Reading old blog entries as I often do for spelling and grammar errors, it occurred to me that readers might get the impression that all is sunshine and rainbows on the eating and exercise front.

Certainly, I am enjoying exercise and being active for the first time in my life, and yes, I no longer count calories or deny myself the foods I love and crave, but that is not to say that I am entirely absolved of my disordered eating past.

Even as a young girl, I had complicated and, I might add, rather fucked up thoughts about what my hunger should feel and look like. I remember being eight and eating dinner one night with my family. My father had the largest portion, I noted, and rather than simply concluding that Dad was hungrier than anyone else at the table, I told myself that was the way things should be; men should eat more, and women should eat less. Men could and should indulge the expanses of their hunger, and women were required to keep such corporal desires in check.

I can recall with ease the dimensions of my hunger on any given day or year. I remember talking with a friend in third grade. She had been out sick with a cold, and noted that she had felt unable to eat even the simplest of foods. I told her I was jealous; I never lost my appetite. Perhaps if I were a boy it would have been okay to experience hunger even in the depths of a nasty cold, but it was clear to me that my appetite [which was, in retrospect, quite normal] was not appropriate for a girl.

Years later I spent my junior year of high school abroad as an exchange student, and it is then that I remember becoming truly skewed in my thinking about food and my body.

Scanning the orientation manual for my study abroad program, I read that many exchange students put on a little weight. This was stated rather matter-of-factly; I should not be alarmed, the guide read, if I were to gain 5 to 10 pounds in the course of my year abroad.

Already cognizant of my body as an entity that needed to be contained and monitored, I assured myself with great conviction that this would never happen. I would not, I promised myself, gain any weight while abroad, no matter how much buttered bread and fatty sausages were pushed upon me.

At orientation camp weeks later in what would become my home for the next 11 months, I relied on a narrow and ill-informed understanding of good nutrition when selecting food from the  buffet. Butter and margarine were out, I had decided, but chocolate was not. Cheese was to be used in moderation, but I was free to indulge in all the vegetables and fruits I desired.

I was ironically at a healthy weight at the time, somewhere in the normal to thin range as I had been all of my life. A fellow exchange student in fact decided that I was anorexic or otherwise too thin, and would often tell me to “eat more” and to “stop being so skinny.” I acted embarrassed, but I was secretly pleased. I could pass for an anorexic? For a being so ethereal as to not require plates and plates of food to feel satisfied? I felt for the first time what it was like to be admired for a limited appetite and body.

Living with my host family proved difficult with regard to food and eating. Although I was the smallest and thinnest member of the family, that did not keep my host father from making jokes about my seemingly too-large hunger.

You see, I had not known until this point that I hungered too much for pasta and meat and fruit and dairy. I had long been convinced that a “feminine” appetite was one rarely seen nor heard, but I had yet to consider that my own appetite was suspect. I was humiliated that my host father would say such things, and wished that I had the courage to tell him (politely, of course) to fuck off.

In addition, my eating habits were at odds with the rest of my host family. At home in Vermont, I was never hungry for breakfast, and would often return home after school starving. I would then eat whatever it was I desired, which often amounted to equal amounts of spinach, tofu and soba noodles.

In my host family, we ate three square meals a day, and snacking, save for a glass of juice and pretzels in the evening, was just not done. I learned to eat breakfast and to pack a lunch, but I could not unlearn my desire for snacks. Perhaps if I had not ruled out cheese and fattier lunch meats I would not have been hungry by 3 p.m., but I could not deny my craving for a banana or a biscuit.

I would often steal off into the city after school and buy myself something to eat. Homesick and lonely for close friends thousands of miles away, these afternoon snacks became more than physical nourishment to me, but emotional nourishment as well.

I remember Hanukkah of that year. It was 2004, and my mom had sent a package of dreidels and M & M’s so that I could share with my host family a fun holiday tradition.

The package arrived on a particularly trying day. My host family had accused me of something or other, and I retreated to my room crying, wanting so badly to feel my mother’s arms around me.

Before I knew what I was doing, I had ripped open the bag of M & M’s and begun shoveling them into my mouth. I had never done this before, never “binged” in any sense of the word, and I felt some distance to the sobbing girl consuming chocolate at a rapid and uncomfortable pace.

I didn’t eat the entire bag, only a heaping handful or two, and I had at the time yet to attach guilt to such an action. I put the bag away, suddenly imbued with a sense of calm, and went about the rest of my day.

Weeks later, again frustrated with my host family and desiring above all things the love and affection of my family, I stuffed my face with syrupy waffles to the point of being uncomfortable. Feeling at once guilty and disgusting, I ran to the bathroom, where I tried unsuccessfully to throw up said waffles.

I have made myself “get rid of” food on perhaps 10 occasions since my year abroad, but I have never mastered the destructive and painful art of bingeing and purging. Still, I know what it is like to hate and to love food, and to wish so desperately that you might relearn a normal way of being around something as seemingly harmless as a sandwich.

I could say so much more about my struggles with food as an exchange student and in the years since then, but I find that is emotionally exhausting to rehash the painful emotions I often felt during my year abroad. I don’t think that spending that year at home in Vermont would have saved me from the ups and downs with food and exercise I have experienced in the past six years, but I wonder how things might have different, had I not been admonished for my appetite. Had I not struggled so much to find my place within that family and within that life.

To be continued in future posts.

Advertisements