September 3, 2012

My Ongoing War with Food.

photo by Jill Shropshire

Something inside my refrigerator smells like a dumpster full of molding gym socks in the middle of a southern summer.

This smell has beckoned me from my bed and a wonderful book into my dank kitchen. I squat, open the  door, and find the culprit. It’s a three-liter jar of my homemade kefir. It looks like what comes up after a long night of White Russians.

Hmmm. Dinner.

I’m on a new diet and here are things growing in my house; plants, fungi, ferments, grains that shit and puke and need to be drained with cheesecloth. This is a frighteningly new development. I’ve never been able to keep a plant longer than a few weeks because I have OCD, which causes me to water and water and water and water. I even have to block out other people’s apartment plants because I feel an overwhelming need to drown their cacti.

I overdo everything—I’m the ultimate addict. Even with a sturdy yoga practice I’m still 85 percent impulsive action. Most of this action involves Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, big, dense bars of organic dark chocolate, every kind of cheese and beer.

Ben Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Funny, he never said anything about Kefir.

I’m a fat girl. This is not a description of my actual weight or body fat ratio. I’m an athletic gal with big calves and a big, biker girl’s butt. If you ask me to show you my guns, I will. Cause I’ve got them now. Growing up, I didn’t. Growing up I was buried under fifty extra pounds of I hate myself. Luckily, there was a cure for that. The Cabbage Soup diet. The T-Factor Diet. The Slim Fast Diet. The only two York Peppermint Patties and four Diet Cokes and day Diet. The I’m Miserable and All I Can Do Is Listen to The Smiths Diet (three parts ice cream, one part The Queen is Dead). The I’ll Smoke Instead of Eating Diet.

There was Dexatrim. Seventh grade is hard for any child. For one that is prone to panic attacks and on far too much (I overdo everything) over the counter speed, it’s a Valley of the Dolls hellmare. I remember writing very, very long book reports and sneaking trips to 7-11 for candy bars and ring pops to devour when I came down off the pills. I feared I was turning into a latter-day Elvis, so I went back to a saner, healthier diet of Slim Fast.

None of these diets actually allowed me to ingest food, a substance I sorely missed for a good 15 years. My parents raised me on food, the real stuff; pasta and oatmeal and lettuce and apples and hearty, whole wheat loaves of bread. They were health food nuts in the 80s, when health food stores were small, stinky places that specialized in colonics and chakra-soothing incense. There was no Whole Foods or fair trade or five dollar Kombucha. My parents had to be brave and experimental and not focus too much on taste or texture or palatability.

One of my very first memories is of my mother eating yogurt she made with her blue yogurt maker. I remember her giving me the spoon to taste. I’d assumed it was delicious given that my mother would inhale it the moment the electric timer went off. At first taste it was like eating something your own body might have created. It was alive in the worst way— so potent it burned my nostril hairs right off.

My mother was convinced by one of her hippie cookbooks that children who go without sugar for the first few years of their lives will never develop a taste for it. This child of the 1950s who’d grown up on Girl Scout Cookies and lemon pound cake wanted a better life for me. She meant well—with her sprouts and spelt and imitation crab meat.

Contrary to that hippie torture manual, I developed a taste for sugar anyway. There’s a picture of me having it for the first time. I sit in my highchair with a paper birthday hat atop my head. I’ve got one hand in the hair, the other knuckle-deep in a chocolate cake. The look on my face is similar to that of a prisoner of war being released after a long imprisonment. Free at last.

After that, my parents became the food wardens who were always on the lookout for the smuggled cake  in the backpack or the package of gummy bears hidden between the pages of the math book. They plied me with with low-sodium soups and lean turkey meat sandwiches, but the pull of the gas station down the street was too much to resist. It didn’t matter if I was full or not. The second, third, fifth, and ninth course was yet to come. After a quick walk to the convenience store I would binge in a construction ditch near my house. Then I would return home, refreshed and jacked and ready to watch TV all night long.

My parents, for all their good intentions, created a junk food junkie anyway. My mother’s yogurt had nothing on the range of newly introduced kid-crack foods, most of them cereals. Pediatricians, at least the nine out of 10 in commercial voice-overs, claimed that breakfast was a growing child’s most important meal. The problem was, children hate oatmeal and bran. So doctors and adorable child actors and animated vampires suggested you give your children something they like. Sugar with food coloring and a texture that will take the roofs of their mouths off.

As much as I pleaded and threatened and flailed my arms in the grocery store, my mother wasn’t letting it into our home. But it didn’t matter because I had friends and school lunches and snack machines every five feet outside my home. There was a Hardee’s right down the street and they knew how to price things for the kid wallet. My allowance could afford me endless orders of french fries and buttery biscuits.

These binging sessions in alleyways and parking lots made me feel like I was getting away with something very scandalous. Even with grease dripping off my chin, I felt sexy and adult and badass. I was breaking my parents’ rules and they couldn’t do a thing about it. They could ban high fructose corn syrup but they couldn’t ban the outside world. They couldn’t burn down Hardee’s or kidnap Capt’n Crunch. I finally had all the power.

I also had the size sixteen jeans and the wonky menstrual cycle and the blood sugar problem. I had a lot of plans of losing weight and how good it would feel. How I might look like Julia Roberts if I had only one Big Gulp a day. How men, fame and fortune were waiting for me at the bottom end of a diet shake. My unachievable expectations always got the better of me and I would retreat to my room and super-sized Butterfingers to brood.

It took me until my late 20s to lose the weight and, mostly, keep it off. It was then that I finally understood that I had to simply eat. To prepare my own food as much as possible, to skip almost all of the center aisles of the grocery store, to stop getting dinner and gas at the same place. The stronger my yoga practice became, the more dedicated I became to nourishing myself mentally and physically.

It wasn’t like I did Warrior II one day and the universe handed me a pair of skinny jeans. I’ve had to become a warrior, defending myself against myself. An even match. The fight of my motherfucking life.

photo by Jill Shropshire

Still a fat girl, though. I am constantly looking for a plan or a potion that will cure my hunger. I am constantly at war with food. There are times when I want to huddle down in a ditch and eat a whole tin of cookies or drink a six pack while waiting for the pizza delivery service to arrive. I still default to diet fantasies when I gain weight—If it worked for Khloe Kardashian, maybe it will work for me! I’m still looking for something that will erase my desire to eat everything always. As much as I want to solve my problems with food, my endless appetite for it is part of my personality—a part I refuse to hate or hide in shame.

This most recent diet journey is less about starvation than cultivation. As I said, I’m growing and trimming and draining with cheesecloth.  I thought of my mother when I plugged in my own brand new yogurt maker the other day. I wondered why it’s taken me so long to get back to where I started—eating healthy foods with little sugar and lots of nutrients. Why is it so hard for me to treat myself with respect and dignity? Why do I want to engulf a carton of ice cream, even though it makes me feel sick? Why can’t I be satisfied with food that’s good for me?

As I took a bite of my soupy homemade yogurt, I got the answer: it tastes fucking awful. Namaste.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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