"How do you have a disordered relationship with cooking?"
For people who struggle with disordered eating, the journey towards healing is unique. In my own journey, I've discovered, the inner work of weight acceptance isn't enough. I need to take tangible steps to repair my relationship with cooking.
"How we eat is how we do everything." ~ Geneen Roth
Eight months have passed since I published my most-viewed blog post, “Girl struggles with disordered eating, works at bakery counter.”
On the day I published that post, I sat on the couch and sobbed. Despite the victory of this post, which brought a once-inexpressible struggle to light, I couldn’t bring myself to eat a full meal. I couldn't uproot the notion that my body didn't deserve to eat unless it was “thin enough.” Nor could I see a way out of this struggle.
Since that day, I've experienced plenty of ups and downs, as healing goes. The ups include a departure from attempting to starve myself, as well as brief returns to cooking. The downs include increased shame for having gained weight, patterns of self-restricting and binge-eating, and dropping any habit of cooking.
In short, I've made little progress.
How exactly did I get here — constantly in and out of a toxic relationship with cooking & eating?
At the heart of the problem is body dysmorphia, which manifests in countless ways — in this case, the struggle to honor my body by investing anything beyond minimal energy to feed it.
Over the years, my approach to the necessary task of feeding my body has devolved into this: "I don't think about eating unless I can help it“ — driven by the ulterior motive, "I don't eat unless I can help it."
However, as the body's natural response to heightened restriction is binge-eating, this approach has only succeeded in destroying my relationship with food.
For years, I've treated eating as peripheral, unworthy of intentionality. In direct contrast, cooking and eating have been central to my family's life. Across generations, our families have structured daily life around honoring the body's need for food.
That said, I know I'm not alone in neglecting to cook for myself, as one of countless working adults with no families of our own.
To some, a neglect of cooking is simply the byproduct of a "modern" lifestyle that centers one's career. But for me and perhaps others, this neglect is a form of disordered eating.
“How we eat is how we do everything.” This quote of Geneen Roth surfaces in episode 74 of the podcast Food Psych by Christy Harrison.
When I heard this quote, I felt attacked. “My neglect of my eating habits has nothing to do with, say, my dedication to creative work,” I thought defensively. But then I compared the two, and they showed me how I've placed the visibility of my mind over the health of my body.
Sure enough, this hierarchy persists in several areas of my life. Which isn't surprising. As a therapist told me, people with body dysmorphia tend to chase validation through intellectual and/or creative achievement, since they feel intrinsically inadequate in their bodies.
The more I sat with the discomfort of that quote, the more clearly I saw the fear poisoning my relationship with food — not the fear of gaining weight, but the fear of eating.
If thinness were truly my goal, chances are I'd have fallen prey to the lure of obsessive diet and exercise.
Far easier is to cling to the impossible goal of "not eating." Yes, I would always fail. But at least I'd never have to look my bodily need for food in the eye.
Subconsciously, this was how I justified a total neglect of my eating habits, slipping food into the gaps of time between work and rest.
The key word is "slipping."
"Slipping" captures a history of surreptitiously snacking at the kitchen counter. A history of huddling in the corner with my takeout, terrified of being judged by my housemates for failing (yet again) to cook my own meal. A history of binge-eating alone, only to drown in shame if anyone walked by.
To honor your body’s need for food is to build a place for it in your day.
When you honor your body's need for food, you have no qualms about cooking a meal, sitting down at a table with a plate & utensils, and eating it. Without needing to hide. Without shaming yourself. And, though it may not always be possible, without fear.
Until two days ago, I could not remember the last time I did this.
Of course, eating takeout isn't evil. But for people who neglect their eating habits, takeout places the burden of feeding yourself on another’s shoulders. Cooking is a way to take ownership of that burden. If you can claim ownership of your body's need for food, then you can begin to honor it. Maybe even celebrate it.
Left and middle: two of my favorite homemade Filipino desserts, suman and tambo tambo. Right: a brunch that my housemates and I put together last fall.
Ideally, having written this post, I would proceed to a healthy routine of cooking and eating. More realistically, I hope at least to begin dedicating time to cooking for myself. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it doesn’t need to be every single day, and neither does it need to be impressively nutritious. At this point, it just needs to be something.
Why? Because in taking up the labor of cooking, I am actively uprooting the lie that my body is unworthy of spending time and energy to feed. In cooking, I am no longer hiding in shame from the reality that my body needs food.
When I cook, I embody this radical notion that to feed myself is inherently good.
Food Psych, a podcast hosted by Christy Harrison on intuitive eating, body-image healing, & more. I recommend giving even one of their episodes a listen, for the way their conversations acknowledge the ubiquity of diet culture and its toll upon our mental health. Thanks again to Susanna for recommending this to me!
The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet (2016) by Emily Stimpson Chapman. Despite its title, this book has plenty of insights for anyone who desires a healed relationship with cooking & eating. Among other lessons, this book reshaped my fixation with mental work (though still crucial) into an attentiveness towards cooking as a tangible way to heal my relationship with food. Thanks to my sister Hannah for lending this book to me!