My highschool boyfriend’s sister was what I would call a cool chick. Denise was six years my senior, with Elizabeth Taylor eyes fringed with lashes a Kardashian would envy, and a mass of soft brown curls that rested just above her lash line. She also had an edge – that’s what made her so cool. I loved her, admired her, and was a little bit afraid of her.
One cold Saturday night in winter, Denise, who was home from college, made an announcement. Boyfriend and I were to drop what we were doing, (which was most likely him trying to teach me Algebra, or me pretending to like The Terminator 2), and participate. Tonight was Brownie Delight – the chance to drown any/all sorrows into a mixture of partially cooked brownies, extra chocolate chips, Redi Whip, and vanilla ice cream, made warm and melty by the heat of the brownies. (If she was really in a mood, the ice cream would be Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, and you did not ask questions.) The whole thing would melt into itself, creating a warm, gooey mixture of half batter, half brownie goodness awash in ice cream. This concoction was meant to diminish heartache and assuage any emotional pain a woman endured.
For me, however, looking at it was enough to make me shake. Don’t get me wrong – I totally ate it. There was no way I could defy Denise, and it was heavenly. But inside, I was convinced that every chocolate laden scoop was sending me straight to hell. I chastised – make that berated – myself in between bites, inwardly swearing to run at least three miles the next day – in the snow and uphill. And it didn’t end there. Later, alone in the safety of my bedroom, I must have completed 500 jumping jacks, told myself it was just once, I could work it off in the morning, I would skip breakfast to make up for it. At a time when clean eating was nothing more than washing your fruit before ingesting, I felt dirty and ashamed.
And I can’t lie; I spent many more years berating myself for eating a second, (or even first) piece of cake, reaching for the afternoon snack, or god forbid, choosing real ice cream on a summer day. The way I spoke to myself could make Trump’s tweets sound like a coloring book. I spent hours, days even, hating myself when I could have been focusing on having a healthy mindset and enjoying life, rather than punishing myself for living it.
I often think about how or why I suddenly gained the infinite wisdom to be nice to myself when it comes to food; it may have something to do with having my own children, which is good news for womankind. No matter how old we are, once we decide to be parents, teachers, big sisters, bosses, or any sort of role model for another person, we want them to avoid our mistakes and become kind and confident humans who are present in every moment. We also don’t want them to feel ashamed, or to listen to us shame ourselves for enjoying dessert. And I know, sugar is now the enemy, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s still a time and a place for old school sweets.
Some very sweet co-workers recently thought to bring me some very sweet cupcakes for my 45th birthday. They were from a bakery I love and were meant to be enjoyed during our daily meeting. I had to catch myself; in years past, I would have created a narrative in my head: “They don’t know me at all,” “Do they want to sabotage me?” “I’m going to start my 45th year of life as a fat, middle aged woman.” Rather than assuming positive intentions and being grateful, I would have inwardly ruined the moment or made things weird by not having a piece. Instead, I cut one in half and ate it. It was worth it. Any pangs of guilt that crept up in my belly were squashed with a few frosting filled bites and a meeting that was much more pleasant than usual.
If anyone out there reading this is still in your twenties, or if anyone is reading this at all, please do not wait until you’re in your forties to get over food shame. Food is life, and life is filled with enough angst to let an occasional indulgence make us feel more guilt than my Italian mother. Sugar may be the new enemy, but my mother in law’s brownies are so good, they would make Denise trade in Brownie Delight and make my husband her new little brother. That person I described, alone in her bedroom, futilly doing jumping jacks to stave off one night of sugar, felt more sick in her mind than in her stomach. I wish I could tell her she was beautiful, she was athletic, she was being a good friend, and she was allowed to have fun, especially with food.