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Photo of three mismatched, weathered, closed, brown metal folding chairs leaned one-by-one against a haphazardly painted white wall, by John Lambert Pearson.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, And The WTF

Or, Should you keep your love for organic carrots to yourself?
“Orthorexia – a fixation on righteous eating by someone who takes healthy eating to an extreme and feels good about it, often developing a sense of moral superiority.”

Mildred was struck by the averageness of the six people sitting on folding chairs with her in the circle. As she looked at the Licensed Clinical Social Worker sitting across from her, Mildred noted that nothing much about her, besides the papers she held in her lap, differentiated her from the members of the group. They appeared to be comfortable neighbors who’d each thrown on shoes and whatever jacket was closest to the door before meeting up around the corner to talk. The three average women and two average men (Mildred discovered from the basic introductions) had been coming together in this room at their neighborhood community center, every Thursday evening to maintain their deliverance from the eating disorder that had once made their lives unmanageable.

Mildred’s husband, Tim, found this meeting for her. He found a different one for himself that met at the same time down the hall, for spouses and families of orthorexics. He had been troubled for years by his wife’s behavior, and now that they had two small children, he was at his wit’s end trying to convince her that she was being unreasonable about the family’s diet, the foods they selected at the grocery store, and the grocery stores where they did their weekly shopping. When he spotted a newspaper article about orthorexia and saw his wife’s symptoms in it, he searched the internet until he found help.

Mildred knew that if others thought something serious was wrong, and you were the only one who didn’t, it was best to consult a professional to help get to the truth. She knew that often the one with the problem was the last one to see it that way, and she didn’t want to hurt her family. She felt her decisions about food were well thought out, healthy, and sane, but she came to the meeting to check out a different point of view for the sake of her husband and their two young children. Mildred loved them enough to get the facts and make sure. She didn’t want to play fast and loose with her family’s health.

“Well, now that we’ve introduced ourselves, let’s go around the circle and see how everyone’s doing.” The social worker, Mrs. Perkins (“but it’s fine to call me Anne”), looked into each of the faces sitting around her. She stopped at Mildred’s. “We’re all so glad to meet you. Would you like to tell us what brought you here?”

Mildred was uncomfortable and unsure how to begin. “No, not yet. I’ll just listen for a while.”

Anne wrinkled her nose and smiled as if she understood completely. She moved on to the woman sitting at Mildred’s left. “Linda? Can we start with you?”

Linda gave a wan smile. Her eyes darted from one side of the circle to the other, then down into her lap, watching her fingers weave in and out of a clasp, before she took a deep breath and began. “I’m so glad I found this group. I’ve learned so much from all of you. It’s hard to believe I was so sure I was right to be a vegan. All the foods I wouldn’t eat, and the harmless, important additives I avoided with no good reason …” She looked up, a fire kindling in her eyes. “I saw a commercial this week that really made me think. These two women were talking about corn syrup, and one of them was so lovely and so smart. She helped her friend understand that corn syrup was just sugar.” She held her hands out in front of her, with her palms turned upward, as if she expected a basketball might fall into them soon. “The body can’t tell the difference. Our bodies metabolize all sugars the same way. Her friend was so surprised. You could see it. She looked a little sheepish and embarrassed, but she got it. I just wish I had understood everything sooner. I wouldn’t have put my friends and family through so much. ”

Mildred’s mouth was agape as she stared at Linda. She closed it quickly, but found that she had to speak. “There are studies suggesting that high fructose corn syrup is bad for children. That commercial’s trying to confuse …”

Anne held up her hand. “Mildred. Please. We don’t interrupt each other here. I understand this is your first meeting, but you’ll have to wait your turn to speak. We’re listening to Linda now.”

“It’s all right,” Linda said, gazing sweetly at Mildred. “I’m done now, anyway.”

Anne turned to Mildred.

Mildred shook her head. Her lips were between her teeth and she tried not to let her anger bite through. She decided not to expand on the subject of corn syrup for now.

Anne nodded to the man sitting at Linda’s left. “George?”

George was a fortyish, burly man in a dark plaid shirt, whose belly curved the fabric out and over the waistband of his slacks. His diction was crisp, his voice deep and soothing. “I’ve had a good week,” he said peering tenderly into the faces of his fellow group members. “No fixations.” His eyes twinkled. “And I saw an interesting commercial, too … ”

Mildred’s heart sank.

“It was beautiful, like a good old Gary Cooper movie. It showed farmers and their families. It paid tribute to these good people who deserve a fair shake. That company wants us to remember the good people who grow our food, and remember to support them instead of treating them like they’re doing something wrong when they’re having hard times. I’m amazed by how many people still hate pesticides and fertilizers. How can farmers make a decent living if they don’t take care of their crops?”

Everyone but Mildred nodded in agreement. She cared about farmers, too, and thought they were underappreciated, but she’d seen that commercial, too. “Oh come on,” burst out of her before she even knew. “That corporation patented genetic material — GMO seeds!” She missed Anne’s arms waving wildly across the room, and almost didn’t hear her voice beyond the din of her own anger. “If the seeds aren’t purchased from them, and the company finds any of their patented genetic material in a farmer’s crops, they’ll force them to destroy the whole crop. If the farmer doesn’t do it, they’ll sue them.” Anne’s voice grew louder from across the room. Mildred turned in her direction for a fraction of a second and spat out, “No, I have to say this.” Then she turned back to George. “Bees can cross-pollinate crops. Wind can blow pollen across a road. That corporation does more to screw over the family farmer than any of us ever could.”

“Mildred!”

The shrillness of Anne’s yell jolted Mildred quiet. She crossed her arms over her heaving chest as she surveyed the startled faces around her.

“Mildred, this will get easier for you, I promise. It’s difficult to be faced with a point of view that’s so different from your own, but you’re here to get better, and we’re here to help you. Being here means that you’ve taken the first step. You’ve acknowledged that you have a problem. Listen to us. Give this group a chance.”

Mildred was quiet, from shock she supposed, but even so she only half listened as the others talked about their weeks and their oh-so-meaningful experiences in the world of absolute non-judgemental eating. She stopped listening altogether when the story of one woman’s return to the delights of Red Velvet cake (and its full bottle of red food dye) was bandied about as proof of her return to sanity.

At the end of the meeting, Mildred was swept along with the others as they migrated toward a table of food she hadn’t noticed before. She was offered a paper plate. Her arms were still folded, and she made no effort to take it, but she did begin to listen again to what Anne was saying.

“We’re lucky that our meetings are sponsored by some wonderful food companies. They supply samples and coupons for us. Here take a goodie bag.”

The folding table was laden with electric yellow snack cakes with thick white streaks of icing, the leading brand of toaster tarts, chocolate bites that Mildred knew had little or no chocolate in them, purportedly healthy breakfast bars, and a big casserole of macaroni and reconstituted cheese-food that aggravated her more than the rest, considering how she even hated the so-called natural version of the dish that was available at Whole Foods.

The level of her anger began to scare her. Her aversion to this food had Mildred questioning the feeling and wanting it to go away. Wouldn’t life be easier if it did? How could she make it stop? She was shaking as she looked into Anne’s face, and then down at the shopping bag of “goodies” and coupons the woman was holding and trying to tempt her with.

“Your kids will love these,” Anne sing-sang as she dangled the bag in front of her.

Mildred had become dizzy by the time her eyes drifted to a sign above the table that read, “The best diet for your family should include a wide variety of foods. Help yourselves to these samples of foods that your family will love.” The signature was that of the same corporation that advertised how we should all show respect family farmers, even though it didn’t.

Mildred fed her family a wide variety of foods, and she insisted on reading labels thoroughly and avoiding unnecessary ingredients. She preferred organic when it mattered. If she was rich, she’d buy all organic, on principle. Her involuntary shaking stopped as she recognized exactly what was happening and found her resolve again.

As the hypnotized faces around her showed concern for her health and spirit, she discovered she was much more political-minded than she had thought. It was time to find a different kind of meeting to attend so she could discuss the defense of choice, and ways to counter both inadvertent and mean-spirited propaganda. If she couldn’t find that kind of group, she’d start one herself. She walked out into the hallway without saying a word, and ran into Tim there, holding one of the “goodie” bags from his own meeting.

“How was it, honey?” he asked her. “Mine was great.”

Mildred answered her husband with a tight grin. Better to discuss things at home.

“It’ll be all right,” Tim said. “I know it will.” He reached into his pocket for the car keys. “I’m feeling kind of wired all of a sudden. I wonder if I’m coming down with something? Can you drive?”

Mildred noticed a few electric yellow crumbs clinging to the side of his mouth. “Sure,” she answered. “And let me carry that for you, dear.”

Tim didn’t notice when Mildred dropped the “goodie” bag into a sidewalk trash can, before they reached the car.