“You look at food like you despise it.”
I was fourteen, and it was a month after my release from my sudden hospital stay following my diagnosis of anorexia. I was curled up in a chair at my kitchen counter, shivering and small despite the mid-summer heat. In front of me sat a full display of food: rice, meat, a glass each of orange juice and chocolate almond milk, vegetables, fruit with peanut butter, and, most terrifyingly, a luxurious pouring of olive oil over everything.
My mother, exhausted from days of mealtime battles, continued, “I can see it in your eyes every time you eat.”
Not only could she see it in my words, I’m certain, she could see it in my actions. At this time in my life, food was my greatest enemy. Every mealtime was a struggle, a forced submission to the doctors and experts that had suddenly claimed control over my life in the coup d’etat that was my diagnosis. I would scream. I would cry. I would pour juice into houseplants when no one was looking. I would plead with my parents that I could never eat all that they wanted me to, sometimes for hours, but always ending with my reluctant consumption of now long-cold food.
It was during this time in my life that my therapist told my parents she thought I had a legitimate fear of food.
I understand how confusing this sounds to someone who has never struggled with disordered eating. Food is good, food is fun, food is vital to our survival. We use food as celebration and reward. We look forward to holiday dinners and birthday treats. We express our love for others with homemade meals and celebratory restaurant visits. How could someone literally fear it?
And to a certain extent, the fear of food I experienced in my disorder (and countless others do every day) is irrational. As humans, we’re hardwired to do what it takes to survive. On some level, we’re still just animals, looking to live and to do whatever it takes to do so. The idea that I was able to override all the signals and warning signs my body was sending me to eat with an outright refusal to do so defies all rational logic.
But mental illness isn’t rational.
I know that’s an ugly term, and one that’s still hard to paint over myself, but there’s no denying that I was a very sick person- my brain was sick. And while my parents and peers looked on with confusion and exhaustion, wondering why I couldn’t just eat and get it over with already, my brain was twisting my perception and understanding of reality and consequence.
However, to shrug off this fear of food as simply illogical mental illness would be a disservice to all those suffering from it.
The same deep, emotional connotations of food that make it a joyous part of our culture (celebration, connection, reward) can very easily lead to a toxic relationship in the right circumstances. You see, eating disorders aren’t really about the food or the dress size or the number on the scale: they’re about what all those things symbolize, and how all those things allow us to channel our fears, anxieties, and doubts.
It’s a common misconception that people with eating disorders are simply vain and overly obsessed. In fact, this stereotype was so deeply engrained within me that up until I was diagnosed with mine, I thought I couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder because I’m not any of those things. I thought eating disorders were for ballerinas and models, not bookish girls who didn’t even know how to apply eyeliner.
No, my eating disorder didn’t come from wanting to look a certain way. Not really. It came from a deep desire for control.
I had just entered high school, and enrolled in an engineering program that simply didn’t speak to my interests or my talents. My mother, who had been a stay-at-home-mom for the majority of my life, was suddenly working from before I woke up to after I went to bed. I was heavily involved in a sport I no longer loved that sucked up all my time. And although none of these things are great traumas or hardships, they all culminated together with my anxiety and depression to form a great sense of loneliness and being lost.
Food, though, food I could control.
No matter how lost I felt in all other aspects of my life, I had complete control over what went on my plate and in my mouth. My body, which had once been organically created by whatever my family happened to stock the pantries with and whatever I sport I was playing at the time, was now being seemingly miraculously changed by my actions. Calories and grams and macronutrients were my new tools of choice to generate change in my life that I could now control.
At first, the control didn’t seem so sinister. I cut out junk food and sweets, which my friends and family applauded me for. Then I cut out meat, then eggs and fish, then all other animal products including honey and white sugar refined with animal bone. I convinced myself that I was embracing veganism as a way to save the animals and the earth, but deep down my intentions were not so pure. In truth, I was becoming terrified of eating anything not within my ever-narrowing list of “safe” foods, which eventually dwindled to nothing but fruit and vegetables.
At this point, there was no joy in food. There was fear, there was desperation, there was anxiety, but there was no joy.
What they say about things having to get worse before they get better is true. Recovery worsened my relationship with food for a period of time, simply because my control had been completely stripped from me. I was told what, when, and how to eat. I was watched nearly all the time. I couldn’t exercise, or even walk beyond what was necessary. And while there was some tiny semblance of relief in the surrender, it was completely overwhelmed by the panic of now having absolutely zero control over my life.
Today, I have found joy in food again. I look forward to preparing and sharing meals with loved ones. I get excited about new foods instead of fearing them. I enjoy sweets in balance with more nourishing foods. But sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe that I’ve come this far, let alone understand how it happened.
I can’t pinpoint a single moment in time where my relationship with food changed; rather, it was an evolution over time. But what I think the greatest change came from was my pursuit of other, healthier ways to gain a sense of control and purpose over my life.
In all honestly, that’s the magic of the yoga in my story. It’s not about the chaturangas or the handstands or the backbends. It’s about the breath, the surrender to the Universe, and the realization of the power that existed within me the entire time.
A few days after I came home from the hospital, I’d tried to do a single pushup, only to find myself even weaker than I’d thought. The damage I’d done to my body was suddenly tangible in that moment, and I felt completely useless not only physically, but as a member of society and this world. But the first time I did a chaturanga without using my knees, I nearly cried right there in the middle of a hot and sweaty class. And the first time I floated up into an arm balance I felt the weight of the world lift a little off my shoulders. And the first time I taught a class…I didn’t give a fuck about the size of my thighs or the roundness of my belly or the fullness of my cheeks.
Because I suddenly realized that true control, and true autonomy, comes from within; and from chasing the things in life that light us up and allow us to reveal the brightness shining within us.
The lessons I learned from my teachers and on my mat from yoga, like mindfulness, nourishment, and gratitude, began to spill into my diet along with every other facet of my life as time went on. Slowly, ever so slowly, I found myself coming from a space of love and gratitude instead of fear and scarcity. Food began to become a way to fuel my practice and allow myself the energy to keep up with the goals I was chasing: it simply wasn’t possible to maintain my practice, teach multiple times throughout the week, as well as try to make it through high school without the proper fuel. I had to decide between wrapping myself in the security blanket of my old eating habits in isolation, or escaping my self-prescribed stagnation in pursuit of something greater.
In this realization, my focus and attention shifted to how food made me feel- not about how it made me look or how “pure” it was. I found that wholesome, hearty foods I’d once shunned as “fattening” or “too calorie dense” were some of the foods that made me feel my best: fat-rich avocados, carb-dense sweet potatoes, protein-packed fish and meat became staples in my diet. And as the variety of food on my plate began to expand, so did my ability to keep up with my expanding interests: no longer was I struggling to maintain energy throughout 12-to-14 hour days or skipping out on things I wanted to do out of exhaustion. There was a newfound abundance and gratitude in the way I ate and viewed food.
Food didn’t seem like the enemy anymore. Maybe, just maybe, it was my ally.
Once I cleared the hurdle of simple fear of food, I was able to continue evolving my relationship with it in nature and spirit. Heavily influenced by the works of Michael Pollan, I developed an appreciation for the cultural and emotional significance food has in our culture. While eating disorders thrive in secrecy and isolation, I was finding it easier and easier to prepare and share meals with those I loved- and much to my surprise, I found joy in it.
I even began to find joy in treats and desserts, things I’d once deemed as “unnecessary” and scary. It was a revolutionary breakthrough for me to suddenly realize that food itself does not have morality. Food is a not a person, it cannot be “good” or “bad.” Food is food. And while packing your diet with nutrient-rich and healing foods is always a good idea, there is definitely room and space for foods that don’t necessarily make us physically healthier.
Because food isn’t just a list of nutrients and calories: it’s connection, it’s pleasure, it’s nourishment for the soul. When we center our relationship with food around a spirit of abundance and joy, we’re able to not only improve our physical health, but our mental wellbeing as well.
Eating with abundance means embracing variety. Eating with abundance means expressing gratitude for the multitude of fresh food available to us. Eating with abundance means appreciating food for its symbolism and power. And eating with abundance means not thinking it has to be so serious all the damn time.
We live in a culture that makes food easy to view as the enemy. Food is seen as something that makes us fat and ugly and worthless, and something we must deprive ourselves of in order to be thin and pretty and worthy. Food is seen as something that must be consumed in guilt should it be viewed as indulgent. Food is seen as something that should be swallowed as quickly as possible as we rush from appointment to appointment, without taking a moment to appreciate and enjoy it.
You can change that. We can change that. It just takes time, a little bit of effort, and a willingness to embrace the idea that food isn’t out to get us: it serves to heal us.