Tales from a Food Cult

red velvet

I wouldn’t exactly say I grew up in a food cult, but it was the south so it’s slightly accurate. In the South, feeding someone is how you show affection. Consider it cuisine currency. Many times it takes the place of having to say “I love you,” “I’m sorry” or any talk of “feelings.” We’re not repressed in the South necessarily, we’re just more likely to say, “Bless your heart” than anything else.

Not to say I wasn’t loved growing up. I certainly was by many people. Many of those people just happened to feed me a lot. Whether things were good or bad, we would eat. Both of my grandmothers were amazing cooks (my mom was an okay cook, but she really didn’t love it). My Granny Faye was the queen of southern comfort food and baking. She made lots of cakes – birthdays, weddings, celebrations. She made homemade butter cream icing, which she often let me lick from the bowl. Interestingly enough, I really hate butter cream icing now. I never visited her without her asking me what I wanted to eat. She was a serious food pusher. This all seemed very normal to me. My other grandmother, Granny Helen, made the best mashed potatoes, apple pie and sweet tea. I was raised on sweet tea, the kind that would give you instant diabetes it was so sweet.

So I ate some really great food growing up. I was very active then so weight wasn’t really an issue. Until around fourth grade; that’s when I started to look a little pudgy. And I had a bad perm and glasses – not a good year for me. It was during this time that I was first called fat, and I realized that being thin meant fitting in.

The cakes kept coming though. On one hand, I began to understand that cakes made me fat, and on the other hand, people I loved gave me cake. It was confusing. Was food good because it meant someone loved me or was it bad because it made me fat? I can say that my friends and classmates never teased me about my weight. But I did get a lot of it in dance class. Those girls were brutal. I lost my desire for dance after this and stopped taking classes.

By seventh grade, I had grown a few inches and was suddenly thin again. I was told I had shed my baby fat. Boys started to be more interested, and everyone complimented me on my appearance. No one was telling me I needed to lose weight anymore. I was accepted again, praised for being pretty and thin. But there was still cake. Food started to become more of a comfort. I had learned it meant love, but now I was using it as a way to not feel bad. I couldn’t love myself or possibly have the awareness that I have now so food was an answer. It was all a balance – food versus being thin.

The pressure to be thin, of course, only escalated in high school. There was so much going on in my life outside of normal teen angst that I felt like I didn’t have control of much. I could control food. So began a long journey of trying to get out of the food cult. I could eat food and feel comforted but not deal with repercussions of it by throwing it back up. I could not eat and see how long I could go, how far I could push myself. This went on for many years on and off, depending on stress, hurt and waist size. I’ve also been obsessed with exercise; there were periods I worked out twice a day. I’ve gone months on 1,000 calories a day. I haven’t really been a fad dieter just a desperate one.

Over the years, I’ve been thin, I’ve been chubby, I’ve had muscles and I’ve been fat. I don’t thinking I was ever really happy with the way I looked even when I was at my smallest. I still didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror. I still saw every imperfection. I don’t think I’m unique in this struggle. My feelings about my body aren’t just due to the experiences I had growing up. There’s also of course the beauty obsessed culture we live in. There have been some advances in thought about what is beautiful. There have been many courageous women who accept their bodies and are happy with the way that the look, even if it’s not the “ideal” that’s been set by magazines and Hollywood. Good for them. I’m not there yet.

Fortunately, even when I don’t feel good about the way I look, I have a man who doesn’t see my imperfections and tells me I’m beautiful every day. I love and trust this man, but I would never reveal my weight to him. I know he loves me regardless yet that doesn’t make me brave enough to be completely honest. I haven’t always been so lucky. It’s devastating when the one person who should be attracted to you suddenly isn’t.

Even though it’s wonderful to have acceptance from the one I love, I’m not sure if I’ll ever have it from myself. I wasn’t taught to accept myself as is – physically or otherwise. That’s not how Americans think. I grew up looking at Barbie, the most popular toy for girls and my personal favorite. She’s perfect, actually too perfect. I know they have new Barbies now that look more normal, but that wasn’t my childhood.

How can a woman sort out what’s important when she’s praised the most when she weighs the least? Food is, of course, necessary; it’s our fuel. I just wish I had understood from the beginning that food doesn’t mean love, and it doesn’t provide comfort. I’m still thankful for anyone who will cook for me because I don’t cook. But every bite of food I put in my mouth comes with this dialogue in my head.

I honestly want to eat healthy. And, for the most part, I like healthy foods. I am a bit picky, but I will at least try most things. But I also really love French fries and red velvet cake. Right now, we are in the midst of some serious dieting to prep for the wedding and honeymoon. We do have one cheat meal per a week. Otherwise, we’d go insane.

So I think it’s important to put any subject or challenge I have through a wider scope. The fact is people are still going hungry in this world. Yet obesity is rampant. It’s a strange dichotomy. Someone starves; someone overeats. Some suck their fat out at a cost of thousands of dollars while others scrounge in a dumpster. So in the end, people are dying to eat and dying to be thin.

This should make me have kinder eyes when I look in the mirror. I would think it’s a marvelous thing to look at yourself with love rather than disgust. This is a struggle happening every day in mirrors all over the world. We want to be happy with what we see instead of filled with doubt. All these years later, I guess I’m still in that food cult because when certain ideas become entangled, it’s hard to separate them. Food does not equal love. Being thin doesn’t mean you are a good person. But believing all this, however, is something really hard to do. I can only say that I will keep trying. And I will forever always want cake. 

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