Who Eats, Babe?
At first, I wondered how I should dress this article. Perhaps is should be light and zingy like a citrus vinaigrette or maybe something more layered like a dense mille-feuille. My husband asked why it couldn’t be both. Ah, the innocence of men! Always brave enough for second helpings. I would be too if all I had to live up to was the forgiving Dad Bod.
But millions of women measure themselves against an entirely unnatural ideal. It all starts early — too many of us have grown up feasting our eyes (and later starving our bodies) on Barbie. And although the years pass, the subliminal expectation remains the same. Now in our living rooms, our children fuss over our old Barbies (still not a wrinkle on that perfect face), while we obsess over glossy magazines filled with airbrushed goddesses. As faithful devotees of these goddesses, we fanatically starve and saw at our bodies until they fit into that one stunning dress (while wearing Spanx, of course) or that fantastic pair of jeans.
The world’s preoccupation with appearances doesn’t spare even the highest achievers. Serena Williams was recently the focus of international media scrutiny because some felt that her muscular frame wasn’t feminine enough. And not even the greats are immune to insecurity no matter their level of fitness; picture this, fearless Serena Williams, holder of all four Grand Slams, was insecure enough about her muscular arms that for a while she chose to wear long sleeves in public. Maria Sharapova, nicknamed the “Serbian Siren”, confessed to remaining unhappy with her body saying, “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish.” If Maria is right and being skinnier is indeed every girl’s wish, what does it mean about our relationship with ourselves, and with our food?
My own relationship with food is conflicted. I grew up in Delhi around elaborate dinner parties that centered on the culinary traditions of my city. In the hours leading up to the party, my sister and I would pretend to be food critics, sampling and smelling as we walked around the kitchen. There was the sizzle of the spiced kababsas they gingerly stepped into the hot oil, the slow simmer of the gosht as it endlessly circled the pan and the scent of saffron as it was set free from its locked drawer. Food that told stories and held secrets. Khaana was always the centerpiece of the night.
Things have changed though. At most dinner parties I’ve been to, almost none of the women move towards the buffet. “No one eats, babe,” is a line I’ve heard so often, that I don’t know if it has become part of my subconscious.
What we do instead is drink. Over the last few months, juicing has become the new rage endorsed by several global models and celebrities. Touted as all things fabulous, juicing involves replacing all solid food with liquefied vegetables and fruits for a stipulated time. If the labels on the bottles are anything to go by — Flush, Glow, Trim— the juices can deliver you to the altar of your favoured global goddess in no time. And so I prepared to receive my juice prasad.
Juice 1. The day began with me feeling elevated, almost as though I was on a mission. The zeal carried me well until Juice 2 at which point I started to Instagram my progress #juicing #superwoman #whatareyoudoingtoday. I ignored my slight headache and went on to meet a friend for lunch. We joked about how neither of us would be good for the restaurant’s business since I would drink Juice 3 and she would have an appetizer salad, if anything.
What happened next was unforeseen. My friend happened to be redoing her house and she turned up with a buffet of shade cards — sweet honeydew, almond, blanched almond, cinnamon cappuccino, eggplant, mango tango, frothy champagne. She slowly contemplated each shade while grazing on her leaves that for some reason, made me both hungry and angry — a potent emotion immortalised by the term “hangry”. A few hours later at home I tried to wash away my hangriness through Juice 4 but at this point, all I could think about was food. I started to bake furiously just to be able to smell the flour and sugar. Soon I wound up with three cakes but with no one to send them to since everyone I knew was on a diet. I shot off a text to my bewildered mother “So much of what we do is toothless anyway – can we really afford to take teeth out of our food too?”
The next morning it was my turn to be a bewildered parent. My daughter insisted on drinking only juice at breakfast and then again at lunch. I was taken aback considering that I hadn’t spoken of my juicing (mis)adventure in her presence. And regardless of my own dieting fads, balanced eating for my daughter is kind of mything. I tried to explain that my juices contained exactly what she was expected to eat — spinach, beetroot, apple. With the infallible logic of a four-year-old, she then calmly stated that she would juice her meals too. “I’ll also only eat juice,” was the phrasing I believe. This was a real problem.
A recent study revealed that 80% of 10-year-old girls in America have dieted at some point. Eighty percent – that’s not a typo. In her memoir The Addict, Diya Sethi describes the battle she waged with anorexia and bulimia nervosa from the time that she was a young girl. “I hadn’t eaten a meal in days,” she writes “and if I ingested anything at all it was expelled through a merciless fit of vomiting until acid bile coated my mouth. ” While Diya was unable to eat food, her condition ate her instead; the pathology fed on her physically and mentally for years eclipsing her family, friends and achievements until there was nothing left to consume. It had a passport to every geography and as she ran from India to the Middle East to Europe to escape its jaws, it managed to keep pace. I couldn’t read Diya’s story for more than a few minutes at a time. In fact, let me put it this way: I could only swallow it in small, very small mouthfuls because it was that hard to digest.
There are millions of women afflicted with eating disorders across the world and many of them start getting eaten alive by these disorders when they are very young. This needs to change, and as mothers we are perfectly positioned to reverse this trend. Even though the world constantly expects girls to be skinnier and prettier, we can teach our daughters to be comfortable in their own skin. By first being comfortable in ours. The alternative is horrifying: research has shown that every time our daughters watch us obsessively diet, they become more prone to developing eating disorders themselves. This, right here, was my personal turning point because, like every Mama Bear I know, I refuse to let my issues become my daughter’s problem.
I’ve taken to watching Master Chef as I run on the treadmill. It reminds me that being fit and celebrating food are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. Watching people enjoy food takes me back to my mother’s kitchen where as pretend gourmands, we celebrated a joy that is so unique and so central to the human experience — eating for pleasure. The wholesome diet of superfoods (acai bowls, moringa powder, sea buckthorn extract) and the gentle trainer will remain but every once in a while I cut my body some slack and choose a nutty cake over kale salad. Think for a moment — is there anything more fantastic than a fragrant kheerthat has been simmered to perfection, or salty oysters that fill your mouth with the taste of the ocean?
Could it be that the only message that we need to internalise is this: we’re not failures, it is the ideal that is unattainable. Standing tall at 5′ 9″ and skinny at 110 lbs, if Barbie was a real woman she would have to crawl on all fours because her body is simply anatomically impossible. That’s the truth. It’s time to get the goddesses down from the altars and look to our own bodies as the temple. As women, we’re always measuring — against our past selves, against others, against Photoshop. When does it end? When do we look in the mirror and say I choose me?