First and foremost, I’d like to state that yes, I know this is weird. And yes, I am always very careful about staring, because the last thing I’d ever want to do is make someone uncomfortable.
That said, I often find myself watching people interact with food.
You read that correctly. Its not just the eating that holds my attention — my mind automatically cues in to how often they reach for the food, how much they consume, and their body language as they commit the act. Are they working while they chew and swallow? Are they watching TV, or scrolling through their phone? Do they leave some on their plates, or do they polish it all off and maybe even reach for more?
How do they go about such a task so nonchalantly, without the endless fidgeting and shifting to make sure everything is just right so they can eat in peace?
Is the individual aware of the nutritional value of what he or she is feeding their body? Do they care? Will they remember that they ate this? Do they labor over making it last, or draw the process out in honor of a psychological ritual? Or does eating come naturally to them, like breathing or sleeping?
And so on and so forth. The stream of questions is relentless and I’m like a toddler with her eyes glued on an older superior, trying to learn through observation.
One of the production workers at the plant where I work just walked by outside the window, making a b-line for the smoking area out past the gates. She was holding a bag of pretzels and a Pepsi, its electric blue label warm with the implication of sugar and calories. In front of me next to my keyboard sits the silver Pepsi label. Diet — empty and sharp, like crisp shards of ice.
I wonder if she will be uncomfortable when she finishes consuming these things. If the concept of a full stomach will make her skin crawl, or if its just the norm in her day to day living.
I wonder if she has an eating disorder, or struggles with her body image. I wonder if she will finish the pretzels and the soda and wish there were more, or if she will grow content after eating them, maybe even leaving a few in the bag for later.
I wonder if she’s self conscious about eating in front of others.
I wonder if I’m nuts for wondering all of this.
It is about 1:30 pm, and this week I’ve shifted around my eating habits to reduce my overall intake even more. I knew this relapse was coming — in these past couple weeks (since Thanksgiving) my ability to allow myself basic amounts of food has grown flimsier with each day. The symptoms of relapse are always consistent: I become obsessed with ritual — whatever I consume prior to work has to be at 5 am, and it has to be exact. If I eat at work, it has to be at 1:30. Any variation in time and the bulimic pull becomes more overwhelming. If its later than 1:30, I run the risk of higher anxiety levels in the afternoon, because my head tells me any time later than this predetermined hour and minute translates to “better off just skipping it.”
Things have to be so precise, and I always end up feeling so overwhelmingly guilty over it anyway, that I’ve stopped eating during the day altogether. Instead, I got rid of my avocado toast in the morning and instead eat half a cup of cottage cheese with my coffee. Then I just consume water and diet coke for the following 12 to 15 hours until I’m home for the night and can binge, purge, and go to sleep.
It is also very against the grain to apply a title to these meals of mine. I suppose the proper term would be “breakfast” and “lunch,” but I hate letting those words pass through my lips. I always say “eat in the morning” or “eat at work” when referring to them, because the very notion of letting my mouth form such an obese, obscene succession of consonants and vowels is unthinkable to me.
Not that I shudder or second guess it when others use the terms. This rule only applies to me, and my own morbid existence in relation to food.
I’ve dropped this “lunch” meal out of my day entirely because its easier at this point to just not even bother with food while I’m trying to exist at my job. Sure, being so fucking hungry makes the time drag and everyone I interact with look like giant cartoon steaks. But its still an easy trade off — that hunger and slow work day pales in comparison to the emotional somersaults and general mental nonsense I have to navigate should I choose to eat something.
None of this is new. I’ve written about all of it before — this is a textbook relapse, and I have zero strength in me to fight it.
What I haven’t written about before is what I stated above — my observation of others when they are interacting with food, and the emotional bull-fuckery that entails.
There was one day in 2013 or 2014 when I was grocery shopping and, as I got back into the car with my load of binge food, I noticed an older woman sitting in the drivers seat of the vehicle across from mine.
She was alone, probably listening to the radio or something, and eating a vanilla ice cream cone. That kind you can buy for $1 at McDonalds.
In noticing her I experienced a series of rapid emotions, all of which tying together to end in a deep and overwhelming sense of sadness for this poor, lonely ice cream eater, sitting in her car in the middle of the day.
Now, I’m sure she was totally fine. This woman was probably on her lunch break, saw the ice cream picture on the drive through menu, thought “wow that looks good,” bought it, ate it, and went back to work.
To me, however, the very fact that she was eating and alone and an adult was such a devastating combination of factors that I started bawling right then and there.
Because to me, she looked like a lost child who missed her parents. She was alone in a big cold world and the tiny comfort she found — ice cream — would be gone in a matter of minutes, only to be replaced with guilt and disappointment and loneliness.
I often can’t think about my dad or his eating habits for the same reason. He is a total asshole, don’t get me wrong, but he’s pretty much entirely alone because of that and very, very depressed. Anytime I think about his sad dinner of noodles and butter I have to immediately distract my brain with something else, lest I start sobbing right here over my keyboard. I also can’t let my mind broach his fondness for things like milkshakes either, because then I’ll just get clobbered with a sense that he’s chasing a childhood simplicity that is actually lost to him forever and oh, look at that, I’m crying again. Super.
I wish I could fix these peoples’ problems. I wish I could make us all safe and warm and surrounded by loved ones.
In relation to food and eating, I am not always afflicted with an assumption of sadness in the other individual. A lot of times, I watch him or her eat in awe and wonder. How do they do it? And again, the questions start up. Do they feel as happy and nonchalant about it as they look? Is it an emotional experience for them or just nature, the way it should be?
Etc etc, blah blah blah.
When it comes to the act of eating, I do not judge anyone but myself. I always want to make sure everyone has more than they need, and it saddens me endlessly when I see someone dieting — regardless of the reason behind their change in habits. Deprivation in another individual is heart breaking to me.
Its all very translucent, looking at my beliefs and behaviors from a narrative vantage. I equate food with loneliness as well as comfort, and tie it into the bittersweet trauma of passing time. Its no surprise the two main facets of my eating disorder are polarized opposites in that same way — strict deprivation of nutrition vs. the excess consumption of food that is then ripped away through vomiting.
Starvation vs. excess.
Loneliness vs. comfort.
Cold vs. warm.
I am a psychiatrist’s wet dream.
I have no neat and tidy ending to wrap this up with. Take what you will from my words, as they’re merely my own introspection into the disorder that drives my ridiculous behavior.
As I polish off my bottle of diet Pepsi and pop one of the two sugar free breath mints I allow myself during my day, I will leave you with this:
Always know that you are entitled to eat. You don’t need to use phrases like, “I need to work this off at the gym,” or “sorry for stuffing my face.” You are a human being, you don’t need to excuse your appetite or earn food through physical activity. It is your right, and you should never feel bad for feeding your body the nutrition it needs.
Oh, and if you ever catch a frizzy haired white girl staring at you while you’re on your lunch break, don’t worry. She’s probably just trying to figure out how to do it herself.