When I was seven years old, I became a vegetarian. For many, this might have been a precocious exploration of ethicality, but for me, it was bound up in the beginnings of an eating disorder. This may sound like an over-complication of the situation — what seven-year-old doesn’t love animals? — but deciding to not eat them was my first foray into food restriction, and also started me down the path of labelling “good” foods and “bad” foods. My vegetarianism became very strict very quickly: Within a couple of years, I had given up meat, seafood, eggs, and many dairy products. When I was fourteen, I learned about calories, and this added another layer to a disorder I didn’t yet know I had. Around this time, I also began to use running as a way to stay on top of my weight. At sixteen, I was a muscular but slim girl with an anxiety disorder and depression. Around the same time, I started more serious portion control and daily runs of at least five kilometres. Over a year or so, I lost about a sixth of my bodyweight by managing my food intake very carefully. I hated eating, especially in front of others, but even eating alone brought a deep sense of shame. Hunger pangs felt like success. When my stomach growled, I thought, “Good for me.”
Luckily, it was around this time too that I was able to start getting support — unwelcome though it was, since I was terrified to gain weight. I started therapy and medication. I was hospitalized three times during my late teen years, and connected with health resources that got me started on recovery. I honestly don’t remember the point when I stopped restricting, but I think it must have come when my mood stabilized in my early twenties. It took a lot of work, and the right mix of therapy and medication, but I finally got to a place where I was eating pretty much what I felt like eating. My vegetarianism followed the relaxation trend of my restricting behaviours: I reintroduced eggs, dairy, and seafood into my diet.
In the summer of 2011, I worked for a few weeks on an organic farm on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula. Nothing helps you appreciate food like pulling it fresh from the garden for your next meal. Something about the farming process really moved me, and I came home a burgeoning gardener as well as a baby cook.
A couple of years later, I met my husband-to-be, who loved trying different foods. We spent most of our early dates in our favourite Toronto restaurants. I also loved to cook for him, though my recipe repertoire was still very limited. Taking a job that involved a lot of cooking helped remedy that problem. I worked for over two years preparing meals for a family of four, and I took the recipes home to try them for myself in my own kitchen. I became faster at the prep and better at the composition. As it became easier, it became more fun. I was able to tweak recipes to make them my own, and cater them to my own family’s tastes.
For me, an appreciation of food and a love of cooking has been integral to my recovery from anorexia. I don’t know that I consider myself “cured”; I see myself as in remission. The behaviours are gone, but the thinking is still there sometimes. My body has recovered to the point that I now have a little belly to show for it. That in itself feels like a failure some days, when my eating disorder reminds me of the destructive behaviours I should recommit myself to: Remember to avoid “bad” foods. Remember to burn enough calories. Remember that the number on the scale determines my worth. Remember that others are always judging my body. Remember that hunger is success.
I have a dozen stupid mantras that I have written in the back of my journal that counter these disordered claims. They sound cheesy, but they help: I have a belly because I got better. I am already worthy of love, just as I am.
I talk candidly about my experiences with an eating disorder because I am reminded all the time that this sickness is so often invisible and our obsession with weight is celebrated. After I dealt with a nasty stomach flu earlier this year, a coworker congratulated me for looking thin. Recently, while out to lunch with a couple of friends, I heard one berate herself for eating certain foods, while the other exalted in the fact that overwork was causing her to lose weight. In such unavoidable moments, I try to steer the conversation away from these destructive attitudes, and toward alternative ways of thinking about food, but these belief systems often feel so ingrained as to be insurmountable.
Today, my husband and I will have a dinner of homemade eggplant parmesan. It’s one of my favourite dishes to prepare. For me, the joy of cooking is in the creating, the learning, the sharing, but — now, after so many years — especially in the eating.