When I got engaged to my husband, 20 years ago, perhaps my biggest worry was how I was going to keep my eating weirdness a secret. I recall that I also had more typical concerns, like: are we still going to be in love 20 years later? (Yes, but it takes work to navigate the differences as we have matured into our older, more distinct selves.) Funny, the eating concern is vivid and fresh, like it was yesterday.
Food was and is a big part of our relationship. In the beginning, dates and weekends together revolved around either eating out at a new restaurant or eating in by picking a recipe and planning a meal to cook together. We were both very active and thoroughly enjoyed eating a lot to offset all the physical activity. Cocooned in our relationship, we developed a repertoire of delicious meals together. Before our engagement, we spent the weekdays apart, where I happily could revert to eating alone my secret meals.
I would eat alone, secretly, so I could indulge my desire for gorging. I learned to gorge on food that has few calories so I could eat a lot of it without gaining weight. A classic strategy for a ballerina. Some of my favorite foods for gorging, because they can be consumed in large quantities with little adornment except for some olive oil & vinegar or plain yogurt, include: Shredded Wheat, Oatmeal, Quinoa, Lentils, Baked Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Escarole, Broccoli Rabe, and FRUIT. Staggering quantities of fruit. So sweet and refreshing, I still eat a lot of fruit every day. Now I am better able to manage portion sizes and enjoy what I eat mindfully. Back then, I would make the meal last by reading while I ate and not letting myself take another bite until I finished a paragraph. There is so much food I did not savor because I was reading and so many books I did not retain because I was eating. Both the eating and the reading were stalling devices – I was avoiding dealing with whatever anxiety I did not want to face at the time. Avoiding human contact and conflict, avoiding taking risks to put myself out there in the world to claim who I really was instead of who I thought I should be. Or who I thought they wanted me to be. Anyone other than me.
In those happy years of early marriage and those busy years of raising young children, I did not have time to be so anxious and did not miss being lonely. My husband accepted and ignored or laughed at my food oddities. I adapted my rules, strategies, and preferences to our life together, eking out some secret eating time when he had his tennis nights. But when the weight gain of mid-life settled in and the anxieties of mid-life settled in, I found myself pulling out my bag of tricks. But this time, my kids were watching. Desperate to model healthy food choices to my son who would prefer to eat macaroni and cheese exclusively; desperate to model “normal” eating behavior to my daughter who regularly lounges in front of the tv, eating alone; I became obsessive with healthy food choices and regular meals with minimal snacking. I lost my 20 pounds but am not convinced there isn’t collateral damage. I can no longer control when and what my children eat. Perhaps I never did.
When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, 18 years ago, perhaps my biggest worry was how to raise a girl without an eating disorder. I vowed to raise a daughter with a happy sense of her self and her body and a healthy approach to eating that included enjoyment of food. I recall that I also had more typical concerns, like: will she be healthy? Will she be happy? Will I be a good mother? (She is healthy. I hope she is happy. And, good or bad, I certainly am the mother I was meant to be.) Funny, the eating disorder concern is vivid and fresh, like it was yesterday.
As girls, it makes complete sense to me why we eat alone. There is too much pressure to eat socially. Like Scarlett O’Hara, we have to eat a private meal before (or after) the public meal. We are so laced into our form-fitting party attire and so expected to eat properly, pretending we don’t need or enjoy the sensual pleasure of eating to satiety.
There is too much pressure to eat what everyone else is eating. Either too much or too little. What if it doesn’t taste good? What if it does taste good, so good I can’t stop eating it? No, better to sit quietly with a vat of fruit, filling up on something healthy and tasty that won’t make me fat.
There is too much pressure to make food choices that are what “normal” people would choose to eat. The homemade pasta with short ribs sounds delicious, but I am afraid of the calories and am cutting back on meat. I’d really rather have the vegan farro with grilled vegetables. Does that make me weird, someone to look askance at?
When the meal arrives, it is unseemly to devour the entire plate load of food. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly eat another bite” is what the good girls say, covering their plate with a napkin or mushing the food so that it is no longer appetizing or (my personal tactic) simply dividing it in half mentally and using their tremendous self-discipline to stop. I don’t believe the thin celebrities who brag that they eat burgers and fries without guilt. They go to the gym to work it off – or worse if they are bulimic. They pay a price for their bodies.
Our children watch us, learn from us, imitate us, reject us. When all is said and done, they take parts of us even as they separate and evolve into their own selves. I am regularly terrified that some characteristic of me that I can’t stand lives on in my children. Cuticle picking, secret eating, and all sorts of obsessive-compulsive and perfectionistic anxiety. But they are not me. They did not have my parents, my life. They are loved, I think they know they are loved, and they have different life experiences and coping skills to grow into emotionally strong and honest adults. Still, I can’t help but have a frisson of terror when I see myself mirrored whenever they exhibit anxious behavior traits.
When my brother-in-law urged me to “enjoy the food!” on a recent trip to New Orleans, I laughed. He had no idea what a complicated feat that would be for me. (Or did he?) Balancing my fear of getting fat with my desire to eat, it used to be easy to lose track of what really tastes good and what really satisfies my body. Now, though, with years of eating behind me and an increasing yogic sense of awareness of my body, I am more able to choose what I really want to eat and to enjoy it. Nothing beats a delicious bowl of fruit. Now, though, I prefer to share it.