The first time I dieted, I was 10.
Joy Manning has joined WeAreTheRealDeal as a contributor, please read more about her here.
When I met Joy she introduced herself as a food critic, but through our email conversations I learned about her disordered eating background, and I am absolutely amazed by how she was able to transform her food issues from bad to beautiful by “learning to cook well, developing her palate, and cultivating an appreciation for great food.”
I asked Joy to share with us her experience growing up in a household led by two parents that “had no idea how to feed themselves, let alone a family.” Her story is below.
The first time I dieted I was 10.
My father, an alcoholic, promised me that he’d quit drinking if I lost weight. There was nothing I wanted more than for my father to be sober. And there was nothing my father wanted more for me than happiness, which, based on my hysterical sobbing in the K-Mart fitting room while trying on swimsuits that summer, he figured I needed to be skinny to achieve.
The suit I wanted was a purple and aqua one-piece. Even in a large size, it squeezed the flesh of my thighs and torso so I bulged at the fabric’s edges. My round middle made me feel like a giant Easter egg with arms and legs. I remember my mothers’ disapproving and pitying look, arms crossed over chest, which looked to me like a xylophone of ribs when she wore her own sun-faded black bikini. He body was all tan skin stretched taut over bone, the result of years of anorexia, bulimia, and diet pills. I didn’t really know that yet, so I wanted to look just like her. And, all these years later, part of me still does.
At 10, a typical day’s meals for me included coffee with lots of milk and sugar for breakfast, a packet of crackers at lunch with a school-bought carton of chocolate milk, a smorgasbord of chips and packaged snack food after school, followed by a dinner of pizza or fast food or frozen food, capped off with a big bowl of Breyers chocolate ice cream filled to the brim before bed. I got no exercise and watched at least 6 hours of TV a day. My parents had no idea how feed themselves, let alone a family.
As a kid, I ate to quell anxiety.
My father, in addition to being an addict, suffers from bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress syndrome that resulted from childhood abuse. His rage was like a monster that always lurked around the house; drugs and alcohol would either put it to sleep or inflame it. There was no way to know when or why it would erupt. He never physically abused any of us, but I used to think I would prefer it to the verbal assaults that he would unleashed for the tiniest infractions: a bath towel left on the floor; a milk bottle left uncapped; a word, gesture, or look that he perceived as disrespectful.
My mother cowered, smoked cigarettes, took endless power walks, chewed ice cubes in lieu of actual food, and spent hours on the telephone. Writing and daydreaming were reliable escapes, but there was also food. I ate, starving for a feeling of safety, sanity, company, comfort, normalcy.
A chubby 10 year old in a hysterical fit of body hatred should be told that she’s perfect exactly the way she is. Behind the scenes, my parents could have overhauled the family’s eating habits. Someone might have tried to cook healthy meals. Maybe I should have been encouraged to play a sport. Instead, our junk food pantry was restocked with diet junk food. Oreos became Snackwells and Stouffers became Lean Cuisine; my beloved Breyers became ice milk. Bread and butter—another of my vital comfort foods—were banned for me. I watched the rest of my family eat the fresh baked Italian bread that was the culinary highlight of my childhood with longing and keen sense of injustice.
“When you lose weight, you can eat it again,” my mother advised, followed by her favorite diet axiom: “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.”
My parents took turns dragging me on nightly walks around the neighborhood. My mother promised that happiness was within my grasp if I learned to manage my weight. “You could be very popular.” On our walks, my mother described the fantasy adolescence that could me mine, complete with a bikini of my own and a boy-girl pool party on my 16th birthday.
My father—who either quit, curbed, or hid his drinking during this era—gave me coach-like pep talks about how I could beat my food addiction as well, though he cautioned me that this weight thing was hereditary. “You’ll battle the bulge the rest of your life.”
He promised me a more immediate reward for losing: a Dairy Queen peanut butter cup blizzard would be mine when I lost 10 pounds. My weight was written on the bathroom wall by the scale each week to mark my progress and by midsummer I had lost 10 pounds. I still remember eating that cup full of frozen fatty nirvana. It almost made up for the ongoing humiliation. I lost another 10 by Labor Day and earned another high-calorie mixed message.
When fifth grade started, I felt confident and proud in front of my classmates for the first time. I remember that year as being the best and easiest I had until college. I was invited to sleepovers and included in games at recess. Though the rewards were obvious and terrific, it remained difficult to be vigilant against food. I drank diet Pepsi instead of chocolate milk at lunch and ate nothing after school even though I was always so hungry I felt empty. When the familiar anxiety encroached, I ate secretly. I ate things I wasn’t supposed to have when nobody was looking: candy, potato chips, real ice cream, one stolen spoonful at a time, right out of the carton.
By the time sixth grade started, I was fat again, friendless again, a failure again.
Rehabbing this disordered and inappropriate relationship with food has been the project that’s defined my adulthood. When your parents teach you nothing or the wrong things about food, nutrition, cooking, and eating, you must teach yourself, a monumental undertaking for anyone. For me, learning to cook well, developing my palate, and cultivating in myself a reverence and appreciation for great food has freed me from the compulsion to overeat. I now feel more satisfied by less food because I fully taste and enjoy it and, I can finally say, I rarely eat until I’m uncomfortably full. I also find it very easy to pass on the low quality mass produced junk food on which I was raised. I know what it does to my health, the planet, and the low-wage workers that are the backbone of the industrial food system. McDonald’s and Doritos no longer appeal to me.
At 32, I still have weight issues.I’m an avid exerciser and restaurant critic, and a few pounds heavier than those spurious BMI charts say I should be.
My cholesterol is a bit high, but the good/bad ratio is favorable, and both my parents also have high cholesterol in spite of their healthy-range BMIs. It’s hereditary. I’m starting to understand that my “weight” problem is really a thinking problem, a perception problem, a brain programming problem. For the past year I have struggled every day to give up my lifelong compulsion to diet and instead focus on my health, happiness, and well being.
That means accepting myself just as I am.
Easier said than done.