I am a little nervous about publishing this, as I am about to open a new can of worms here. Ok, deep breath and…. leap!
A few months ago (that is how long I have been meaning to publish this) I met a dear friend for lunch. For the sake of privacy as well as clarity as the story progresses, I will call her Lauren. Lauren was visiting the North Bay (of San Francisco) for a few days, so one day I picked her up and took her to one of my favorite bakeries/cafes, the kind where the menu follows the season and the fresh produce available at the farmers’ market, and the kind where you want to order everything on the menu as it is so creative, fresh and delicious.
We both ended up ordering the same salad, because how can you pass up a salad with fresh peaches during peach season? Not possible. Yet we were both also tempted by their Squash Blossom Grilled Cheese sandwich – squash blossom anything is also not possible to pass up – so I said: “Want to share one?” Her face lit up and she eagerly said yes!
When the server asked: “Would you like potato salad or greens with that?” I was about to say potato salad as we were already having greens in our main salad order, but Lauren said “Greens!” over me, so I looked at her and asked: “Are you sure?” At which she mumbled something about already having bread and cheese, and potatoes as well were maybe a bit much, so I made it easy for her and let it ride to the greens.
When the food came, it looked and tasted as wonderful as it sounded, and as we took our first bites, Lauren said: “How wonderful to just be able to eat whatever we want and enjoy!” Something in both her voice and face relaxed into the experience.
I looked up at her and smiled, a little surprised for a moment, but also not. My heart went out to her. I knew exactly what she was talking about, because guilt over eating has featured heavily on and off for most of my life. Until recently.
Her comment also made me flash to lunches she and I had shared with another friend, whom we shall call Sylvia because that is the name that pops into my mind right now. Sylvia is the tall, skinny kind of woman who will show up at a restaurant claiming she is starving and can’t wait to order everything on the menu, then always ends up ordering the same salad (seriously, the exact same each time), will take a couple of bites, move the rest of it around the plate before asking for a take-out box.
Does this sound familiar? Because I know she is not the only woman I have seen do that in a restaurant, whether dining with me or nearby.
Of course, there could be a million reasons why unknown women I observe would do this, but I know Sylvia well enough to know that she is one of those who does not allow herself to enjoy her food because her focus is to stay skinny – or, as plopped out of Lauren’s mouth during our lunch: to stay “perfect”.
Perfect? I thought, according to who? What strange ideas we hold of perfection.
Has anyone seen the movie Julie and Julia? Yeeeessss!
Remember the Cobb Salad lunch scene? That helps to make my point. The issue there was not just the food, but the litany of accomplishments the women passive-aggressively (and condescendingly) “slipped” into the conversation; though the food order (always the same, with personalizations) was representative of that.
Well, I am Italian born and raised, I am a former chef (of said Italian cuisine), and I am an artist as well as a photographer (including photographing food). When I go out for a meal, I will carefully research and select the restaurant, likely peruse the menu on line first to get a sense of what they have, and then look forward to trying as many things as possible, or at least order what really appeals to me in the moment and thoroughly enjoy it. At least, that’s what I do now.
During my food-guilt years, I would tend to show up for a lunch that included same-salad-Sylvia and feel uncomfortable with my order. I would often end up ordering a salad myself, whether that was what I really wanted or not, and then did my best to shove the uncomfortable feeling aside while I ate every bite instead of moving it around the plate, superconscious of the fact that I was not the weight I felt I should be. Ah! Those horrible shoulds! And yes, I was one of those who, at a size 4 or 6 still felt I was fat, or at least too rounded.
Now let me show you another scene; the complete opposite, in fact. A meal with my friend Eva (also an alias). The best one-word description I can offer of this incredible woman is succulent. Yes, I really like that word. Eva relishes life, she puts herself fully into every experience and thoroughly enjoys every moment. She is something I have never been, and I would be happy to achieve just a part of it: uninhibited. All of this, of course, applies to eating food as well. She would sit and start eating with such relish and appreciation of the food that her enthusiasm became contagious. Do you know how fun it is sharing a meal with her?
Guilt? What is guilt?
Just to complete the picture, Eva is a petite blonde my mum’s age, she is not model-skinny, but wears an American size 6, and has the youthful vibrancy of a woman thirty years younger. Sounds pretty “perfect” to me!
This is not about the right of anyone to look this way or that, or eat what and how they want. This is about the absurd guilt and discomfort so many of us have around food, which ties with body image, of course. The extreme dark side of this being bulimia, anorexia and even death – though I am not going there, as I am grateful to say those extremes have not been my personal experience.
I have been meaning to write about this for some time, but I was triggered recently by a post I found on Instagram expressing along the same lines (author credit @the_hive_tribe). The caption said: “Do you remember what it felt like to eat whatever you want without guilt? With all the labels society puts on food and people: good/bad, skinny/fat, fatty/healthy, junk/nutritious… and how all those definitions change with time! Who can keep up?”
Well, do you remember? Because I am not sure that I do. I would probably have to go back to infancy for that, around 3-4 years of age, and I don’t have conscious memories of that time.
Before proceeding, I wish to add something: I am one of those people who, when asked about their childhood, would respond automatically that it was a happy one. And, societal and family (unconscious) conditioning aside, it was, as my brothers and I were not spoiled, but never lacked for anything. We attended school, had family and friends, lived in a house with a garden, went on summer vacations, and all of that. Now back to the food stuff.
Growing up in Italy has two food-related sides: the light side, represented by the glorious food available there; and the shadow side, represented by the obsession (with women in particular) to be skinny, sexy and fashionably dressed. I am sure there were moments as a child when I felt relaxed in my eating. I was not a voracious child, quite the contrary in fact, with my mum having to find ways to make food appealing so I would eat it (especially meat, which has never been a favorite of mine). Other than those moments, which I only feel must exist not because I remember any clearly, but because I perceive bubbles of time without food-related tension, the rest of my food memories all carry the shadow side, no matter how scrumptious the food was.
Family members (not my parents, thank goodness) checking how many times you went to the buffet for refills, and how much food you put on your plate – these same family members being the first to pile up food and bee-line for the buffet numerous times. Then came the constant passive-aggressive critique from the same family members (one in particular) about being able to fit a certain size. All of this created a paradox with “finish what’s on your plate!” and “take some more!”. And that is without mentioning the societal pressure, usually expressed with big ads in magazines and billboards showing an impossibly slender and “perfect” woman next to the words: “Are you ready for bikini season?”
Yes, this is one of the shadow sides of growing up in otherwise gloriously beautiful Italy. Nothing wrong with being skinny, nothing wrong with being sexy, nothing wrong with dressing fashionably. The only thing that makes any of this wrong is obsession, and being oblivious to how controlling, dysfunctional and damaging this is. Being healthy, being the body size of choice, and enjoying the creative expression of fashion are one thing. Dysfunction and guilt are another.
A few years ago began for me what some call “the dark night of the soul”: an extended period of time (years in my and most cases) in which all the “stuff” that wasn’t really me started coming to the surface to be released so that I could by and by become more my true self. I am only able to wrap this up in such a concise sentence because I am (mostly) on the other side of this now; but it has not been easy, not at all. More like really rough and even scary at times, especially when it felt like it would never end.
I am not going into the details of that now, because it would take us too off topic, but all of that “peeling of the onion” included a whole bunch of weird physical symptoms that came and went and put me on a rollercoaster, even though blood tests and such said I was fine. This also brought on depression, anxiety (I will write about this another time) and the big unspeakable sin: weight gain. Over a period of five to six years I went from a (American) size 4/6 to a 12/14, and nothing I did seemed to counter that trend.
I would dread flying back to Italy to visit my family because of the guilty pleasure many there (not just family, but almost everyone) have around saying, first thing before even asking how you are after two days of air travel: “You’ve put on weight, I see!” followed over the next days (or weeks, depending how long the visit lasted) with sneaky suggestions on how this exercise would help, or how I might want to check out this outfit or that other and maybe get new clothes. So much fun! Not!!
The “dark night of the soul” rollercoaster had two peaks: one over a period of about two years while I was still living in Honolulu; and the second between 2016-2018. The most recent flare up forced me to put my wellbeing first, on all levels, but especially my physical wellbeing – though physical, mental and emotional are very much intertwined. I could not believe I was going through that stuff again, and it forced me to listen, really listen and pay attention to my body in a way I had not quite done before.
Here is what changed for me.
My priority switched from wanting to be skinny at all costs to wanting to be healthy, and f@*! the rest.
I let go, really let go, and learned to not only trust my body, but truly love it just the way it is and for all the amazing things it can do. I have tears in my eyes as I type this, and I am feeling my heart center expand. Those who teach that you are supposed to love yourself into change…. well, they are right. Love is the only thing that works.
I also decided I was tired of all the contrasting messages from society about what is good and not good for you to eat, which dietary system is better, which is the wonderfood of the moment, as it all apparently changes with the seasons and the cash flow. So I said f@*! to that, too.
I had already detoxed, I was already eating fresh, organic, non-processed food as a basis (the light side of growing up in Italy with lots of fruits and vegetables either from your own garden or that of your neighbor’s – zucchini season, anyone?), so I stayed with that and just listened to my body. It took a little time, but not that much, and soon I was noticing the difference between true hunger and emotional hunger.
Example: I would be, say, working at my desk, focused on what I was doing, and get a pang of hunger, then another. So I would think: ok, let me finish what I am doing and then I will go to the kitchen for a snack (the blessing and curse of working from home). Nine times out of ten I would get to the kitchen and realize I didn’t really want food at all. So I trusted that and did not eat, maybe had some water (I drink lots of that), or made some tea.
Day after day, this listening fine tuned to the point that now I don’t even have to use kinesiology (muscle testing) to ask my body what it wants, or if what I am thinking of eating is a good choice for me in that moment. I just know, I feel it physically in my body as a response. If it is something my body is good with, all is calm; but if it is something that my body really doesn’t want there is an instant and undeniable inner surge of rejection. It is hard to describe what this “surge” feels like; it is also likely different for each person. Also, the crazy symptoms have subsided, so I can pretty much eat what I want – clearly within the parameters of fresh and non-crazy-processed, of course.
This deep listening and learning from my body began around September/October 2018. Between mid-November 2018 and the end of February 2019 I lost 25 pounds (about 12 kilos) and a size and a half, and I did this without trying or meaning to, and without change in my exercise routine, just listening to my body. If I was hungry I ate, and if I wasn’t I didn’t. When I did eat, I ate until I was full and did not push further. I could always eat more later if I was hungry. I found myself eating less that way, and being more satisfied. I am still doing that.
After that, the weight loss paused for a while. I gained a couple of pounds, then lost them again, and now it (the weight loss) has resumed. It is a slow process, but I am fine with the gentleness of it because my peace with my body and food is real, and my main focus remains overall health and good energy.
I am a work in progress, for sure, so occasionally I find myself feeling emotional hunger – usually during times of stress. Except now I know it for what it is, I observe it and decide if I am going to indulge it or not. Sometimes I do, conscious of the fact that that is what I am doing and I am fine with it. Then I move on and go back to my (now) usual rhythm.
I am also by no means free of other shoulds, guilt, shame and all the conditioning collected as a child, as it still flares up in other aspects of my life. But I no longer eat guilt with my meals, and that is a big achievement for me. No matter who is, or isn’t, across the table for lunch or dinner, I order whatever I want from the menu and enjoy it. This is my new normal, and I love it!
Which is why I was both surprised and touched by my friend Lauren’s statement and “choice restrictions” at lunch. And we are back where we started.
I could go deeper, of course, and write more, but this is already long enough.
Any personal experiences you would like to share?
p.s. The bakery/cafe where everything is so good and where Lauren and I ended up having lunch twice is Creekside Bakery in Novato, Marin County, California.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like to peruse more in the Healthy Living section, or maybe some of my personal stories, which you will find by clicking on the relevant images below.
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