(Disclaimer: the following touches upon the difficulties of my personal relationship and journey with food, weight, and body image. If you have a history of disordered habits and find any of the above triggering, I recommend you skip this post.)
Hello, old friend.
It’s been a while since you reared your ugly head.
I’m sorry, I suppose that’s not very nice, but I think we’ve been through enough together that I can be brutally honest, don’t you?
While the past 25 years haven’t exactly been a walk in the park – I can’t fault you all too much, because if nothing else, you’ve been there throughout it all. Sometimes you were my best friend, and other times a sworn enemy, but come rain hail or shine, I can’t deny how reliable you’ve been.
As cliched as it may sound, I think nothing summarises our relationship better than a classic “love/hate” dynamic. We started out on a high, circa 1997. Lunchtimes were the best of times – lapping up seconds and thirds of mama’s hearty Egyptian dishes. Many an allowance was spent on a delicate Kinder surprise egg – a treat whose wonderful balance of melt-in-your-mouth white and milk chocolate has never left my memory. And what about the infamous T-Rex Dinosaur pizzas from Round Table Pizza – we loved those, remember?
But then one year, things took a turn for the worse. Standing in a stuffy changing room at the age of 7, eyes watering with tears and filled with frustration, I cursed you as my mother tried desperately to zip me up in a dress labelled ages 10-11. Shopping for Eid clothes became an anxiety inducing experience from then on. Little did I know, it would be years before I would be able to fit into the clothing department stores deemed appropriate for my age group.
I grew used to being “the big girl”. People would see school photos of my brother and I in my mother’s office, and immediately assume that I was the elder one – on account of my chubby cheeks in contrast to my brother’s practically gaunt demeanour. In school pictures I was always asked to stand in the back – front row seats were reserved for the dainty little girls whose feet could barely touch the ground. And don’t even get me started on team sports. I can’t remember a physical education class that wasn’t a nightmare. Needless to say I never ran fast enough, jumped high enough or got passed the ball.
These were the years in which we truly bonded. You became a wonderful source of comfort for me, able to lift my spirits without even trying. I never quite made the connection that the more solace I sought in you, the deeper entrenched I became in the insecurities that plagued me the most.
Fast forward to five years later. Mama had embarked on her macrobiotic diet craze, thanks in large part to TV guru Mariam Nour, and I followed suit. I drank green magma in the mornings and switched white rice for brown at lunchtimes. We even tried baking our own organic bread once (without much success, granted). All of a sudden the unsolicited comments, or compliments, rather, came firing in my direction from every which way. Family friends and acquaintances claimed to barely recognise me, commending my parents on finally getting my weight under control. “It’s good you started early” came an insightful piece of advice from my mother’s hairstylist, “her body is finally starting to look right”. Bewildered and upset, yet not quite sure why, I went home that night thanking my lucky stars that we were on the outs again. I must’ve been really overweight if all those adults had noticed a change.
But the ups and downs continued, as did the numbers on the scale. High school brought with it my first foray into dieting and exercise for weight loss. I ate a tuna salad and boiled potatoes everyday for months on end, and convinced my mother to let me join the expensive gym next to our house where my best friend and I would spend hours each day exercising during the summer. I convinced you that we could have our cake and eat it too – consuming many a subway sandwich (the healthier alternative, of course) and even falling prey to the infamous Special K cereal challenge.
Then came university. The golden years of discovering independence, awkward social experiences, enduring unseasonably cold weather and cooking way too much spaghetti. I wasn’t at all prepared for the life that awaited me in the UK, and once again you became a trusted confidant. We sampled many a vegetarian convenience food together, feasted on lemon poppyseed muffins on campus and found ourselves ordering pizza and ice cream a little too often. I hid under baggy cardigans (they were in style, right?) and avoided looking at unflattering pictures of myself. I dyed my hair red, and re-instated yo-yo dieting whenever confronting the mirror became unbearable.
Oh how I loathed you back then, but I just couldn’t break away. I needed you, and had become really and truly dependent.
It wasn’t until a few years later, that we had our first real break-up.
Inspired and determined to rid myself of the shame and guilt I had carried for so long, I entered myself into an ultra-marathon of obsessive exercise, calorie counting and restrictive eating. I thought I was finally done with you, and that you couldn’t control me anymore. With every number that slipped, I felt that much more powerful. Little did I know, it was you all along. You twisted, turned and took the shape of a monster inside me, dictating my every move and willing me to keep playing what eventually turned out to be a losing game. I crashed and burned, hard. Compliments in the form of thinly veiled concern came flooding in – family, friends, and loved ones all took note. It only took a handful of doctor’s appointments before I completely broke down – horrified at the shell of a person I had become and the damage I had wrought on my own health.
How could you have done that to me?
It took time and a lot of effort, but eventually, we found our way back to one another. I waved a white flag and begged you for peace. I couldn’t live this way anymore. We made amends, but things have never quite been the same since.
You still plague me from time to troubled time, I won’t lie. While I’ve come a long way from standing on a scale at the doctor’s office crying in despair, I still can’t look at you the same way. Sometimes you taunt me, and pull me back into bad habits – offering me your warm bosom of comfort when I need it the most, and who am I to say no? I feel like I’m always walking around eggshells around you – constantly mindful of what I do or don’t choose to eat, for fear that our dependency will spiral out of control again, either which way.
I’ve found myself wondering if it will ever be possible to have a healthy relationship with you. I mean, some days, I hardly even think about you, and can enjoy a satisfying meal in the presence of good company without casting the contents of my plant-based plate a second thought. Other times, I find those all-too-familiar feelings of guilt and shame creeping up on me.
It is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you this now:
I’m making a clean break from you, and this time I mean it. You will no longer have the ability to reduce food down to the basic dichotomy of “good” and “bad”, “dirty” or “clean. You can’t make me feel guilty anymore, because I just won’t allow it. The truth is, all this time I’ve been vilifying you, but I’ve been the one to blame. It’s not you, it’s me. This internal dialogue has gone on way too long, and its time to close the chapter – and no, you can’t get another word in, because enough is truly enough.
My pursuit for perfection will probably never cease to exist, but when it comes to us I’m shifting my barometer for “perfect”, in a way I probably should have long ago. When it comes to food, the only three questions I will unfailingly ask are:
- Is it vegan? followed by
- Is it mostly made up of nourishing whole foods?
- Is it delicious and satisfying?
If the answer to any one of those questions is yes, then I have no qualms. I haven’t, and will never, quit carbs. I still eat sugar too. I won’t stress if the only option on the menu is a deep fried falafel sandwich.
That doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind all the time either, however. My personal tastes have in fact evolved to preferring and genuinely enjoying whole, nutrient-dense plant-based foods, so there will be no shortage of those. I’m also invested in making my health and wellness a number one priority, and believe in balance and moderation.
We’ve come to the end of the road, old friend, and it’s about time for me to be letting go.
I won’t forget you – you’ve taught me some valuable lessons that have shaped the person I’ve become today. Though my passions for food, cooking, fitness and nutrition continue to thrive, my life is also rich beyond words.
Contrary to your efforts to prove otherwise, I am more than the food that I eat.