Sometimes it is a quote deemed #Inspirational and other times it is just something you overhear on the train that can really refocus your thoughts on something. There can be times when those quotes or statements are the last thing you want to encounter, in many ways you want to carry on trudging through the mediocre syrup consuming you, but at other moments it can be exactly what you need without even realising it.
Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh is one of those things that I needed to encounter without even realising it. But within the first couple of pages it felt like the big hug of a bowl of soup when the sniffles are taking hold. There was something about it that caused me just to let out a massive sigh of relief, much like the one you make when opening the door to check the Yorkshire Puddings are cooked and holding the risen structure.
To fully be able to share my thoughts on this book I should probably share a little personal story with you first. This book has given me the courage to talk more freely about my relationship with food, thoughts to share with myself on how to overcome darker days and friendly reminders that food is precious and to be treasured (through slow bites or gobbling down a slice of toast in the morning).
I’ve had a disordered relationship with food for a long time and, until I recently sat down to think about it, for longer than I could have even thought possible. Whilst this story spans a number of years, I’ll try to keep it brief and bring in key things that stood out to me from the book as I tell my tale.
I can see the day as clearly now as the day it happened. The sun was out but it wasn’t overly warm and there was a soft breeze as we stood near enough to the building to hear the end of break bell and to be able to avoid the football games and construction work happening all around us. I was standing around in the high school playground during the morning break with people that I barely knew. Each day enough money appeared on my swipe card to get a snack at break time and a sandwich for lunch. In 2005 Jamie Oliver hadn’t quite got around to transforming schools and canteens so flapjacks, crisps and doughnuts still lingered on the shelves. And everyday those doughnuts, with strawberry jam centre and sugar laden outsides, became my thing. I know what you might be thinking; an 11 year old growing girl can totally get away with eating a doughnut a day, especially with schools doing P.E three or four times a week, but that only applies for people without health conditions that are allowed to do P.E and run off all that energy.
One day some of that jam splobed down onto my white blouse and looking down in a desperate attempt to clear it up and rescue the jam from my top to my mouth before anybody noticed I was disgusted at what I saw. My previously lean figure had developed a bit of a belly, I realised my clothes were that little bit tight, and I was no longer the same person in the mirror as I once knew. I certainly wasn’t ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’ at this point but for the first time in my life I felt shame. I imagined the horror if somebody seen this slightly chubby bellied girl devouring a doughnut and splobing jam all over herself and the fear of words being whispered about “of course she’s chubby, she eats those doughnuts and never does P.E” rang around in my head daily (though they were never said in earshot). But the shame led me to do it all the more as some sort of comfort eating kicked in. Slowly it went from a doughnut and a sandwich to a doughnut and a flapjack with a drink and then to a doughnut, flapjack and cookie. If people were going to call me names for my appearance I might as well self-destruct in sweet flavoured glory. But obviously it made it worse. My parents would ask what was for lunch and I’d have to glance at the foods as I was scooting along the canteen shelves with my tray to get a realistic answer. Perhaps if the system that allowed parents to logon and see what their child/ren had been spending their money on had come sooner I would have been further shamed but at least my disordered habits at least getting nipped in the bud.
Shame over a doughnut? You should never feel shame over a doughnut. As Ruby would declare, simply breath in the sickly sweet aroma and feel the granules of sugar against your lips before that sticky sharp jam cuts through it all, simply appreciate it for what it is and be pleased that such a delightful treat is in front of you. But it wasn’t just shame, it was guilt too. Guilt that I was hiding secrets about something as basic and essential in everyday life as food. The sadness that came with it all and the added sadness that I felt so under pressure to look, feel and think a certain way. I couldn’t speak out about food without some sort of judgement being cast upon me. I feared judgement, mainly from myself, and the last thing I wanted was to bring attention to having such disgusting habits.
I wish that was as far as my hidden, or at least sneaky, devouring of food got. A cheeky doughnut or flapjack was one thing but the secret trips of sneaking out of the school at lunchtime to go to the shop where you could buy a pot noodle and use the kettle on the counter or the days of university when I bought a whole six pack of hula hoops and ate them in my partners room, disposing of the evidence before he even knew they existed, showed how over the years my shamed and disgusted feelings around eating turned to secrecy and increased excess as I hate myself more and more for what I was doing.
Then there are the times where I would consume so much I would throw up, the times I forced myself to be ill after even just a tangerine, the times I became obsessed with pedalling 1000 calories away on a little under the desk machine, the times I refused to eat more than 800 calories a day, the time when I was working just before I dropped out of university and my boss had to tell me to eat food and wouldn’t let me out of their site afterwards because they were one of the few people to ever openly speak about noticing my disordered eating habits, before returning to the binge eating ways and repeating the whole cycle again. All the times when nobody knew, or perhaps chose not to acknowledge, the struggles I was battling not just on a daily basis but every moment I breathed. And as Ruby implies in Eat Up! a lot of other people in the world feel equally damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to buying, cooking and consuming food.
In the end it took me over half of my life to break the habits, to step out of the shadowy shame and escape the feelings of fear and disgust from others. Habits don’t die hard though and occasionally they linger like when you get your period before a big occasion where you want to wear sexy underwear and light coloured clothing. The ability to eat in public or around others still makes me nervous, people observing about how I separate even a burger as I consume it and the inner voice that I battle with that reminds me I’m not some skinny girl but somebody that has rolls when they sit down and eating that slice of cake probably shouldn’t happen. And reading Ruby’s book gave me the words, the thoughts and the desire to be able to fight back those thoughts further than ever before.
I’m attempting to eat dinner without any TV on, running the risk of somebody hearing me chomping on a barely cooked carrot, whenever I cook I’m taking the time to smell and sample ingredients like they are the finest thing on earth, I’m abolishing the shame in my life of having the desire to want to eat a whole bar of chocolate or reach for nothing more than a banana and I’m accepting that food is fluid and personal for everyone. It reminds me that the worst thing I can do for myself, for my mind and body, is to judge myself and shame myself. Nobody else in the queue at Greggs for a flaky pastry and burn the roof of your mouth sausage roll has any right to judge what I consume and if they do that isn’t my problem and I shouldn’t burden myself with that.
At a time in my life when everything else is coming into focus, I’m figuring out what I want and what I need and this book gave me the words to be able to figure out what my relationship with food will look like going forward and how I can start to tackle the walls I have in my head and those placed on me by society. Even if you have what you think to be a ‘perfectly normal’ (whatever that might be) you should give this book a read as it brings in science, politics, culture and more to show how there isn’t really a ‘normal’ with food and that as long as your eating fulfils your needs, desires and emotions in a relatively stable balanced way then you’re doing okay.