I’m not sure I’ve ever discussed this on my blog, but in my teens and early 20s, I had some problems with food. I never had a full-blown eating disorder, thankfully, but I had several years of what experts now call disordered eating. I say this not to elicit sympathy or claim some kind of bizarre bragging rights, but rather for some background. I think my outlook on eating has a lot to do with my past issues regarding food.
For those of you who don’t know, I did my undergrad at an all-women’s college (not a “girls’ school,” haters). It was a loving, open environment that encouraged discourse and success, but, as you can imagine, it also had a high incidence of eating disorders. I think my senior year, our student body was estimated to have twice the national average rate of anorexia, bulimia and EDNOS. It was fairly common to speculate about who threw up dinner, and it was sadly common for such gossip to be based on fact.
I don’t blame my college for this problem; rather, it was a result of the kinds of students it attracted (overwhelming upper- to upper-middle-class and white). It was also easy for stress to get the better part of any student, and sadly many young women deal with stressors through food issues. I wouldn’t say I struggled through college at all, but my course load was always demanding, as was the pressure to be as thin and perfect as the other 20-year-olds around me. In my Oklahoma high school, the number of perfectly toned and bronzed classmates was minimal; in Southern California, it was overwhelming. My pasty curviness no longer seemed ideal, and I had no idea how to deal with it.
I tried exercising like everyone else, but nothing seemed to change. I know looking back that my diet was largely to blame. At the time, I knew I needed to eat better. I read online about counting calories and protein and fat grams. I learned that a serving of grains is about the size of your fist, and one of meat is roughly equivalent to a deck of cards. I became convinced that The Zone would help me. One week, I decided to drink four cups of green tea a day to boost my metabolism – until the day my GERD rebelled and I threw up for an hour.
The summer I was 19, we got terrible news. My stepmother lost her battle with lung cancer. My dad was left a widower, my brother and sister were motherless, and I had no idea how I was supposed to feel. I still had my mother, but I felt the loss deeply, deeper than most people expected or realized. I mostly distracted myself with friends and my summer job at a day camp, but the following semester, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, including in my own skin.
Controlling my weight nearly obsessed me for those four months. Between papers and crying fits, I uploaded every morsel I ate into an online program and tried to go to the gym regularly. All the time, I couldn’t stop buying the cans of Pepsi, the Taco Bell tacos or the jumbo Milky Way bars. After a while, I realized that I could even them out calorie-wise by eating far less real food. Lunches became green salads and maybe a boiled egg. My weight fluctuated within a 10-pound range thanks to sporadic adherence to an exercise plan and my bizarre eating habits. My body was never deprived or near underweight, but this wasn’t healthy. I knew it then, and I feel it even more resolutely now.
The following semester, I took a plane ride to Italy for a semester study. I had been dreaming about it since I was 15 and just returning from my first trip there. In previous months, I considered calling the whole thing off (as I had considered transferring to a local), but ultimately good sense won out. In many ways, I had a rough semester there, too. I never made any good American friends. I refused to try very hard, since the vast majority was there to party, not to study or have a real cultural experience. At the same time, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I made a close friend in my Italian roommate and fell briefly in love with one of her friends. I spent most of the time around Italian people, not over-privileged Americans. I discovered wine and zucchini and spaghetti carbonara. I walked miles and miles each week. Though I was nearly broke, I traveled and ate delicious food. I was happy and never wanted to leave. Six months after my arrival, I returned to Oklahoma with tears in my eyes, a broken heart, and 10 extra pounds.
Though it made me overweight for the first and only time in my life, I still view those six months as crucial in my changing attitude towards food. Meals with friends were truly an event. Ingredients were fresh and local. I didn’t want to be seen as uncultured, so I ate pretty much whatever was in front of me. I even ate wild boar (cinghiale) twice in Tuscany. I tried to enjoy fish, but it never happened. Though I’d grown up considering only corn, potatoes and raw broccoli as vegetables worth eating, Italy taught me to open my mind. In many ways, I have Italy to thank for who I am now.
I spent the summer mending a broken heart and trying to find myself again. In October, I quit eating meat just because I wanted to. Though I spent most of my final year in college with the same problems I had four years before, things were transforming. I rarely counted calories any more, and I let myself have dessert when I wanted. I got into a regular exercise routine. An intense, unreciprocated crush made it difficult for me to see myself accurately for a time, but by the time graduation rolled around, I was healing. Within months of returning to Oklahoma, I lost five pounds and have never regained them. I blame happiness.
One thing I’ve realized from the pattern I’m glad to say I’ve left behind is that I enjoy thinking about food. Reading about it, planning out meals and looking forward to dining out are important to me. Trying to abandon this part of me would not help get past the disordered eating of my college years. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace the foods that give me strength, energy, and happiness. I never deprive myself of nutrition. I’d still like to lose five pounds, but I intend to do so through exercise, not a diet. My diet is the food choices I make every day, not some pseudo scientist’s magical cure. Usually it is heavy on the veggies, always meat-free, and increasingly devoid of animal products. I won’t encourage everyone to eat the way I do, but it works for me. It keeps me focused on treating my body with respect and love. That should always be the ultimate goal. Various religions treat the body as a temple. No matter what tenets you hold, this message should not escape you. Your body is in many ways the physical manifestation of your spirit. Treat it with the dignity you deserve.
And falling madly and passionately in love with someone who thinks you are perfect and beautiful just the way you are doesn’t hurt either.