I was foolishly holding my baby at the time. Thank goodness to eternity that my mama instincts kicked in and I twisted to hold him completely out of the way as six cups of boiling water gushed onto my thigh.
I sent a photo of the grapefruit-sized 2nd degree burn to my husband to let him know I needed to go to the emergency room. He texted back, "Is that your arm or your leg?" Want to know what my very first thought was? "Wow! I must be really skinny if my thigh looks like my arm. Hooray!"
Messed up, no? Blisters were emerging on my leg and I was trying not to go into shock, but skinny leg felt like a win.
It turns out I’m not immune to the toxic social conditioning I’ve received since birth telling me that how my body looks matters more than how it functions or how well I care for it.
I had lost twenty-five pounds earlier that year as a side effect of a diet change triggered by illness. Around Mother’s Day I developed an intense case of thrush (Candida yeast) in my milk ducts. It felt like someone was surging electric pulses through my left breast throughout the day. The common regimen to beat thrush involves medication for mom and baby, obsessive washing, daily laundry... too much for me to handle. I read up and learned that most people have yeast in their bodies but some people experience overgrowth due to sugar imbalance, so I focused on diet to starve out the yeast from within. I cut out soy, dairy, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, and most refined carbs - pretty much everything that I loved.
For weeks I felt angry, resentful, and volatile. I was an addict in withdrawal, dreaming of waffle fries, Giordano's Pizza, and most of all Ann Sather cinnamon rolls. I stuck with the diet despite the symptoms of sugar withdrawal because any refined carbs would trigger a shock from the "yeasties," as we called them in my family. Piece of cheese? ZZZT! Bite of cookie? ZZZT! I was the subject in my own biological Skinner experiment.
After about a month and a half the infection cleared up, but the real miracle of the Candida Diet was that it forced me to acknowledge that what I put in my body dramatically affects how I feel.
I used to suffer from chronic headaches and radical food-related mood swings. Friends and family knew that when I get hungry you better get me food, or out comes my INNER FOOD MONSTER. I would turn into the meanest version of myself in two minutes flat once I crossed that hunger threshold. I experienced almost daily indigestion, mild stomach pain, and bloating. My husband and I would joke that I was the "gassiest girl" or GG for short, especially after eating pizza (which I adore). I thought that's just what it felt like to be a living, eating person.
On the Candida Diet? No more headaches. No more indigestion. I learned that it is possible to feel hungry ONLY IN YOUR STOMACH and not in your head. Total revelation! My Inner Food Monster went into hibernation.
Almost incidentally, I dropped three dress sizes in a span of four months. I lost all my baby weight and then some.
There's no denying that with skinny comes privilege. People tell me how great I look. I buy name-brand clothes at thrift stores off the rack because I can tell they're made for my size and shape. I feel more confident because I am more in line with the cultural ideal.
But I’m a feminist! I’m not supposed to care about whether or not I’m thin, and I'm especially not supposed to enjoy being thin when so many women are shamed for their curvy, average-sized, beautiful bodies every day. When friends would exclaim, "Wow, you're so skinny!" I didn’t want to say, “Thank you!” because that would endorse the notion that skinny is better. So instead I’d launch into an annoyingly long explanation, equal parts testimonial and sheepish apology -
“Yeah, I’ve lost a lot of weight. You see, I had this horrible infection, and the only way to get rid of it was to cut out all the food that I love, which I NEVER would have stopped eating if I hadn't been in physical pain, and I stopped having headaches and stomachaches and mood swings so that's why I still don't eat wheat or sugar or dairy. But it's not like I was TRYING to lose weight or anything.”
My ambivalence about my weight loss - the cycling between pride, discomfort, satisfaction, embarrassment, and guilt - signaled that perhaps I have a more complicated relationship to food and my body than I ever cared to admit.
I recently read this article written by Judith Matz, a psychotherapist who works with clients on their emotional relationship to food. In the article she shares a case study of a woman who delves into the underlying emotional triggers for her binge-eating patterns. Matz explains,
"My focus with clients who have overeating and weight concerns is to help them learn how to have a healthy relationship with food. Typically, these clients have internalized the cultural message that their bodies are “wrong,” and that shame is reinforced when the dieting solution they’ve pursued, which usually works initially, almost always fails. We therapists need to recognize that when we reinforce the notion of weight loss as a marker of success, we set our clients up to leave therapy with even more shame about one more failure."
I had never, ever dieted before. In fact, for much of my life I engaged in an almost anti-diet. I would mostly try to eat what I thought was healthy food, but sometimes I would "indulge” in an almost aggressive, rebellious way.
"I eat whatever I want" was my mantra. I was like, "Nobody's going to tell me what I can or can't eat, dammit! I'm not going to deprive myself just to fit into society's expectations of what I should look like." Often this meant eating the greasiest, grossest food, daring my body to complain later.
During my last year in San Diego I went through a period of driving through Jack in the Box every morning on my way to work to order this delicious and decadent croissant breakfast sandwich loaded with meat, cheese, and sauce that was probably about 2000 calories. I would think, "Yeah, I'm going to order that greasy sandwich! I can eat whatever I want!"
One day, as a grad student living in Chicago, I walked down the street to a nondescript burger grill and ordered the deluxe Polish Dog and fries. I knew I’d probably feel sick later, but as I walked I kept imagining this one dude I knew and how impressed he'd be if I ordered the Polish. I was going to be THAT girl, not the one who orders a salad.
Back then I didn’t understand that even as I actively tried to rewrite the rules about which foods were “good” or “bad” and whether I was good or bad for eating them, I was still controlled by the idea that food carries moral value, that what I put into my body reflects my identity and self worth. Eating was an act of rebellion, but my body carried the damage.
I’m grateful that Candida led me to the radical discovery that what I eat affects how I feel. Now I eat what I eat with informed consent. But I still catch myself living out old patterns, eating carbs for comfort and using food an act of rebellion. It's so disappointing to learn that you're not as enlightened as you think you are.
Last weekend I threw away all my wellness-based eating rules and dove into every one of my vices. At a birthday party I binged on pizza, returning to the pizza boxes again and again to grab a slice even when everyone else had stopped eating. “Yeah, that's right,” I told myself (since nobody else noticed or cared), “I’m going to get another piece of pizza!” As if I had something to prove, or justify.
I’d already “blown it” with the pizza, so why not indulge in comfort foods for the rest of the weekend? I polished off Lay's potato chips and french onion dip, chocolate chip cookies, German Chocolate birthday cake, gooey rice noodle dumplings. Each choice brought a rapid cycle through pleasure, defensiveness, and shame, as I knowingly sabotaged myself and dared my body to react.
Sure enough, most of my weekend was clouded by a sugar hangover. Except instead of a night of awesome to justify the hangover, I had only memories of half-enjoyed food shoved into my face before I could feel its impact in my body.
I’m reminded of this excerpt from a recent Momastery blog post by Glennon Doyle Melton -
“I am a feminist. At my heart, I am a fierce, bold advocate for women. But I was raised in a sexist culture. I was raised in a world that tried to convince me through media, through certain religious organizations, through inadequate history books and through the beauty industry – that female bodies are worth less than male bodies- and that certain types of female bodies (thin, tall young) are worth more than other types of female bodies.
The daily deluge of images of women’s bodies for sale and the onslaught of emaciated women’s bodies held up as the pinnacle of female achievement and the pervasive message that women exist to please men was the air I breathed decade after decade. I was a radiation canary living in a mine and the toxins were misogyny. I got sick from it. Not because I’m a bad, sexist person but because I was just breathing sexist air.”
- Glennon Doyle Melton
The notion that food can nourish my body and soul has been an afterthought for most of my life. I'm working on this.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, opening day of the biggest eating season of the year. As we brace ourselves for waves of stress-triggered emotional eating, sugar overindulgence, weight gain, and body shame, let’s remind each other of these truths -
The food you put into your body is not a reflection of your self-worth.
What you eat is nobody’s business but your own.
Your choices about food are not good or bad, they are just choices with consequences, and those choices do not make you good or bad either.
If you catch yourself in a shame cycle as you over-indulge in your “comfort” or “trigger” or “danger” foods, be gentle with yourself. You are more than what you eat.
Your big feelings are not too scary to feel, and they don’t need to be masked by food. They need to be expressed and shared.
You are worthy of love, connection, and acceptance regardless of how your body fits anyone’s standards of beauty.
Wishing you a Thanksgiving weekend full of love, connection, gratitude, nourishing and delicious food, and a healthy dose of compassion for yourself!