An Affair with Food

*A soft warning before, I discuss ED’s and body dysmorphia – yey~

Perhaps the most toxic relationship I’ve had to date would be the one with, well me! Not my mental health or whatever, but the suit that I’ve been chilling in for the past twenty-five years, this thing I wear every day that somehow, despite the number of clothes I wear seems to always have cold fingers and toes. Anyway, to have a body, for me, meant that I was constantly poking and prodding at myself, drinking in media, staring in desire over girls smaller than me, thinner than me, prettier than me, and worrying, worrying, worrying, that this starvation for a different self, a body that I felt like I deserved, would never be a reality, because deep down I knew I didn’t deserve such a fantasy. To set goals meant there could be an achievement, but each time I got smaller I felt uglier, if I gained muscle I felt heavier if I dieted too heavily my skin sagged and my eyes sunk into blackened and blue hollowed cheeks. I scrolled through photos of emaciated models and felt conflicted. This was wrong, this was not healthy, this was not beautiful, and yet, I was envious of the way clothes hung off of them. There was something there, a small minute thought: destroy yourself. Destroy yourself for a better, happier self. 

Before I came to Korea, my parents expressed their worry about beauty standards and how, with so many girls who were so small, and with a culture known for foregrounding presentation, I might feel the need to adhere to this and deprive myself of the things I needed to live. I waived their concern and promised that I would be okay. I was well aware of what my body was capable of and what would happen if I pushed myself too hard. For the first time in my life, I felt, during this conversation the summer before I left, I was in control. I ate healthily for the most part, occasionally ate disgustingly greasy food when I craved it and treated myself to sweets when my body asked – I was fine. 

But, I worried. I constantly worried. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t worry about what I ate. No matter what food I put in my mouth in the back of my mind I counted calories and planned workouts for the following day as damage control for allowing myself any kind of enjoyment. When I was younger, eating came after I worked out, whether it was through track, soccer, or training, food was presented to me as fuel and nothing more. Before cardio: pasta, after practice: protein/dark meat, if I didn’t work out: lean meats and fish. After a tournament or meet, I was treated to fast food or something high in carbs like pancakes or Mexican food. Without realizing I was linking these food groups in my mind as things to be had only after the proper physical exertion. I started to justify junk foods as well. I had a soccer tournament so I can enjoy a hamburger. I burned 2000 calories at today’s training so I can have ice cream. I ran 5k this morning so I can enjoy dinner at a restaurant tonight. 

Then I quit soccer and track. I ate as I regularly did and gained weight semi-quickly. Not an extreme amount as my mom cooked healthy meals (apropos to her own weight loss), but enough to make me pause in the mirror one day after showering and realize I needed to do something to get rid of the extra fat lining my stomach. My clothes were starting to cling to me a bit and I hated it. I read about a cleansing drink that actresses and models often drank before shoots or the red carpet, that consisted of honey, cayenne pepper, lemon, and garlic. Every time my stomach growled, I made this drink to push aside my cravings, and slowly, the fat disappeared leaving me pale, cold, and always exhausted. I binged when I couldn’t take it anymore, spent days making up for it by pushing food around my plate at dinner, trashing the lunches I brought to school, and lying awake in bed as my stomach groaned and ate itself. I convinced myself I was happy. I was nearly my goal weight; I had to be.

In university I continued this same mode of eating then not eating, calorie counting, binging – it was irreversible and my appetite suddenly became insatiable. My obsession with food resulted in the judgment of others who dared to eat anything more than me. At the time I told myself that it was pity I held for these people, but now realize it was a fit of ugly jealousy. I hated that I couldn’t let myself enjoy a single meal fully, and resented the ease at which everyone else around me did. In the university cafeteria I would stay in the salad bar area, occasionally getting a piece of chicken breast and more often than not stared at the line for burgers, grits, fried chicken, cornbread – anything slathered in oil- and dreamt of what it would be to be a sixteen-year-old boy going through a growth spurt. Over the years I realized I lacked control when I ate with others, so slowly I began to make excuses to eat my meals alone. By my senior year, I ate most of my meals by myself during the week since I had developed a bit of an inability to eat around certain people, and if I ate alone, most importantly, I could control my portions without question. Better still, no one would say anything if I didn’t eat a lot. Fake concern came most adoringly from boys who said disgusting remarks about how they loved how I kept myself in shape and pretty for them; I shiver to think that I thought that was love.

Throughout my college years, I started to lose control of my cravings. It didn’t help that my roommates often had a lot of sugary food around, making it nearly impossible for me to ignore it. During my senior year, in the midst of a quite restrictive diet, I started allowing myself one day a week where I could break my diet and eat whatever I wanted from outside; whether it be a sandwich and cookie from Panera Bread or a chicken sandwich with fries from Chick-Fil-A. Slowly, I started to order more, until I was able to consume the amount of food three people post-marathon would be able to process. I would eat until my stomach couldn’t hold anymore. It was almost impressive. My cheat days started to spill into the week and then one day, when I was stressed about job hunting, I looked around at the empty boxes of food I had shoved down my throat and was so disgusted that I sat in the bathroom for an hour, where I tried something awful, then inevitably, got rid of everything. Slowly over the course of the year, I began to do this more and more. When I lost control, I escaped into porcelain; perhaps my thinking was to show that I could be entirely in control of myself – I can erase the mistakes, watch me.

I wished, beyond anything, that this body I was confined to could be as easy to leave as anything else in my life. I felt that I was at a loss to win, and this inability to render my control left me as lonely as ever. I felt lonely especially because I couldn’t talk to anybody about it. If I tried I was met with rolling eyes and misunderstandings – you are beautiful, you are skinny, you are perfect the way you are – but every time I saw myself the reflection that looked back at me watched me with disdain, and worse still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was never, and would never be enough for myself. 

To this day I still have trouble eating in front of people (save for a few individuals now). Whether I show it or not I am inevitably uncomfortable when going out to eat, always trying to eat less than those around me like it’s some kind of triumph. I try to eat less when going out to eat just to help my guilt later, but it’s a learning process – it always is. These habits of saving face I feel can partly be confused with vanity. Posting photos of food, taking self-indulgent pictures, creating TikTok videos winking and dancing in front of the camera, it may be vanity for some, but God, sometimes I just want the world to be quiet and stop looking down on those who wanted to simply document their confidence for a few seconds – the people who sat down, edited something, and thought, damn I look really good here, f*ck everyone, I’m posting it.

So these days, I continue my journey of figuring out my relationship with food, which involves a lot of cooking at home, pilates in the morning, occasionally calorie counting, and treating myself to one or two bakery items a week. At some point I started to see the change of eating clean; consuming mostly vegetables and fruit with things like tofu started to give me more energy throughout the day, it left my face slimmer and unbloated from excess salt. I found that if I work out in the morning I metabolize my food better in the afternoon. If I treat myself only occasionally to have sweet things, it makes it that much more special to sit and enjoy a book with it on my days off. While sometimes I think others believe I think about controlling these habits too much, I kind of have to at this stage or I’ll fall off the deep end. I have to control these things for the sake of myself. To ignore the guilt of eating food is difficult still, but slowly, I’m trying to find that life is more enjoyable when enjoying good food. I think there’s a Ratatouille quote somewhere in there.

So the point here was not to elicit any kind of sympathy from anyone – this is how it’s been for me for longer than I can really remember, I’m just trying to finally put to paper this thing about me. I’ve accepted it, and I’m day-by-day, figuring out what works for me. I think it’s impossible to tell people to ignore what the media says beautiful is, to stop comparing oneself to another – there’s just no way to get rid of the toxicity of believing the grass is always greener elsewhere. If, if, if… is it possible to entirely get rid of that voice? I’m skeptical. Or maybe I need to start meditating or something…

There are no pro tips here. There are no quick easy fixes, no number of calorie counting applications or praise in the world to make this anxiety dissipate forever. There are only the small things. A pretty photo, a satisfactory meal where the vegetables are cooked perfectly somehow, an easier day without temptation, a mirror where I don’t look away or count the parts of myself that are wrong – if I continue to thaw, it will be because I am taking steps to deprive myself of triggers that lead to hurtful behavior if I continue to thaw it will be because I am feeding myself the food I need not just the food I want; if I continue to thaw it means that I have had a plethora of good days. 

So, to everyone else out there battling some kind of body issues, I feel ya and it sucks. Some days you feel beautiful, other days, not so much, and that’s okay. 

But, if need be, go post a photo of some yummy food that you ate with someone you care about, enjoy a dessert, take a walk after because the weather is nice, post another mirror selfie because you look hot today – you only have this body, here and now, and I think we owe to ourselves to do something kind for it every once in a while.

Anyway, have a happy Sunday~