From whence the food issues

When I was in second grade, I remember watching a film in class about volcanoes and thinking that the molten lava looked like melted cheese. Even while the other kids were shouting out funny statements about the image, I kept my mouth shut, because I didn’t want them to think I always thought about food.

We were never restricted food growing up. We were allowed to eat whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted to. I could have string cheese or an apple or Doritos or a sandwich or Oreos. We had plenty of food to choose from.

Once we visited my aunt and uncle in North Carolina. Someone brought over some leftover cake, and my sisters and I devoured it before dinner, and still ate dinner. My aunt remarked that she was amazed we were capable of that. I remember feeling ashamed.

As a pre-teen I was a real night owl. I would stay up watching Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel until 4 or 5 in the morning. Sometimes around 3 am I would make a huge sandwich and enjoy it, like Dagwood in the Blondie comics. I thought it was the height of deliciousness. I was growing; I was hungry.

Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, “a woman’s place” was a contentious issue. Girls were supposed to be modest and quiet, but the main goal was to be appealing to a man, and to maintain that status throughout your life. When we had lock-ins or sleepovers at church, the women leaders taught us how to do face masques, exercise, or put on make-up. I remember the pastor once explaining to an auditorium of thousands why it was that the women behind him were attractive — to keep the men’s attention. That’s what women were supposed to do. Shut up and keep the men’s attention. Being thin was a morality issue — if you loved God, you would take care of your body for your husband; if you loved your husband, you’d stay thin.

One of my mother’s best friends was a single mother. Her husband had left her to be with a man years before my mother had met her. He was gay. But this best friend was ridiculed by other women at her church for not taking good enough care of herself. The reason he’d left, they would tell her, was because she had not maintained her attractiveness. If she had just tried harder, he would never have been attracted to men.

At a Bible Study when I was 12 one Wednesday night, the teacher had brought apples and bananas as a snack. I ate an apple and a banana and thought that these were good, so I ate one more of each. I don’t remember if I was hungry or not, just that I felt like eating fruit was a good thing to do.

A few weeks ago at the office where they give us free lunch, I thought how admirable it would be if I could just subsist on fruit. Like a hummingbird or a sprite. To be the kind of woman who was satisfied by foods that were light and airy and full of fiber and vitamins.

I have been thin all my life. When I was 14 my father expressed some concern and told me I looked emaciated. He had probably heard about anorexia somewhere. I assured him I was eating. I was. Maybe just not as much as other girls my age. Deep down I felt a little pride that I was the kind of girl who just naturally was the way other girls wanted to be.

When I traveled to France at the age of 16 I was overwhelmed and alone. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I loved my host family and the other American students I met on the trip. But I just wanted to eat everything. I gained probably 10 lbs over that month, which brought me into a more normal weight category. I remember my boyfriend at the time remarking that I came home a lot cooler than I left, probably because trying to speak French by yourself in a marketplace in Brittany gives a 16-year-old girl courage and confidence. But maybe also because I’d gained some weight and looked like a woman instead of a stick figure little girl.

The times that I have gained weight in my life have been during times of stress. Usually moving to a new town or starting a new job. I gained the Freshman 15 in college, I thought because I had started taking birth control. I was homesick, too. I lost the weight the summer after, when I switched to a different birth control. I also had an anxious reaction to a boy I was seeing who wouldn’t return my phone calls. It made it hard to eat.

When I was 26 I moved home to New Mexico with a boyfriend I didn’t really want to be with and took myself off the Effexor antidepressants I’d been taking for two years. I had no serotonin in my system, I thought. I cried at everything. I felt like I had no satiety markers when I ate. I would just keep eating. I didn’t have a job, but I was trying to freelance. I worked from home. I did barely any physical exercise. I felt miserable.

The only way I have ever successfully lost weight is by stabilizing my life or by undergoing a trauma that makes it impossible for me to eat. I have never tried to diet. I have never consciously eaten less food.

When I moved to Texas almost two years ago, I was distraught. I left a life in Albuquerque where I was loved and had lots of friends. I had an important job. I had a house I loved. I had a vast social life. I could go anywhere in the city and be recognized by someone who loved or admired or at least respected me.

I moved into an apartment with my boyfriend where there wasn’t very much room for me. I worked in an office where no one knew who I was or respected my expertise. I didn’t have any extracurriculars I was good at — no kickball, no karaoke, no cycling, no running group. I had alcohol and food.

My boyfriend and I recognized that we were gaining weight. We tried to curtail it. I tried apps to count calories and log exercise. I tried to be compassionate with myself. Surely my hormones were reacting to my surroundings. I was stressed. Cortisol was keeping the weight on. I was also getting older. It’s harder to lose weight as you age.

When I got engaged to my boyfriend, I thought I would hunker down and lose the weight so that I could be a beautiful bride.

I tried harder to count the calories. I took up a training regimen for a 10K to get me running again. I thought, I am the kind of woman who can control her weight.

But on weekends, I’d drink more alcohol than I could keep up with. I’d eat whatever was put in front of me. On hard days, I’d have seconds or thirds or fourths at dinner when I wasn’t even hungry anymore, just to have something good to feel. When we’d have dinner I’d feel compelled to keep eating, as if something in my brain was saying, “We need this. Please.”

Trying to lose weight broke me down. All I wanted was food, to feel better.

There is a voice in the back of my head that says, “If you gain weight, you are unlovable. You have gained weight, therefore, you are unlovable.”

I hate that voice. I know in my brain that it’s wrong. I know that I’m healthy. I know that I’m objectively still good looking. Furthermore, I know that being good looking is not the sole purpose of my life, regardless of what the pastor at my church growing up said.

But my heart believes that I have failed. That I am a bad person for not being able to control my body. That I should be able to tell it what to do, and it should obey me, and that the reason it doesn’t is because I am weak.

Retraining that impulse is what my current regimen is about. While I would like to lose weight, I can’t focus on it, or the monster that is my eating disorder will rear its ugly head and take over.

So now I just have to try, one day at a time, to convince my body that I love it, and will not force it to subject to the will of my brain. I have to convince my heart that this is not the end of the world and that the shape of my body does not define my worth.

It’s harder to do than it sounds, even for a smart, educated woman. There’s a lot of programming inside me, and a lot of deafening wrongness coming from outside.

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