I came back home after the school year feeling nostalgic for my Canadian comfort foods, yet kind of ripped off at the same time. I was returning to the land of two-for-one pizza, where cheese was wrapped in plastic, not oak leaves. TV ads and billboards everywhere showed happy people making friends and picking up dates over a Whopper, while bony models wagged their fingers and shilled thimblefuls of light yogurt. Then there were the TV shows, which portrayed an alternate universe where size zero actresses could eat as much as they wanted and talk about sex over sundaes.
What was going on? No wonder I ran to and from food like a rat in an aversion therapy experiment. For the first time, I saw the disconnect: how we’re simultaneously encouraged to gorge and deny ourselves. Then we’re so busy feeling guilty and calculating how many laps we’ll need to run to take the chocolate off our thighs that we never really enjoy what we eat.
I started to notice how my grandmother was always eating, but rarely in front of us. At the table, she’d apologize for indulging in the measly portions she’d allow herself. In the kitchen, she stole mouthfuls while cooking and scavenged our leftovers after dinner as she scraped our plates. I got the impression that to her, a woman openly enjoying food was as shocking as one admitting that she liked sex.
In some ways, things weren’t all that different for women my age, at least on the food enjoyment front. I still had friends who daintily ordered salad on a first date while they were secretly craving the surf and turf. Then there were the bare-boned Hollywood role models, who publicly flaunted eating a 24-ounce steak as if to scream “I just have a fast metabolism and defy all laws of biology! Honest!” Seeing the production many women made of eating, I could finally articulate the tacit lesson we all learned growing up: others judge us by what we eat, whether they slot us as self-obsessed anorexics or “how-could-she-let-herself-go-like-that” fat. The tragedy is, sometimes we’re so ashamed by what we think food says about us that eating becomes more about pleasing others than pleasing ourselves.