No, don’t look away, and please don’t glare at me either. I know that you cannot tolerate compliments about yourself, because a select few people spent a good chunk of time training you to be afraid of any comment on your appearance, but bear with me now. This is important.
You are about to embark on a wonderful new stage in your life. A stage of hard work and relative self-sufficiency, a stage where you will slowly take responsibility for your own nutrition and health. And while you will make some excellent choices, putting your imagination and curiosity towards trying out new foods, you will also be under a great deal of stress. And stress will make you vulnerable.
I’m sorry. I know, you hate the idea of being vulnerable, too. You are, after all, the “tough” one in the family, the one everyone tells to act more stereotypically girly, but also the one everyone runs to when they need a good listener. It’s a tough balance to strike because you really don’t know how to be both, and no-one pulled you aside to give you pointers. It sucks. It’s one of those things you find out by trial and error. I know you hate to hear this, but it’s the truth: you will be vulnerable. That’s okay, that’s human, and you need to admit it, to yourself and other people. Because guess what, sweetie – if you don’t, if you continue to “tough it out”, you will soon find yourself into a deep pit of despair and you will not have the courage to call out for help.
What will you be vulnerable to? Many things, but food will likely be the one you fixate on. I know, because it’s what happened to me. It started off innocently enough (as it always does) and then spiraled out of control. You thought you could handle a few “healthy” changes in your diet, but you ended up feeling sad and disgusted with yourself, a “failure” by virtue of not being a living, breathing Instagram food feed.
I know. You’re not the only one.
If you’re still listening, here are a few things I want to tell you about eating. Forgive the list format, and forgive me for being a bit tired and hungry myself (I’m still recovering):
1. Do you need to restrict food groups? I mean, do you NEED to be restricting? There are people out there who do need to cut out food items, even entire food groups. Diabetics. People with Celiacs. People who will go into anaphylactic shock if they consume a particular allergen. If you have none of these things, what is your motivation to restrict food? If it’s your health, has this been confirmed by an actual doctor, and then double-checked with an actual dietitian? Yes, GPs are fallible and have a million patients to see every day. Yes, dietitians are as divergent as there are stars in the sky. It’s still better than self-diagnosis or taking medical advice off the Internet.
2. If someone is promising you a miracle cure without even having met you, they are a quack. Even if cutting out sugar completely cured somebody’s Hashimoto’s, that doesn’t say anything about the overall effectiveness of their lifestyle. It just says that it helped them. Even if you have the exact same disease and your lives are so similar you could be twins, one person cannot give universal advice. In science, any science, we always look at sample size and characteristics and only dare to generalize findings if there is sufficient evidence to suggest they can be applied outside of a study group. A sample size of one isn’t generalizable – it’s barely enough for a case study. I’m not saying that this person is lying to you when they say something worked for them – I’m saying that if they try to say everyone should do it, and it will cure the world’s ills, they’re selling you snake oil, and they won’t give you your money back.
3. Beauty is not an objective category. Beauty, at best, is socially constructed, and society is flawed in its own ways. Go to any museum and look at what artists chose to draw. Not just across ages – individual painters had their own preferred body types, faces, styles. Stop spending money on expensive face creams, stop squeezing your pimples, and ask yourself why it’s so important to you to be able to squeeze into size 6 jeans. Is it really about being happy? Or are you just envious of people who are thin and have clear skin?
4. People who are impressed by your dress size more than you are not people worth trying to impress. Yes, even this guy you really fancy. If it were up to you, you’d diet and work out until there’s nothing left of you but bones, and believe it or not, he’s actually not interested in your bones. He’s not interested in being the ultimate authority on your value as a human being. He wants you to love yourself because that means you’ll love him, and whatever flaws he’s deathly afraid of. And if somebody does get off on you constantly looking up at them, stand up from that floor, walk out the door and don’t look back. Such people have no interest in ever giving you validation.
5. Still don’t believe me? What were the sorts of people who made you feel down in the first place? No, they were not your “friends”. You hated spending time with them, even in kindergarten, but you still chose to be a singing, dancing, 24/7 show for those royals than actually hang out with the rest of the clowns and staging a coup. When you had fun, it was with people who were as flawed and weird as you were. And it was awesome. Why was it awesome? Because no-one expected anything from you, other than show up, and that used to be so doable.
6. Food used to help you connect. It can still do that. The first time you met your roommates, and the person who would be your best friend for the next 4 years, it was over breakfast. When the Christian union came to preach, you had a nice chat over biscuits. Whenever you managed to connect with another person, it was over a meal. What happens when you start restricting is that you close in on yourself. You avoid restaurants. You order the least appetizing thing on the menu, hoping it will make you look good, but it only makes everyone else feel guilty. People didn’t want to eat your sugar-free cakes, and to be honest, neither did you. You are constantly hungry – for food, and for validation, and it’s exhausting to be around. Just sit with a new friend and have coffee. Have a damn cake if you want it so much. Eat a sit-down meal, and order the thing on the menu that you want, and then talk about how it turned out. You need energy to connect with people. So go get it.
7. The hacks you look up to live on social media. Social media, where every experience is through a medium. We choose what to post, regardless if it takes us no time at all or a month of careful planning. We try to make our photos look more flattering. We choose what to put in a frame, what filter to use, what caption. We choose what to omit. We don’t mention when stuff is difficult, and when we do, we always put a veneer of heroism over it – “Look at how brave I am, being real on social media” – when in reality, it’s called living in the real world. It’s not that special, yet moralizing it makes it harder for you to go about your day without panicking. Do you want the truth? Check out their cookbooks, and their blogs. Notice how 50% of the recipes they share are desserts, using the “right” (read: expensive) ingredients. All you wanted were more ideas about a weekday meal. Instead, you crave cake, and you can’t have it, and you can’t make it because it costs an arm and a leg, and if you do decide to have a regular dessert, you end up feeling guilty. That’s not messed up – that’s being human.
There are so many things I wish people had told me when I was 19-20. I wish I got validation more. I wish someone acknowledged that I was being bullied and that it wasn’t right. I wish someone had taken a moment to tell me I was beautiful. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been so exhausted all the time, telling myself that against what I believed was overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I wish I had known the difference between a case study and a generalizable finding. I wish I cooked food for my friends without being afraid that using white sugar in a cake is equal to abusing them. I wish I hadn’t felt like I needed to work to get people to like me.
I don’t have to. Neither do you.