I think about food a lot. I love food. The fact that that feels like a guilty confession is one of the reasons I want to write about this.
My relationship with eating is fraught. It’s always been that way, and it’s become worse since I got ill. My diet is restrictive and my image is public property. I wanted to explore that a bit now.
*TW warnings for food and weight discussions*.
The major symptoms of my illness – pain and fatigue – are linked to diet and so this is one of the things that’s been hugely impacted by getting sick. I lost weight rapidly before I was hospitalised. Afterwards, I had to learn how to feed myself within my new limitations.
Over the past few months, the list of things I can safely eat has dwindled down to almost nothing. Everything carries a price, whether it be immediate pain, or contribution to longterm inflammation of my muscles and therefore more rapid deterioration of my condition.
For me, I’m not simply “allergic” to things like wheat and starch. They aggravate my lovely HLA-B27 gene, meaning the more I eat the things that are wrong for me, the more hostile my body is going to get. It’s kind of hard to just treat yourself to a sandwich when you know it’s probably going to cause irreversible damage to your spine.
Balancing my nutritional needs and my allergens is tricky business and I feel like I constantly fail. Once you factor in my total lack of energy and other resources, the task of making food that ticks all the boxes becomes monstrous. It’s consuming. I spend a lot of time planning meals- and then feeling guilty for thinking about food so much. Which brings me to the next bit.
Mental health and body image
The fact of the matter is, I’m not overweight, and the facts of the matter mean nothing here. Logic is not part of this argument.
My issues around body image come from two places that are inextricably linked – mental health, and societal structures. I’m trying to approach them separately because, though they feed each other, they can be fought slightly differently.
I like referring to depression as “jerkbrain”. My “jerkbrain” is the negative voice I talked about in my last post. It’s the one that tells me I don’t deserve to eat, because I am worthless, and my body does not deserve nourishment, and if I eat, I will become “unattractive” and no one will love me, least of all myself. (This last bit is really under the next heading, because it’s about the belief system created by society that only “beautiful people” (society’s ever-changing definition of external beautiful) have and deserve love).
My jerkbrain comes from within me, whereas those belief systems come from without. Both can be fought privately and publicly but I think the battle for my self esteem is one that mostly needs to happen in my own heart. I talk about some ways I’m doing this below.
My equating of “skinny = beautiful = selfworth” did not emerge from a blackhole. I struggle to know where to start with this, how to explain how much oppressive patriarchal ideas of femininity have informed my identity. I can only speak from experience.
This article on patriarchy, gender, and the body by Portia Tshegofa, who grew up in Botswana, gives me an entry point. She’s very eloquent.
“The notion of beauty and attractiveness is synonymous with one’s body image; how we view ourselves and how we think other people think of us in terms of looks or appearance. I believe that as societies, we tend to minimise the role patriarchy has played in influencing body image. Patriarchy strives to exercise control by defining what beauty is, controlling the mobility of women, exerting violence and constructing social norms that impact on women’s lived experiences.”
Here’s a couple of examples of this playing out in my everyday life. You might have seen me tweet about them.
One thing people often assume is that when I say “patriarchy” I mean men themselves controlling me as outlined above. This is not always the case. Women are often complicit in the unseen power structures of the patriarchy, because this shit is insidious and goes unquestioned and we’re brought up without being able to see the trees because we’re in the woods.
So, recently I tweeted happily about the dinner I had made for myself. For me, every meal is a triumph. Making good food that I can and will eat? Win! I sat down with my salad and I tweeted about what was in it because I wanted to share the deliciousness and I’m a dweeb who desires public recognition of effort.
Someone who had never interacted with me before – knew nothing about me, a new follower – responded telling me that I should be careful about what I was eating, because my skin might become oily and I might get acne.
I was absolutely fucking livid. I was so furious, I put down my fork and started yelling and forgot all about my meal. This might seem like a little thing to you. It was not.
What was happening was this: this person had A) Assumed I wanted their “advice” B) Assumed I know nothing about nutrition and my own dietary needs when I know so much about those things, and C) Assumed that, within the expectations of the patriarchy, I would care more about how I looked – ie, my skin – than getting adequate food into myself and therefore surviving.
I cannot even eat a salad without being policed over how it might effect my appearance.
This tweet from Harriet.
The implication here, of course, is that food is a reward that women must earn. Heaven forbid that we would eat because eating is necessary, or that we would enjoy something simply for the hell of it without flagellating ourselves before, during, and afterwards. And, of course, that eating cupcakes will make you undesirable and it is vitally important that you exercise in order to occupy a body type that the rest of society finds pleasing.
Is it really any wonder that, with all these voices, that I plan my meals like a militant? That I constantly chastise myself for eating sugar, fat, dairy, anything with substance? That I stand on the scales every single morning and feel like crying when they don’t move? I don’t think so. I think it’s perfectly understandable. I think it’s a broad, shared experience. I think it’s bullshit.
So what are my swords?
How do I fight these pervasive beliefs? How do I manage to keep myself healthy under the multiple pressures of illness, jerkbrain, and oppressive patriarchal structures? Here’s a few things I’m finding helpful.
1. Surrounding myself with positive imagery.
I’ve made a whole bunch of posters with feminist images and things for my bedroom. I only follow body positive blogs (I used to follow all this fitness and “thinspo” stuff and I avoid that as much as humanly possible now).
2. Body positive people
I spend a lot of time talking to people who know more than I do. I learn from them. I read their blogs. I glean their language, I absorb it and try to use it on myself.
3. Recipes and supplements
I follow a low-starch diet now. I eat mostly raw, whole foods. I take a whole bunch of supplements that are mostly for inflammation, like turmeric. I focus on making sure I get enough protein. I make simple meals like chickpea patties, spinach salads, anything with nuts and seeds or eggs and cheese, I use almond meal in place of flour and veges in place of wheat. My favourite snack is peanut butter straight from the jar.
4. Exercises for mind and body
I’m fairly restricted in how I can exercise my body, but I make sure I walk at least 20 minutes a day.
I do self-compassion meditations (so important! see selfcompassion.org. These have made an indescribable difference for me). I listen to audio books on mindfulness. I practice sitting comfortably in my body – which is ridiculously difficult. A little bit of yoga is awesome.
And, of course – psychotherapy, which I think has almost as many negative connotations as feminism itself and it just as misunderstood and massively positive for most everyone who engages with it. That’s another post. I think I will leave this here. We’ve come far enough for today.
Some other related stuff I’ve written.
Some thoughts on body shaming and Culture of Fear are both about my sense of shame around eating and appareance.
Great post Sarah, and one I can totally relate to! Thanks for sharing this, I will definitely be sharing it with my readers as I think it’s something that people really need to be more conscious of. Thanks for sharing your “swords” too – it reminded me of how important things like meditation are and how much I need to reintroduce that to my daily life.
Oh my god. Thank you for writing this. I’m on the edge of tears right now but it’s a mix of happy and sad.
I know that I have an ingrained belief system that “beauty = thinness = worth” and it’s actually the first time I’ve ever realised… hmm, I don’t even know where that belief came from, how it even started, or when it began to propagate.
This has helped me to open my eyes, to start thinking critically. Why we spend our whole lives beating ourselves down, for things we -can’t even control- for the most part.
Just… thank you.
Thanks for sharing Sarah. That insensitive salad bashing tweet came from a place of ignorance, but I hope they have learned more now.
Thank you for this post, it is very relatable. I am posting this anonymously as right now I am struggling a lot with body image and don’t feel up to posting under my actual name. For context, I was diagnosed with EDNOS over a year ago. I have a lot of difficulties talking about my eating issues. I guess I feel I am not worthy of discussing them because I am not underweight anymore, like I used to be. I have thought a lot about society and its role in my issues with food and weight. I have read the research that genes play a big role in eating disorders, and I’m sure they do. But that isn’t the whole answer. Not everyone with a genetic predisposition to EDs gets one. And I think society and its patriarchal attitudes has a big role in triggering eating problems (not necessarily full blown disorders, eating problems all along the spectrum) in predisposed individuals. Maybe I would have gotten unwell even if society were different. I expect I still would have been self destructive, but I am not so sure that would have manifested itself in the form of issues with food. We get it instilled in us that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods. And there is so much body shaming that goes on it’s ridiculous and often goes unchallenged. A lot of people don’t mean to be nasty, but I still get people who KNOW about my issues surrounding food and weight saying triggering things, not usually about me, but about other people and their weight and what they’re eating. Anyway, thank you for this post, it really articulated a lot of what I think.
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Thanks for this post. It’s good to be reminded that what I eat and how I look is nobody’s business but my own.
Have you seen Mitch Benn’s take on body image? This vid always makes me smile: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5p_GKEwM9gQ