After a childhood eating unprocessed food, my diet swung towards “normal” in my teens. My parents finally separated, my mother, brother and I moving into an apartment in town. Along with freedom from the constant, harrowing stress of living with my father’s moods came a relaxation of the eating regime. My mom was working; I had an after-school job at the outlet mall. This meant less cooking and the financial freedom to buy what I liked. For several months of junior year breakfast was, religiously, a Lender’s bagel (sold-frozen white rings that toasted to an alluring combination of chewy dough and crunchy crust) caked with Philadelphia Light Cream cheese, washed down with Diet Coke. My kid brother got into PopTarts and pizza-flavored Hot Pockets, I discovered a brand of microwaveable burrito and would buy them by the half-dozen.
Concurrent with the foray into junk food was a – possibly not atypical – adolescent obsession with my weight. At that age, there were a lot of things working against me: untamable hair that veered in texture from ringlet curls to limp waves, higgledy-piggledy teeth, plump cheeks prone to blushing, and a tendency to run to fat. Objectively, at 135-140 pounds, I was a reasonable weight for my 5’6” height. My self-perception, though, was that I was grossly fat and repulsive. The solution that presented itself was dieting. Every month Reader’s Digest, which I’d been reading cover to cover since I was five or six years old, wrote up a new diet or exercise scheme alongside ads for Weight Watchers and Slim Fast.
I never joined a club, but I did regularly glug ultra-processed chocolate Slim Fast shakes. Somehow, liquid seemed less dangerous than solids, less likely to stick to my sturdy waist. This rational prompted me to develop a black coffee habit, along with Diet Coke. During basketball practice and track workouts I drank Lemon-Lime Gatorade. Despite these measures, my size and shape refused to morph.
My best friend at the time was blonde, blue-eyed, and fit in the narrow confines of Levis 501s. She work Converse high-tops and wrote Nirvana lyrics on her jeans. In addition to the exoticness of having been transplanted from Florida, she’d had braces not once but twice. It was a close call which I envied more: her straight teeth, or the casual way she’d say things like, “oh, I haven’t eaten in two days”. The boys who fluttered around would respond admiringly, “no wonder you’re so skinny”.
None of the boys admired me for being skinny, nor could I ever claim to have not eaten for two days. The spirit was willing but the flesh got hungry.
Is it strange that between the ages of 15 and 25 I thought that not-eating was actively something to aspire to?
At 17, I moved across the country to go to university. More freedom, higher stakes. The first year I lived in halls and had access to the cafeteria: all-you-can-eat, three meals a day. Pizza, pasta, hamburgers, cakes, fro-yo. Like most of my friends, I put on 15-20 pounds in the first few months. Those who didn’t pursued not-eating in novel ways: one friend eat heaping bowls of plain iceberg lettuce, and nothing else; another gradually reduced her food intake to raw baby corn.
By sophomore year, eating disorders were a competitive sport. Classmates and acquaintances literally wasted away while those of us who ate kept gaining weight.
No wonder, given our food choices. We lived, like many Americans, in a food desert. The nearest grocery store that sold produce was a Thriftway on 42nd street; mostly, we shopped at the 7-11 on the corner: Cheerios, Kraft Mac&Cheese, Kraft Singles, microwave popcorn, white bread, turkey ham, potato chips. The Papa Johns a few blocks over had a permanent two-for-one special, which we’d scarf down with the emulsified oil concoction it branded garlic dipping sauce. Our rituals included watching Golden Girls while scoffing Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids, purchased and eaten in bulk from a basement commissary.
By the time I graduated, I was 160-165 pounds and it seemed inevitable. If the only options were eating and not-eating, and I couldn’t not-eat, my fate was sealed.
Proof of this was the fact that I’d been running regularly and for decent distances since 13. It kept me fit, I suppose, but neither a 20-25 mile a week running habit nor a later-acquired weight-lifting regimen made prevented or reversed the weight gain.
On a trans-Atlantic flight home, I sat next to an older couple who told me they’d lost a collective 50-60 pounds by cutting processed food out of their diet. It was the first time anyone had suggested processed foods as a specific problem, and the idea of not eating “normal food” was as eccentric as a moon walk.
This early alert sailed right past me, and my journey towards a more rational diet continued on mildly self-destructive lines. Developing a clubbing and (concomitant) recreational drug habit during my early 20s peeled off the university poundage. (There’s a reason diet pills were laced with speed – it works.) Finally I could not-eat; finally, I was skinny enough to wear mini-skirts, crop tops, bikinis.
Gradually, I started eating more real food. My then-boyfriend (a slumming it public school boy) had solid British middle-class taste in everything, including food. After a weekend of coke and wine, we’d go to the market and buy fresh vegetables, fish, rice, seeded loaves and fruit. On weeknights, we’d watch Master Chef while we mashed sweet potatoes and roasted chicken breasts. I learned to make roux, red onion marmalade, creamy scrambled eggs.
Near the end of my 20s we split up and I set off for Ibiza with a suitcase. Living on a slender wage, I ate gazpacho, bran flakes, chorizo. In addition to walking 90 minutes a day to and from work, I would often take a disco nap and get up at 2AM to be in a club by three. At the end of the first summer I was thinner than I’d ever been – and had pneumonia.
What the Spanish call the punto de inflexion – the turning point – came in the form of a second-hand paperback copy of Walden, from a bookshop in Mallorca. Thoreau’s remarks about the absurdity of farmers insisting they need meat to be strong, while plowing behind oxen that only eat grass, struck a chord. There was a stringency to his logic that appealed to the part of me that still believed that not-eating is a superpower.
I became a vegetarian then, gradually, for the sake of seeing if I could, a vegan.
During a transitional period, I found a Xeroxed copy of an Upton Sinclair pamphlet about fasting in a Humboldt junk shop. It shed cast a socialist-literary aura over not-eating (The Jungle had already convinced me that not eating meat was a moral duty towards my fellow humans, as much as towards animals). Animated by this new information, I took up intermittent – then less intermittent – fasting.
During a couple of difficult years I used not-eating as a way to manage things. For nine months in Glasgow, I ate only bread that I’d baked; or would go for days eating only raw foods, or would dine on mugs of vegetable broth laced with hot sauce. At that point, I was clinically depressed and hanging on by my fingernails. Borderline disordered eating seemed like the least of my concerns.
In retrospect, though, it seems significant – part of a pattern of carelessness/awarelessness that is individual yet unmistakably the product of a disordered food culture. The times my body most needed nourishment, I clung to the hollow comfort of not-eating. For more than two decades, self-deprivation was a goal. Though wrong, in absolute terms, I wasn’t wholly wrong about the relationship between conventional diet and overweight. Recent research indicates eating a diet high in saturated fats and sugars can damage cognitive abilities and lead to early death. Not eating ultra-processed foods is the only way to avoid the physical damage they cause – of which fat is a manifestation. However, not-eating should not apply generally.
There is a world of real food – fruits, vegetables, beans, unrefined grains, nuts, eggs and naturally processed foods like cheese and wine – that are better for you, the more you eat. After half a lifetime of treating food as the enemy, it turned out I was fighting the wrong battle.