Food and Me.

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I managed to reach my early twenties before ever experiencing “food guilt”. You know, it’s like that feeling after you’ve just eaten a big, delicious, gluttonous meal and wind up thinking, “This food is inevitably going to make my body look worse, therefore I feel sad.” Up until that point, my life had been one giant, blissful, guilt-free smorgasbord of Kraft Mac N Cheese, Tommy’s chili cheese fries, sour belts, peach gummy rings and tacos of every possible shape and size. I grew up with an incredibly high metabolism and had nicknames like “Toothpick” and “Skinny Minnie” through much of my life.

In college, when many girls were busy gaining the “Freshman 15”, I got home one day to have my mom pull me aside and legitimately ask me if I was healthy – because apparently I looked so thin she thought I was not taking care of myself. When I ran down what I had eaten that week – McDonalds, Del Taco (multiple times), grilled cheese at the school grill, Coldstone’s Ultimate Bucket (their biggest size – it comes in an actual bucket. With a handle.) and all other manner of God-awful sustenance – the finished list was so appalling, she quickly dropped the issue with a laugh, assured that I was still her normal piglet daughter with the hollow leg.

As a big-toothed, glasses-wearing ‘tween, I was blissfully ignorant of weight issues, and even most general appearance issues. My friends would ask me things like, “Look at that girl walking over there. Is that sort of what I look like from behind? Or am I smaller? Or BIGGER? Please don’t tell me I look bigger.” I would respond by shrugging and saying, “I don’t know, I’ve never noticed before…” because I honestly wasn’t even aware that girls were thinking about their size in such a way. Me and my spindly, knobby legs were just skipping through life without a single concept of size. It was a lovely time, and it was due in large part to my parents, who never even bothered to introduce me to such ideas. My mom would constantly remind me that it was the condition of my heart that mattered, and not remotely what I look like on the outside. I suppose that vibe perpetuating through my life couldn’t have been anything but positive. But also, I wasn’t struggling with my weight, except to keep it on, so the problem never really presented itself.

My summer as a nanny in Italy at age 20 was the first time I discovered the concept of “eating one’s feelings”. I was viciously homesick, and for the first two weeks, I could barely touch the bowls of freshly stewed, garlic-laden chunky tomato pasta and crusty bread being placed in front of me. I’d push the bowls away, no appetite in sight, and would go to bed missing Chipotle Mexican Grill and my boyfriend (not necessarily in that order) immensely. Then one day, over a heaping bowl of fresh pesto e penne, eaten on a garden patio table overlooking the Mediterranean, something in my brain clicked, and I realized that what I was putting in my mouth was some of the best tasting food I had EVER HAD. From that moment forward, I became a veritable bottomless pit. I had never had such a love affair with food before then, and I likely never will again. I ate such astonishing quantities of bread and pasta, it got to the point that I would regularly feel ill after dinner, and would be sent by the scolding Italian grandmother of the family, out to walk around town on a “passagiata” (evening walk). I’d waddle down the narrow streets heaving and doubling over with heartburn and slap-happy gluttony.

To give you an example, my dinner in a single evening would consist of three or four large slices of fresh baked bread drizzled with olive oil and course salt, then steak carpaccio also drizzled with oil, then a giant bowl of THE BEST thing I’ve ever eaten in my life, the grandmother’s own invention: Pasta con formaggio filante (Literally – pasta with melty cheese – some special type she’d get from the cheese monger next door that I’ve never again tasted since leaving their home) and then I’d go swiftly back for a second bowl, before a healthy portion of minestrone soup that had been stewing on the stove since eight o’clock that morning. I’d wash it all down with a giant glass of fresh whole milk that went down just like cream. Dessert would be a walk to the local gelateria for two scoops of Straciatella, and no joke, I’d go back to my room and get in bed, and lean down to a little bag of cookies I’d become fond of called Pan di Stelle (bread of stars, I think?) which were these little chocolate cookies with star-shaped sprinkles. AND I’D EAT THEM IN BED. As I dozed off to sleep. Ugh.

Meals in those weeks became a sacred ritual – like a tally mark placed on a wall with a piece of chalk. I’d count the time by how many hours until lunch, then how many lunches until next week. It was almost an experiment to see how much food I could fit into my little twiggy body. I even got into the habit of eating breakfast – something I’ve never managed to do in the states. But when breakfast consists of Twinings Earl Grey tea, perfectly crumbly chocolate biscotti, and the most luscious farm-grown peaches dripping with nectar, it’s a habit one could form about as easily as shooting up heroine.

To put it all in perspective, at the start of my trip I went on a shopping spree in Milan for cute Italian clothes, and by the end of the summer, I couldn’t fit in ANY of them. I gained 15 pounds in two months.

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My favorite Italian food buddies eating pizza and Coke – breakfast of champions

Then I got home and gobbled up like 20 In N Out burgers in a matter of weeks, but rather quickly, the pendulum of my eating habits swung back to a balanced place. I ordered eggplant and anchovies from restaurants here in the states, and was so appalled at their flavor, I quickly realized our food here is just simply NOT as good. In N Out or no, the 15 pounds kind of just fell off, and within a month I was wearing the clothes I had bought at the start of my trip. Bodies are weird.

It was several months into marriage when I first discovered my body’s ability to gain weight. Like, a legitimate ability, not the Italian love affair blaze-of-glory type of weight gain. I’m talking about the little bits of pudge that started to accumulate around my tummy and make my pants feel tight when I went to Red Lobster. It was a foreign phenomenon. I didn’t like it one bit.

For the first two years of marriage, Eric and I forced ourselves to live as if we were in poverty while devoting every spare penny to paying off our debt. In turn, our dinners consisted of LOTS of Mac N Cheese, burritos, frozen microwavable lunches, and two-dollar bottles of wine. Also, it wasn’t just the money. It’s that mac n cheese is really REALLY good, and don’t you dare ask me to share a box with you; each of us gets our OWN. A couple years of eating that way will put a couple of pounds even on the sprightliest of metabolisms.

When Eric had had enough of the slow and steady gain, he decided to get serious about his health and we began to change how we ate. I was riding on the coat tails of his dedication, much like I have through most of our marriage, so I ate better too, and I lost much of that icky weight. Then I slooooowwwly gained it back. Then summer was coming so I lost it again. Then the holidays approached and I sloooowwwly (but not quite as slowly as the first time) gained it back.

Thus began the slow and meandering four year roller coaster of weight loss and gain that I’d imagine many people have experienced, with which I am becoming acquainted. It has brought with it a lot of firsts, such as – keeping “fat” clothes and “skinny” clothes in my closet so that I have something to wear regardless of my size. When I was younger, I just kept on wearing the same exact clothes for over a decade. Not quite so, anymore. I’ve also picked up staring at myself in the mirror while cringing, and disliking clothes shopping (and dressing room mirrors) more than ever before. And yes, even looking at other girls and being tempted to ask my friends, “Look at that girl walking over there. Is that sort of what I look like from behind? Or am I smaller? Or BIGGER? Please don’t tell me I look bigger.” I also unbutton the top button of my jeans an awful lot.

Regardless of when in life it comes, the day one experiences “food guilt”, an innocence has been lost. There is a knowledge of what food does to a body, and once you comprehend that knowledge, you can never un-know it. The days of the guilt-free smorgasbord are no more. With every box of Kraft blue box and every bottle of wine, your insides cringe a little and scold, “You naughty girl. You shouldn’t be eating this.”

But here’s what I’ve realized. The knowledge of food and the damage it can do is a GOOD knowledge. Yes, while it may rob you of your happy childhood gluttony, I suppose we should discuss that IT SHOULD. Young and old alike should know concepts like moderation, smart eating and avoidance of sugar. Someone should have told thirteen year old Miriam that when ordering tacos cooked on a questionable grill in downtown Ensenada, and then drizzled with equally questionable un-refrigerated crema, ordering and eating TWELVE of them is probably a BAD idea. (I’m not gonna lie, though, that was a really good day.)

Here’s the rub: (Mmm that kind of makes me want barbecue… good GOD, Miriam, focus!) We can all learn something from both the young, carefree, twiggy version of me, AND the older, wiser, plumper version of me. First, we should strive to be moderate – to notice what we eat and put whole, real foods in our bodies MOST of the time. We should stop eating when we’re satisfied, and never reach the Italian heartburn, doubled-over “passagiata” status of old. We should put down the slim-jim and eat a freakin’ carrot instead. BUT we should also go to The Hat at midnight every couple of months, and just revel in pastrami and mayo and fries so greasy they’re nearly see through. Every once in a while.

And here’s the most important one: We should strive once again for a mindset like our adolescent  selves. A mindset that has no concept of scrutiny of one’s size. We shouldn’t be looking at that girl over there and wondering if we look the same as her from behind. Don’t do that. Comparison is the thief of joy. When we look in the mirror and want to cringe or cry, we must work to muffle and eventually silence that ugly voice telling you how much better you looked before. Just simply, turn off the light, walk away, and go climb some grassy hill til you’re huffing and puffing and looking out at a beautiful sunset. Skip the whining about it and jump straight to the doing something about it. Because every moment we spend lamenting over our looks is a moment wasted. As Amy Poehler wisely says in her book, “Yes, Please”: “Just imagine your ninety-year old self is talking to you. She would say, ‘You look great and you are beautiful. Can you walk? Stop Complaining. Stopcomplainingstopcomplainingstopcomplaining. Ignore what people think. Most people aren’t paying attention to you.’”

When you start to get down on yourself about your looks, it helps to think of how massively insignificant they are to your personality, brain and heart – the things that really matter. When you hear that voice reminding you how much you hate your cheeks, or that your thighs touch now when they didn’t used to, or that your wedding ring is getting tight – SKIP the lamenting, the self-deprecation and the self-loathing, and go read an article, then text a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, then go outside while the sun is setting and take a very long walk – the kind where when you get back, your legs are doing little twitches for the next twenty minutes. That’s where it’s at. Life is too short to spend another single minute on self-hatred.

So I still love food. Not an Italian type of love, anymore, but still the type that leaves me ready to salt and eat my own arm in a ravenous frenzy when I’ve had a pithy lunch of sweet peppers with hummus as I did today. I’m learning to love me, and learning that part of loving me is feeding me well. And the other part is eating The Hat chili cheese fries late at night. Every once in a while. And that’s the skinny (and chubby) on food and me, so far.

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