By LUBY KIRIAKIDI
Art By ANNIKA BJERKE
Food. If we’re not talking about the weather, we’re talking about food. To eat is to live. Food is culture. Food is family. Food is love, faith, hope. Food is self. You are what you eat. So how do you identify? Food is a secular religion.
The Ancient Greek verb διαιτάω diaitо̄ means: “to live a certain way of life.” Life in all of its multifaceted aspects. Yet, what comes to mind when someone says, “diet?” What else if not dread? For, ever since The Fall of Mankind from the Garden of Self-Acceptance long, long ago, since Eve bit into that doughnut from the Tree of Deep-Seated Dissatisfaction, we only know “a way of life” as “a cycle of public, ritualized, restricted eating followed by occasional or not so occasional secretive, uncontrollable binging and omnipotent guilt.” We are a sinful species that loves to identify with diets.
Many of these declarations focus on the lack of something, a deprivation of sorts. When you are what you eat, and there’s just too much of you, something has to go. This is a strong message that society slams daily upon men and women, but women especially. We ladies cannot take up too much space. Our sexiness and competence are measured by golden ratios of our boobs to our waist to our butt to our thighs, and that gold standard is as malleable year to year, season to season, as genuine gold earrings in the fidgety fingers of a guilty eater who was so bad yesterday.
It’s uncomfortable to live with such standards. It’s rare not to experience body dysmorphia or eating disorders, or know someone who suffers in this way.
With my fluctuating weight in college, I could see how “body thoughts” were so very closely attached to “food thoughts.” When I felt stressed, tired, or scared, there was always delicious, warm food to make me feel strong and big enough to conquer whatever there was to tackle. When I relied too much on this comfort, I felt guilt about my increasing size, and I associated any sort of eating with guilt. I repented by setting a goal weight and saving my happiness and self-acceptance for the coming of that glorious number.
Body Positive Cornell organized student-athlete meetings that I took part in when I recognized I needed to change my mindset. These discussions helped me reclaim my body and challenge the limitations of societal standards of beauty. I recognized how I measured my self-worth to my physical appearance and how I compared, measured, and grew jealous of other women around me. I saw how I would even compare what was on my plate in comparison to my friends’ plates in the dining halls. It was time to drop the competition and adopt compassion. I said screw it to guilt and plans of deprivation and decided that my body is enough, that I am enough, and that when it comes to food, I need to listen to my body: eat when I’m hungry, what I’m hungry for, and for however much I’m hungry for.
From being my harshest critic to becoming my own best friend, I accepted my body and myself. I treated others with kindness and admired rather than envied the beauty of the people around me. I always carried all-sorts of food on me to constantly fuel my hunger, guilt-free. I equalized all food and chose what my body told me to eat. My body settled into a comfortable weight whose number I was ignorant of because I stopped weighing myself and started measuring my life in more meaningful ways.
Take that, society! I reclaimed my relationship with food and am all the better for it, happily ever after.
Not quite. This was not full-rebel mode, you see.
While it’s nice to be a rule-breaker and eat outside of social-mandated meal structures, I found myself constantly thinking about food, as each morning, I prepared my overflowing lunchbox with countless plastic containers, each box designated for one of the six or seven small meal breaks that divided my days.
Time is precious, and I found a majority of mine dominated by food. I wanted to create a life that brings in the earlier Greek definition of a diet. I wanted to eliminate constant thoughts about food and instead devote myself to what I truly hungered for in life, like learning languages (Ancient Greek, ahem) and writing a thesis (on Ancient Greek, ahem ahem). Did I mention that I’m a Classics major?
Then, I found a solution. A new identity. And you’re not going to like it.
What was my mantra now? Was it one of the usual go-tos, “I don’t eat meat,” “I don’t eat gluten,” or “I don’t eat sugar?” More like,
I don’t eat .
Hear me out.
The true sinning began last summer while visiting family in Athens, in the corners of the vacant makeshift guest room, in several incognito tabs of my phone. Untracked searches of, “What is intermittent fasting?” “Intermittent fasting for women” “IF for athletes” “IF and ketogenic diet.” Always checking that the coast was clear, I did research, read testimonials. I began to experiment, choosing a day to not eat but instead to read extensively, work on a project, or go exploring outside, with a water bottle in hand. Whenever my Greek grandmother said it was time for dinner though, I would obediently give in and eat, even if I was, to my surprise, not hungry. This was an offer I could not refuse, not even the Ancient Greek etymology of the word for diet could save me. To deny her cooking would be to deny her love, her toils in the kitchen, and attempts to talk about the benefits of not eating would incite a threatening, “what are you, stupid?” expression on her loving, smiling face.
Anyways, I could not imagine admitting that I was trying to fast, because on the lips of a woman, that is too easily equated with, “I am unsatisfied with my body.” I saw the fine-line between the assumption of dissatisfaction and the assumption of an eating disorder, I saw that fasting was heretical to female bodies. I progressed too much from my past dark mental cloud to bring that kind of attention to myself, to cause concern.
But the thing is, I wasn’t concerned for myself at all. I trusted myself. Later that summer, I talked to someone whom I regarded highly, who shrewdly preached about IF and the ketogenic diet, who had done it long-term and reaped the benefits. I wanted in.
So, staying hushed, I slowly converted from eating the recommended three meals a day and snacking every ten minutes, to eating once or twice a day.
It was easy. The new religion, the new me, came with happiness, productivity, and so much energy.
Until I lost weight.
Remember when I said it’s uncomfortable when your body doesn’t fit the ideal beauty standards?
It’s scarier when it suddenly comes pretty damn close. I felt less powerful. I saw the changing judgements people placed on me. I realized why many people who lose weight become scared and go back to food for safety.
I didn’t change my “diet” for weight loss or transformation, but I had to deal with this change as a side-effect. I started to overeat during my meals. I had a new insecurity to feed, since I now hid a sinful secret, this eating once a day. I’m a student-athlete! I’m body-positive. There’s no need to change my body because Every Body Is Beautiful. I maintained a higher weight because I wanted to prove to myself that I was comfortable with myself by defying social standards of body image. No deprivation here! No dissatisfaction here! I wanted to prove that no matter what, I always think that I am beautiful.
I wanted to prove that I don’t have an eating disorder.
That was the true fear. I didn’t want people to think I had an unhealthy relationship with food because I chose such an unusual lifestyle. I didn’t want my parents to worry. I didn’t want my friends to worry, or my coaches and my teammates. I didn’t want Cornell Health nutrition counselors to be on my case. And that hyper-awareness caused me to really worry, and suddenly, there really was something to worry about. I had to reconsider my food-related beliefs once more.
Body Positivity not only comes with Body Acceptance, but Body Ownership. My self-love can be maintained even if I lose or gain weight, even if I want to lose or to gain weight. It’s okay to want or to accept change. That is the privilege of owning my body.
To own it is to nourish it in the way I see fit, convenient, and healthy. Curiously, I found an unorthodox diet that works for me and promotes longevity. And if that lifestyle has a side effect of weight loss, that’s okay. I’m still me, I’m still body positive.
The challenge now is coming out. What do I say at a social gathering when someone inevitably asks, “why aren’t you eating?” Can I tell people that I am fasting? That I choose high fat, low carb foods? That I tend to eat once a day? How do I address the immediate concern most people unfamiliar with this lifestyle express?
And what if some days I break the rules of my identity in public? What if I choose to have sugar one day, or eat several times? Will I be reprimanded, made fun of? Must I make fun of myself, saying how bad I am, making up an excuse as my fork reaches for some good ol’ pasta?
I owe it to myself to stop dodging the questions, to stop acquiescing to orthodox diet behavior, and to finally speak the truth.
“Hello there! I am a female student-athlete, and to maintain a busy but fulfilling life, I follow a low carb/high fat diet and I frequently use intermittent fasting. I don’t want to preach, but I think it’s an awesome way to live. It probably doesn’t work for everybody, but it works for me, and that makes me happy. Oh! You have a different theory on the perfect diet? Great – I would love to hear it. Oh! You couldn’t care less? Great – let’s talk about something else.”
Using my voice sets me free from my fear of social damnation. I am free to practice self-acceptance through thick and thin, and to socialize with a simple glass of water or tea in front of me, much to the irritation of the waiter passing by. Eating disorders are a serious issue, I am not denying that, but if the social shaming of food heresies are a hurdle from achieving a convenient, healthy lifestyle, it is time to open up to differing views.
These are my sins. My confession may alleviate the weight that has been clinging on my shoulders (truly, I already feel the lightness), but it can also inspire others to reexamine the habits that make up their diet: not necessarily just their ties to food, but their overall approach to living. A diet need not be based on deprivation, but on identifying and fueling a hunger for life.