The seasons are changing, and it’s that time of year when we have to start being extra-careful about our immunity. And I’m not just talking about the flu–I’m talking about body image issues. In case you weren’t aware, disordered eating … Continue reading
I don’t really watch TV, but I spent a lot of time hanging out with my little brother while my mom was out of town having surgery, so I’ve had more than my fair share of TV time in the … Continue reading
Struggling with overeating? Cool–you’re not alone. Read Part One: Habit and then head back over here to find out some strategies for getting past the compulsive eating roadblocks. ROADBLOCK #2: Emotional Eating [source] “Mindful eating” isn’t a new concept. But … Continue reading
Despite the fact that I believe in the core mindset behind low-carb/Paleo/ancestral nutrition, there is one phrase uttered by so many who follow that type of diet/lifestyle that just kills me: “When you’re eating real food, like healthy fats,* you … Continue reading
Hey–FYI, triggers ahead. Read at your own risk. I’m not a stranger to stress. In fact, if you know me, you know that’s a bit of an understatement. Type-A, overachieving, blah blah blah. You’ve heard it before. You’ve probably lived … Continue reading
To read the whole series in order, start here:
Let me be clear: I was already a food addict. A different kind of food addict, but an addict nonetheless. I’ve been a food addict since I was at least 10 years old.
I can remember back to my Friday night binges on baskets of garlic rolls at Mario’s or Dominic’s, eating between three and six rolls before digging into an adult-sized baked ziti entree; my anticipation of pizza night on Saturdays with Dad, and how we’d have to buy at least two boxes from Pizza Hut because I could knock back five slices on my own–and follow them up with a huge chunk of Tollhouse cookie dough without stopping to consider hunger; my ability to eat both servings of boxed Stouffer’s french bread pizza and still want finish off the tortellini I’d cooked for me and my sister; my insistence that my favorite food–above even chocolate and candy–was bread, and my inability to stop wanting after two and then three pieces of toast for breakfast…
After the soy-free summer, my tastes changed somewhat. When I cut out processed foods, sugar, and soda, I cleansed my palate of the hyper-sweetened and -salted foods that had “nourished” my childhood. Instead, I became dependent on my breakfast cereal and peanut butter sandwiches, living for my second and third helpings of spaghetti. (And once I reintroduced soy, I reintroduced chocolate–unable to concentrate after lunch in school if I didn’t buy a pack of peanut M&Ms–not because the stimulants in the chocolate helped me focus but because the cravings became more important than anything my teachers had to offer.)
A large part of my anorexia–the part about which I was conscious and in which I was aware of my engagement–was my attempt to control my addiction to volume. The irony here is that “anorexia” literally means “without appetite.” Rarely, I think, is that actually the case with this disease. In my own experience, once I start eating, especially breads, sweets, and even fruits, I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop. Even when I’m full. And anorexia, a rejection of that fullness, was the only way (I thought) that I could control myself.
“There is a very simple, inevitable thing that happens to a person who is dieting: When you are not eating enough, your thinking process changes. You begin to be obsessed with food. They’ve done study after study on this, and still we believe that if we cut back fat, sugar, calorie intake, we’ll drop weight just like that and everything will be the same, only thinner. Nothing is the same. You want to talk about food all the time. You want to discuss tastes: What does that taste like? […] Salty? Sweet? Are you full? You want to taste something all the time. You chew gum, you eat roll after roll of sugar-free Certs, you crunch Tic-Tacs (just one and a half calories each!) You want things to taste intense. All normal approach to food is lost in your frantic search for an explosion of guilt-free flavor in your mouth, an attempt to make your mouth, if not your body, feel full, to fool your mind into satiety. You pour salt or pepper on things. You eat bowls of sugar-coated cereal (no fat). You put honey and raisins on your rice.”
-Marya Hornbacher, Wasted, a Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia
When I started my intensely restrictive “eat clean diet,” I thought that I was finally free. I convinced myself that I was no longer hungry, that I was sated by my 100-300 calorie meals. But in the time between meals, I thought about food. I ached for it. And not the dry turkey breast and 1/2 cup of steamed broccoli, I ached for sweet and starchy. I used stevia (a “natural” sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant and 200-300x sweeter than sugar) on nearly everything, faking out my tastebuds in order to trick my lizard brain into thinking it was satisfied by egg white pancakes. I ached for my morning oatmeal. I substituted stevia-based whey protein powder for real food in as many meals as I could justify to myself. I spent my entire day in anticipation of my stevia-sweetened casein-and-peanut-butter pudding every night.
And worse, I watched the Food Network obsessively. I subscribed to allrecipes.com and read their daily baking email. I scoured the internet for decadent recipes, reading blogs like Cookie Madness and The Picky Palate so I could live vicariously through someone else’s Pretzel Caramel Shortbread Bars and Brownie Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies. I baked, constantly, so that I could at least have the smell of warm cookies saturating the air, enveloping me like an old friend.
Even as a vegan, I was still addicted to sugar and grains. It was all I ate, all I craved. Moreover, my vegan diet was just an animal-free facsimile of the bodybuilder’s regime: I inflicted upon myself the same rigid routine, eating small meals every 2-3 hours, aching with longing for the next helping. I sweetened my green juice with Stevia, and I couldn’t get through a morning unless I followed my green juice with low-sodium sprouted grain bread. Rice cakes were my midmorning salvation. My sugar addiction found a new home in extra servings of fruit,* wads and wads of bubble gum, packets of stevia poured onto anything that should taste sweet but didn’t. I still looked forward to my after-dinner peanut or almond butter (now with vegan chocolate chips added) with an intensity that defied explanation or avoidance (and I was usually so depressed about finishing my snack that I would open a box of cereal and eat that–dry–and then go to bed feeling painfully full but unsatisfied).
And through it all, the only thing I could think about was the food I couldn’t eat, wasn’t eating, wanted to eat.
*3 apples a day plus the pear in my green juice, entire 2 lb. bags of grapes in one sitting, etc.
I think that this is an appropriate place to pause and talk about fairy tales. Traditionally, fairy tales have helped establish the should-bes in our patriarchal society: how a man or woman should look or act, what love should look like and how it should happen…And though we third-wave feminists (or post-feminists, or whatever the hell you call a woman who reads Bitch magazine these days) like to write dissertations deconstructing fairy tales or set up ironic memes and post them to tumblr, the fact of the matter is we all love fairy tales because we recognize and idealize the “should-bes”. If you don’t believe me, count the number of Cinderella adaptations that exist today.
So today, I’d like to tell you my own little fairy tale. It’s a little bit Ella Enchanted* and a little bit Maid in Manhattan**–a fairy tale about a girl who, even as a grown up, never stopped believing in fairy godmothers and glass slippers and the power of the “should-be.” A power that ultimately destroyed the very thing she she so desperately sought to be: loved.
*Magical obedience curse or obsessive compulsion? Yeah, that’s what I thought…
**Only the In Manhattan Part, I think.
Once upon a time, there was a Girl who lived in a Big City. The Girl was very, very thin, which should have, by society’s standards, made her very, very happy. However, the Girl had a dark secret: She was being kept prisoner by an evil force, called “ED.”
ED was a voice that lived in her head. ED told her what to eat and when to eat it; it made her work out until she was so exhausted she could barely stand; and it showed up in her mirror and mocked her when she tried to tell herself that maybe–just maybe–she was pretty enough to be loved. ED would not allow her to have friends or meet a man who could love her, because ED knew that she “should-be” better.
Now, the Girl went to an important School, where she learned how to talk very loudly about Big Ideas. But now that School was over, she was alone very often and did not have anyone to share her Big Ideas with. The Big City was filled with millions and millions of Very Interesting and Important People, but most People were so busy living their Very Interesting and Important Lives that they rarely stopped to talk to strangers. Therefore, if you did not already have someone to share your Big Ideas with, the Big City was a very lonely place to live.
After many months of riding the crowded subways all alone, the Girl became depressed. She was very lonely, and wanted desperately to meet someone with whom she could share her Big Ideas and maybe even fall in Love. It seemed like everyone else had someone to love them: men and women (and men and men and women and women and every combination in between) would walk down the street holding hands, sharing ice cream cones, and debating the intrinsic artistic value of the latest gallery opening. The Girl would watch and listen enviously. This was how her life “should-be.”
Although she was technically free to come and go as she pleased–hence the crowded subway rides–ED kept the Girl locked away most of the time in her fourth floor walkup. And during these periods of incarceration, the Girl would sit behind her computer and dream about the Very Interesting and Important People who walked happily by beneath her window.
That is how the girl found the Missed Connections. The Missed Connections was a way for lonely people to battle Regret from behind their computer screens: perhaps they had caught someone’s eye on the street but were too shy to say hello. Perhaps they spoke a few words to that special someone while standing on line at the Drug Store but parted ways after purchasing their cold medication and trashy magazines. Perhaps they sat across from one another on the Train for hours and never said a word–but wanted to. The Missed Connections was a website where Regret could turn perhaps into Hope.
Although the Girl did not believe that anyone ever un-missed a Missed Connection, she read the website every day because she was fascinated by the messages that People left one another. The Girl kept her mind off of ED by writing stories about this cast of characters whose faces she had never seen–or had, perhaps, merely missed.
One day, the Girl went to a Very Expensive Health Food Store downtown so she could feed her ED. She didn’t need much–just a few packets of protein powder and some supplements (and a cup of coffee to keep her metabolism burning away)–so she was allowed to stand on the express checkout line. Next to her was the line for people with many items to purchase. And in that line was a Man with a Very Nice Smile. She looked over at him and their eyes met. The Man smiled his Nice Smile, but she looked down, embarrassed at being caught People-watching. The lines, both express and regular, were very long, so they had many minutes to stand next to one another without saying a word, pretending they weren’t trying to steal glances at one another. They shuffled forward with each passing minute, until their view of one another was obstructed by a large display of potato chips. Eventually, the Girl left the Very Expensive Health Food Store–but not before turning around to see if the Man was still there. He was, and he was Smiling and scanning the crowd to see if she had left.
That night, the Girl decided to defy her miserable jailer ED and leave a message for the Man on the Missed Connections. A few days later, she received an email. It was from the Man with the Very Nice Smile. The Man, it turns out, knew something about Big Ideas. He also played an instrument in the orchestras at the musicals that the Girl loved to attend. They decided to meet and un-miss their connection. They decided to go Out to dinner.
ED was not happy. ED did not like the Girl to eat dinner with anyone else. ED threatened the Girl, but the Girl did not listen.
She met the Man at a restaurant, and they had a wonderful time. The talked about Big Ideas and ate tons of very delicious food. At the end of the night, the Man kissed her goodbye just before the subway doors closed between them.
The Girl spent more time with the Man, eating delicious food and going to the theatre. When she was with the Man, the Girl was very happy. But as soon as he was gone, ED would start to scold her: You ate too much food. You stayed out too late and didn’t work out hard enough the next day. You had a sip of wine and a bite of dessert–You are not as thin as you “should-be!” As long as you go out with the Man, I will place a curse on you. You will become fat and ugly and then no one will ever love you, not even me!
One night, the Man took the girl downtown for her first slice of pizza in almost a year. The Girl had been afraid to eat pizza because ED didn’t like it, but the Man assured her that it would be okay. She took a timid bite–and it was the most glorious bite of pizza she had ever tasted. And then she ate and ate and ate until she felt sick. That night, ED laughed as the Girl held her aching stomach and cried herself to sleep.
A few days later, the Girl and the Man went to dinner. They ate restaurant foods that were laden with sugars and fats, and then took the subway home. The food sat in the Girl’s stomach–and ED made sure that it stayed at the forefront of her brain too. Even though she was enjoying her time with the Man, the Girl could not stop thinking about how much food she just ate–and how ED needed to punish her for being so lax with her diet. ED wanted her to feel how bad it was to be ugly and fat. ED wanted her to eat more so she would suffer.
The Girl and the Man took the Yellow train to the Main Station, where they would part ways (the Man staying on the Yellow train and the the Girl transferring to the Red.) As they approached the station, the Man offered to ride the Red train north and walk the Girl home. Suddenly, the Girl felt ED’s curse–her chest started to close up, and she couldn’t breathe. She felt dizzy and scared, and she began to cry. She ran off of the train as soon as the doors opened in the Main Station, and the Man followed. She started to hyperventilate, crying hysterically, begging him to leave her alone and go home.
The Man was bewildered. What had happened to the happy-go-lucky Girl he had been riding the train with just a few moments ago? He was concerned; this was not how a Girl “should-be!” He was not Smiling now. The Girl pushed him away and sprinted for the Red train, getting on board so quickly that the Man had no choice but to become another Missed Connection.
When the Girl got back to her street, ED made her buy a big, dense, fudgy brownie from the Open-Late Grocery Store. It forced her to eat all 500+ calories as quickly as she could and would not let her enjoy a single bite. The Girl ran to her apartment and tried to throw it up, but ED just laughed and laughed at her while she cried on the bathroom floor.
That was the last time that the Girl saw the Man with the Very Nice Smile.
I wish there were a way to give this Ever After a Happily, but as far as this particular story goes, there is simply no way. The Girl in this story is still alone, although she lives in a much smaller City now, because she believed ED would keep her captive forEver After.
There is a sort-of happy ending, however, because the Girl is finally realizing that the voice in her head does not truly understand how the world “should-be.” She is also learning that life is not like a fairy tale. And unlike in most fairy tales, with mean witches or evil stepmothers, ED cannot be defeated by the sheer power of another’s love. ED can only be defeated by someone who can first love him or herself. Even then, self-love is difficult to maintain–the Girl has to actively remind herself to think positive thoughts each and every day. And though the Girl no longer lives imprisoned and alone in the Big City, she still wakes up in the morning and has to fight with the evil ED that stares at her from the other side of her mirror. And this is a battle that the Girl will fight, maybe not forEver, but After.*
*This is not The End, however. The Girl hopes that all of the other Girls (and Boys) in the world will keep fighting off the evil EDs that lurk behind mirrors and at the bottom of the ice cream dish and on our television screens. Don’t let Connections get Missed because you are too busy should-be-ing instead of just be-ing happy. Life’s too short, and you are beautiful exactly as you are.
ED is a fickle master. Like its sung in the old Cole Porter hit, once it gets under your skin, it gets so deep in your heart that it’s really a part of you…and that’s when things get rough.
I started high school at 97 pounds. I was fortunate enough to have a good group of friends who didn’t ask questions when I only brought half a peanut butter sandwich and a grapefruit for lunch, and who didn’t press me into joining them for pizza-and-candy-filled sleepover parties. I wasn’t able to exercise at all, since my knee was constantly in pain from a benign (and as-yet inoperable) bone tumor, so I kept my girlish figure (literally–I had no breasts, hips, or any definingly womanly features) through calorie restriction.
I had my bone tumor removed in January of 2002. I was convinced, for some reason, that I was going to die, and so upon unexpectedly awakening from anesthesia I underwent a change of heart. I wanted to live. I wanted to feel like I was alive. I wanted…chocolate.
The inclusion of such incredible food choices as the other half of that peanut butter sandwich, or my daily pack of Peanut M&Ms led me to hit 110 pounds by sophomore year. The number on the scale began to freak me out (but not enough to keep my paws out of the peanut butter jar!), especially because of O.
O. was the girl I wanted to be. The physical manifestation of ED. She was 105 pounds (I had somehow gleaned this fact from her when we were lab partners in biology the previous year) and impossibly pretty. She always had better grades (usually by tenths of a point), and she never seemed to have frizzy hair days. She was also a varsity athlete.
I decided that I had to be as good as O. (lose the weight, get at 4.5 GPA–yes, it was possible–defrizz my hair). I had to become an athlete. As the perennial and stereotypical drama kid, I lacked the ability to coordinate my hands, feet, and eyes, unless choreographed by someone else. So, taking a cue from my marathon running mother and stepfather, I found a sport that required no skill but forward motion: I joined the cross country team.
Our cross country team wasn’t known for its speed or its skill, so I wasn’t completely alone in tortoise-like abilities. I can still remember my first cross country practice: Coach G. had us run 3 laps around the school. It took me 40 minutes. (Not as easy as it sounds…It was a large faux-university-like campus. It was a long run. Really. Don’t judge.) Our cross country team wasn’t known for its wins or for its stellar running talent, but we were nothing if not pluggers. On my first run, the senior who I ran with (and came in last with) assured me that we could be slow running partners–at least we were out there doing it.
But coming in last on a JV team wasn’t going to make me as good as O. So I worked. Hard. With ED as my internal coach, I started running twice a day–once at practice, and once after dinner. I forced myself to run with members of the boys’ team, because they were faster and the threat of being teased for being slow made me want to keep up with them. I pushed myself as hard during practices as I did during races. By the end of the season, I was the second-fastest girl on the team. The following year, I was named team captain.
As I increased my prowess on the cross country course, I also increased my food intake. Every day, in addition to my post-lunch M&Ms, I also made sure to consume a Clif’s bar before practice. I “carbo-loaded” before races (which was just how I justified my desire to go for thirds on spaghetti night), and sometimes ate a second dinner after my second nightly run.
I ate constantly and ran more to make up for it. Without ever having heard the refrain of “calories in-calories out”, I was already learning the twisted dance that would become my signature for years to come.
By the end of my high school cross country career, I was 125 pounds, up two pants sizes, and dangerously confused about how to be fit, thin, and healthy while battling a compulsively large appetite.
I still wasn’t O. And now, I began to hear ED taunting me: “Don’t you know little fool, you never can win?” ED was fully under my skin.