Food and I have been on a difficult road for most of my life. It wasn’t until recently that I tried starting to become more present and really appreciate the taste of the ingredients and different layers of food. Right after I opened Mary Lee Kitchen, I put a lot of pressure on myself, (and still do), to know every flavor that is out there. To be honest, my palate is not very mature, and I blame a lot of this on how I grew up.
There was always a sense of food scarcity in our household throughout the week. My father was usually always on a diet, so Monday through Thursday we didn’t have much food in the house. Canned tuna was stacked in the pantry next to a few cans of dried beans and bagged cereal. Red delicious apples, iceberg lettuce, eggs, milk, and a few containers of yogurt made up the contents of the refrigerator.
But, on the weekends, it was a different story.
Weekends were the time to go wild: soda with most meals, pizza night Fridays, donuts on Saturday mornings,, and grilled cheese on Sundays.
This unbalanced system of abundance versus scarcity confused me. I wasn’t sure how to handle times when I had abundance on days that weren’t the permitted “pig out” day, nor did I know how to handle having a smaller lunch than my friends during the week. So, out of this confusion, I kept my eating secret.
During elementary school, I would hide my food from my friends by eating pieces of my lunch out of its brown paper bag, never showing them what my mom had packed that day. My lunch would normally be something like a water bottle, a piece of fruit, a turkey or ham sandwich, and some chips. But compared with the brightly colored packaging of the Lunchables that surrounded me on either side of the lunch table, my food looked and felt sad and boring. Looking back on it, my parents did pack me healthy food, but I was ashamed of the way the food looked–and, perhaps more pressingly, the way my body looked.
I would leave lunch ashamed and hungry because I didn’t think I should be seen eating. I didn’t want people to know that the “big” (5’10” by 8th grade) girl actually ate food, because food made you bigger and if you ate a lot, that meant you must want to be bigger. I was already big enough.
So, more times than not (especially once I had reached middle school), I’d come home from school feeling famished from hardly eating. I felt terribly alone, unpopular, and not beautiful or thin enough for what it seemed the world’s standards were. When I couldn’t take it anymore, these feelings drove me to eating as much as I could as fast as I could and then…making myself sick. I began binging and purging.
This started when I was in 7th grade and lasted until I was a sophomore in college. Purging felt scary. There was fear that I would get caught that mostly came from the idea ingrained in me that women are to look a certain way and to eat certain things (i.e., mostly lettuce based meals)–and above all else, never binge on food; especially sweets. A voice would run through my head saying, “you can only eat salads, vegetables, and limit the amount of food you eat, because women are supposed to be petite.”
So, in public, I would eat bits and pieces of food, just like I did during my elementary school lunches.
My food habits were horrible. My feelings were all over the place. It didn’t help that I compared myself to my older sister. She had better hair, a thinner waist, and straighter teeth. Food would fill the emptiness inside, and then purging would help me feel like the food wasn’t actually being ingested.
And while all this was going on, was also a high school athlete, which added even more pressure to look a certain way. I tried to keep up my horrible eating while doing my conditioning for athletics, but my energy was low, and my performance wasn’t as good as it could have been.
Finally, when I was in high school, I let my mom know what was happening and she and I both agreed that I needed a break, so I quit my athletic activities my junior year. My purging continued, but it was not as often. The thing that didn’t slow down was my binging.
When I went off to college, my binging was at the highest it has ever been. I hated my school, cried often, and didn’t know where I belonged. Food was my safety blanket. I’d drive from fast food place to fast food place and gorge on food in my car while tears rolled down my cheeks.
It finally sank in that sadness and shame were the leaders of most of my food decisions, and it was time for me to seek help. Fortunately, I was able to get into therapy where I learned to vocalize my feelings instead of hide them.
Through therapy I recognized that binging had been an unintentionally learned behavior which I adopted from watching my parents. Therapy helped me to recognize that binging had been a part of my upbringing, and taught me a new system: to say what I was feeling at that moment, instead of just pushing my feelings down with food.
This means that I have to ask myself a few questions like, “am I actually hungry?” or “do I really want this [insert food item]?” It took me a long time to redirect my thinking and implement it into my life. When I first began this retraining, I slipped up often and used a lot of justifying language– “it’s okay to eat that, because I worked out” or “I only ate salad, so I can pig-out”.
I want to tell you that it only took a few months of this practice and that I never binge, but that is not my reality. Even this week, my life is very stressful, so I’ve used food as a comforter instead of something that gives me energy and health. I am trying to be honest with myself–I struggle and am exhausted and still want my body to look a certain way. I also know that I want to make sure that I am healthy, love myself, and enjoy my life.