Today I Made Bread

On disordered eating and the healing power of cooking

Today I made bread. Today I poured four cups of flour, two of them white, into a metal mixing bowl and I didn’t look up the calorie count. I coaxed the dough until gluten formed; I whispered to the yeast. Then I waited and cut and rolled and — with a deep breath — started making focaccia.

Like most women, my relationship with food is complicated. When I was younger, I would spend my summers in Chongqing dabbing the grease from homemade huiguorou before consumption. As diet trends changed, I took to cutting carbs, damning sugar and worrying about fruit. In my head was a constant calculus of shame and judgment.

To be clear, I’ve never suffered from the kind of eating disorder that ends in an emaciated body on a hospital bed. And I’ve never experienced the real cruelty inflicted on the overweight. What I have — a healthy eating complex and a reliably flagellating super-ego — is insidious because it’s so common. It masquerades as morality and, like all religions, binds total strangers. Those pastries look so good, the girl behind me at the bakery says, but I had a bad weekend, so it’s salad for me today. I nod, and we both make our ritual sacrifices.

I was spared the worst of my disordered tendencies during high school, when I was too busy to worry about my diet. But during the summers, when I had time to ruminate, I always returned to restrictive eating and pinching my belly before I went to sleep. The summer before college I set my heart on shedding the “last” five pounds. For two months I stuck to a regimen of no grains, no dairy, and high intensity workouts forced onto a body that had always finished last during PE class mile runs. I came close to being underweight. But for the first time, I could wear a bikini with confidence and face a camera without flinching.

Then two months into college my period — which had always been reliable if painful — stopped coming. It didn’t return. I went to see a doctor. All my tests came back normal: no PCOS, no chromosomal abnormalities, nothing. I was finally diagnosed with hypothalamic amenorrhea, a condition in which the brain shuts down reproduction because it thinks it’s starving. At this point my weight had actually returned to that of my pre-diet days, but the damage had already been done. I had two options: go on birth control or quit all exercise and eat until I gained enough weight to restart my reproductive system. The latter would most likely leave me heavier than before.

My mother told me that my grandmother had stopped menstruating too, when she was young. But being one of eight children in a family struggling under Mao’s economic policies, she didn’t tell anyone until eventually her cycles returned. Maybe that’ll happen to you, my mother said. I thought how strange was it that fifty years after the Great Leap Forward, surrounded by material wealth, I had managed to send my body the same signals as that of a hungry Red Guard.

I am sitting on the floor of a dorm room, inebriated. It’s one of those parties where alcohol has persuaded me to let loose among piles of junk food. As I scarf down pretzels, my friend who never eats bread after breakfast reaches for the bag and confesses: my body just loves calories. I wonder how many of us carry the same anxieties just beneath the surface, a veneer of physical health belying mental torment. For tonight, alcohol numbs the self-hate, and I eat until I am sick. I will not eat again until dinner the next day.

When my doctor was trying to figure out what was wrong with me, she asked if I was an athlete or had a history of dieting. I said no, not trying to be dishonest, but because I genuinely believed that my “diets” were making me healthier. Plus, I was no athlete — my frequent high-intensity exercise were just the dues I paid for being not good enough. And I always had so much more to lose.

While wrestling with my options — birth control, which wouldn’t solve the underlying problem, or weight gain — I consulted my friends. You don’t look underweight, one said, Plus, you eat like a normal person. Another: What if you start gaining weight and can’t stop? I went on birth control.

I developed imposter syndrome for my own sickness. I wasn’t skinny enough (I was never skinny enough) for a condition caused by energy deficiency, so I continued shunning nearly all the food at my college dining hall. Then the birth control stopped working. I decided to take a semester off and return home; along with many other reasons, I thought that perhaps being around family and eating the food that I had grown up with would convince my period to return. I stopped taking the pills, adopted yet another ‘healthy’ eating regimen and waited.

Months passed and nothing happened. Here in China I don’t have an active prescription for birth control, and anyways I didn’t want to use it again.

But while coming home hadn’t given me my period back right away, something else had happened in the long open afternoons. I’d started baking. At first, I baked as a way of feeding my neurotic food habits: counting carbs, “purifying” my cakes with coconut and almond flour, choking down avocado brownies. But those were rarely a hit with the family and I often ate them alone. Inspired by the delight of the oven, and prodded forward by parents who wanted the real thing rather than pale imitations, I started thinking about bread. Real bread, the kind I hadn’t allowed myself to enjoy in years. I read about sourdough starters and Chinese steamed buns. I dreamt about dough, so much like flesh.

So today I did it. I whispered my hopes and anxieties to the yeast as it worked. I worked the dough between my hands; it was soft and clean like the cheek of an infant. When I took the focaccia out of the oven to share with my mother, I dug in, and together we enjoyed a simple dinner. I did not weigh myself afterwards. Today I made bread and started a small revolution. Maybe tomorrow, or someday, I will not think about eating. And it will be a revolution.