I was talking to my nutritionist about how I panic when I do the experiment where I have to stop eating mid-meal to check in on my hunger levels, and she said, you are food insecure.
I thought food insecurity only referred to people who legitimately don’t have access to enough food, because of poverty, or living in a food desert. It felt melodramatic to think of dieting as a cause of food insecurity on that level – but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the nutritionist was right.
Being on a diet means imposing food insecurity on someone who should not otherwise lack nutrition; imposing scarcity on someone who lives in a world that is full of good food. Why are we willing to do this? Why are doctors willing to encourage this?
There is something unnatural, even cruel, in imposing a diet that doesn’t match the food that is readily available (gluten free food for millions of people who have no actual allergy to gluten, anyone?). It’s like saying to someone who lives on the beach, you should never swim. Or to someone who lives in the Alps, you should never ski; and you are a terrible, ugly, gluttonous person for even wanting to ski. And so many diets are based on passing fads and half-finished research, rather than on any real understanding of the role food plays in our lives, so that the rules we have to follow aren’t just cruel, they are also, often, wrong. The fact is, food has never been simply about nutrition. If we forget that, we forget large parts of who we actually are and where the disorders in our eating habits even come from.
Each time I have regretted taking on the no-diet rule of Intuitive Eating this year, because I’ve been gaining weight instead of losing it, I’ve checked in with myself and realized that I did not want to return to the constant panic and deprivation that comes with diets – whether they are low calorie, low carb, or low anything else. The severe diet I tried over the summer – to deal with stomach pain symptoms – was all the reminder I needed that dieting is no way to live.
But thinking about food insecurity as being caused by something other than actual food scarcity made me think about all of the other artificial scarcity situations we create as human beings. Simple things, like forcing ourselves to work sixty hours a week when we don’t need to, or forcing ourselves not to cry because it looks weak, or forcing ourselves to be fiercely independent instead of relying on the people around us when we need help.
I grew up in a middle class home. We were never poor, and yet, we frequently couldn’t afford the things we wanted, or needed, because my father withheld the money. He had it, he just chose not to spend it on us when he wasn’t in the mood (other times he would spend money on us, but only on things he wanted for us). We also went to school with a lot of people who were upper middle class, and compared to them we were poor. We got small presents for each night of Hanukah, while some of our classmates got presents worth hundreds of dollars each night. But we were not poor. We were abused and neglected by our father, but we were not poor.
The fact is that abuse and neglect lead to an experience that is so similar to poverty that it can be hard to tell the difference. If you are food insecure, love insecure, and safety insecure, what good does it do to know that your father could afford to pay the bills if he chose to?
The work I’ve been doing with Intuitive Eating this year has most often been about teaching myself to understand that food is always available, and never off limits, so that I can learn to decide what and when to eat based on actual hunger, rather than on the fear that the food will disappear if I don’t eat it right away. This work has taken much longer than I’d hoped, and, of course, the food represents so much more than just food. My panic at deprivation is so deep that it feels as if I’m being threatened with death, rather than just momentary hunger, when I choose to stop eating a little bit early.
The work of recovery is ongoing, and seems endless at times, but just when I think I’ll never untie a difficult knot, it loosens, and five other knots loosen with it, like magic. So I will keep working on this, and working on reminding myself that I don’t have to live in scarcity, because the things I want are available now. It’s such a hard lesson to learn, though, and food is just the first step.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?