Where it all begins, nobody knows.

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Yet I do know.

Sort of.

How my issues with food and body started, that is.

I was 3 or 4, standing in the kitchen after a lazy summer’s dinner on our screened-in porch. My sister was still a baby, my dad the breadwinner, and my mom a happy and (so I’d like to think) fulfilled stay-at-home mother, catering to the needs and attention spans of the ever-jolly Hannah, age 2, and myself, soft-spoken and introverted.

I stood then in the kitchen, bare feet planted on the linoleum floor that never quite shone, watching as mom and dad went through the motions of putting away the remainder of the meal. Potatoes, fresh corn, steamed broccoli, chicken– it was a typical weekday meal, a medley of wholesome flavors and textures heightened with a shake of the garlic salt my parents couldn’t do without.

Hands at my side, wearing my summer uniform of cotton T-shirt and shorts, I experienced suddenly a feeling more painful than any I had felt before. The feeling was not a physical pain, not the stabbing hurt of a skinned knee or a stubbed toe, but rather something deeper. It was, I imagine, in a way akin to a newborn crying out for nourishment or for warmth; an integral need presenting without warning.

I felt this hurt as it spread from finger to finger, from limb to limb. It coursed powerfully through me as I stood there, paralyzed by its resolve.

In that moment, I understood what I had hitherto not known– that I, Sarah, was an ugly, awful being. “Fat” had yet to be incorporated into my vocabulary, but I felt at once too much. Experiencing in that moment the sensation of my flesh and body, I felt profoundly too “too”– too big, too wide, too expansive.

I was at the time of normal size, having grown from a narrow 5-lb. baby to a round toddler, all cheeks and thighs, and subsequently into a gangly child with long, tapering fingers and toes. This revelation of being “too much” held little basis, it would seem, in reality. I was tall, yes, for my age, but neither my height nor weight would have met with anything more than a “normal” rating from my pediatrician.

Still, I experienced in that moment that painful “too”-ness, and desired suddenly to be small and helpless, once again at the mercy of my mother and father for all manners of care.

I remember looking then to my sister, absorbed in her play, and wishing to be like her. Two years, one month and eleven days younger than me, little Hannah was still dependent on my parents for most things. While mom and dad might still have prepared meals and outfits for me, Hannah remained the baby of the family, living in the perpetual land of “not knowing better.” I, I realized, did “know better,” and would from then on be counted on to apply maturity and learned wisdom to daily tasks. I had crossed the threshold from toddler to child, and there would be no turning back. I was a little adult now, for better or for worse, and I hated this.

I wanted to be small, and I wanted to be held. To be nurtured, to be reassured that I deserved, even as I reached the age of 4, of 5, of 6, to be loved as I had been at age 2, at 1, at six months.

This feeling did not last forever, its “too”-ness evaporating after a few minutes, and I soon forgot about it.

But the feeling returned the following year, again without warning, and the year after that. Uncomfortable and just as painful as that first time on a summer’s evening, the feeling would then disappear from whence it came, leaving me to wonder when it would strike again.

The beginning, perhaps, of my self-criticism? My self-loathing?

That’s the theory so far, folks.

As always, to be continued.

Lost and found: Enfin du prose!

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A bit of prose, inspired by something found. Warning: this is a pretty angry piece.

Digging through our spare bedroom, through the boxes of assorted crap that has built up over the years, I come across my agenda from my first year at Smith. It is beat-up, folded on its edges, and still it is familiar.

It is this thick book of dates and times that carried me through my first semester, from the first day of classes (“10:30-11:50: First-year seminar; 1-2:20: Introductory Macroeconomics”) to mid-October, when an appointment at Health Services results in involuntary medical leave, a factor, apparently, of an eating disorder they classify as anorexia nervosa.

I know the name, of course, have read endless tomes of personal struggle with the disorder, but never did I think the term would apply to me, at least in a clinical sense. No matter, the pink “reminder: you have an appointment” slip stares back at me from the day marked Friday, October 6th. It is held to the page with a single strip of Scotch tape, and I remember, suddenly, placing it there, asking the receptionist sweetly if I could snag a piece of tape to hold the note in place.

From Friday, October 6th we have Fall Break, a four-day reprieve from school and girls and dining hall-induced loneliness that I have looked forward to for quite some time. I spend the four days meeting questions about my weight and body with anger and discomfort; what am I to say? To acknowledge my receding flesh as a function of a concerted effort to lose weight would be humiliating, so I squirm and nod and shake my head, offering as little as possible in the way of a response. “Mom,” I say, with some urgency in my voice, “I’m going home, I’m tired.” This in reaction to a family friend, who questions point-blank whether I’ve a) lost weight (well, duh), and b) if such weight loss was healthy (well, fuck you).

Then I am back to Smith, to classes and to appointments with the school physician, a stooped, awful man who questions my capacity to stay in school with my so-called “eating disorder.” My days are parsed out, in my memory and in this neglected assignment book, into “presentation for psychology,” “study for French,” and activities for the various extracurricular activities I’ve taken on.

On October 15th, my grandmother, une Smithie ancienne of the Class of ’49, comes to visit, and we eat dinner at the local natural foods restaurant. The minimalist menu meets my orthorexic values, and those of my grandmother as well. We order twin portions of salmon and brown rice, a simple meal we could easily have crafted for ourselves at home, and for far less money. The early-evening light and hippier-than-thou staff does not make up the difference.

The salmon comes with a side salad, and I order, knuckles gripping the chair for support, the ginger-lime dressing. It is at the behest of the campus nutritionist that I eat my greens not bare but with this viscous dressing, a dribble of calories I would sooner do without. My grandmother, herself a master of restaurant substitutions and requests to “hold the fat,” asks instead for oil and vinegar, and on the side, s’il vous plait.

This query makes me furious. My grandmother is fully aware of the implications of my form and function, a fraction of the body I once inhabited, and yet she cannot still the disfunction of the rules and regulations that govern her eating. I watch her parse the round of rice into two, and remove, carefully, the basement layer of fat that rings the fish.

I explode. “How am I supposed to feed myself and commit to gaining weight when you can’t fucking be normal about food?”

I hate myself for the dressing, for not choosing vinegar and oil (on the side) as she did.

She is sheepish, contorts her shoulders into a shrug, and shares that she doesn’t want to “burst out” of her pants.

I hate, and let, for better or for worse, this hatred permeate the visit, offering reticent-at-best hugs and terse responses to her questions and comments. I stew this fury with barks and other outbursts, and decide, after careful contemplation, that I have gone about this gaining all wrong. It is too uneven, too haphazard, and I am profoundly uncomfortable with the pounds acquired.

I must re-commit, re-begin, by losing first the few I have collected and then, in perpetual re-mode, re-eat my self into an acceptable weight category.

Re-do, re-try, re-assemble: this is my life.

To be continued.

The personal statement: Take two

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A second crack at that dratted essay… comments/critiques very welcome!

On another note, I’m leaving tomorrow morning for the New England Chapter of the American College of Sports’ Medicine’s fall conference, titled “Confronting the Obesity Epidemic.” I’m driving down with my boss/unofficial advisor/nutrition prof. and taking full advantage of all of the wonderful lectures on obesity, Type 2 diabetes, etc., etc. So excited! I’ll be sure to share some conference happenings next week.

I grew up in a household devoid of television, potato chips and soda, and consequently learned to love reading and the copious soy and whole-grain products pressed upon me by my idealistic parents. Although I graciously partook in MTV, white bread and Fluffernutter when it was offered to me at friends’ houses, a largely media- and “junk food”-free diet left me open to possibilities and alternate pastimes that passed my classmates by, including learning by way of osmosis about a field that I now plan to pursue as a career—nutrition.

The goal of the practicum course that was my young study of nutrition was to soak up as much information as I could about the fascinating science of how the foods I was ingesting affected my body, and my textbooks the many Nutrition Action and Eating Well magazines littered around the house.

In biology class my senior year of high school, I delighted in learning the chemical structures of carbohydrates, proteins and lipids. The tangible connections to the information I had gleaned from years of reading about nutrition enthused me in a way that the chemistry I had learned two years prior had not. I might have succeeded at memorizing the disparate properties of protons, neutrons and electrons, but their intrigue held no candle to that of these food molecules staring back at me on the page.

Entering college a year later, I was cognizant of academic passions but had no succinct idea of what I wanted to major in. Nutrition remained an interest, but was not an option of study at my liberal arts college, beyond that is the survey course I enthusiastically enrolled in the spring of my first-year.

Studying nutrition for the first time in a classroom setting, I felt a passion for the material that I had never experienced for French or history. I needed no reminder to read the assigned textbook, reading ahead as I did for enjoyment when I had a spare moment. And while some of the information we were learning was not new to me, there seemed endless dimensions of knowledge to be explored within the broader topic of nutrition and health. The field was constantly evolving, the body of work constantly supplementing itself with new empirical studies that had the power to influence the health of myself and others around me.

I took the next year as a gap year, spending half of it working various jobs to save money for the rest of the year, which I planned to spend improving my French in Switzerland. During that first half of the year, I worked for the New England Grassroots Environment Fund as an intern investigating the topic of food security in my native Vermont, an opportunity that afforded me the chance to learn about a different aspect of food and wellness. Also during that time, I volunteered for local non-profit Food Works, helping teach nutrition in a community setting to low-income elementary school students.

Later that year, as I adjusted to life in Switzerland, I found myself drawn time and time again to the subject of nutrition. I visited the Nestle Museum of Alimentation in Vevey, enthralled by the images and artifacts of food products of yore. I read books in French and English about different philosophies of health and nutrition, my language skills growing alongside my understanding of human nutrition.

When it came time to return to the U.S. and to Smith that fall, I fell into line as a psychology major. I had always enjoyed the subject and it seemed in the absence of any formal nutrition program the “next best thing.” Still, I managed to tailor my projects in various classes to my passion for nutrition, completing for example a presentation on Binge-Eating Disorder for my Introductory Psychology class. And I of course continued to devour all the information I could about nutrition, grateful for the morsals I could find.

The summer after that second year, I again volunteered with Food Works, this time working with a program that helped teach single mothers to cook with local, seasonal ingredients. By the following fall, however, I had decided to pursue my academic interest in nutrition at full-force, and so began taking classes as pre-requisites for graduate study in the field. Again, while it was the rare lesson on lipid structures or on ghrelin and leptin that intrigued me, I was able to enjoy learning chemistry and biology for their own sake as well, knowing full well that mastery of such subjects would be necessary for my later study of nutrition.

It is also to be noted that I have throughout my years at Smith participated in several extracurricular activities that greatly informed and benefited from my interest in nutrition. As a staff writer, assistant features editor and later features editor at the school paper, I often pitched and continue to pitch pieces on nutrition and health-related topics simply because such topics interest me most. Whether it was interviewing my peers on their opinions of “pop nutrition” or writing a food piece on the cultural and culinary significance of apples, I loved every minute of it.

Also relevant to my passion for nutrition and health was my involvement since my first year at Smith in Active Minds, a chapter of the national student-led mental health advocacy and education group. In my work as Chair of the group, I felt particularly drawn to the subject of eating disorder awareness and education, and led an annual weeklong campaign on the topic. More recently in this same capacity, I organized a training for student facilitators to launch peer support groups at Smith, serving myself as a facilitator for the eating disorder support group. Such work allowed me to sample a clinical aspect of nutrition—the many psychological complications that can stem from the “simple” act of eating.

Now in my senior year, my interests within the field of nutrition remain varied. It is only in the past two years or so, however, that I have decided to meld a lifelong passion for writing with nutrition itself. I began a website this past June entitled “Grub first” that discusses my speculations as to what “good nutrition” is, as well as more personal thoughts on the often-conflicted relationship between women and hunger.

I also began this past summer writing for Examiner.com, a site that consists entirely of articles written by freelancers. As an “Examiner,” I have written on the subject of ever-compelling fad diets, nutritional philosophies like ayurveda and macrobiotics, as well as pieces examining approaches countries like Finland have used to reverse high obesity and heart disease mortality rates.

As for my professional aspirations, I have no doubt that I will use my writing skills to communicate on the subject of nutrition. I have dreams of working for a publication like Eating Well or Nutrition Action, but also of working for a company like Whole Foods or Nestle within their communications team. With an understanding of clinical nutrition thanks to my R.D. credentials, I will serve as an invaluable asset to such an organization.

Tufts’ Nutrition Communications degree is the only one in the country to offer such a specific focus, and will provide me with what I believe is the best preparation for a career of making the often incomprehensible (what is vitamin B12? Why do we need it in our diet?) comprehensible.

As my parents taught me so many years ago, the gift of good health is one that is often within our individual control, and it is my goal to share that lesson with others.

The personal statment

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Très busy this week, so I’m just going to share something I’ve already written. Below is a draft of my personal statement for graduate school. Note: this draft has been deemed “too personal” by two profs. I’ve shown it to, so it’ll be hacked to pieces and rewritten before I send it off anywhere. Enjoy, though. I kind of like it.

My parents, bless their leftist souls, never kept any soda in the house. Likewise for potato chips, frozen French fries and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. You see, both Mom and Dad had caught the burgeoning health food bug of the seventies, and had vowed never to let a sugary Twinkie infiltrate our wholesome diet.

This plan worked wonderfully for a while, until my younger sister and I discovered the saccharine goodness of bubble gum, and of my great-grandmother’s buttery sugar cookies. Not to mention how delicious a slice of greasy pizza fresh from the neighborhood franchise could be.

Regardless, the missionary zeal with which Mom and Dad pressed broccoli and soy upon us did leave a lasting impression, and we clamored unselfconsciously for tofu triangles and thick slices of homemade whole-wheat bread.

My grandmother, an avid subscriber to Nutrition Action and Tufts’ Health and Nutrition Letter, was also an active player in the familial efforts to keep my sister and I as healthy as possible. It was she who had swapped lean chicken breast for fatty cuts of beef when my grandfather had triple-bypass surgery, silencing his complaints with growing portions of kale and arugula. And it was she who designed an 8 1/2 x 11 grid intended for adornment with a glossy sticker whenever my sister and I ate a serving of grains (6-11), dairy (2-3) and so on.

Grandma’s sticker chart too had a limited run, as Sesame Street reruns and children’s books eventually proved more interesting than the momentary elation of earning a Bugs Bunny sticker. Still, the seed had been planted, and my sister and I grew up with an understanding that attaining good nutrition and health was within our power.

Fast-forward eight years. I am a naïve and ambitious 16, months away from embarking on a yearlong study abroad program in the Netherlands. Skimming through the welcome manual for soon-to-be exchange students, I am drawn to one bit of information in particular. I should not be alarmed, the guide reads, if I am to gain 5-10 pounds throughout my year abroad. Such an insignificant and temporary gain is to be expected, the manual continues, as I try new foods and new ways of living.

Single-minded and cognizant as a woman of a body that needs to be contained and monitored, I decide with the utmost certainty that this will never happen. I will not, I promise myself, gain any weight while abroad, no matter how much buttered bread and fatty sausage is shoved upon me.

At orientation camp months later in what would become my home for the next 11 months, I relied on a narrow and selective understanding of 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.

Although I was at the time of normal weight, an irrational fear of succeeding control of my weight and body followed me throughout that year, and would unfortunately for years to come. It would take alternating bouts of compulsive overeating and anorexia to find my way back to the sticker chart my grandmother had lovingly created for me, and to understand that the power to alter my eating habits for “the better” could easily go too far.

Despite the pain I experienced as I struggled with various incarnations of disordered eating and eating disorders, it is perhaps in part to their credit that I developed so great an appreciation for the power of food to help or to alternately harm. My own experience as a patient of a nutrition counselor also afforded me a glimpse into what exactly a career in clinical nutrition could look like.

My interests within the field of nutrition are varied, but it is only in the past year or so that I have decided to meld a lifelong passion for writing with nutrition itself. I began a website this past June entitled “Grub first” that discusses my speculations as to what “good nutrition” is, as well as more personal thoughts on the often-conflicted relationship between women and hunger.

I also began this past summer writing for Examiner.com, a site that hires freelance writers to write on a variety of subjects, from construction to health and fitness. As an “Examiner,” I have written on the subject of ever-compelling fad diets, nutritional philosophies like ayurveda and macrobiotics, as well as pieces examining public health approaches countries like Finland have used to reverse high obesity and heart disease mortality rates.

My writing for “Grub first” and for the Examiner is also informed by earlier work I have done for my college newspaper. As a Staff Writer, Assistant Features Editor and later Features Editor, I have frequently covered issues of health and nutrition simply because they are the topics that interest me most.

As for my professional aspirations, I have no doubt that I will use my writing skills to communicate on the subject of nutrition. I have dreams of working for a publication like Eating Well or Nutrition Action, both of which I am a longtime reader, but also of working for a company like Whole Foods within their communications team. With an understanding of clinical nutrition thanks to my R.D. credentials, I will serve as an invaluable asset to WF or a similar organization.

Tufts’ Nutrition Communications degree is the only one in the country to offer such a specific focus, and will provide me with what I believe is the best preparation for a career of making the often incomprehensible (what is vitamin B12? Why do we need it in our diet?) comprehensible.

As my grandmother taught me so many years ago, the gift of good health is one that is often within our individual control, and it is my goal to share that gift with others.

The times, they are a changin’

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I head back to school Monday. Classes begin Tuesday. Cue excitement and (equal parts) reluctance.

I’m excited to see friends I haven’t seen in months, decorate my new room (inherited from dear friend Janan) and be in beautiful Western Massachusetts again.

I’m reluctant to miss out on fall foliage in Vermont, as I have for the past three years, and to miss the annual Brin-B. Rosh Hashanah gathering.

Mostly, though, I’m not quite ready to leap back into the chaos and stress of the school year. This semester, I’ll be taking organic chemistry, a psychology course and biochemistry at nearby UMass. I’ll be taking the GRE’s in October and applying to graduate school. In addition, I’ll be working approximately eight hours a week for a nutrition professor, helping her do research and write a textbook on health and fitness psychology. I’m excited for all of the above, but know that I will be quite nostalgic for the relative ease of summer come a week from now.

The point of this post, however, is not to bemoan the hard work that is to come, but to warn y’all that I won’t be Grubbin’ it up nearly as often as I have been. I’ve decided to set my sights low and pledge to post once a week on here, and once on the Examiner. I’m not sure at this point if I’ll post on a designated day of the week, or if I’ll wait until the spirit moves me each week.

In any case, I hope that the transition into fall is going well for you all. I know they say spring is the season of rebirth, but I’ve always felt there’s something special about fall.

On the road again…

Just called to say…

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… Happy Birthday, Mom!

Love you!

A8DHAISDOJFOSD!!

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No, you read that right. The above just about sums up how I’m feeling right now, at 8:44 a.m. as I compose this post back “home” in Montpelier.

I am feeling mixed about being back in Vermont. I miss my housemates, my friends, the futon that was my bed for the past month and my early-morning routine of oatmeal, coffee and long, meandering walks through the villages and paths of Western Mass.

At the same time, I am happy to be hanging out with Sophie the Dog and the rest of the family again. We’ve (Sophie and I) got plans for a long, meandering hike through the Vermont woods today, so I’m looking forward to that. And the ‘rents and I have a nice Shabbos dinner in the works, so I can’t complain on that front.

The wonders and joys of Vermont aside, I am a NoHo gal at heart and will be happy to be Haymarketeering again in a month, this time flipping out on a regular basis about Organic Chemistry, grad. school and the GRE’s. Oh, what fun is in store!

Anywho… just wanted to post a quick something. I’ve got an Examiner piece in the works that should be up by tonight, and more rants and raves ready to be unleashed on the Interwebs, so keep checking in.

Enjoy the beautiful summer weather, wherever you are!

Heading out on a hike on a similarly beautiful day, age eight or so. Sorry for the poor image quality…

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