Pretzels and Cheese

By Francis Iacobucci

The Sunday after Thanksgiving I received a text from a trainer at my gym: don’t forget to sign up for a session this week to burn off all those calories! As someone who has struggled with body acceptance for essentially my entire existence, I was filled with emotions and racing thoughts.

In the immediate aftermath of the text, old eating disordered thoughts emerged: It’s not like I ate that much. Or did I? I’m pathetic. I should have purged. I wonder how much weight I gained. I’m so ashamed. 

And then justifications: Well, I had this much protein and this many carbs – that seems about right. I’m a man, so I’m supposed to be big and strong; and it helps me lift weights, of course. I need to eat a lot! Stop being a wimp – be a man! Just make sure it’s the right amount of calories and macro nutrients.

And then, as a bit of reason and years of therapy began to set it, I became frustrated: What gives this person the right to dictate to me what foods are good and what foods are bad? I’m never going back to that gym!

And finally, after my emotions regulated a bit (it’s amazing how one text can get someone so fired up!) I asked myself some questions, and I answered them: did I enjoy the food I ate? Yes. Did I eat to the point of feeling full? A little. Is that okay? Yes. Why is that okay? Because I’m allowed to eat food that tastes good.

 I’m so thankful – after years of therapy and support from so many – that I’m able to process thought and emotion to ensure my safety and health. For so many, the constant barrage of diet and wellness culture rules and regulations lead to constant uncertainty and shame about their bodies. For those with eating disorders, it can be exponentially more damaging.

I was once asked to write down a list of all the “rules and regulations” that wellness culture had influenced me over my lifespan – the list was five pages single-spaced. Eat this to look like that. Stretch that to feel like this. Don’t eat this to date a girl like that. At one point I had written down all the rules that stated why it was bad to eat certain foods, and it got to the point that the only foods that was “safe” from wellness rules and regulations were basically fruits and veggies – organically and locally grown, of course – that had fallen off the tree. Everything else was off limits if you wanted to be happy and healthy.

The list was tangible evidence that the way I thought about food and body dissatisfaction were intertwined and tangled to a point that seemed impossible to unravel. Going from saying no food is bad to engaging in that practice while eating took years, and is still very much a work and progress. I’ll always remember, though, eating pretzels and cheese (two things I would have never eaten in the past because they were on the list) and feeling satisfied and satiated, rather than guilty and ashamed. I had successfully snacked. I had put down the notions of food morality so ingrained within me briefly enough to feel what eating can be: a fulfilling and pleasurable experience. It was a blissful moment in my recovery process. I smirked as I crunched the pretzel and chewed the cheese, scoffing at the notion that what I was eating was going to change my ability to be a “good” person.

While I’m sure that trainer has good intentions, no one has the right to dictate to anyone the morality of food. Save biological reasons and personal preferences, restricting or eliminating foods from diet because they have been labeled “bad” by a multi-billion dollar industry is not healthy. I have – and at times – remain a victim of the wellness culture’s campaign to profit off of individual’s fear of imperfection; and I thank all the therapists, family members, friends, pets, colleagues, and humans that have helped me develop coping strategies for when I’m told to be ashamed of the food I eat, and the food I enjoy.

Every person’s eating disorder and body image story is unique, and I hope those who are struggling have the support they need and deserve. You are beautiful and worthy – not just of food – but of life.