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How to Talk to Your Friends About Food

by Melissa Boberg

When you’re a kid, and people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, you change your answer like the seasons. You’re interested in everything. You want to be a supermodel, until you want to be an astronaut, until you want to be a chef, until you want to be a teacher, because your teachers make it seem like the best job ever. Eventually, years go by, and usually you just start to say you don’t know yet. How is anyone supposed to know? As kids, as teenagers, as people—we don’t want to be one thing, we want to be everything.

Over quarantine, I remember being on the phone with a friend. It was late at night, we were both in our beds, and she was telling me about how, recently, she’d gotten really into making her own face masks and scrubs with random ingredients. There are so many different ones to try, she said, and that this new hobby was going to keep her sane during quarantine.

Later, after we’d hung up, I was lying awake; I wondered, did I have any hobbies? Was there anything I was interested in? I was asking myself variations of the same question I’ve heard since I was a kid: What do I want to be? Who do I want to be?

I've always said I wanted to be a writer. There was a time when I wanted to be a ballerina. There have also been times when I wanted to be a scientist, or I wanted to be the president, or I wanted to be an actress. It’s in my nature to rotate through hobbies at the speed of light—quickly becoming obsessed with one thing, then onto the next. I think at my core, I've always wanted to do everything—to be everything.

It was that night, after I hung up the phone, that I realized all I cared about, and all I thought about, was controlling my eating and controlling how my body looked. Even worse, I realized that this had been going on for a long time, and I realized being preoccupied with my body image for the majority of every day was not normal. My friend casually picking up a hobby had produced so much clarity for me; my constant thinking about food had consumed and overtaken my personality and my capacity to hold hobbies.

I don’t remember when I started thinking about my body all the time. I don't remember when thinking about food became the driving force behind the shape, structure and schedule of my days, when I barely even had the time or energy to think about anything else. I realized: I used to have more hobbies. I used to be more present in all my conversations. I used to not even know how to read a nutrition label, let alone think about them for hours. When did all the best things about me fall second to an insatiable wish to be smaller than I could ever be?

I'm not here to show you pictures of emaciation or to delve too deeply into my own personal struggle to find a home in my body. But, I’m here to tell you that my journey to shrink my body from the inside out is not unique to me. Disordered eating patterns and distorted self-images are a prevalent and damaging force in society—wreaking havoc on the mental and physical health of those it victimizes.

Commonly, blame for these crises is thrown onto the surrounding culture: the media that we consume, the glorification of eating disorders, the demonization of body types (or even the classification of natural bodies into “types”) or the way diets are marketed to especially vulnerable audiences—and these are all certainly fair places to throw blame.

What we don’t talk about as much is how deeply these external facets are ingrained within us; how we become trained to perpetuate the same narratives we critique. How our daily conversations might glorify disordered relationships with food, even when we don’t mean for them to. While I fully agree that the aforementioned social problems are a major contributor to the prevalence of disordered eating, it’s also important to make sure we all participate in some degree of self-reflection, so we can try to distance ourselves from our social training in this category as much as possible.

Most people I know would say that there’s an issue with lack of diversity amongst bodies in the media. Most people I know would agree that there’s no such thing as an unrealistic or realistic body type—that we all just have bodies, and that maybe there are people who look like you and people who don’t and there’s nothing wrong with either.

So, why do I often find myself in casual conversation, hearing comments such as “I hate myself for eating that,” or, “I want more food, but won’t let myself”? These comments might feel common, normal, everyday—but they are red flags about the health of the person speaking, as well as generalizations that have the power to harm everyone who hears them.

It’s important to recognize that when we comment on our own bodies, or our own food intakes, in a negative way, that comment is inherently generalizable to those who engage in the same types of patterns as we do. And, equally as important, these types of negative expressions about our own bodies should not be commonplace—we all deserve to treat ourselves better than that.

There’s no reason to “hate yourself” for eating any specific type of food. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to eat that specific food for some reason, but there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to. By making a comment that attaches a food to a reaction of self-hate, a person not only normalizes the idea of hating yourself for eating, but promotes it, and thrusts it into the heads of everyone else in the room.

It may go without saying, but it’s worth repeating that “beating yourself up” for eating is extremely dangerous; and, even when we don’t mean to, when we talk about it as if everyone feels that way, we make the comment that everyone should feel that way—thus, contributing to the normalization of what is often called “eating disorder culture.”

I was listening to a podcast recently, from a person that has struggled to pay energy to anything beyond food habits. Even just admitting that I am now a person who regularly listens to podcasts feels like a worthy cause for celebration. I was listening to this podcast—and in an episode about Jessica Simpson (because I also now am really invested in learning about the pop girls of the early 2000s—hobbies are so fun!), one of the hosts said “Some degree of disordered eating seems to be a hallmark of the American experience of girlhood.” (Podcast is called “You’re Wrong About,” hosted by the brilliant and fun duo Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes.)

This is not meant to imply that people of other genders don’t experience eating disorders or suffer from the same types of self-cruelty. But, just to keep in mind that our relationships with food might be more tainted than we even conscious know. We owe it to ourselves to unpack these relationships and do what we can to make them healthier. We also owe it to the people around us not to project our own issues with food onto them. You really don’t have any clue what the people who might hear your comments are going through in their own journeys towards accepting their bodies.

So, when you talk about food with your friends, remember the power your comments hold. When you talk about food with yourself, remember that you may be repeating internalized messages that tell you how you should feel about your body; and, also remember that your body is yours and you deserve to treat yourself with kindness.

Imagine how freeing it would be to live in a world where everyone fuels their body in ways that are healthy for them individually, and we are able to appreciate how much beauty everyone holds in their natural forms. Building this type of world starts with ensuring that our conversations with those around us, and with ourselves, promote health—however it looks.


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