Food for Thought
By: Shannon Ralph
My name is Shannon and I have an unhealthy relationship with food. I recently read a blog post online about decriminalizing food. Sounds weird, huh? Food as criminal? However, after having this term introduced to me, I realize that it applies perfectly. I criminalize food. I have historically assigned a value to every food I come in contact with. Broccoli: Good. Pizza: Bad. Asparagus: Good. Cheesecake: Bad. Whole wheat pasta: Good. Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy: Exorbitantly bad. You get the idea.
My usual protocol is to blame my children for all of my woes. My gray hair? It’s the kids’ fault. My bladder that is slacking on the job these days? The kids’ fault. My inability to keep a clean house? Most definitely the kids’ fault. My inability to travel and see the world? My dwindling bank account? My lovely c-section scar that divides my paunch in half and makes my lower abdomen look eerily similar to Heath Ledger’s maniacal Joker? Yep…all the kids’ fault. Unfortunately, in regard to my weight, I simply cannot blame my children for my ever-expanding waistline. I can’t even blame leftover baby fat. Aside from the fact that my pregnancy was four and a half years ago (well past the statute of limitations for chunkiness), I was so sick during my pregnancy that I did not gain a single ounce. As a matter of fact, I lost twenty pounds with a twin pregnancy. When I voiced a concern during my pregnancy about my children having enough nourishment while I was puking up my guts and losing weight, my OB sweetly responded, “Oh honey, you have enough…ummm…reserves. Your babies will be just fine.” Nice, huh? So it appears that I have no one to blame but myself.
Shortly after my twins were born four years ago, I joined Weight Watchers and did quite well. I lost thirty pounds and felt spectacular. Amazingly, my knees stopped hurting. I could climb stairs without huffing and puffing. I felt healthy and energetic and alive. I bought all new clothes and—in a frenzy of misplaced optimism—rid my closet of all of my “fat” clothes. Since that time, I have regained every single one of those thirty pounds, plus an additional ten. I refuse to purchase new fat clothes, so as it stands, I am getting precariously close to being completely naked. My available wardrobe has dwindled to practically nothing. If I continue to gain weight at this pace, I am afraid I may one day be compelled to purchase a fanny pack. SO not a good look.
I think we all assign positive and negative values to food to a certain extent. My problem, however, is that I take this one step further and assign a value to myself based on the foods I eat. When I have a lunch consisting of nothing but vegetables, I tell myself that I am good. I feel good. I feel like I have value and worth. When I am exhausted and harried (as parents often are) and find myself ordering pizza for dinner, I tell myself I am bad. I eat the pizza, of course, but the entire time I am having an internal dialogue. You were doing so well. Too bad you had to fuck up. Too bad you’re a failure now. And what is a failure to do but give up and eat more pizza, right? Rather than having a slice or two, enjoying it, and stopping when I am full, I will have three slices and a few bread sticks…oh yea…and an entire tub of that artery-clogging garlic butter. I end up bloated and uncomfortable and feeling completely defeated. That certainly doesn’t set the stage for choosing healthy options at the next meal. I think this is why I am a binge eater. When I eat something I consider “bad”, I feel like I need to eat a lot of it because, once I get control of myself and act “good” again, I won’t be able to have it for a long, long time. Thus, I gorge myself. Wow, that sounds pretty crazy, huh?
So how does one decriminalize food? How does one learn to see food for what it is—that which sustains us and maintains life and (should) provide us with joy? How do I stop thinking of food in terms of good and bad and start simply enjoying it again?
I recently discovered a love of baking. It is relaxing and somewhat therapeutic. It is something my daughter and I can enjoy together. And best of all, I seem to have a knack for it. I am a pretty damn good baker, if I do say so myself. Why then, when I create a decadent dessert, do I immediately label it as something bad? How can something lovingly created by my daughter and me —a simple concoction of sugar and flour and milk and vanilla —be anything but wonderful and enjoyable? It’s true that I do not need to eat an entire cheesecake, but why can’t I enjoy one piece without berating myself? I may be a bit overweight —I could certainly stand to lose a few pounds —but I have skills and abilities and talents that have nothing to do with my weight. Why would I tell myself otherwise? Criminalizing food is a nuisance, at best. At worst, it is devastating.
My biggest fear in regards to my behavior has nothing to do with me. My greatest fear is for my daughter. I have a beautiful, impressionable, absolutely perfect four-year-old little girl living in my house. What am I teaching her about her worth? I have never told her that she is anything but utterly amazing. However, children are incredibly adept at picking up on non-verbal cues. I know she watches me. She looks to me for validation. I worry that I am, non-deliberately, teaching her to have an unhealthy relationship with food. I don’t want her to repeat my mistakes. I don’t want her to struggle with food the way that I do. My biggest fear is that she will learn to value herself based on her outward appearance rather than her intellect. She is beautiful, but more importantly, she is smart and sassy and capable. Those are the characteristics I want her to value.
So the question becomes, how does one change a thirty-eight-year-old behavior pattern? How does one overhaul the internal dialogue? How does one eat a piece of cheesecake without attaching any judgment to it? It may sound a bit antithetical to reason, but I honestly believe that I would be at a healthier weight if I just relaxed about food. If I didn’t stress about it so much. If I didn’t feel as though I were “cheating” all the time. If I allowed myself to enjoy the “bad” stuff in moderation, it would lose its power over me. Once it lost its power, I believe it would lose a lot of its allure. We all want what we can’t have, right? And when we are allowed to have it, it loses a bit of its appeal. So…hmmm…how to get to this point?
I am afraid I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they are definitely food for thought (pun intended). If I knew the answers, I would be slim and svelte. I would be healthy and I would enjoy all life has to offer in moderation. As it stands, I am a “curvaceous” binge eater with an unhealthy devotion to cheesecake trying to mend my errant ways…and eye-balling those fanny packs.