I heard somewhere that if you think your food looks beautiful, then your body will absorb more of its nutrients. I couldn’t tell you if that’s true, but I can tell you that learning to love food changed my life. I don’t say that for dramatic effect, either. I haven’t spoken about this before, but I struggled with an eating disorder for about four years.
My eating disorder developed in response to a handful of things – things that confused me, things that I didn’t know how to handle on my own. In upstanding Bildungsroman fashion, the first of these tomatoes was thrown following puberty.
My body started changing later in life than most. I tripped through middle school with a grin on my face, thoroughly unaware of the changes my classmates were undergoing, and perfectly comfortable with my shrimpy height and stick-thin limbs. I enjoyed a fair slice of high school in that same body: genderless, as far as I was concerned. But sometime in my sophomore year, someone pressed ‘Play’ on me, and my head went haywire as my cells shifted like Tetris blocks.
I became conscious of myself in a very new way. Seemingly overnight, I was going from a lanky, skinny-muscled short kid to a taller specimen with a fast-developing hourglass figure. The body that had seen me into my mid-teenage years – one that I was comfortable with, depended on – was becoming alien to me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Worse than the unfamiliar shape was others’ unfamiliar (and very unwelcome) regard: I felt gendered, typecast, stared at, and I had no idea how to respond to those projections. Also, my personal beliefs were changing. I was coming to conclusions regarding politics and religion and ethics that very often struck a dissonant chord with my family’s and many of those held by the Catholic school I attended. I felt confused, and I felt powerless.
It took me years to realize it, but that powerlessness turned into resentment. I didn’t have anyone to speak to about my feelings, but instead of recognizing that lack of support, I blamed myself for not handling everything better. Eventually, that feeling of inadequacy grew into hate.
Depression came with the self-hatred. It was a dark shadow, and it lived in me like smoke, numbing my insides and clouding my eyes. I couldn’t connect with my peers, I couldn’t connect with my family, and I disconnected from myself.
Though they had been two of my greatest joys, I chose not to pursue theatre and music in college. Somewhere, I knew the decision was wrong, but my sadness was so heavy that I didn’t want to face the possibility of rejection or failure; instead, I conjured a hundred rationalizations and sailed off to a big state school on their wave. In that sea of shame and sadness, I began to sink.
My eating disorder developed quickly. By my second semester, I was bound by a sickening compulsion that left me feeling heavy, sluggish, and ill. Some Internet research led me to self diagnose it as Binge-Eating Disorder, but even the knowledge that I was dealing with a noted illness didn’t help to relieve any of my shame or self-hatred.
The ugly struggle continued for two years, punctuated by low peaks and even lower valleys. Embarrassment and body hatred were relentless streams in the landscape, and I felt poisoned by them.
It was as recently as early 2015 that I finally felt like I had my feet comfortably on the shore. I was still processing things, but my mind was healthily reorienting, and I was developing a satisfying understanding of my experiences. At the time, what I most wanted to reconcile was my relationship with food; I just wanted to feel comfortable with it – that alone would have been a huge victory. Later that year, I realized that the healing could go much deeper.
Like John Cleese tripping into comedy writing, I fell in love with food unexpectedly. Noah and I had recently started dating, and having exhausted our supply of dead body exhibitions to visit, we found ourselves in my kitchen, armed with lemons and flour and Texas Tough parchment paper: We were making scones.
Maybe it was the smell of spices. Maybe it was the fact that we were in love. But that first experience we shared baking together was pure magic. We savored each step of the simple process, reverence behind each movement. I loved the feeling of butter and flour in my hands and delighted in our shared exclamations over the rainbow of lemon, cranberry, and walnuts. I especially enjoyed shaping the dough into a perfectly round little wheel – I positively beamed at it with pride.
Alongside the enchantment strolled a healthy dose of surprise. I didn’t know that a person could be fond of the food they created. That was a strikingly new sensation for me, who’d associated eating with stress for so many years. But that simple baking flirtation sent the lens of the kaleidoscope I saw through spinning: I was falling in love with food.
In subsequent months, when we weren’t gallivanting around town, Noah and I were combing through Central Market, sniffing out the most absurd fruits we could find, and piling our cart full of the makings of new dishes. In one fell swoop, I had developed a relationship with food that was founded on respect, awe, and delight. I appreciated its beauty and valued its function, and I now derive more joy from cooking (and eating) than I ever imagined possible.
I feel very lucky to have been introduced to the practice by someone who loves it himself, and I am grateful for the time that Noah and I spend together in the kitchen. I think that everything we make is beautiful, and though I still can’t say whether my new love for cooking affects my nutrient absorption, I do know that it positively affects everything else.
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I didn’t dive very deep into my thoughts on eating disorders or body shaming or external pressures in this post. For one thing, I wanted the piece to celebrate my new relationship with food. For another, I was having trouble putting everything into words. In some corners of my head, I’m still ashamed or confused. I don’t know how to explain everything yet. That said, I do plan on writing further about my experiences. I think the body conversation is an incredibly compelling and important subject, and there are some really interesting voices out there. Heard of Lindy West? I’d recommend looking her up. This radio show, this other radio show, and this article are a few of my favorite Lindy sightings.