Everyone knows I love food. I love eating it, cooking it and sharing it with people. It’s my art and my zen. It’s my singular mission to bring the joy of eating and cooking to others and to educate them about healthy eating. What everyone doesn’t know is that it wasn’t always this way. In fact, there was a time when I hated food. I feared it, loathed it and wanted nothing to do with it.
As a teenager and young dancer, I struggled with weight and with trying to fit into an unrealistic mold. I was blessed, or cursed as the case may be, with a very typical Eastern European body. Short, stocky, buxom. In short, not what you need to be a ballerina. I was a good dancer, in fact a good enough dancer to get into numerous summer programs at various ballet companies.
What I wasn’t was naturally tall and slender. I had to work at it. Every time I would audition and they would accept me, they would say it was contingent upon me losing 10 pounds. I was already slender but not slender enough. Long story short, this spiraled into what would become an eating disorder.
What is not surprising is that a dancer had an eating disorder. What was surprising was that it was me. I have always considered myself to be unusually mature, intelligent and mostly confident. Yet, I too was susceptible to the pressures of society and a world that puts impossible expectations on young women to look a certain way. Nobody is immune to things like a ballet teacher in college calling me the Pillsbury Dough Girl or having your stomach pinched and poked. I don’t care how tough you are. While the rational me knew what I was doing was stupid and unsustainable, I still persisted because I thought what I wanted most in the world was to be a dancer, and I was willing to do anything to achieve that goal — even if it meant being unhealthy. At my lowest weight I was a whopping 89 pounds, which even on a short 5-foot, 1-inch frame is way too thin.
Fortunately I came to my senses and realized that this was no way to live. No dream was worth sacrificing that much for. Being the pragmatic academic that I am, I tackled the problem the only way I knew how. By studying it and becoming an expert. What resulted is someone who is extremely knowledgeable about food, nutrition, cooking and above all the sociology and psychology of body image and body dysmorphia.
First, let’s take a look at eating disorders as a part of our society. According to the Emily Program Foundation, an eating disorder advocacy group, conservative estimates are that 3 percent of males and 6 percent of females will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetimes. Among adolescents, the numbers are higher, around 14 percent for females and 6.5 percent for males. This is a fascinating statistic when you consider that obesity rates in this country are also growing at extraordinary rates, particularly among young children. The question is why? The answer is fairly basic. We live in a society that is engrossed in visual stimulation. Media of all kinds from television to movies to social media to magazines portray perfection or rather pseudoperfection. What we are becoming increasingly aware of is that these so called perfect people are nowhere near as perfect as they seem. They are being photoshopped to the point that we are all striving for a completely unnatural and unattainable ideal.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have a corporate model that is also utilizing this same media to send us messages about the foods we eat. These messages emphasize fast, easy and cheap. It encourages us to eat foods that are highly processed and highly unhealthy and discourages us from doing one of the most basic tasks that could single handedly cure our obesity epidemic ... and that is cooking. They portray it as something mundane and unnecessary. Something that utilizes time that we could use doing something more important, although I’m not certain what could be more important than what we put into our bodies. Cooking is, in fact, necessary, and the single best way to maintain good health, good nutrition and maintain a healthy weight. It’s really quite simple. Instead, we are all suffering from a collective eating disorder that is embodied by two extremes and a complete disassociation from what eating right really is.
So why am I all of a sudden writing about this? Recently I have been having some trouble with my gallbladder which has resulted in my not being able to eat my normal healthy diet. Completely unintentionally and without trying to do so, I have lost almost 10 pounds since about the beginning of March, which on my frame is quite a large amount. That wouldn’t be such a big deal considering I’m getting the situation taken care of and will be back to normal shortly, but what I noticed was that I started getting people’s attention. People would say, “Hey, you’ve lost weight. You look great.” And I found myself liking the attention, the way I used to like it when I was a teenager dealing with an eating disorder. I felt compelled to weigh myself way more frequently than I normally do, and I started noticing little things like my collar bone being more defined and feeling my hip bones. These little habits are indicative of the fact that while one may control an eating disorder, it’s not something that you are ever cured from. It is always a part of your personality and your ego.
But, that being said, you can choose to let it consume you or you can remember how lousy you felt when it was the boss. I am reminded of the lethargy, the grumbling stomach, the headaches, the grumpiness. And you know what, all that is awful. I never want to be there again. It is not worth it. So for any of the irrational benefits that I may perceive from being thinner, most of which are superficial at best, being healthy and eating well feel much better for my body, mind and soul.
So I guess the lesson learned that I would like to pass along is this: Knowing what I know, having been where I have been and being the chef that I am, we as a society have to stop obsessing with shoulds. Everyone is individual, and everyone has their own unique normal which may or may not fit into the box that society says we should all fit into.
Embrace that normal. Stop fixating on the numbers. Learn to enjoy your life, your food and your body no matter what you perceive to be right or wrong. Incorporate healthy lifestyle choices into your daily routine, like exercising and eating well, but an occasional splurge is just fine. In fact it’s good for you. You cannot live your life in fear, especially of something as basic and fundamental to your health and well being, both physical and mental, as food. Each meal is just that. One meal. And guess what? There is always the next one where you can make different choices, for better or for worse.
What I know to be certain is that food is one of the most pervasive activities in life that occupies a large percentage of our time. We can either make peace with it and learn to love it, or we can spend all that time stressing over it. Life is too short for that.
So while it may sound campy to say so, Carpe Foodum.
Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.