Cream, Sugar, and Shame

Judy Russ
Judy Russ
Dec 1 · 4 min read

minor trigger warning: This piece discusses methods of eating restriction at length.

When my mother did laundry, she’d sit on the hallway floor in front of our wooden toy-box hamper. A steaming cup of coffee always rested at her knee, light and sweet, with half-and-half and at least two spoonfuls of sugar.

One day she’d get up to answer a call on the house phone, only to return to an empty mug. She never remembered drinking the whole thing. In fact, she thought she’d only just poured it.

But this mystery persisted. Laundry day after laundry day, she’d sit down with a fresh cup of java, turn around to separate the whites and colors, and look back to see her cup completely empty.

It took her weeks to catch the culprit in the act: our new, rambunctious puppy. He’d been sneaking up close, lapping it up, and getting the heck outta dodge before anyone could notice.

I’m not sure he would’ve been so bold, had her coffee been black.

I’d always assumed it was the cream and sugar that made it so attractive to him; the same reason I’d always ask for sips as a child, and found myself pushing for cups of my own as a preteen.

It was why, when I started drinking it before school as a teenager, I’d add enough cream and sugar to make it taste like a big delicious bowl of melted ice cream.

It was the only thing that got me out of bed in the morning.

Unfortunately, as my insecurities naturally deepened with my adolescence, this ritual became tainted with accusations of gluttony.

“It’s not coffee that’s bad for you-” I read once in the wellness section of a Cosmo, “but all that cream and sugar that adds extra calories and fat. If you want to lose weight, you should avoid it.”

This was something I’d continue to read over and over and over again- in the stacks of Self, Shape, and Women’s Health I had hoarded under my bed. Cream and sugar, according to these experts of weight loss, were the enemy- a superfluous indulgence that only ended in consequential misery.

“Do you want to be thin?” My mind began to mantra, “or do you want cream and sugar in your coffee?” So I began substituting- cream with skim milk- sugar with sweet ‘n low.

It was easy to do and adjust to, ridding myself of these extras. It gave me a feeling of control. I saw results.

And so I didn’t stop:

Dessert became 100 calorie packs. Butter became 0 calorie margarine spray. Soda became water. Bread became nothing. Breakfast became coffee with skim milk and sweet ‘n low. This continued, until all of the “extra’s” from my diet had been totally eradicated. All of the flavor, fat, sweetness, and richness of my food — it was totally gone.

Food, along with coffee, had become utility. And I was adamant about keeping it that way. I even carried packets of saccharine in my purse in case I couldn’t find it when I was out.

I just couldn’t bring myself to drink in black.

I wanted so hard to be the cool, hardcore hipster type that drank their coffee with nothing. They seemed to pick up on the bold complexities of a bean that my tongue could only translate as bitter. They didn’t need to fluff their experience with luxuries like cream and sugar- to them, the coffee was enough. Just as it was.

But to me, cream and sugar were final indulgences; even with the most watery milk and synthetic sugars, it was the last pleasure in food I’d allow myself.

Whether the toxicity of diet culture, expectations set by women’s magazines of the 90’s, or my own traumatic past was responsible for my self imposed starvation of pleasure is debatable.

Whatever it was, was no match for the unexpected moment of sugary revelation that saved me.

On the first morning that I ever awoke at my current boyfriend’s apartment, I, feeling very uncool, asked if he had any skim milk for the cup of coffee he brewed me.

He reached into his fridge and grabbed a gigantic plastic jug. As he held it up to display and its contents sloshed around inside, I realized what glory was grasped in his right hand: an untouched bottle of Cinnabon flavored Coffeemate.

I happily obliged- and as my coffee turned from black to a decadent beige, the last remaining inch of “cool” that I had left in my body evacuated the premises.

I savored each sip with intense rapture, delivering years of owed, deserved gratification to my tongue. I wasn’t worried about calories or looking punk rock with a mug of midnight sludge that was dark like my beatnik heart.

I was just enjoying coffee that tasted like a gooey warm cinnamon bun from my favorite mall foodcourt kiosk, with somebody I would eventually fall very deeply in love with.

We’ve kept a 32oz Coffeemate creamer in the fridge ever since.

Judy Russ

Written by

Judy Russ

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