The Food Diaries: Why We Eat
By Chee Gates
My southern-fried mother believed in serving "real food" because, as she told me, it sticks to your bones -- and your brains.
"I didn't eat nothin' but London broil and collard greens when I was pregnant with you," she used to boast. "That's why you get all those A's and your thighs are thicker than cold grits."
Imagine the look on her face, then, when I sauntered into the kitchen -- a cocky age 13 -- claiming I'd never eat meat again and condemning her bloodthirsty influence on my palate. This was in 1992 -- before so many cosmopolites started lobbying for PETA, back when much of the urban middle class thought that vegetarians were beatniks from Southern California. Actually, the notion of the diet having been imported from a land far away was part of what appealed to me: I thought of my watercress salad with chickpeas and pine nuts as an assault on my socially homogenous background. I wanted to distinguish myself from the rest of the world -- to hold myself aloft from mediocrity.
But several years into this dietary protest, my pledge to be a health nut cracked. I developed an affinity for glazed doughnuts and began to spend my free time loitering in bakeries. By the time I was 20, I weighed 174 pounds and wore a size 14. My butt looked like two waddling Jupiters. The thing I feared most had come true: I'd become an everywoman with a trans-fatty appetite. There was a drastic disconnect between my mind (I felt like Xena the Warrior Princess) and my body (I looked like Garfield the Cat).
A Rastafarian neighbor brought this to my attention one day, waking me from my stupor. "You're a conscious Sister," he said, flicking his finger beneath my double chin. "You should look the part." Lord knows he was right. So a little more than two years ago, I began amending my jiggle. I exercised like a maniac. I began a "can't-have-anything-that-tastes-good" diet. Sucrose, salt, soda, saturated fat -- all exiled. I'd indulged enough in my former life, I thought. If I wanted my physique to represent my spirit, I'd have to eat for strength, not pleasure. Within six months, I emerged lean and eager, like an Olympic hopeful in training.
Initially, my fear of complacency sustained this transformation -- the restricted food portions, the rigorous training schedule. When I slipped, I felt as if I'd lost one of my stripes. But after months of militantly following my new regimen, I began to question its wisdom. If I was as enlightened as I claimed, I realized, I should be able to make compromises without feeling marginalized. I should be able to occasionally enjoy the confections that make life sweeter without feeling like a failure.
Living by such a restrictive code was becoming lonely and anesthetizing. I didn't feel liberated; I was bound by my own ideology, hell-bent on perfection. And so I reconsidered, adding a leniency clause to my diet that allowed me to miss a workout or drink a pint of lager without repenting. Eating a glazed doughnut doesn't make me average, just as abstaining doesn't make me excellent. My diet is not a litmus test of my worth. I'm finally convinced that I am so much more than what I eat.
Gates is a staff writer at FITNESS.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2008.
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