From The Omnivore's Dilemma to digging into my experience with eating disorders
Updated: Jun 17, 2020
Reflections on my experience with eating disorders (prompted from reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma), which formed the basis of "Is Some(my) Body Home?" for Map of my Body.
Interesting really, in the light that Pollan makes reference to America's "national eating disorder", i.e. "a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily". If that sounds familiar, you're not alone.
From P98 [industrialising farm, industrialising us]
"All that's really changed since the high-tech food future of the sixties is that the laboratory materials out of which these meals will be constructed are nominally natural - the relative prestige of nature and modern chemistry having traded places in the years since the rise of environmentalism...but the underlying reductionist premise - that a good is nothing more than the sum of its nutrients - remains undisturbed. The Omnivore's prédilection to eat a variety of species is tricked by this protean plant, and even the biological limit on his appetite is overcome...they've figured out how to tease a new starch from corn that is virtually indigestible. You would not think this is a particularly good thing for a food to be, unless of course your goal is to somehow get around the biological limit on how much each of us can eat in a year. Since the body can't break down the resistant starch, it slips through the digestive track without ever turning into calories of glucose - a particular boon, we're told, for diabetics. When fake sugars and fake fats are joined by fake starches, the food industry will at long last have overcome the dilemma of the fixed stomach: whole meals you can eat as often or as much as of as you like, since this food will leave no trace. Meet the ultimate - the utterly elastic! - industrial eater."
Mind vomit (ha ha, see what I did there?) [Themes: Eating Disorder; Controlling (and isolation from) Body; Denaturing; Secrecy; Food; Capitalism; Addiction; Loneliness; Reductionism] Michael Pollan writes about how we’ve just created more and systems to keep the corn flowing, because it’s the bedrock of the economy, as much as it does not make sense. He talks about how we’ve made agriculture, then farms, and eventually humans, industrial. We have done this by creating products that use up the surfeit of corn, among which, products that are indigestible so they would not go towards our calorie count. This allowed food processing companies to overcome the inelastic demand of the human stomach. Now we could (theoretically) eat as much as we want, making us an industrial eater.
In this next part, I was trying to put myself back into that headspace I was in at 15 years old, to start to understand how and where I could take these initial reflections.
[trigger warning: some rather raw thoughts of an anorexia or bulimia sufferer]
1. A disordered reality, confusion, loneliness I am lost, and there’s no one to guide me. It feels like life’s a maze and I am so excited to explore every nook and cranny, but every now and then, I run into an obstacle and then I fall and I sit for a long time. Then I try another direction. I feel so lonely, why does everyone else seem to have a tribe? I used to have best friends, but then they didn’t really seem to want to connect further with me, or was it me? Did I not want to connect with them? I don’t know, but I definitely feel like they’re right that I am a loner. Perhaps I’ll be a loner all my life. I have to learn to do everything myself, I can’t depend on anyone, because no one wants to hold me when they have their own problems to deal with. But this is all so overwhelming, I don’t even know what to study and it feels like there’s only this one chance to make my life better. I want to escape this cycle of an uninformed life, I don’t want to be like my parents. I can’t take it, I need things to be in order! Will someone just make the choices for me? And my body - why is it so ugly? The fat collects in the wrong places - I did research, you have to lose weight overall in order to shape your body at all, there’s no such thing as spot losing. Fine, at least this is something I can control. Control is comfortable, I only need to rely on myself. There is no uncertainty. I can find out exactly how many calories I am eating, and if I can’t, well I just won’t eat it. And it’s so easy, Mummy and Papa don’t even notice what I eat, they’re so used to me eating my own food. 2. Forcing order into a disordered existence I sought out food with as little calories as I could, sweetened with artificial sweeteners, made thicker with xanthum gum, noodles made from konnyaku, all so that I could eat without actually eating. It’s not as tasty, for sure, but I feel so virtuous, and that compensates for taste. My comfort zone? The supermarket. So. Much. Choice. And Anonymity. It was public and private at the same time. No one asked why I spent so much time in the cereal aisle. I could have produced a market research report on the nutritional profile of every cereal and granola they had in Fairprice, Cold Storage and even Jasons Marketplace. I could convert kilojoules to kilocalories without skipping a beat. Rattle off the simple sugar and fat content in 10 types of cereal and granola. Sometimes the information wasn’t in English. No problem. I learnt it in other languages. I was so proud of my single-minded focus. It felt good to be sure about something, at least. But sometimes I would not buy anything because I could not make a choice. A 0.5g difference in per 100g fat content could make me paralysed about a decision. I tried to hide my obsession with calorie counting behind my intellect. It was easy to believe that the nerd was genuinely just interested in food science if you didn’t pay attention. And not many people, nor did I want them to.
It was perverse, almost like I wanted to be denatured, to disconnect my sense of taste with my body. I wanted to taste the food and partake in the ritual of meals with others, but rejected the nourishment. I considered it pollutive, or even corrupting, of my body. It did not take long for my body to change. I was 15, and up till that point, my body had been filling out, albeit awkwardly. In 4 months, I lost 10 kg, 25% of my body weight. Little hairs started growing on my body, a sign that the body was dipping into its reserves to keep me warm, so little fat was left. There are hardly any photos from this period of my life, it was like I disappeared. The annual health checkup at school stated: Student is underweight. Aside from this, there are traces in my own records that I had Anorexia. I had tried hard to obliterate this part of my life. I felt guilty that I had food and didn't want to eat it, while so many people were starving in the world. Guilty that my mother was desperate for me to gain weight, but didn't understand what the problem really was. I didn’t know how to articulate it either. I just felt deep shame that I had such a perverse pathology. She sent me to a nutritionist, a reductionist attempt at solving the problem. There’s a naive hope in thinking that if I just ate the right food, if I just cooperated and drank that high calorie meal drink - Ensure, the same drink they prescribe to old people who needed calorie supplements - I would gain weight and get better. It was an utterly useless and antagonistic endeavour as I refused to work with the nutritionist, who probably hated me.
Once I began to recover a little, eating with people was tiring. I had to put on an act. I played the role of the average girl who just wanted to diet. It is quite hard to draw a line between what is normal eating and what is pathological, and I exploited that. It was harder with people who knew I had been anorexic. They would be suspicious when I chose a salad. It was so uncomfortable eating with other people that I just wanted to be alone. So I wanted to move away, make new friends who didn't make me feel like I had to justify my food choices if they were a little low in calorie. Where people would just think my behaviour was normal. The only way I could get away from Singapore at that time was to win a scholarship to study abroad. I had gotten into an Anthropology programme in Durham, but I only got a scholarship to study Engineering. The desire to leave Singapore was too strong to ignore. I jumped headfirst into a new life in Lyon, France.
When I moved to France, I felt I had a chance at reinventing myself. Nobody knew I had an eating disorder, and I did not look like a skeleton anymore. I slipped into the skin of a regular 19 year old girl with slight body image issues. Who didn’t? I blended in. I had to eat with people all the time in the cafeteria, because meal plans were compulsory for students on campus. At first, I panicked a little every time I could not control the amount of food that was ladled onto my plate, nor the type of food. It was all so rich and I struggled to feel at ease at a table full of students who ate much more quickly and much more than me. I was terrified that someone would blow my cover, whenever they remarked how little I ate. Deep down, I knew that these regular mealtimes would help me recover, because they filled me with a sense of belonging to a group, by sharing in their meals. I played along for the most part, happy that I seemed to be on the path to recovery. I genuinely felt proud of myself whenever I managed to eat more than half of a meal, and survive a day without the urge to run 10 km to spend the calories I had just consumed.
3. Rift: Toxic addiction to the binge and purge cycle But of course it was never that simple. I couldn’t be with people all the time, nor did I want to. I often felt lonely even in the presence of people, and craved to just be alone. My roommate wasn’t always in either. Left alone in my room, Bulimia crept up on me. In a very twisted manner, I sought comfort in the possibility of throwing up if I thought I had overeaten. I didn’t have to fret about meals I couldn’t control, because I could simply stick two fingers down my throat and purge. It almost felt liberating, I could eat whatever I wanted, as long as I could throw up in solitude afterwards. But I couldn’t just stop at throwing up when I felt I had eaten too much. Now that I could just throw up anytime, what was stopping me from binging on comfort food whenever I felt a little lonely and down? I knew I was going down a dark path but I could not help it. I’d binge on comfort food, which at that time, was granola, cereal and bread. I was stuffing food into my body to fill a sense of emptiness, but how was processed wheat and corn ever going to fill that void where love and deep human connections were supposed to be?
Cereal is an invention of the food industry to use up the surplus of corn production. All these cheap calories (cheap only because the environmental cost is not factored in) value added by the food processing industry, and finally ending up as comfort food for one fucked up girl desperate to just have a normal relationship with food. It’s curious, but makes sense somehow: Whenever I could feel like a binge and purge session was coming, I’d use only the cheap low quality cereal. Bottom shelf cereal. And 40-cent baguette. Because I still valued good quality products. Homemade granola sweetened with maple syrup, Sourdough bread with homemade jam from the sunday market. There was something sacrilegious about throwing up good, wholesome food. There was a binary developing in my mind: cheap industrial food that I shouldn’t feel bad about throwing up, and good high quality food that I should make a proper meal out of. I now wonder if this had been a somatic response - my body’s way of protesting against cheap, industrial food? Anyway, it became my way of preventing myself from binging. I just tried not to buy low quality food. If it wasn’t not within easy reach, when the impulse to binge and purge came, I was less likely to follow through with the thought. This worked, but not always. Sometimes, I would still binge on the quality food, when I could not calm myself down. Sometimes there was nothing at home to binge on, and I would rush to the supermarket to buy biscuits and cereal, planning a binge session. I’d almost anticipate it as I was paying for it at the cashier’s. The worst was hiding it from my roommate, Marine. We shared a room, and a bathroom. I started to anticipate when she would not be home, so that I could safely binge and purge. I was ashamed of this pathology. There’s just something deeply perverse with the premeditated act of eating in order to purge. When I felt that I’d binged enough, I readied myself for what I knew had to come after. I’d stick two fingers down my throat and dry heave until the wet stuff came. At first it was hard, but I learnt quickly. I read with some horror the ulcers you could get in your throat and the erosion of the tooth enamel from all that stomach acid, but it did not deter me very much from giving in to the devil. Years later, at the end of a drunken night out, I felt I needed to puke, and promptly did it. I proudly proclaimed to my friend that I was feeling all better, who was rather surprised that I could make myself throw up so easily.
I also read some fascinating research on eating disorders that informed my own reflections. For the so inclined:
Eating disorders are a political issue: Bulimia Nervosa and advanced capitalism
Role of culture in eating disorders: Whose culture is it anyway?
TED talk by Kristie Amadio about the recovery process: It's time to do recovery differently: here's how