It's just food, not love

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cw: disordered eating

As it can be for many people, food is a major issue for me. Food is such an emotional, complex theme – one that I have never managed to successfully control. As my good friend Wendal says, ‘it’s just food, not love’. Excellent point, though not something I’ve grasped yet, oops.

On the note of love, I have recently (finally) started trying out mantras, to see if they help me appreciate myself more. In my mind I chant things like ‘I am worthy’ and ‘I am enough’ which still feels uncomfortable to me; like I’m attempting to develop an ego but in reality it’s just an attempt to gain at least a small amount of self-worth. Anyway, yesterday morning I found myself chanting internally ‘I am loved’ whilst feeling particularly unloved and lonesome and – naturally – my mind conjured images of hundreds of kind and friendly looking chips running towards me, their chip arms spread and their chip legs sprinting, beaming smiles on their faces (I was not on acid). 

During these Corona times, ideally I’d like humans to embrace me with their open arms instead but perhaps a brain full of smiling chips will have to do for now. Throughout my life, food has been filled and crammed to a point of complete overflow into all of those metaphorical voids where people have let me down.

As a child I didn’t like food. I was a fussy eater unable to finish a meal and found it all such a chore; a boring, arduous chore that I apparently needed to partake in three times a day. So, upon reaching adolescence I took it into my own hands. 

I remember being a very scared, anxious and nervous human, so no wonder food always induced nausea. I taught myself to effectively starve, eventually being able to go three and a half days without eating anything before allowing myself a small bowl of dry Bran Flakes or a single piece of wholemeal bread. It was the control that I loved. I loved how skeletal I was; I liked pressing my razor sharp hip bones and collar bone, being able to fasten a belt around my waist almost twice around. I’d rejoice at my sunken stomach and my protruding spine and think, “hooray, I’m doing so well but this must continue – I am not finished”.

I’m not sure when it all ended, I just remember being devastated as I watched the weight creep back on, missing my bones, detesting my doughy tummy that was once concave. 

Eventually, after years of seeing no benefit to food and wishing it would disappear from my life, I finally learnt to actually enjoy food. I found foods I loved, learning to enjoy the social aspect that I had missed out on with friends where I had methodically chomped on chewing gum while they ate meals. It was a brief period where I progressed from tolerating to liking food; I no longer starved myself or made myself sick. 

Yet as I got older food became an enemy once again but not as it had before. Instead, I overate; not even to the point of sickness, I would just eat and eat and eat and then just sit there, lonely and fat and full and guilty and hopeless. I remember going through a bad, painful break up and sitting and shoving mashed potato down my throat until I could no longer stand it. This half hour of my life and many other half hours is referred to as: ‘mashed potato for a broken heart followed by intense guilt and the urge to rip my stomach out. Living the dream’. 

I still go through phases, though I’m better now. I still binge, but not as often and I still get these sort of intense needs to fill my entire face, which I quite easily cave in to but not to the same extent. you ever feel as though everybody else is so much better at finding inspiration in their refrigerator, freezer, cupboards and drawers than you are?

I’ve always worried that people will judge me when I eat because I think I’m too fat and should therefore be eating nothing. I should be sitting there, sans meal because I am not slim, I am not skinny and I am overweight. I understand that is absurd, but there’s still such a pressure with society and the media to be thin and to only have the privilege of openly speaking about food and eating publicly if you have the ‘correct’ BMI. 

With age I have thankfully got better at giving less of a shit when it comes to eating, discussing and ordering in front of people. With certain friends I feel no shame or judgment indulging in multiple helpings of pasta, cheese and all the great foods, though I still worry about how some would react. The panic that they feel I’m too fat to eat such gluttonous meals still exist, but ultimately they haven’t called me out on it, so I should stop worrying. 

Discussing the joy of food without judgment

I have a close friend who is a beacon of hope when it comes to food, she has a unique, calm and warm relationship with food that I had never seen before. She finds absolute joy in food and all it brings, the senses, the practicalities, the preparation, the satiation. And granted, not the washing up but I don’t think that’s an enjoyable pastime for any of us. It’s lovely, her knowledge knows no bounds; isn’t it nice to hear somebody talk so passionately about something so universal and necessary? Something that could so easily be boring, and not nourishing in any form for your mind, body or soul. 

...when did we get so obsessed with weight and calories and fat content and sugar content?

I like the way she talks about food in this romantic, mystical yet achievable way. I don’t see what I eat the same way as she does, though I am aware that I am more than capable and permitted to talk and write about food too. 

She has taught me so much, for which I am so grateful. I still don’t like eating in front of people really, I do it because, as you’ve read above, food is all-consuming; stressed, sad, happy, anxious or frustrated, it’s my go-to to attempt to feel better but often with all the wrong ingredients. 

I feel at ease with this close friend; we can have extra parmesan and extra olive oil without drama, without pressure, without somebody mentioning that they shouldn’t, that they need to lose weight or fit back into old clothes (when did we get so obsessed with weight and calories and fat content and sugar content? More on that another time). 

Together, we eat pudding without judgement from ourselves, spending hours discussing our favourite foods on the sofa in front of the telly we’re not really watching, letting the other know, who is yet to take the first precautionary sip of tea that it is now in fact, ready to drink. One of my favourite evenings together was at her flat where she made me pasta, a recipe from her childhood followed by Vienetta, then porridge for breakfast the following morning, when I had the privilege of using her favourite bowl and spoon. 

Ending secret eating

In an attempt to stop berating myself unnecessarily, I am trying to think of the foods I eat in a more enjoyable way. Who should judge you for eating toast with butter and raspberry jam and a cup of tea for dinner occasionally? I’m finding confidence in spending a week eating pesto pasta with spinach, tomatoes, parmesan and extra olive oil, or porridge with a very heaped tablespoon of crunchy peanut butter and glugs of honey, ‘redeeming yourself’ with blueberries and cinnamon. 

Shop bought, ready prepared stir-fry vegetables, sauce with egg noodles and chicken breast; scolding yourself because you live with a vegetarian. Remembering that you have not made the sauce from scratch and maybe you could have prepared the vegetables yourself... and there’s already a lot of salt in the Chinese inspired sauce but there you go, drenching the finished product in more soy sauce and sipping water for the rest of the evening and thinking: it’s the stir-fry offer deal, who can resist a meal offer?

I’ll make it my aim to stop thinking of every meal as a secret meal that I eat in private...

Then there’s Heinz Cream of Tomato and Basil soup from the can with buttered toast. And dare I mention it, chicken Super Noodles with the radioactive looking remnants lacing the bowl and wondering whether to check the ingredients to try and put yourself off ever eating them again. 

Fusilli with chilli powder, cayenne pepper, paprika, sour cream and cheddar, lasagna with garlic bread, chilli con carne with cheddar cheese and more sour cream. Full fat hummus with pita chips and the mandatory crudités to once again, make you ‘feel better’ about your choices – does anybody actually eat celery out of preferential choice? Redemption in the form of celery, forgive me for my calorific sins, oh forces of the universe. 

Oh, and Kettle chips of course and Dairy Milk chocolate and Dairy Milk coated Oreo cookies and Haribo Starmix and Starburst as snacks and eating an apple to try and ‘make up’ for it. Who cares.

I know I worry too much what other people think in general, but one day I will realise we all worry too much and ultimately we are so consumed by anxiety over other people’s thoughts of us that we don’t realise they are in the same position, but haven’t actually considered this because of their preoccupation with their own anxiety over what you perhaps think of them! Phew. 

So yes, perhaps I’ll make it my aim to stop thinking of every meal as a secret meal that I eat in private, seared with shame and guilt and instead, simply appreciate it for what it is, a delicious meal or snack, no matter the saturated fat content, that we should share with whoever wants to hear about it. 

Although... do you ever feel as though everybody else is so much better at finding inspiration in their refrigerator, freezer, cupboards and drawers than you are? Maybe we put too much pressure on our meals, maybe I should just read through some of the many cookbooks I possess and follow them in due course but without too much thought, not needing to follow them exactly ingredient to ingredient and measure to measure. I suppose it all comes with good practice, experience and a better relationship with food.