When What I Want Isn’t What I Want: On Temptation and Disordered Thinking/Eating

Note: I try to avoid writing overly confessional, navel-gazing posts, but I’m making an exception today because I think personal narratives can be useful in attempting to understand the complexities and challenges of trying to eat “well.”  

I have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I think it's hard for most people to reach this state--disordered or not. I thought I had reached it, but now I'm starting to think it's not a destination that I can "arrive" at but something that requires continuous work, like a balancing act or relationship.

All images in this entry from PostSecret 

When I work from home, I almost never eat out. That doesn’t mean I don’t eat prepared or processed foods—the freezer is almost always full of things from Trader Joes and the local Asian market (I know I could make tamales and pot stickers myself, and that that would probably be cheaper and perhaps better-tasting, but at least for now, other priorities win out over eating 100% cooked-from-scratch meals). But even if you don’t count TJ’s prepared foods and the occasional package of instant pho or ramen, I still eat mostly “homemade” food most of the time, even when I’m working under deadline pressure. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s usually quicker, easier, and cheaper to cook an egg, cut up some fruit or vegetables, or throw together a salad or sandwich than it is to go somewhere or get delivery.

Having to be at an office everyday, which I’ve been doing for the last six weeks due to a dissertation writing institute, has disrupted my eat-at-home habits. I’ve tried to pack lunches every night and keep “healthy” convenience foods like nuts and apples in my office to minimize the extent to which I end up eating out, but I haven’t been entirely successful. The availability of outside food has basically exposed me to a whole array of temptations that I don’t normally encounter, and I’ve found myself engaging in some of the patterns of impulsive or emotional eating, negative self-talk, and general anxiety about food that I thought I was mostly “over.”

"Disordered" eating (which may be a misnomer that implies there's such a thing as "ordered" eating) can manifest in many ways; starving and purging are only symptoms, the underlying "disorder" may exist or persist without those symptoms.

Bad Day Part 1: Pizza and Self-loathing

Here’s how last Friday went:

While getting ready in the morning in the bathroom, I weigh myself for the first time in about a week. I used to weigh myself multiple times a day, taking perverse pleasure in every decrease, no matter how small, even if it was clearly due to excretion or being dehydrated from drinking too much the night before. Now I’m not nearly as obsessive, but when I see that the number is over 110—the highest it’s been in at least two years—I feel disappointed and ashamed. I tell myself the number doesn’t matter, and even if it did matter, 110.4 is a perfectly acceptable number for my height and build. And even if it wasn’t a totally acceptable number, obsessing about it wouldn’t do any good. But the best I can do is repress the emotions. I can’t un-feel them. 

It's so hard to internalize the fact that restricting food actually represents a *lack* of control or self-restraint. Even when it takes the form of "restraint," it is unrestrained restraint. I mean, obviously, right, someone in control of their restraint doesn't let it kill them.  In the kitchen, I look at the last container of leftover nettle soup in the refrigerator and sigh. The factors in favor of taking it are many and obvious: it is tasty, relatively healthy, easy, and will prevent me from even having to think about leaving the office to get food. There was even a handful of oyster crackers left at my office from the day before, when I had made the “right” choice and taken the soup. But I tell myself I’m “sick” of it, since I had it yesterday. I briefly contemplate grabbing one of the packages of tamales from the freezer, but then I’d have to find something to transport salsa in. Also, I don’t really have the eating implements at the office for that, and it doesn’t even sound that good in the first place. I am conscious of and unhappy about the fact that I’m making excuses. I throw some cherries in a tupperware container to eat for breakfast, feeling like that’s a reasonably healthy “trade-off” for the potentially less-healthy lunch I’m setting myself up for.

It hasn’t been a good week for dissertation writing. I keep revising instead of adding new material—or, worse, writing blog entries and playing games online. I feel lazy and ashamed, and I know that what would make me feel better is to actually do the work. But I just keep not doing it—willpower failing on multiple fronts. However, this particular morning goes pretty well. I spend an hour or so on the egg post, but then I finish revising a section of the chapter that’s been frustrating me for a while. Around noon, when I start to get hungry and distracted, I decide that the best way to keep my momentum going is to take a break and go to lunch to try to circumvent the pit of despair that I seem to slip into around 1pm.

I wander outside contemplating my options and decide to get pizza. I know this is probably among the worst of the options available to me no matter what criteria you’re using—carbs, calories, fat, pizza has it all in abundance. My justification is that I have been vaguely wanting pizza for days, so perhaps if I just have it, I will stop thinking about it and possibly compensating for not having it by “splurging” on other foods.

It tastes good, but as with most foods I have ever craved or idealized, it’s not nearly good enough to warrant either “craving” or feeling guilty about. The idea that it’s a “bad” food only makes me want it more, it doesn’t make it taste better. I probably would have gotten more pleasure from the nettle soup. I make a note of this but endeavor not to mentally castigate myself. working to change my perceptions about what is pretty--on myself and other people--is a related challenge, and also one that takes continuous effort.

Perhaps because I can tell I’m on a sort of dangerous track, while I’m eating the pizza, I start thinking about a moment a few years ago that has become somewhat totemic for me as an example of my “disordered” past tendencies. I was looking at a friend’s stomach—she’s slender, but has a tiny rounded belly—and I thought something along the lines of: ugh, if my stomach ever looked like that, I’d start seriously starving myself. It was less…concrete than that because I didn’t put it into words, but it was something between that kind of thought and more general feeling of disgust and dread that seemed like it was directed outward (towards the friend) but was actually just a projected form of self-hatred. At the time, I took the comparative flatness of my stomach as evidence of my superior self-control. But I wasn’t in control—I was terrified of getting fat and ashamed of my hunger and hypercritical of my body. When I did feel beautiful back then, it was entirely dependent on feeling thin (not being thin, because it was entirely about perception, not reality) and it was a hollow, imperious sort of self-love that required other people to be fat and inferior. And most of the time, I didn’t feel beautiful at all.

Thinking about that moment and how completely insane I had to be to think this woman was fat seems to help. I say to myself: So I had pizza for lunch, so what? Eating two pieces of pizza is not some major “transgression.” It’s not going to make me fat or sick, it doesn’t make me morally weak, and it definitely does not make me less beautiful or deserving of love.

Bad Day Part 2: The Unscratchable Itch

After lunch, still feeling vaguely hungry but suspecting that I’m really just thirsty since I didn’t get a drink with my slices, I stop in a small market/deli and contemplate the bottled drinks. I know VitaminWater is basically just sugar-water—that the antioxidants and “superfruits” advertised on the label are classic appeals to what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism,” that it is not going to make me healthier, that I won’t even like the taste that much. But for some reason, some part of me wants it—VitaminWater is now the thing I hope will scratch this itch I can’t seem to locate, which is probably the same itch I was trying to scratch with the pizza. Deciding not to agonize over it, I pick up a bottle of XXX vitaminwater ZERO (acai-blueberry-pomegranate flavored), without even checking to see what the “natural” zero-calorie sweetener is (it turns out to be stevia). I also grab an apple in case it turns out that I am actually still hungry or want a snack later that afternoon. And then, remembering that I have a 5 hr drive ahead of me that evening, and in anticipation of that or perhaps to offset the “virtue” of the apple and calorie-free vitamin water, I grab a bag of Werther’s Originals Chewy Caramels. Even though I clearly also have and succumb to cravings, I find myself being snarkily judgemental about people who talk about cravings, which I think results partially from popular representations of women as basically crave-beasts made utterly irrational by things like chocolate and low-fat/low-calorie yogurt.

As I put them on the counter at the register, I feel like this is unlike me. I feel like I ought to be above these things: eating “junk food” for lunch, impulse-buying VitaminWater and candy. I’m not even entirely sure why I’m doing it. It certainly doesn’t make me happy.

Back at the office, I look at the nutritional information for the caramels, even though I don’t want to care. I used to count calories obsessively. I don’t anymore, and not just because caloric algebra is imprecise and restricting calories just prevents you from having enough energy and slows your metabolism. What concerns me more are the psychological effects: it causes me to moralize my hunger and food choices, making calorie-dense foods “bad,” and that causes me to crave them. Even when I resist the cravings, I feel ashamed for having them, and become more inclined to indulge in other self-destructive behaviors, either to “treat” myself for being good (resisting cravings) or to punish myself for my unruly appetite. Basically, it makes me want to eat more and enjoy the food I do eat less. Even people who lose weight the "healthy" way through diet and exercise almost always gain it all back, or more. 60% within a year, 97% within three years. 23% gain back more than they lost. Attaching moral significance to weight is a recipe for self-loathing.

Also, it’s unsustainable. My pattern for years was basically: for 2-6 months, I’d restrict myself to 1100-1700 calories/day (usually trying to alternate low and high days). I’d lose a few pounds, feel superior in a hollow way and make pejorative judgments about the moral character of everyone fatter than me (and given that my BMI was between 17.2-18.0, almost everyone I knew or met was fatter than me). But eventually, I’d run out of steam and I’d start “cheating” more, although most of the “cheating” seems pretty ludicrous now—I remember considering a small skim latte a big indulgence. Eventually, I’d stop weighing everything I ate and looking up nutritional values online and for maybe 6 months, I’d eat basically whatever I wanted (although I was always still following some form of restricted diet that usually had ethical/medical rationalizations, i.e. veganism, but was also at least partially motivated by the desire to stay thin). At some point, I’d notice that I had gained a few lbs, and that would inspire me to start counting/restricting again. Many dieters know this cycle well.  Of course, not all vegans are disordered eaters, but I think part of the gender imbalance in vegetarianism/veganism is related to the same factors that cause the gender imbalance in diagnosed eating disorders. More women than men use/abuse food as a form of self-control. Because I really don't think women are generally more "ethical" than men.

Even though calorie counting or “dieting” is often difficult and unpleasant and takes a lot of mental energy, it’s also incredibly difficult to resist because of the short-term weight loss and the illusion of control. The thing I still can’t seem to shake, no matter how much I try and want to, is the desire to be thin—or at least, to not be fat. Given that I know how to be (temporarily, unhappily) very thin by restricting how many calories I eat, it’s hard not to see calories, especially in sugary or starchy foods, as a measure of how bad the “bad’ things I eat are. The caramels turn out to be approximately 40 calories/caramel bad, which I immediately compare to the 20-calorie sugar-free popsicles in our freezer at home (another sin against the Church of Real Food, like the VitaminWater). Each one of these caramels = two popsicles. I eat three of them and ignore the apple, and then struggle to tell myself that that’s okay and that letting this become a matter of guilt/desire will only make me want more and feel worse, etc.

People also derive a lot of pleasure from monitoring their diet, weight, and body shape, too. But if it causes you more anxiety than pleasure, try stopping for a while. I know that's easier said than done, but deciding you don't want to worry or obsess anymore is the first step.

Saying “Enough!” and Giving Myself Permission to Eat What I Want

The rest of that day was better and this week has been fine. I really can’t emphasize this enough: last Friday was an exception, not the norm. However, that kind of lapse—and I’m referring to the thought patterns I indulged in, not the act of eating the pizza or caramels—has been happening way more frequently since the institute started. It’s been an unpleasant reminder that the balance I thought I had achieved—where I generally don’t make impulsive, emotional decisions about what to eat, don’t count calories, don’t feel bad about what I want, and just plain don’t worry so much about getting fat (and by the way, don’t gain weight: I was stable at ~105 lbs for almost 3 years after breaking the calorie-counting cycle)—is still really fragile.

I try to speak up when people make pejorative comments about fatness, I try not to make or think complimentary things about thinness or congratulate people on weight loss. But the idealization of thinness is pretty pervasive. It's difficult to resist. At first—hell, even when I started writing this entry—I thought the problem was the sudden exposure to all kinds of temptations I normally don’t have to deal with. But that’s not quite right. The kind of food that I want when I’m on campus is not the kind of food I actually find all that desirable. The reason it’s not tempting when I work from home is not just because it’s far away, but because there’s nothing inherently tempting about it. I made it into a temptation by constructing “food from home” as the virtuous alternative, which inevitably made it seem boring and oppressive and made me desire restaurant food as the “bad” other. And then, rather than choosing restaurant food that might have been nutritionally equivalent to something I’d eat at home, I was looking for a “treat” so I chose things that violated my beliefs about what is “healthy”…and still felt dissatisfied. Thus the itch I couldn’t scratch.

What I should have done from the start of the institute, and what I will do if I’m ever in this kind of situation again, is reject the impulse to moralize my lunch. I hereby give myself permission to eat as much restaurant food as I want, from whatever restaurants I want. I will eat pizza every day for a week if I want to. And the funny thing is that already, just by giving myself permission to do it, I find that I don’t want to. I only want it when I think I shouldn’t.

That’s basically the same strategy that a lot of proponents of “intuitive eating” recommend to people who want to break patterns of emotional or compulsive eating. It’s hard to listen to the cues your body supplies about hunger and satiety if the reasons you’re eating have more to do with being sad or angry or feeling deprived or wanting to be comforted or thinking you deserve a “treat” than they do with whether you physically need food. If you reject the idea that some foods are virtuous and others “bad” but therefore very desirable and rewarding, you rob food of the moral and emotional significance it has acquired due largely to contemporary anxieties about fat (which are not medically justified—see Paul Campos The Obesity Myth, J. Eric Oliver Fat Politics, Glen Gaesser Big Fat Lies or Michael Gard and Jan Wright The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology).

If you decide that you are going to eat what you want without judging yourself—without feeling shame or guilt or self-hatred or the culturally-constructed fear of fatness—a crazy thing happens: you will probably eat mostly “healthy” things in moderate amounts. I don't think most people do have to pick, but if I ever do, I hope I have the strength to choose fat and then try to learn to be happy.Here’s how another Margot, who writes the blog ReelGirl describes her experience of learning to “eat when you’re hungry, eat whatever you want, stop when you are full” (basically the intuitive eating mantra):

I was ready to stop dieting. I’d had enough. It bored me to tears. I was sick of it and bulimia too and thinking about calories or fat grams. I read a book called Overcoming Overeating and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (both by Jane Hirschmann), and I did exactly what the books said. I filled my house with an abundance of every food I wanted, and if I binged, I’d go out the next day and buy lots more. That action helped me like nothing else.

Keeping my house stocked with all the food I loved no matter what showed me that I was sticking with myself no matter what, even if I gained 300 pounds, I didn’t care, dieting was over for me. I didn’t gain much weight, by the way, maybe five pounds– going from extreme dieting, calorie counting, and throwing up to eating whatever I wanted hardly made a physical difference. (from an interview she did with A Weight Lifted)

The hardest part is really convincing yourself it’s okay to eat what you want. I’m actually not sure if she—or I—would stick with it if we did gain weight. Despite the fact that I believe that fatness is not a moral or medical concern, despite the fact that I think the idealization of thinness is destructive—especially to women, who are subject to far more scrutiny of their bodies and food choices and held to a much more restrictive standard—the desire to be thin is hard to shake. And as long as I care about being thin, I will probably still sometimes feel ashamed of my body or my desires or my food choices. I feel better and happier about my body and food choices than I did three years ago, in part because giving myself permission to eat what I want broke the negative thought patterns that used to really dominate how I thought about food. But it’s clearly still—and may always be—a work in progress. 

Most days, I am. All is probably too much to ask for.