As I begin writing this post, I’ve realized that Food is one of those intriguingly broad, paradoxical topics that can and will end up going in any direction you want it to. Food is social, creative, healthful, addictive, potentially harmful, necessary, comforting, costly, and beautiful, and if I had the time to write a whole book on food from every one of these perspectives, I probably would. It is just so immensely interesting to me.
But for the time being, I’m going to talk about my relationship, specifically, with food. It’s been quite an interesting lifelong development.
When I was six, I really liked watching Zoom! on PBS. For those unfamiliar, the show consisted of a large clan of barefoot children performing experiments, playing games, acting in little sketches, making crafts, and sharing recipes for delicious snacks. One day they whipped up some mini quiche. I decided I wanted to make mini quiche, too.
Instead of asking my mom like a good child (she was probably teaching a piano lesson or otherwise occupied), I remembered what I could about the recipe and got to cooking, unsupervised. I heated the oven to 400 degrees, beat some eggs, omitted the crust (because is that really necessary?), and added some torn up sliced ham and a little cheese I somehow figured out how to shred. I poured it all into a muffin tin and baked them until they were brown and delicious.
That’s it. I didn’t burn the house down. I didn’t get too many egg shells in the batter. I would imagine the finished product tasted somewhat all right. My mom showed up eventually, astounded that her first-grader just cooked herself a nutritious meal, using the oven, and probably also freaked out because even Zoom! reminded their viewers to always ask a grown-up for help before cooking anything.
I enthusiastically offered her a mini quiche. She responded by telling me to ask permission the next time I tried a recipe from Zoom!.
Luckily, by the time my age hit double digits, I could cook, safely, without a grown-up’s help, which I think is an important skill for a kid entering teenagerhood. I could scramble eggs, make grilled cheese sandwiches, and heat up leftovers in the microwave. My mom has always been a great example in the kitchen, teaching me that as long as I followed a recipe, things wouldn’t usually go wrong. Given, I once left out the flour in a batch of chocolate chip cookies to disastrous results, but how else was I supposed to learn the importance of gluten?
In that age of innocence, food meant family, home, celebration, and happiness. I could cook and be proud of the result, and maybe eat seven of the cookies I eventually learned to bake correctly without shame. Snacks were a way to wind down after school, mealtimes were a chance to catch up with my family, and cooking helped me channel my creative energy into delicious, edible, exciting things.
I’ve always loved food so much. Almost definitely too much. Growing up, food was often a way I coped with boredom. I was too young to have any serious emotional distress that begged for a bar of dark chocolate, but I’m quite certain that I snacked more often than necessary, simply because I could, and I enjoyed it.
And, of course, body issues lingered just below the surface.
From the beginning of elementary school, I was always the tallest kid in the class, usually one of the heftiest, and I only ever took pride in the former. Height meant superiority. Fat meant shame, and ugliness. Even back when I was six and making mini quiche with my healthy food attitudes, I knew that the average weight for a kid my age was 60 pounds, and that I weighed in at a horrific 80. I checked the scale often, and rejoiced when it went down to 78 that summer. Again, six years old and obsessing over weight. Fourteen years later, I’m horrified at the thought.
Even though I enviously watched my friends at school feasting on their jam-packed lunch bags filled with chocolates, cheetos, soda, and potato chips as I slowly ate my ham sandwich, apple, and juice, I started believing that my size strongly correlated with my diet. It didn’t make sense, because my junk-food-addict friends were skinny, and I most definitely was not, but the seed was planted. I simply thought there was something wrong with me, or my food, and I had no idea how to change it, so I ignored any indication of physical abnormality.
I knew I was a fat kid, but I certainly didn’t want to talk about it.
By the time I hit middle school, I was starting to have those emotional eating tendencies. I ate way too much out of stress and whatever crazy growth-spurt eat-everything hormones were taking over my life, and gained pretty much all the weight I still carry today. I never exercised, other than the occasional humiliating P.E. class and a spontaneous stint on the swim team, my body became larger than ever, and it essentially stayed that way. I regularly thank the Lord that it’s spread out into the right places by now, but I am still very, very much what department stores would call a “plus size woman.”
One of the hardest parts of my simultaneous transformation into obesity and womanhood was that I still saw my peers, even in middle and high school, eating less healthy foods than me, in larger quantities than I ever did, and they’d be of completely average weight, if not rail thin. I’m sure I could have eaten better – of course I could have eaten better, but my diet wasn’t unusual for a growing American kid. I never ate two candy bars at once, or feasted on entire pints of ice cream. I only ate fast food every few months, and I still remember my doctor telling me, at eleven years old, that I’d just have to be one of those kids eating corn flakes or Cheerios for breakfast when everyone else got Lucky Charms and pop-tarts.
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear; as a young person, you don’t want someone telling you that you’re different, that you need to make better lifestyle choices if you ever want to be “normal.” Also, I liked corn flakes and Cheerios sometimes. My doctor’s assumption that I only ever ate sugar for breakfast wasn’t necessarily correct, and I resented that, even back then. I couldn’t eat fun food because of the way I was born. That’s what she was telling me. What I heard was “you fat lazy idiot, eat an apple.” I ended up feeling more confused, and, yes, continued occasionally eating Lucky Charms and Pop Tarts, because Lucky Charms and Pop Tarts are delicious when you’re twelve.
When I started learning about positive body image and self-esteem, I realized that my weight severely effected the way I felt about myself. I felt less than because of my pant size. The problem, though, did not lie in the airbrushed photos in seventeen magazine, or half-starved Hollywood starlets. My feelings were not a media issue as much as a jealously issue – I saw my ideal all around me. Even the chubbiest of my friends weighed under 200 pounds. Every woman I saw, from my teachers to my size-6 classmates, had me wondering what it must be like to just look average. I didn’t want Marilyn Monroe curves or Angelina Jolie skeleton arms. I just wanted to be able to shop in normal stores, in their regular junior’s range, without worrying that their sizes wouldn’t accommodate my butt.
A history teacher of mine often mentioned the horrendously-awful obesity problem in America, and I wondered how I could stop being part of the problem. Middle school PE teachers informed me that my fitness level and body fat percentage were drastically low and high, respectively, and that making goals to change both of those numbers was imperative to my adult well-being. I couldn’t be happy or healthy at my weight. That is what they taught me, and that is what I believed.
Luckily beliefs can, and do, change over time. As I grew older, my empty pit of body-related confusion eventually became enriched with a new love of food and body-confidence, which was a true blessing. Instead of crash dieting or suffering from an eating disorder, I learned to follow the examples of big, confident ladies in my life and stop caring so freaking much.
I took a cooking class in high school, where I learned how to make delicious breads, cakes, soups, and pastas. I learned to appreciate food for the fresh, rich ingredients it came from, the method of its creation, and its thoughtful presentation. We learned about nutrition, macronutrients, fad diets, and foodborne illnesses, as well as how to cook with such exciting ingredients as butter, fresh veggies, and yeast. The food world no longer felt like an intimidating conglomeration of things I shouldn’t be eating, and I thrived in that environment.
I will admit to counting calories toward the end of that year, but more than anything else it helped me realize what kind of things I was putting into my body. I learned that I could avoid a lot of empty calories by avoiding snacks between meals, and keeping high-fat foods at a suitable, yet satisfying minimum. I also learned that if I ate a small breakfast, I could eat tons of cake later – a truly wonderful realization I still sometimes utilize to this day. I lost twelve pounds, which felt great. Sure, I plateaued at a weight most online metabolism calculators insisted I needed 3,200 calories per day to maintain (while on an 1,800 calorie diet), but it felt good to see some sort of progress.
My freshman year of college I relied on a lot of processed foods I definitely wouldn’t eat these days, but I still didn’t go crazy. I eventually got a job working for chefs, and saw directly how beautiful a passion for food can be – I saw the true artistry of the craft, and my respect for food continued to grow.
Preparing meals for sometimes-humongous groups of people taught me the value in sharing food with others. Prepping, cooking, and eating together is a true act of communion, a beautiful statement on the human condition and what we can do for each other to keep ourselves happy and alive.
When I lived in London for 4 months earlier this year, I became a total food snob. I ate things like mackerel taretare and wine-aged cheese. Citrus seared duck-breast with fried thyme leaves, white truffle oil, gourmet dark chocolates. I feasted on Sauteed scallops, smoky back bacon, artisan pizzas, even authentic Brazilian fare. Delightful Indian rogan josh, arab-influenced shawarma, and the best British fish and chips on the face of this earth made up a lot of my meals while abroad, and I. Was. So. Happy.
I also lost some weight from all the walking. It was a win-win. Eat amazing food. Walk a ton. Lose weight. An excellent life goal if you ask me.
Needless to say, I haven’t eaten a ding-dong or frozen pizza since returning to America, and I don’t really want to. American cheese grosses me out, Hershey’s chocolate makes me sad, and kale has become infinitely more appealing than it ever was before.
I still make a living in a kitchen, and I’ve learned to love even more what I do and the difference it’s made in my life.
And here’s the kicker – I’ve come to realize that being a “plus size woman,” a fat female, a broad broad, ultimately doesn’t effect my view on food all that much anymore, even though my views on food have matured in constructive ways over the years.
Maybe I should worry more about my weight; I know my body isn’t ideal, or anywhere near average. Anyone who has to go to a special extra-busty section of an already-plus-size store and shell out an additional $15-$20 just to buy a suitable, correctly-fitting bra in one of three colors – nude, black, or white – (I’m angrily looking at you, Lane Bryant), knows that there’s something a little odd about her body. I find those shopping trips INCREDIBLY frustrating, and society’s insistence on constant daytime bra-wearing (which I happen to agree with, but still) will probably lead me to bankruptcy someday.
There is an “X” somewhere in all my clothes sizes, and sometimes I hate that, but then I realize that it’s just a letter used to describe the fabric I use to cover my usually-awesome body, and it all starts to feel so trivial.
I’m an adult now and don’t really even like Lucky Charms anymore, but you can bet that if I did, I’d be eating them. I do, indeed, eat Chick-fil-a once a week, because it’s delicious. Sometimes I eat pizza, there’s usually ice cream in my freezer, and every woman has those days that she simply cannot go without chocolate. I have those days, and I embrace them, because nothing tastes better than a dark chocolate bar when you really need a dark chocolate bar.
I eat fresh veggies and whole grains, and I enjoy them immensely. There are few things in this world as amazing as a perfectly-ripened, juice-dripping-down-your-hand peach, and I consider vegetable roasting one of my favorite hobbies.
My body size and shape is more than the sum of what I choose to put into it. I know I need more exercise. I wish I had the courage and strength to give up refined sugars. But for now, I’m doing okay, and I choose to be happy with that. Fatness isn’t always a choice, but the way you view yourself and choose to take care of your body is, and I wish every person, especially every woman, could realize that.
Odds are, you’re beautiful. Even if your bra can double as a two-person hat. Even if your jean size too-closely resembles your age. Even if your pre-baby body sort of looks a lot like most women’s post-baby bodies. I don’t care, and you shouldn’t either. It’s a tired cliche, but it’s what’s on the inside that matters most, and it’s time we prove that to the masses. Don’t be ashamed. Eat delicious things. Love your body. Love yourself, and stop worrying so much! Your self-esteem will thank you.