Owning It / by Alexa Arnold

Last spring, I spent a couple of weeks traveling alongside a group of friends. We spent most of our time together in the car, our conversation winding at an easy, tender pace, eventually landing on the topic of what school lunch was like in our high schools. We took turns describing the layout of our cafeterias, the kinds of foods available, and whether or not we bought lunch at school or packed.

My stomach flip-flopped when it was my turn to speak.

I felt my pulse quicken. I was frozen, but surrounded by people I trusted and admired I felt like I could be honest. Somehow I coughed up the words, “I didn’t eat school lunch at all because I struggled with an eating disorder.” The car was quiet for a moment and I filled with regret. And then, instead of opposition or misunderstanding, two others volunteered stories from their own disordered journeys with food.

For me, restricting began as a simple way to cope with anxiety I struggled with on a daily basis, but it eventually turned into a full-blown obsession. Food consumed me. It was all I could think about, yet I was barely eating any at all. I viewed food only for its caloric value, as a toxic thing, and depriving myself of it soothed and comforted me. I also felt some kind of misguided pride in my ability to control it all. The calories I consumed, slowly moving the number on the scale lower and lower, and maintaining the pretense that there wasn’t a problem at all – anorexia was a way to bring a sense of order to the things that felt chaotic in my life. I was so tightly wound around the idea that if I could just control this one thing – food – then I’d be the kind of person I wanted to be. Yet despite feeling like I was in the driver’s seat, my illness had spiraled into something I could no longer control. I was completely and utterly disconnected from myself, from my body, and from others.  

I’ve been thinking about how to share this story for years. I spend a lot of time around people who are constantly talking about what's influenced their relationships with food, but anytime it's been my turn to share, I’ve skipped ahead from the messy, disordered parts and delivered a well-rehearsed speech about the stuff I’ve assumed people wanted to hear – the farmers markets, the community organizing, the passion for cooking. It wasn’t for the sake of privacy, but because I felt ashamed and embarrassed by how much I’d struggled to love myself and to have a normal, healthy relationship with food. I felt like stories about anorexia weren’t relevant when there are people all across the country who don’t have the opportunity to eat healthy food at all. When there are things like childhood obesity, food insecurity, the unfair treatment of farmworkers, and so many other problems with our food system at stake, why should my story of disordered eating have a place at the table? But overcoming and understanding my eating disorder, and finding love and joy and passion for food, has inspired my career, shaped my values, and pushed me to find balance in all parts of my life.

For so long, I've been running from this experience, but maybe I actually need to be running towards it. Instead of tucking it away in a neat little box in my life's attic, maybe I need to unpack it, and set it out on the table. 

Early in college, during some of my most vulnerable moments, I used to wander through the market. I felt really lost at first; I had no idea what to do with the majority of the vegetables I saw, but felt a surge of energy just walking through the aisles. It’s hard to let sadness win at a farmers market – buying your food directly from the hands of the person who grew it is the exact opposite of anorexia. It’s connection. It’s purpose. And I found it freeing and empowering. Farmers were readily willing to offer me advice about how to cook what was on their tables, so I bought vegetables I’d never seen before and just experimented in the kitchen, free of recipes or restrictions. I felt like I had unleashed a creative side of myself that I hadn’t ever known. Like a new perspective had been shaken loose. Very quickly, cooking became a creative outlet for me and the market was an endless source of inspiration. I found myself waking up with the sun to beat the crowds and score the first strawberries of the season. I started spending weekends canning 40 pounds of tomatoes, just so I could savor their flavor a little longer. And I found that the closer I got to my food, the more easily I was able to see it as something that nourished both my body and my mind.

I also tried my hand at growing my own food. I bought tomato seedlings and planted them in big five-gallon buckets that I lined across my back porch. The smell of their vines stuck to my hands and churned up memories of the summer my parents grew them in the raised bed in our backyard. I planted lettuce and radishes and herb seeds in a long wooden planter and watched their tiny sprouts shoot out of the soil. My little garden helped me remember that I, too, need lots of water, food, sunlight and love to be a happy, healthy person. When I pulled a radish out of the dirt for the first time, I felt with stunning clarity that food had something to teach me, and I was finally ready to listen.

Over the years, I've also worked hard to overcome the feelings of guilt and shame I’d grown to associate with food, and have tried to apply the same mindfulness that I discovered through cooking and gardening to my attitude. It hasn't been easy. It has taken many years and many baby steps to reframe my vision of a healthy, balanced life. And truthfully, I am still working on this every single day. I gave my eating disorder so much room in my head to thrive on my vulnerabilities. There have been days where it felt nearly impossible to pull myself out of a spiral of self deprecation, days where I felt like crying because, God forbid, I ate a bowl of ice cream without guilt. But there came a point where I felt so exhausted with secretly living in the shadows of my self-consciousness and inadequacies. It didn’t happen like the flip of a switch – you don't just wake up one day and think, "great, things are gonna be different from now on". It took one day at a time and a whole lot of intention. Because that's what recovery is. Recovery is not a destination. Recovery is looking yourself in the mirror every day and saying, "you are not allowed to think anything negative about your body, your weight, or your looks anymore. If you think any of those things, push them out of your mind". And I have tried so, so hard to do this. It doesn't mean I'm always successful and I always feel great about myself, but it means I've decided not to give those negative feelings any more of my energy.

When I started digging deeper into why and how I’d turned so far against myself, I realized that I was depriving myself of nourishment and pleasure, all in the name of striving towards a level of perfection that, it turns out, doesn't even exist. It became increasingly clear that as soon as I stopped trying to obey a set of self-imposed rules, I felt better. The more I was able to understand myself and stop masking my emotions in a layer of perfectionism, the easier it became to step off the tightrope. The more room I gave myself to experiment in the kitchen and build relationships with a community of radical women, inspiring farmers and food advocates, the more connected I felt to myself, my body, and the world.

And so my point of sharing all of this now is: I’ve been silencing the part of my story that’s given me strength and purpose because it feels scary to talk about it. And that's not something I feel okay with. I am not okay with the thought of someone dropping by this blog and thinking my relationship with food has always been farmers markets and perfectly-styled bowls of soup on marble tables. We are all searching for connection and authenticity, and what we believe will repel people might actually do the exact opposite. We all have the right to tell the truth about our lives, and I've known for a while now that it’s important to me to start owning my narrative. It’s also not just about my story – I haven't met a woman who doesn't struggle with feeling okay about her body and her beauty and her size and all of that. Whether those feelings have escalated into a full-blown eating disorder, a reverence for thinness and an obsession with correcting our physical inadequacies is a part of our country’s food culture, and I very much want to change that.

Changing my own relationship with food ultimately boiled down to relearning to love myself and rekindling my connection with people and the earth. And spending time in the kitchen and in the garden helped me remember that food is so much more than its caloric value – food is joy, and power, and it is a teacher that will always be with me. Eating disorders aren't uncommon at all, but talking about them still is. But we can’t change this part of our food culture, unless we’re courageous enough to speak up. It might be a life long struggle, but I'm going to do my best to speak my truths, in the face of so much pressure to be otherwise.