritional value, for pleasure, or for taste. And I had little interest in spending my precious time cooking.
Instead, my life was about avoiding eating for as long as I possibly could to try to get thinner, then inevitably bingeing on food – including things I didn’t really like – then punishing myself with a period of starvation and hard-core exercise. Food was something I was scared of, something I ran away from and something I used to beat myself up with.
I ate to suppress my feelings, to numb myself out, to keep fear, pain, anxiety and low self-esteem at bay. I binged to comfort myself, then I binged again because I felt ashamed. Then I starved. And then I ran, ran, and ran some more.
Thinking about it now, it seems such a crazy, self-defeating, road-to-nowhere cycle – starve, binge, run; starve, binge, run – but I kept doing it, over and over again.
Yes, I had some favourite foods but there were so many feelings and so much shame attached to eating that it was hard for me to enjoy them. And yes, there were favourite restaurants, but consuming food in public was challenging. I always felt fat, no matter how slim I was, so when I ate a decent-sized meal in public, I’d fear I’d be judged for over-indulging (‘Oh, that’s why she’s fat,’ I’d imagine people would say). So I’d choose the salad, or the grilled fish and vegetables or some other low calorie option.
And then I’d go home and raid the fridge.
My erratic eating went hand-in-hand with my work life. The more stressful the job or the tighter the deadline, the more I’d starve or binge. The more I felt exposed, unable to meet my incredibly high standards or attain ‘perfection’, the more I would starve or binge. And the more I ignored my real feelings – anxiety, exhaustion, fear – the more I would starve or binge. Food was my crutch and, at the time, I may have even thought it was my friend. But with friends like that …
Inevitably, the more I punished myself with food, the more I hated my body – no matter what it looked like. When I lived in Brazil in my early 30s, I was probably thinner than I am today or at least more toned, because of all the running. But I cringed every time I stripped down to my bikini on the beach – which was most weekends. I remember once I was due to go to a weekend-long beach party with a friend and a bunch of guys and girls I’d never met. All I could think about in the run-up to that was what I would wear, how I would look and what they’d think about my body. What a sad waste of my precious time and energy. And not only did I eat more because I was so ashamed, but I drank myself silly too. Alcohol was my second crutch.
Diet coke was my third. I couldn’t get past 11 am at work without a can (the bubbles would fill me up and help me avoid eating for as long as possible) and I couldn’t get beyond the afternoon slump without a second. If I worked late, I’d have a third. It doesn’t surprise me when I look back that I couldn’t survive without my coke fix. I’d either skip breakfast or eat some ‘slimline’ cereal packed with sugar or sweeteners, along with watery, skimmed milk, and follow it up with some lettuce leaves for lunch. I’ve been educating myself for years about the importance of eating protein with every meal and keeping blood sugar levels steady to avoid the spikes and slumps that inevitably trigger cravings and a binge. It’s amazing what a difference it makes.
My relationship with food isn’t perfect today (and I’ve learned that perfect doesn’t exist) but when I think about how I used to be, I sometimes feel like a different person. I don’t recognise myself when I whip up a batch of soup, bake some coconut bread and roast vegetables in the oven, all in an hour or two. I don’t recognise myself when I sit down to food I’ve cooked from scratch and actually savour its taste. I don’t recognise myself when I don’t obsess about food in between meals or think how I’m going to run off the calories I’ve consumed. I don’t recognise myself when I’m not hopping on and off the scales several times every morning, adjusting the dial (I weighed myself every morning of my finals exams at university). And I definitely don’t recognise myself when I pass over the fat-free yoghurt or low-fat coconut milk in favour of the full-fat versions. For years, everything I consumed was low-fat or slimline – and no doubt packed with artificial chemicals or sweeteners. Today, that feels like half-living. Full-fat coconut milk, avocados, nuts and other good fats are a staple of my diet. And unlike in the days of slimline foods and starving, my weight doesn’t change.
In many ways, it’s a miracle – but who knows if I’ll ever be out of the woods completely. Food was a crutch for so long and it’s still my first port of call.
Yesterday, I felt anxious about something at work and I instinctively reached for a cup of muesli and yoghurt, one of my main comfort foods. Ok, so a mug of gluten free muesli and organic natural yoghurt is barely worth mentioning compared to what I used to consume but I’m aware that in that moment, I wasn’t eating because I was hungry, I was eating because I was scared. And when I try to fit food into a fear-shaped hole, of course it doesn’t fit. When I eat to soothe my emotions, my stomach becomes a bottomless pit and I’m at risk of not being able to stop.
Fortunately, I’ve come a long way, I’m conscious of what I’m doing and I know how to draw a line. I can call a friend and share how I’m feeling, I can write in my diary or go out for a walk until the discomfort passes – it always does. Then I can return to savouring food because it’s tasty, enjoyable and nutritious, as I did last night.
And when I eat in a balanced way – when I don’t diet, starve or binge – all those body image problems seem to dissolve. I can walk on a beach in a bikini without feeling self-conscious or fat. I still have my niggles. I can still fall into the familiar trap of looking at my body with disgust or giving my wobbly bits a poke. But they feel like momentary lapses today rather than a way of being. When I’m at peace with food, my weight seems to take care of itself and I’m at peace with the way I look.
I can also start cherishing my body for what it can do for me rather than for the reaction it may provoke in others. Which is why I’m investing a fair amount of money and three hours a week in intensive studio Pilates. This isn’t about burning fat or getting a trimmer waist. It’s about working towards a pain-free, supple body that can take me on long walks, bike rides, swims and even runs. Because when I exercise for the right reasons and not to punish myself for what I’ve eaten, it feeds my soul.
I’m writing this today not just because of the pleasure I got last night from baking coconut bread, roasting butternut squash and making lentil soup, then eating in silence and savouring all the tastes, but also because of what I’ve heard and read in recent days about diets and body image.
BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour has been talking a lot about body image, eating and diets in the past few weeks. Therapist and author Susie Orbach (I can recommend her book ‘On Eating‘) spoke about women and body image and took some emotional calls from women who’d struggled for most of their lives with food and body image on January 13th; there was a feature on ‘Every Other Day Diets’ on the 15th, and a follow-up on men and body image on the 20th (you can find them all on this iTunes page if they’re no longer live on the Woman’s Hour podcast).
I was really moved by Susie Orbach’s exchanges with a number of distressed callers and loved what she had to say about getting in touch with our bodies and our hunger. But I was disappointed there wasn’t more of an exploration of the deep-seated issues that often lie behind negative body image and unhealthy eating behaviours.
I understand that today more than ever, the media and the fashion and beauty industries propagate negative body image among women and men. And for some people, the reason for body hatred, poor self-esteem and erratic eating may be down to what they see and hear. I believe TV, films and fashion magazines have a lot to answer for, particularly when it comes to the messages they’re feeding to today’s young girls.
However, in my case and in the case of many other women I know, our unhealthy relationship with food began decades ago, in our childhoods, when it became a substitute for love, for feelings of safety or security or a means to soothe fear and pain. And that way of reacting to the world, of using food as a crutch, continued into our adult lives. Our views about food and our eating patterns became entrenched – habits we couldn’t break – all inevitably exacerbated by the media, the fashion and beauty industries and the opinions of our peers.
In these cases, sometimes the only way to resolve these issues is to go back to their root and work through our past. At least this is what I’ve had to do. Years of psychotherapy and sitting in support groups of fellow overeaters, undereaters, anorexics, bulimics and exercise addicts have helped me change my relationship with food and find the tools to cope with my feelings instead of turning to the fridge.
It hasn’t been an easy journey but it’s brought me to where I am today – to a great degree of freedom around food and body image and to a new sense of joy around cooking and sharing food with others. (I smiled to myself last night as I greased the baking tin with full-fat coconut oil and poured the full-fat coconut milk into the mix. What a turnaround from all those years of fat-free, starvation diets and distressing binges.)
We are all individuals. We are all at different places and have different reasons for behaving in the way we do.
All I know is that I was exhausted from fighting with food, weight and negative body image and I only found freedom when I realised the real battle I needed to fight ran a lot deeper.
Your story may be different but whatever it is, I wish you peace around food.