On eating disorders

As a recipe developer and food writer, I’m often asked the same question: “How do you stay thin and fit when you’re constantly making so many rich and decadent meals and desserts?”

I should be flattered, graciously accepting these words as the well-meaning compliments for which they were intended, but the truth is, my stomach churns every time I hear this question.  As someone who struggled with anorexia for years, I saw myself as neither fit nor thin, and still, to this day fight to see beyond my imperfections.  When the question is posed, I’m overcome by waves of guilt.  As if, by being labeled fit or thin, I am somehow unworthy of writing recipes or cooking; I’m somehow being dishonest with the world and with myself.  You know the saying, “Never trust a thin cook.”

Over time, I endeavored to come up with a sensible answer.  Something noncommittal, safe and inoffensive that wouldn’t raise too many questions or spark an emotional response.  In the process, I contemplated writing a little more deeply on the subject, starting often, but each time putting down the pen when the words became too difficult, not wanting to think about it, let alone put into words what needed to be said.  What needs to be said, though, is often the hardest thing to articulate.

Where would I write such a discourse?  Facebook?  Instagram?  Certainly it didn’t  belong here on the blog among all the food photographs and recipes.

What will people think of me?  Will they be disgusted.  Will knowledge of my inner dialogue around food make what I cook less desirable.  Will the darkness overshadow the light in my photos, fading their beauty?   Will my recipes be tarnished by the monsters of my past?   Will my readers start to see food as the enemy, as I once did and sometimes still do? 

It occurred to me that I could write a quick Instagram caption about it and be done with it, but I quickly realized there were far more words to be written than would fit neatly in a square beneath a photo.

In this era of social media #foodies and #foodporn, it’s perfectly acceptable to write about what we’re eating, mundane as it may be.  However, writing about eating disorders, something which affects 70 million people worldwide, feels somehow taboo and socially unacceptable.  Something better left under the table rather than on top of it.

At that point it’s easier to put down the pen and write a shallow, more Instagram-friendly caption like, “Cooking for my family is one of my favourite things to do.”  Nothing wrong with that.  It’s true, after all.

But still, there’s a small voice that comes back to me saying, just write it.  Write something that may be meaningful to someone out there in this world of stylized flat-lay aesthetics.  If you don’t, who will?  And I started to think about the girl who looks in the mirror every morning with disdain, or the man who exercises until he throws up before bed, and I asked myself, don’t those of us who have survived a struggle have some sort of duty or obligation to share our experience with those who may still be fighting a similar battle?  Without the intent to change them or “rescue” them, but only for the sole purpose of helping them feel less alone?

It’s ironic to hear a food blogger say that she has struggled with eating disorders, isn’t it?  But as I look back on this journey I realize that writing about food has been a way to confront the demons that still hide in the dark corners.  It’s like saying, “Ha! Take that!  I made a decadent chocolate cake with double-cream buttercream and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Writing, like cooking, is therapeutic.  You see, I believe that eating disorders are something that you never fully heal or recover from.  Like other mental illnesses, they can be managed and even forgotten, lost in blissful remission for years, but the demons still lurk in the shadows.  The monsters will always be under the bed ready to pounce the moment you become vulnerable.  For me the vulnerability comes when I’m depressed, worried or upset.  Emotions that stir thoughts of anger toward myself, waking the monsters who sneer and whisper, “You don’t deserve to eat that.”

Yet, I know intrinsically that I’m stronger than these voices.  These misconceptions, after all, are just that: thoughts that hold no power of their own except for what I allow them to possess.  When I look at my children and see their eyes light up at the sheer joy of eating that chocolate cake – joy that’s still unpolluted by the devastating lies –  I resolve that these delusions will never, ever again hold any power.   I won’t allow them to poison my children’s attitudes toward food and the pleasures of eating like they did mine.  My daughter is nearing the age I was when all of this started, and recently I heard her say she felt fat.  All the memories and emotions of when I was struggling came rushing back. Children develop their eating habits early, by watching and modeling their parents, so it is crucial that I take precautions now so as to never let the seeds of an eating disorder take root in their subconscious.

Returning to the question at hand.  While in the past the my answers would have been:

  • “I envision how the food will look if I force myself to vomit.”
  • “I exercise until I’m sick.”
  • “I brush my teeth instead of eating each time I feel hungry.”

These days the answers are different.

  • I keep my portion sizes small and eat only ingredients I feel good about and which my body will recognize as food.
  • I follow targeted, but sensible, workouts which my husband & trainer develops for me.
  • Moderation is essential when it comes to sugar and alcohol.
  • I’m constantly aware of situations that trigger my vulnerability and am vigilant to silence those monsters whenever they wake.

The vicious thoughts never completely go away, but they can be overcome and tamed.  Every decision I make around food has to be deliberate and conscious, otherwise I know I’ll fall back into the same old patterns.

It is important to remember that eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice.  They’re more often a manifestation of depression than they are a result of disillusionment toward one’s appearance.  It’s an illness that is deeply rooted in genetic, biological and psychological factors.  A silent illness; many whom experience it don’t even realize there is a problem.

I wish that I could reach my hand out to every single person struggling with this disease.   To the girl who’s eating only a few spoonfuls of rice a day and supplementing with cigarettes to feel full I would say, I was once my own worst enemy, too.  And though you don’t see it, you are beautiful.

To the man who forces himself to exercise until he throws up, I’ve been there.

To the woman whose throat is raw and scarred, I know your pain. Let me walk through this storm with you.  We can chase down the demons together.  You are brave enough to believe you deserve more than this.

Rebecca in kitchen

10 thoughts on “On eating disorders

  1. Dear Rebecca: thank you for the courage of sharing something so difficult with such honesty and kindness.
    There is so much more I would like to write, but it’s late and my brain is saying: sleep time! So I will read this again tomorrow and likely comment again, here on your blog, where comments really should be.
    In the meantime, I look forward to the day when you will not just work at mastering this challenge every moment of every day, but you will be truly free.
    Monica

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Monica. I do feel like I have overcome this challenge, at least 95%, but as my daughter approaches the age I was when all this started, I feel those familiar dark emotions surfacing again. She frequently comes down on herself for her appearance and I feel somehow responsible, though I have carefully guarded my past struggles with food from her. It’s a worry and I guess that prompted me to write this, in the hope of possibly reaching someone who may be where I was when things we difficult.

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    1. Thank you, Mimi. I’m very worried for girls these days with the pressures of social media perfectionism. I feel like we had it easy growing up with only the influences of fashion magazines telling us we weren’t perfect.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this, Rebecca. I personally have never dealt with an eating disorder, but I watched my sister struggle with yo-yo diets and such. It was difficult to watch and convince her that it was unnecessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Joyce. It’s so hard to watch a loved one struggle, feeling like there’s nothing you can do to help. I hope that your sister is well and healthy now. All the best to you and her!

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  3. I feel this on a visceral level, having also fought an ED myself. It’s not unusual for folks with ED’s to surround themselves with food. I used to stay up all night, preparing elaborate cakes, cupcakes, fancy breads, muffins ect, for co-workers, friends and family. As if, if I could feed them enough than I would somehow feel better. Thank you so much for sharing your story, the more all of us connect via story-telling, the stronger we all are!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting! I think you’re absolutely right. I do feel like cooking is an escape and a way to show love to others, and I have been known to push people to eat. It makes me so happy seeing my friends and family enjoy the food I have prepared, but, when it comes to me, it has to be a conscious decision and sometimes a struggle on my part to extend this same feeling and allowance toward myself. It’s not nearly as hard now as it used to be, though. Thank you so much for connecting with me here!

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