eating disorder

Health as Shame

A picture of a black woman looking directly at the camera

The first time I had a negative thought about my body was around the age of 10. By the time I was thirteen, I was already skipping meals to be skinny. By the time I was fifteen, I took pride in not eating for days. At 31, I find myself still battling my body image. I have spent two decades of my life battling my body. I am always too fat. 

Finally, I have reached a point where I realize that the problem is not my body. The problem is the way I have been socialized to look at my body. It has been ingrained in me for so long that in order to be beautiful, I had to skinny. Not just any kind of skinny though. I had to be the kind of skinny that was still voluptuous. You know the kind of women’s body I am talking about. The big boobs, big ass, small waist, flat tummy and just the right amount of neck skinny. Oh! I almost forgot to add that you must also have that space between your thighs. Thinking about it know, I feel like the ideal woman’s body is like the specs for a car or a machine. It is not human. It is not real.

After another attempt at dieting to shrink my body and the inevitable mental health deterioration that accompanied it, I am putting in my resignation letter. I am not interested in dieting anymore. I am not interested in restriction anymore. For those who feel the need to talk to me about health, please don’t. 

I have found that the conversation about health is often a euphemistic discussion on shame. How can a woman who does not have the criteria listed in the ideal female body specs not have shame? I have  to admit that this shame is not reserved for the fat. In many ways, it extends to skinny women as well. How many times have we publicly discussed a woman’s body because she looks like she doesn’t eat.

We have begun to talk about shame much in the same way we talk about sex. We don’t talk directly about it but we do talk about it in other ways.  Just like we judge women for the number of men they have sex with, we judge women for the amount of food they are eating. And the problem is that we never allow women to be right. Whoa! You have only dated one guy. A woman should never have sex with more guys than she can count on one finger. Just like a woman should never eat more than salad on a date. A woman must never talk about having a libido just like a woman must never talk about her love of food. 

Of course, there are exception to every rule. In the health world, a woman can talk about her love of food as long as she meets the specs. A woman like Giada De Laurentis or Nigella Lawson can talk about food because they meet the specs. Every other woman must respect her “health” and avoid food like the plague.

Clean eating has become akin to pursuing new virginity. Sugar is universally reviled. Fat is still the demon. Unless you are on the ketogenic diet, in which case you worship at the altar of fat. The point is that diets have become a way of capitalizing on our shame. Just follow these few rules, and you will feel superior to all others. If you fall off the wagon, shame on you. You just need to try harder. Just think of how much better you would feel at 110 pounds in that bikini. Nobody ever says anything about how sad it feels not to be able to eat full-fat ice-cream.

Please, give me a moment here while I talk about how much I hate diet foods. I particularly detest the new generation of diet food like 50 calories a pint ice-cream that taste absolutely nothing like ice cream. Between diet books, diet foods, cult workout plans, the waist trainers and the detox teas, our culture of shame has spurned a whole industry that churns out millionaires by burning through our wallets.

After thinking critically about it, I have decided that I no longer want to be part of this cult. I have no more money to give to anything new diet ideas. There is no more time to contemplate if I should try the Whole 30 or keto my life. I am in transition out of this cycle of shame, disappointment, and self-destruction.

 I recognize that I have let food become a way of constantly shaming myself.

Don’t get me wrong; I still have lots of shame that I have to work through. The big difference between me of today and me of yesterday is that I recognize that I have let food become a way of continually shaming myself. I acknowledge that I have become a hateful critic of my own body. If I am sincere, sometimes I project my own shame to other people.

The work that lies ahead for me is to learn to silence the shame. I have started doing for myself in small ways. I am eating the foods that I find interesting instead focusing on restriction as the path the health. Part of recognizing the shameful way I have been relating with food is being able to call out myself when I am using food as a mechanism to get out of boredom or soothe anxiety. This work is tasking. However, I accept the tasking nature because it is never going to be easy to dismantle decades worth of shame and process.

As I get through my transition though, I don’t know what the other side of the shame-filled diet culture looks like or feels. I know that there has to be a better way than loathing my own body. 

Tomato Eggplant Sauce in a black cast iron pan.

The Problem With Self-Care

Self-care is an affirmation that my needs are validI am a big proponent of self-care. For me,self-care is an affirmation that my needs are valid. However, self-care is now big business in the consumerist culture that as American as apple pie. The big business of self-care is one that I find both intriguing and appalling. The problem with self-care business is that everyone is not allowed to care for themselves.

This whole thought about self-care as a business came about because the New York Times Magazine published a profile called ” The Big Business of Being Gwyneth Paltrow.” As the title implies, the article explores the ascendant of Ms. Paltrow as a purveyor of self-care via her Goop brand. Reading this article made me think about my college days when she first started pushing her newsletter out to the masses. There is a recipe I got from her that is still one of my favorite recipes. It is a plain apple and broccoli soup that is finished with lots of lemon juice. It is very similar to this recipe I found on the Goop blog for broccoli and arugula soup.

Anyway, let get back to the point of I was trying to make. Following the writer’s story about the trajectory of Ms. Paltrow’s brand as well as the rise of the self-care industry was interesting to me. One of the things that I love about the growth of self-care as an acceptable form of self-love is that it has empowered women to demand time for themselves. Time to read. Time to sleep. Time to do yoga. However, the rise of self-care as an industry as also meant that many underprivileged people are left feeling like they are failing at life.

One of the things that Ms. Paltrow talks about in the profile is how crucial it is for her to create an aspirational brand. A brand that is based on utilizing her privileged access to wealth that allows her to be able to create the kind of self-care she wants. While I do not begrudge her her privilege, I find it a bit naive not to have a conversation about how many women are not allowed to care for themselves properly. Forget about money because money is a huge barrier that I can’t possibly talk about all the ways it harms the underprivileged. Even when we do have the funds to create opportunities for ourselves, many women, especially black women are not allowed to care for themselves.

As a black plus size woman, one of my problems with self-care is the feeling of being unheard and unwelcome when I want to care for myself. One of the radical acts of self-care that I have done in the past few months is seeking help with my body. I went to the doctor, and I felt unheard and misunderstood. It was like everything I said boiled down to one thing; weight loss. I feel tired begat a lose the weight response. I am gaining weight at an unprecedented rate begat a eat less comment. Knowing I have a past eating disorder begat a sign up for weight loss clinic from my doctor. Through all of the emotional trauma of feeling as if my doctor intentionally did not want to acknowledge my mental health as a legitimate part of my well-being, I kept caring for myself by demanding a proper diagnosis and appropriate help.

Then I sign up for the gym, and I feel like my plus size body is being judged. One of the most uncomfortable parts of going to the gym for is the judgment. I can’t complain about the quality of service. Since I am fat, I can’t possibly understand how gyms work. I remember one time I went to use a treadmill at the gym and realized that the speed off. I couldn’t complain because it would have turned into “you are out of shape” instead of looking at the machine. This was despite the fact that, at that point, I had consistently been running for years so I knew what my body could or could not do. So fatphobia is another way that I am being denied full access to self-care.

I have found that relaxing experiences can become traumatic experiences because of my status as a black plus size woman.

As a black woman, I am treated with suspicion when I go into self-care service providers like nail salon. One manicurist refused to paint my nails until I had paid her. No one else had to pre-pay before getting nail color applied. One of my favorite things to do is to grocery shop. I love looking at new foods on the shelves and thinking about ways to use them. Even that has gotten ruined because I noticed that I was being followed at grocery stores. Apparently, I am not the right demographics for this particular store chain. Interestingly, I walk into stores, and I am not acknowledged because again not the right demographic. So even when I choose to self-care, the trauma that is inflicted on me in the process compounds the burden I am trying to offload.

I have tried to negate some of the problems with self-care. I now choose to self-care in ways that are centered around my safe space. I still like to explore new foods by reading food blogs and shopping online. My choice to learn how to sew and make my clothes has turned making into a form of meditation for me. I have also started exploring ways that I can bring yoga into my house.  I am a big fan of Yoga With Adriene. This means I am constantly looking for ways to create a yoga space in my apartment for private practice.

While I sometimes wish that I could go into cool spaces and be at ease enough to enjoy the experience, I can’t take chances. Instead of giving up on caring for myself, I am centering my self-care practice in my safe space. I am also excited that more women of colors and plus-size women are creating experiences for my demographic because of the trauma that comes from the general population.

Choosing Sobriety

a : sparing in the use of food and drink : abstemious b : not addicted to intoxicating drink c : not drunkThe word ‘sober’ and I have an interesting relationship. Sobriety, it seems to me, is an after effect of a bout of alcoholism or substance abuse. What then do you call someone who has never drunk alcohol or battled other forms of substance abuse?

I started thinking about this recently because I was reading a thread on Reddit about sobriety.  The thread was from someone who had never drunk alcohol because they felt that they were predisposed to alcoholic through family history. Many commenters challenged this position saying that “How can you know if you have never tried it?” This had me thinking about my own relationship with alcohol.

At 31, I have never had a drink of alcohol. When people ask me why I don’t drink, I often point to my Muslim faith as my reason. However, I feel like for me that is sort of cop-out from telling people my story. The truth is I don’t drink because one of the things I learned really early about eating disorders is the co-relation to substance abuse.

I can trace back my eating disorder to the age of thirteen while living in Lagos. Thinking back now, I truly started recovering from my eating disorder in
my twenties. Of course, in my teens, I had moments when the eating disorder released it grips on me. Then, I would have a relapse. It was both an emotional and physical rollercoaster. It was in my late twenties when I really got to a place mentally that I could break that cycle and really focus on nourishing my body.

During this whole eating disorder battle, I chose not to drink because I realized instinctively that if I drank, I had the pre-conditions in place to become an addict. Why? Part of my deep struggle with my eating disorder included depression. There were times when I felt so low that I would have given anything not to feel that way. I would have turned to alcohol or any other substance to help fill the void of feeling lonely and dejected. Even when I wanted to escape feeling lost, I knew I wanted to do in a way that led me to health. I did not one to trade one struggle for another.

I choose to be sober because I recognize that part of living a healthy life means feeling painI choose to be sober because I recognize that part of living a healthy life means feeling pain. There are days when I feel so low now and I sit with my pain. I name my pain and sit with it. Part of my process includes nurturing my body, my mind, and spirit. By embracing my pain, I embrace my humanity.

Certainly, many people might challenge the choice for me to say I am sober. I can also confirm a level of awkwardness that comes with using the word ‘sober’ to describe myself. However, it is clear to me that I need to stop dismissing my conscious choice not to drink alcohol or abuse substances. While many people can make the decision to imbibe and have a good relationship with alcohol, recognizing the potential pitfall in making such a choice is worthy of acknowledgment on my part.