When I was 16, I wore a little white badge with a big red heart on it pinned to the front of my denim jacket. “I” said the word above the heart and “food” said the word underneath it. I didn’t mean it to be ironic – I wore it because even though I was anorexic, I really did love food. It was just that a broken part of my brain told me I loved it too much.
If my aesthetic sensibilities hadn’t moved on, I could happily wear that badge today. I can’t recall the last time I felt shame after eating, and this is coming from a woman who has £25 worth of raspberry sherbet (and no children) in her house. But more striking than my total recovery, I think, is that I’ve accidentally curated my life so as to forget that anyone feels guilt about food. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have my memory wiped of the existence of eating disorders, but until recently, I forgot that it is completely normalised for people to “feel bad” after a big dinner and say they’re “being good” when they pass on dessert.
I was reminded of the moral virtues many attach to eating when, in early April, I went on a girls’ trip for a friend’s birthday. Though I knew a couple of women there, there was an array of her friends and relatives I’d never met. I liked them all – a lot, immediately – but when we sat down for a big brunch buffet, I became an odd mixture of perturbed and petulant.
A stack of syrupy pancakes remained untouched as the conversation turned to exercise. “Running is the only way I can lose weight,” said a thin woman, while another opted for fruit because she was “being good”. A third – similar to myself in age, looks and, I thought, temperament – buttered a roll and said, “I shouldn’t eat so much bread.”
“WHY SHOULDN’T YOU?” I wanted to scream, “IS THERE SOMETHING I DON’T KNOW?” Is the bread poisoned? What will happen if you eat the bread? Please, confide in me. Is the bread cursed? When you eat the bread, will the underworld break open and its beasts pour out into the sky?
[See also: The dark world of anorexia]
Of course I said nothing (passing judgements on how others eat is not the antidote to them passing judgements on themselves). Instead, I remained oddly quiet as I deliberately loaded my plate with pastries and cheeses. “What do you do?” one woman said to me, kindly trying to invite me into the conversation. She already knew my profession, so I was confused. “Huh?” I replied. “For exercise?” she inquired with a tilt of her head.
I disliked the assumption that I, like all women, must do something; I disliked that the question hadn’t started instead with “Do you…” But I was also annoyed because I’ve recently started going to the gym after being diagnosed with high cholesterol (so committed am I to not attaching negative value judgements to eating that I wear this diagnosis like an “I heart food” badge of honour. Sorry, but it is an accomplishment for a former anorexic).
“Oh, I use the elliptical,” I said, even though I desperately wished I could say “I do nothing!” and see how she responded. I was growing childish, feeling as if going back for plate after plate of food somehow made me a revolutionary. In hindsight, I was being hypocritical. As an anorexic I had felt superior for not eating, now I was feeling superior for eating. I was attaching value judgements to food just as much as the women around me.
It wasn’t right to feel such moral righteousness in response to their moral salad-ness. After all, these were normal people ultimately making very normal comments, and we can’t help absorbing the messages that have been shouted at us for decades. Besides which, some of these women may have been struggling with their own disorders around food.
Yet although it wasn’t right to judge, I couldn’t help feeling saddened and shocked. When I go out for dinner with my friends, the only comments they make after eating are “I’m so full” followed by “yes” when the waiter offers the dessert menu. Moralised comments about eating aren’t new, so I suppose I somehow thought they were now a thing of the past. I didn’t realise people still spoke this way.
Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that, in my experience, the great majority of my peers don’t say these things – or perhaps it’s somehow regressive, and they’re still thinking these thoughts but fear saying them. Perhaps when one woman says, “I shouldn’t…” you’re supposed to reply, “You should!”, conspiring with them to have a good time. Perhaps this is a call I’ve failed to learn the response to.
There are no easy answers. My multiple brunch servings were not remotely revolutionary. When a straight-sized woman like me eats and eats and eats, all other women think is that she’s “lucky”, so internalised is the belief that one too many bread rolls opens Pandora’s box.
In my early 20s, I very nearly got the words “be good” tattooed on my wrist. My mum always said these words to me before I went out as a teenager – telling me to be “good” in the purest, most Catholic sense of the word. “Behave yourself,” is what she was meant: “don’t upset anyone”, “don’t drink too much”, “be loving – but not too loving with random boys”. Goodness is a complicated concept that means many things to many people, but (provided you’re not a cannibal or a vegan) your character is not linked to your plate. “Good” and “bad” refer to actions, not appetites. I’m more certain of it now than ever: you are not what you eat.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine