January 16, 2012
I recently threw out a leftover ice cream cake covered in freezer burn. I had completely forgotten it wedged in the freezer. To some, forgetting about food in the freezer is unremarkable. But for me – the fact that I had utterly forgotten there was a cake in the house, so thoroughly forgotten about it that it crusted over with freezer burn – it made me sit down for a moment. It was a milestone a long time coming, and I had to let it sink in.
When I was 12 years old, I went on my first diet. For fun. With my mother. I was 5’5” and 128 pounds, and wouldn’t it be fun if I lost 10 pounds? First it was the Scarsdale diet – the fruit salad and pecans, the hamburger patties with brussel sprouts. The 10 pounds (that I did not need to lose) came off. How empowering! But then they came back – plus, of course, a few more. So we went to Weight Watchers, my mom and me together, and I learned that the night before a diet you need to go on a “last hurrah” – Chinese food was ours – and that diets had to start on Mondays – and that if you went off your diet, well, you should eat all you could while you could, because Monday was coming…
And so it began. I was in 7th grade.
I remember allowing myself just 1,000 calories a day, and going to bed hungry, dreaming of the tiny Quaker granola bar and 8 oz. of skim milk I planned for breakfast.
I would starve and read “Glamour” and “Cosmopolitan” magazines and imagine the life I would live when I was thin. I was certain to be popular and successful, with plenty of boyfriends and orgasms.
I felt sorry for girls who were naturally thin, because, unlike me, they had nothing to look forward to.
I would spend my time shopping for clothes (many sizes too small), for parties I imagined I would be invited to when I reached the right size and my dream life began.
In short, I bought what they were selling – the magazines, the mall – hook, line, and sinker.
Between diets it was all about making up for lost time with the Kraft Mac & Cheese, the Snickers bars, the Jif. And if you pushed it down fast enough, it was almost like it didn’t count. And sometimes, with a cake or a pie, I would have to get it into the trash before I’d gone too far…but then sometimes…I’d have to go in after it. There is nothing quite like the shame of sneaking downstairs when everyone is asleep, still bursting at the seams from dinner, only to eat someone else’s leftover pecan pie out of the trash.
When I went to visit my Jewish grandmother she’d ask me to turn around, so she could “look” at me, assessing whether I had gained or lost weight since my last visit. Once – after a period of particularly painful binging – my grandmother reported to my mom that my face looked like a big red tomato. (Maybe my mom could have spared me that tidbit?)
I was 13. And then I was 15. And then a high school graduate, a college graduate, a professional.
When I was 28 my mom called to say that she’d found my old journals in the closet of my childhood bedroom, that she and my dad had read them, and, well, they had some questions. “So, you know that part where you write about running into the first guy you had sex with? You know, after you had graduated from college? Well, you write about how you were feeling fat that day and didn’t want him to see you – and your father and I were wondering, if it’s so important for you not to be fat, why don’t you make it a priority? Why aren’t you thinner?”
(That paragraph reads like fiction, doesn’t it? It’s not.)
Why, I asked myself, why aren’t I thinner? There was shame in taking up so much space. I even talked quickly (still do) – not wanting to take up too much room. Not wanting to be too much.
I stopped dieting altogether. I resolved never to weigh myself again. I rebelled and carried *forbidden* foods with me everywhere I went: Nutter Butter cookies, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Snickers bars. And it worked: when I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted, the *forbidden* food lost its magic. Entirely. (Have you tasted a Nutter Butter cookie lately? When you eat to taste it – as opposed to shoving it down before you can stop yourself – you can’t help but notice it tastes like nothing so much as chemicals.) When I stopped dieting, the binging stopped as well. There was simply no longer any need for it.
Years passed, and I ate whatever I wanted. Or sometimes, I just didn’t eat at all.
And then something happened last Fall. The kids, the holidays coming with family visiting from out of town, the ex-husband’s recovery from spinal surgery – everyone was depending on me to keep all the balls in the air. Panic set in. “I need to take care of myself!” I thought. “Quick! I need to figure out how to take care of myself, or I’m going to go under!” And I realized that I didn’t even know how to fucking FEED myself. I knew how to diet, and I knew how to not diet, but after 43 years, I did not know how to nourish myself.
So I did something so outrageous, so radical, so GENIUS that I can’t even believe I came up with it: without berating myself – or even slipping in a sarcastic or otherwise unkind word – I simply began making sure I was able to get a little bit of exercise every day. Sometimes it looked like playing tennis with the kids, sometimes like the boring slap of sneakers on the treadmill. But it felt good. And then I started reading and watching videos about how to nourish my body with food – simple stuff, broad strokes that kept me from becoming too obsessive: loads of green vegetables, colored peppers and tomatoes, avocados, whole raw milk, tons of fruits and berries, nuts, grass fed meat, whole grains, fish twice a week, beans three times a week, olive oil and onions and garlic, and something fermented each day. Plus fish oil. (I am eating so much I can barely get it all in each day, and it is cracking me up. When last week I finished my lunch and then reached into my bag to grab and peel a gigantic grapefruit in the middle of a work conversation, I felt the need to apologize to the person watching me, explaining, “Sorry, I’m trying to eat more.” It just sounded so outlandish – a 40-something woman trying to “eat more”! But then again, just last week my friend Tracy told me I look like I’m aging in reverse. Now that I liked.)
It’s so radically different for me to think about food from a place of nourishment instead of from a place of denial. And it turns out I don’t actually even like pecan pie. (I mean, don’t get me wrong: if you invite me for dinner, I’ll surely eat it if it’s what you’re serving for dessert. It’s just not something that excites me anymore.) But I do try to eat creamy dark chocolate every day. And the funny thing is, when I sit and let it melt in my mouth, let it roll around on my tongue, a piece or two is all I need, then I’m over it. In the decades of the secret binge, of the insatiable hunger, of the stinginess and the shame, who could have guessed such a thing?
For years, I put my life on hold waiting for something better – and striving to be thinner was the mental short cut of imagining something “better.” And in my mind food was the thing that stood in the way. But it wasn’t about the food, of course. My old obsession with food and the result – mentally putting my life on hold, feeling that my hunger and desires were too much to control – cut me off at the knees. And now the most radical, outrageous thing I can do is to take good care of myself. To live in the moment. To breathe and savor where I am, what I am doing, the food on my tongue, the joy around me. Savor. It is my word for the year.