Fear foods

Canola oil, white bread, dried papaya, tonic water.

CW: eating disorders, weight loss.

I’m writing this post from one of my favourite cafes in Dili: Kaffe Uut in Farol, near my house. The guy who works the morning shift prepares my coffee without me having to ask for it, and they play the same elevator-music remixes of reggae songs and Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You on loop every day.

Sometimes I work later and stay at the cafe for lunch. They’ve got what I think are the best paninis in town: chewy, chunky fresh rolls stuffed with salad and mustard and cheese and, in the one I get, a fun little sweet-potato vegetable patty. They fill you up til dinnertime and cost just $3.80.

I’ve just finished my panini and my stomach is full of knots.

It’s nothing to do with a gluten intolerance, or the salad, or my gut problems of late last year: it’s because I drank a lot of wine last night, and I know I’ll skip boot camp this evening, and the bread in my sandwich was white, not wholemeal.

An intention I have for this year is to probe deeper within myself, to slough through the layers of stories I tell myself: the fear, judgement, pride, anxiety — and allow the truth beneath the surface to reveal itself. To know myself better and to not embolden my fears to lead me.

One part of that is acknowledging that I’m still a little bit afraid of white bread.

A story I feel very shy and sensitive about sharing is that in my first year of university, I struggled hugely with body image issues, and dropped an enormous amount of weight very quickly and very dangerously. I receded within the fold of my mind and let cruel voices dominate me, and it was only through the efforts of my tireless and loving mother and family and friends that I stabilised myself, re-gained weight, re-collected, and gave myself permission to continue living.

I speak about this obliquely because even thought that year, 2009, was ten years ago now, I still feel raw and tender thinking about it; thinking about myself back then.

But this year, I’m picking apart one small piece of that terrible year. I’m not sure whether anorexia is something you can ever be free of, but I know no matter how many years I maintain a healthy weight for or how free and joyful I feel about my body and my relationship with food, and no matter how many years that’s lasted for and will continue to run, until I face my fears of certain foods I’ll never be truly recovered from 2009.

Canola oil, white bread, dried papaya, tonic water.

Since emerging from the grips of my eating disorder I’ve expanded the list of foods I feel comfortable and happy eating to include almost everything fit for human consumption, with a few small exceptions – and a few select situations in which I’ve decided eating ‘forbidden food’ is permissible. White bread is banned, but if I’m out to brunch? That’s allowed. Canola oil is a no-no, but if Felix is cooking? Totally fine.

I’ve kidded myself for nearly ten years that this is a normal way to think about food, but it’s not. Food is something for nourishment and pleasure, not arbitrary restriction and value judgements and beating oneself up, no matter how subconsciously those thoughts lie.

I’ve let myself get caught up in my own mind’s fictions and grow so comfortable being guided by fear-driven decisions – and I’ve conflated them with my real preferences (I genuinely prefer wholemeal bread and I like fruit-free muesli, but they’re preferences, not gospel).

And I’ve forgotten I don’t have to think this way.

Canola oil, white bread, dried papaya, tonic water.

When I got sick with giardia in October last year white bread was all I could stomach for a week. I’d like to be able to say that week changed the way I thought about it: perhaps I now see white bread as a source of nourishment and safety?

Closer, yes; but I have to admit, not quite.

And over the course of two months of repeated gastro attacks, I dropped five very important kilograms: the five kilos of muscle and plump that kept my arms and legs and face looking soft and healthy. I looked sickly and frail, and it was the first time in ten years that I’ve felt really thin – like, here are the three different bumps of my elbow bone -type thin.

I want to take an important moment here to reflect on my privilege and relative good fortune: I know I can have my eating disorder legitimised because I got very thin; I know it’s socially acceptable for me to scarf a fat sandwich for lunch and skip boot camp in a way that it wouldn’t be for someone twice my size; and I can see how tiresome it must sound for size-eight me to fret about dropping a few kilos. I benefit from thin privilege and for fitting into a socially acceptable clothing size, and I know that’s going some way to giving me a platform to talk about body image issues and be listened to. I want to acknowledge this and use that to do something productive.

I’m sharing this story not quite to indulge myself – although, this is a personal blog – but in the desperate hope that I reach someone else out there who guiltily eyes off sandwich menus; who beats themselves up for missing an exercise class; who looks from the outside like they don’t have a body care in the world and thus normalises behaviours and thoughts that are at least unhelpful and likely downright destructive.

This year, for the first time since I started restricting my food back in 2009, I was faced with the task of re-gaining weight, and I felt… scared.

Don’t get me wrong: I also felt excited (bruuuuunch!), and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that counting-the-bumps-in-your-elbow is exactly the point where you’re too far underweight. But I had a few joyous weeks of eating exactly whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, listening to what my body felt like, letting it guide itself, without a single shadow of a thought about what I should and shouldn’t eat cross my mind. And I know that’s the normal way to eat. That’s exactly how we should all feel about food. And I felt scared that I can’t trust myself to do that all the time.

That revealed to me the way I still think about food, even ten years on. Mainly fine, mainly normal, and then whoop a little fear, a little judgement, a little are-you-sure-you-wanna-order-a-panini-you-won’t-exercise-later-and-it’s-not-even-brunchtime and all of a sudden I’m ordering it and eating it because it’s delicious and it’s lunch and it’s nothing to be feared and it’s something stupid to not give into anyway but I can’t quite ignore it and I’m here feeling guilty and mad at myself for feeling guilty but neither feeling is cancelling the other out.

I’m noticing it. I’m intending to change.

A friend of mine in Dili shares my love of this place, Kaffe Uut, and has her regular lunch so down pat she’s barely in her chair before she’s giving her order. Flat white, watermelon juice, panini. The mustard comes on the side and she can’t trust herself not to spill, so I get hers as well as my own.

I’m nearly the same: I perform 20 seconds of mental gymnastics before carefully eschewing salad for my sweet-potato panini, ordered aloud with the same confidence. But a tiny goal for this year: channel my friend’s flippancy, the complete lack of hesitation, order whatever I feel like, and if it’s a panini relish (lol) in my double-serve mustard and my delicious, delicious lunch.


7 responses to “Fear foods”

  1. […] wrote about my fear of white bread, which is something I find difficult to confront, which is why tackling it is a key priority this […]


  2. […] worst fears, realise it’s actually not that bad at all and wow it’s nice to have energy and white bread isn’t all that bad when it’s all that you can stomach and thus the only thing between you and death and  speaking […]


  3. […] Peeling back layers of stories I tell myself to uncover the truth beneath. Some blog posts I’m proud of: I forgot that it would be fun. Diet tips from the tropics. Being anxious on Instagram. I’m still dancing around the edges of telling these stories true but I’m leaning in to the process of doing it. […]


  4. […] hours alone intimidating and isolating; I’m beating myself up for not exercising for a while (body image is my Achilles heel, and when my self-critical mind is looking for something to call myself up on, […]


  5. […] alluded to and outright mentioned on this blog before that I’ve suffered from an eating disorder and […]


  6. […] with a different diet and a history of disordered eating: Fear foods, and (tongue-in-cheek) Diet tips from the […]


  7. […] Fear foods, disordered eating, and diets in Timor-Leste […]


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