Cheesecake. What I wanted for lunch was cheesecake. Quick mental calculations told me that a slice of cheesecake — plain, the best kind! — would yield about as many calories as a relatively healthy salad. So cheesecake it was! The day before, it was ice cream. A dripping cone of strawberry gelato that made my fingers sticky and my soul joyful, for a moment. I bought it at a deli, surrounded by a crowd of lunch-goers buying soups and pastrami on rye. When it was my turn, I stepped tentatively toward the counter and blurted out “One scoop of strawberry gelato, please.” Middle-aged sales clerk sized me up for a moment.
“You’re not getting lunch?”
“No. Just the gelato, please.”
She tossed, what I imagine, was a look of judgement. Or maybe — more likely — she was just exhausted and couldn’t care less about what I ate.
Was I at all concerned about the frequency with which I replaced normal food with gluttonously sweet, decadent food? Should I have been? Perhaps. The truth was my relationship with food was somewhat tumultuous.
Relationship with food — when did this even become a catchphrase? In childhood, there was no “relationship.” Food was just a side-note, a necessary aside in a steady flow of life. I scarfed down mostly whatever was offered to me, consuming soups, pierogies, noodles with cheese, whatever fruits were in season at the market, and porridge — lots of Soviet porridge. As an adolescent in the U.S., being a dancer with the metabolism to match, I was all skinny limbs and no hips. I ate anything I wanted, whatever the school cafeteria served that day, or whatever I could find in my parents’ on-the-fringes-of-the-middle-class fridge. My staples when going out were hash browns smothered in cheese and onions, and topped with chili. I weighed 110lbs all through high school, stepping on the scale only for monthly dance team weigh-ins. Otherwise, I didn’t own and didn’t touch a scale, ever. Didn’t need to.
I own a scale now, fancy digital one made out of glass. It takes up prime real estate in my bathroom, next to the toilet, so that I can conveniently place myself on it immediately after I’ve done what I needed to do to rid my body of anything extra. I weigh myself every single morning, carefully registering in my mind the numbers on the scale against what I have eaten the night before: two extra brownies — one extra pound; another helping of spaghetti — two extra pounds; only two cups of tea for dinner — holding steady at current weight.
Nutritionists suggest keeping food diaries — a practice I’ve always found a bit superfluous, since I have drilled my weight losses and gains down to such an exact science, that I know precisely how any given meal, outing, dessert, or drink will affect tomorrow’s weigh-in. In-laws came by with home-made pie –two extra pounds; sister dropped in and made us both a kale salad — minus one pound; anniversary dinner out — don’t even look down. My morning weigh-ins have become a ritual which determines my mood for the day. If I’m holding to my “normal” weight, I’m content, mentally patting myself on the back and secretly thankful for the fact that the egg rolls I had for lunch yesterday didn’t make the scale move. If I’m up, the mental game becomes more involved: up by one pound — probably just too much salt yesterday; up by two pounds — need to lay off the snacks at work; up by three or more — must not eat today, at all, in order to resume normalcy on the scale tomorrow. As the sun rises the next day, everything begins anew.
The irony of my daily scale dance is that I am not overweight. I’ll say it again, mostly for myself, only for myself — I am not overweight, at all. BMI charts, my annual physical, and my amazing husband confirm that my weight is totally normal for my height and constitution. I’m not even borderline. My body bore two children; it gained and lost 40lbs twice during the course of those pregnancies; it runs 10k’s; it wears a Fitbit and counts steps; it does occasional sit-ups; it can perform Latin dancing; it likes being outdoors; it enjoys sporadic biking; it carries children who are way too big to be carried; it also carries grocery bags, backpacks, dry-cleaning, school projects, and packages to the UPS. My body gets up at 5:30am every day to make lunches. It runs like hell at the gym twice a week. It crashes on the couch at 9pm to do it all again tomorrow.
These are all the things of which I remind myself when I’m getting ready to order another meal, cook another dinner, sit at another table. Food is just nourishment for the body that has done and continues to do all these things and more. “My body likes to hike,” I tell myself, as I’m chopping radishes for a salad. Unfortunately, what my body really likes, in addition to hiking, is cake — moist, chocolate cake, that’s all. I’m still chopping radishes when I do the mental caloric math — one slice of cake versus a bowl of radish salad? Having both will mean the scale will tip tomorrow morning, not in my favor. So I have to choose; it’s always a choice; I often make the wrong one.
I step on the scale at 6am the following day, weighed down by remorse, holding my breath while the magic happens under my feet. One piece of chocolate cake, no other dinner — holding steady at current weight. I exhale.
Once, I went to a Weight Watchers meeting. I had just given birth to my second child recently; that’s to say I was about 20lbs overweight and not thrilled about that fact. So I bit the metaphorical bullet (though I’d rather have been biting almost anything else), found a location near me, and signed up for an introductory meeting. Having never been to a support group of any sort, this Weight Watchers meeting was a revelation for me — a fascinating event where women (and a few men, though it seems that men do not seek the comforts of a support group to solve problems) of all sizes came together for an hour to talk about food choices they were making. I sat, mostly silent, taking it all in. To be honest, I was objectively smaller than most of the women in that room. In my mind though, I was a whale.
The most memorable episode of that one-time Weight Watchers visit is a story I retell often now. Upon walking into the meeting, everyone had to do a mandatory, public weigh-in. The meeting has already started, when a woman who was late darted into the door. She smiled apologetically and walked to the scale, saying that she has to run to the bathroom afterwards. Shocked voices immediately nearly screamed at her to go eliminate first. “Don’t you know that you’re supposed to use the bathroom first, THEN weigh in?!” several meeting attendees shouted, their comradery thick and palpable. Bathroom first, scale second; every ounce matters. I inhaled deeply at that moment, feeling I was finally among friends. I wasn’t alone; I wasn’t the only one who always thought “bathroom first, weigh-in second;” I was normal.
Kate Moss, the waif of the ’90s and Calvin Klein’s muse, has been famously criticized by body image activists for saying, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Certainly this is not the right message for teenage girls whose bodies are still developing and need calories. Yet Kate was a grown woman when she uttered this mantra, and for grown women — for me specifically — this resonated and rings true still. Skinny feels good. It feels healthy. It feels right. I’m not in that place often, but sometimes, when my eating regimen and exercise routine align just so, the numbers below my feet in the morning reflect that I’ve been doing well.
On those days, I don’t eat cheesecake. I don’t order ice cream. I run extra hard at the gym, I hike if time allows, I eat radish salad for dinner, chasing it with sparkling water. On those days, I remind myself of all the amazing things my body has done and set goals for what it may still do: my body may climb Kilimanjaro; my body wants to run a marathon; my body has plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail like Cheryl Strayed; my body wants to dance at my daughters’ weddings. My body has plans and aspirations and dreams. My body will consume less cheesecake and more radish salad. Kate had her mantras, and I have mine. Now, what’s for lunch today…?