A book worm and foodie, studying English Literature at the University of Glasgow, writing about food, books and travel while aspiring to be a writer.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Dispelling the myth of Food Guilt.

One of the most perplexing things I wonder about when considering my relationship with food, is the guilt I sometimes feel after, or even during, eating. The feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach that follows a particularly large or indulgent meal totally ruins the pleasure of actually eating it, and all too often turns the delicious taste left in my mouth sour. This self-pitying food guilt I occasionally inflict on myself is not only incredibly self-indulgent in a masochistic, narcissistic way (I mean, talk about first world problems) but also borderline ridiculous and the more I think of it, the stupider it seems. I know I am not alone in this: myself and most of my friends have, at one point or another, muttered 'oh god, I shouldn't have eaten that/so much' and then punished themselves later by having a stingy dinner, or starving themselves altogether, despite having made the decision to order/buy/cook whatever they have just eaten in the first place. While people experience subjective food guilt to varying degrees, depending on their self-esteem, body issues or in my case, occasional batshit crazy rationality, I think it is time to address this puzzling negativity that too many of us perpetuate in ourselves.

I like to think of myself as a pretty smart person. Most of the time I have a grip on myself, my life and my thoughts. I'm often proud of my mind and the things it can produce and, as I have addressed in my previous blogs, am a cook who takes immense satisfaction from making delicious food. So, you would think that when I make a decision of which the outcome is certain, for instance, pressing 'order' on the Dominos' website, I would be prepared for and accepting of its results. Why then, does food occasionally seem to create a disconnect between my body and mind? Fast food websites do not make ordering from them overly simple. Scrolling through menus, selecting toppings and filling in your card details should, in theory, give you plenty of time to mull over your decision. 'Do I really want this pizza/curry/Chinese?' If yes, click checkout. If no, close the tab. More often then not though, whenever my meal has arrived after an agonising half-hour of subtly looking out my curtains to see if I can spot the delivery driver, I eat it and experience instant regret. No matter how much I enjoyed eating whatever it happened to be in the moment, my mind then turns on my body and the two have a fall out. It is as if my brain can't comprehend the satisfaction my body feels from eating something it deems 'bad' for me, despite the fact that it was actively involved in the decision to eat the food, and so a cycle of guilt and punishment ensues.

This downward spiral into food guilt is completely self-perpetuating. My decision to eat something 'bad' makes me feel increasingly negative and cruel towards my body. In turn, the negative mindset I find myself in means I care less about regaining my self-respect. I make more decisions that I know will end up in additional food guilt and self-loathing, therefore elongating the period of bad feeling. This experience isn't limited to just ordering takeaway food either. I have known myself to spend over an hour making the most delicious macaroni cheese from scratch, only to eat it and then spend the evening agonising over its calorie content. How ridiculous is that? To invest time, effort, money and love making something, to have the pleasure of enjoying it taken from you, by yourself. Only when thinking about this in depth recently, through my more self-reflective writing and efforts to be more self-loving, have I realised that this food guilt I sometimes feel is a myth, created by a brain that has been damaged by society's expectations. Therefore, it is also a feeling I can choose to completely overcome.

While some food is unhealthy, eating it occasionally for pleasure can only be good for your happiness. Furthermore, eating pizza once a fortnight will probably not have a huge effect on your figure, so me studying my stomach in the mirror after a meal, scanning for instant change is nothing short of deranged. Society condemns certain body shapes and the things, or foods associated with them. However, were we to just ignore this and have healthy relationships with our minds and bodies, occasionally indulging ourselves for pleasure would not be negative. To the contrary, it can actually make you feel pretty good. I am capable of thinking and making decisions for myself and the idea that societal tropes of appearance and healthy living can override a decision I made, with a guilt I don't believe in, is preposterous. The further irony is that when I accept that I have enjoyed something that wasn't very healthy, or maybe had too much cheese on it, I move on from that experience totally unscathed. Continuing to like myself, I fall back into normal healthy eating patterns rather than feeling guilty for days and life goes on. Pizza is delicious. Macaroni cheese is one of my favourite meals. If I want to eat them, I will, and I'll be damned if afterwards I feel anything other than happiness that I could allow myself to enjoy something. Sure, I'm not saying that I will be eating indulgence food every day and loving it, health is important too, but I'm tired of my brain sabotaging my stomach against its own will.

Homemade macaroni cheese, what's not to love? 

Deciding to stop partaking in food guilt makes enjoying food and liking yourself a lot easier. I also find that, personally, I am less likely to overeat indulgence food when it doesn't make me feel bad. If there is less stigma attached to it in my mind I can take or leave it, choosing to enjoy it only when I know I will get the most satisfaction. Getting away from this strange paradox of punishment and reward also means I like and respect myself a lot more. If I order a pizza, that's fine, just like it's fine if I eat really healthily for a week. While food guilt is something that is probably only the tip of the iceberg for a lot of people who suffer from eating related anxiety, addressing its ridiculousness can be the first step in overcoming it and moving towards self-acceptance. Being in control of our bodies and minds in a positive way is an agency we deserve on a primitive level. Eat pizza if you want, eat salad if you want, just make sure that whatever you do makes you happy just for you and you alone.

Lindsay x

Monday, 11 July 2016

Be your cake and eat it. (Part two)

When I was in my mid-teens I had a difficult relationship with food, and I'm sure that anyone who knows me now, or follows me on Instagram, will find that hard to believe. What started as a biological reaction to stress (my nerves are very closely tied to my digestion, a subject I may explore later if I'm feeling particularly disgusting) became a means of control. If I limited what I ate I had power. I liked the way it made me look and failed to recognise when I went beyond skinny and into 'at risk'. At the worst stage of my obsession, I would weigh myself three times before I went to school and not eat anything while I was there and away from the worried eyes of my family, all of this propagated by photoshopped images society pushed on my impressionable teenage mind. While that tricky time is water under the bridge now, dismissing it as a phase or insignificant would be foolish and I try my best to keep learning from it. On one occasion, my friend Chloe said to her mum that I 'wasn't a good eater' when I was around for dinner, and the title sticks in my head as the complete antithesis to the person I am today. I am a brilliant eater, in fact I prize it as one of my most impressive talents. When I am feeling particularly mean towards my figure I sometimes yearn for the time when I was seven stone, but remembering how miserable I was back then quickly puts those thoughts to rest.

The change came when I realised just how much thinking about not eating was dominating my life. I constantly monitored what I put in my body, how much I weighed and viewed my thinness as a trophy. I would look at a beautiful meal my mum put in front of me with dismay, not pleasure, and squandered the limited time I spent with my long distance boyfriend thinking about food and hating myself for any transgression. I may have looked good, by the standards of a dysmorphic and unrealistic society, but I was so unhappy that none of the very few benefits were worth it. Paradoxically, during this time I still loved to cook. I would bake cake after cake, loving the sensation of making something and seeing others enjoy it, but too often not partaking in it myself. This masochistic need to nourish others but deprive myself is a trope endlessly perpetuated by society: an image of a 1940s housewife providing for her husband while retaining an impossibly tiny waist and a set of shiny pearls springs to mind. However, my way of overturning this twisted relationship perpetuated by consumer culture was to see food for what it is; not an enemy but something good for me.

Moving away from home was a positive step. Rather than regressing once more into bad habits I turned my controlled eating into a love of cooking. While my Mum is the best cook I know and definitely passed her passion and talent on to me, I had to take my nourishment into my own hands to truly love food again. Cooking was revolutionary. Selecting, buying, preparing and assembling ingredients made eating pleasurable and I still had the control I craved. Knowing exactly what I was putting together to make a meal left the power in my hands, but now I was enjoying the product. I put on weight and learned to love myself by learning to love what I was eating, because I was creating it. As a creative person, the act of making food is very therapeutic for me: refuge after a long day at work or from the stress of university. Importantly, cooking makes me very aware of what I'm putting into my body, but not in a negative way. 

Recently I watched a documentary on Netflix that explored the processed food industry, and a dietitian told viewers to eat macaroni cheese tonight if they felt like it. And a bacon cheeseburger, and apple pie, and cookies and ice-cream, on one condition: you had to cook everything from scratch, yourself. 'I guarantee you won't eat that cheeseburger, or the apple pie, or the cookies', he said, and he hit the nail on the head. While pizza is my favourite indulgence food, when I'm working I'll grab anything that's going for the sake of not starving, and sometimes there is just not enough time in the day, for the most part I eat healthily because I cook my meals myself. I'm by no stretch of the imagination a 'clean eater' and I think subscribing to that lifestyle is as damaging as any other obsession, but it's inevitable that when you make something from scratch you're more conscious of everything you put in it. Putting good stuff in my body makes me feel good. Fast food is wonderful and everything has its place, but personally I need to get the best from food to feel my best and the easiest way to do that is to make it yourself: you're less likely to overindulge and more likely to love what you eat. Nourishing our bodies means we can recreate a healthy, organic relationship with them, overcoming the unhealthy mindset society inflicts on us by dictating an ideal. Reclaiming food by creating it myself allowed me to reconnect with my body and view it once more it as a friend, not an assassin. Now I am much healthier, happier and while I will always have bad body days, I figure that's ok. I can go on a health kick if I want, or eat less snacks without going overboard. The stigma that once connected eating with ugliness in my mind is no longer there. I make the best macaroni cheese I've ever tasted and my cakes are great, but the most important thing is that I'm in control in a good way. No one can dictate to me how I should look, feel or what I should eat or cook apart from me, and now that I love myself once more the relationship between me and food is a good one. 

In part one of this blog I mentioned The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, where the protagonist eats a woman made out of cake, which she has baked, to reclaim her body and her identity. While I'm not suggesting that eating as a way of being in touch with the self need be so literal, (although I did bake heart shaped cakes so I'm sure there is some latent symbolism at play) I thought I would finish this blog off with a cake recipe in the spirit of Atwood and self love. Filled with lovely ingredients, this is my 'Special Carrot Cake', a recipe I used to bake back when I didn't want to eat the final product and one I enjoy much more now. It's easy to make and very delicious. I hope if you try baking it, it makes you happy. Thank you for reading. 

Special Carrot Cake

Ingredients (To make a large cake, double layered cake. Half the recipe for a batch of cupcakes.)
Preheat your oven to 170 degrees and grease and line two deep 20cm cake tins

For the cake: 
  • 300g plain flour
  • 300g soft light brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 300ml vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 300g carrots, grated
  • 100g nuts of your choice (I use mixed unsalted nuts for the variety)
For the icing: (Again, half quantities for small cake/batch of cupcakes)
  • 300g icing sugar, sifted
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 125g cream cheese
  1. Put the sugar, eggs and oil into an electric mixer (or use a hand blender) and mix with a paddle attachment until all the ingredients are combined. 
  2. Gradually add the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, salt and vanilla extract. Continue to mix slowly until well mixed. 
  3. Stir in the carrots and chopped nuts by hand, making sure they are evenly distributed in the mixture. Spoon the mixture into the cake tins and smooth. 
  4. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the sponge is golden brown and bounces back when touched. Testing with a knife or skewer is also a good indicator, but as this is a moist cake it may not come out completely clean even when fully baked. Better to go on colour. 
  5. When done, let your cakes cool in the tins for ten minutes before turning out onto a wire cooling rack. Meanwhile, make the icing. 
  6. Beat the softened butter and the icing sugar carefully until well mixed. Add the cream cheese in one go and stir until completely incorporated. Then beat until it is smooth, light and fluffy. 
  7. After your cakes have completely cooled, ice them. If making a big cake, sandwich the two layers together with icing and then decorate the top. If making cupcakes, dot some on the top and then smooth out with a knife. Decorate with more nuts and ground cinnamon. The wonderful thing about this recipe is that it is versatile enough to make lovely cupcakes or a large cake and both stay delicious and moist. I usually make half the quantities when in Glasgow so I don't end up throwing any out. 
Lindsay x 

*P.S: Just wanted to make clear that I don't think any type of body shape is bad, I am just referencing my own previous attitude to eating, which was unhealthy.* 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Be your cake and eat it. (Part one)

On Sunday I returned from a lovely week long holiday on the Isle of Mull with my family and boyfriend. The time spent without sustainable wifi, with loved ones and in an isolated, empty part of the world are both the reason why I am slightly delayed in my writing and also in part its inspiration.

I always find myself at peace when walking outside, on my own or with someone I know very well. The sensation of absolute comfort, I realise, comes from the anonymity that these situations provide. When I am outside and not likely to see many people, and if when I do they are similarly bedraggled and decked out in a non-sexy waterproof, I don't really care about the impression I leave. On the other hand, my everyday life in the city means constant interaction with people, people, people, strangers or otherwise. Being under a constant societal gaze has more of an impact on me than it probably should: if I go about my day not feeling that I look my best I become shy, retiring and sometimes pissed off, desperate to get home and into my pyjamas ASAP even though I'm usually an outgoing person. The most ridiculous thing about this conundrum is I know that NO ONE CARES. No one is going to stop in the street and think 'my god look at that sweaty rushed mess of a person, her life must be a joke', because everyone is as deeply entrenched in their own bubble as I am. But this form of image-based social anxiety has got me thinking recently, particularly with regards to my focus on food. Consumer culture bombards us daily with advertising and social ideals, and this is at its most personal with regards to the body.

Diet pills, fast food, bikini adverts, clothing shops, beauty products, photoshopped front pages; even my short walk to work is choc-full of subtle subliminal messaging, telling me what sort of perfect form my life and body should take and what I need to buy in order to achieve that. Similarly, one scroll through Instagram, Twitter or Facebook provides endless images to compare ourselves to and, more disturbingly, the temptation to edit our pictures with filters and photoshop so we can 'compete' in the looks market.  Furthermore, the way we look at our bodies can be reduced to nothing less than symbolic cannibalism, and this is where it gets interesting.

I know many people (myself included) particularly women but also men, who look at their body with  shocking self criticism; 'my thighs are huge'; 'I have no waist'; 'I wish I had bigger boobs/a thigh gap/longer legs'. This reduction of the self to separate body parts is reminiscent of the dotted lines that are drawn on pigs or cows marking how they should be butchered: what shape and size the 'perfect cut' should be. Consumer culture goes so far that we view our own bodies as commodities to be devoured by others. This is why I only question myself when looking through the filter society has instilled in me, and am more at peace when away from its pressures. While I don't underestimate that many people want to look a certain way to feel good about themselves, that the 'certain way' is deemed as ideal in the first place is down to an image we are constantly sold, as blatantly marketed as branded sportswear and the lithe people who model them. I believe that one of the reasons people can become so obsessed by their bodies and by extension what they eat is that they care, deeply and disturbingly about how they relate to this image both in the mirror and under the gaze of others. Our image, how we look and what we choose to promote about ourselves in real life and on social media is all an impression created, manipulated and designed to be consumed, gobbled up by those who see it. Otherwise, why would we care about the shape of our thighs? Why would we edit pictures of ourselves and present someone who is to a certain extent untrue? With the exception of matters of health, most self loathing I encounter comes from an anxiety that we don't fit the mould, or come within the butcher's perfect dotted line.

While on holiday I read Margaret Atwood's crucial first novel, The Edible Woman. In the book, Atwood's protagonist Marian suffers from a subconscious anorexia, as her body rejects her mind's settling for a life of subordination and marriage by slowly limiting the food she can stomach. By the end of the novel, Marian cannot eat anything and her breaking point comes when she realises the person she has moulded herself into is not truly her, but someone to be consumed by her fiancé and society. Her retaliation to this is miraculously grotesque. She bakes a effigy of a woman out of cake, created for the sole purpose of being eaten. 'You look delicious,' she says to the cake, 'Very appetising. And that's what will happen to you; that's what you get for being food.' When her fiancé Peter shows up, she calls him out on his (albeit perhaps innocently unaware) bluff - '"You've been trying to destroy me, haven't you," she said. "You've been trying to assimilate me. But I've made you a substitute, something you'll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along isn't it? I'll get you a fork."' Peter, while obviously not wholly responsible for the expectations he harbours due to society, can nevertheless not stomach his tailor made woman. He leaves, and the real pièce de résistance comes when Marian takes the fork, suddenly hungry, and eats the cake herself. Symbolic cannibalism becomes a vehicle to restore self-control, rather than a cause of self hatred. The image of the woman eating the woman-cake, once more with an appetite, powerfully turns the consumed once more into the consumer and Marian retakes her agency and rejects society's measure of her through the trope of food.

This idea, that of both being your cake and eating it, is what I will explore in the second leg of this blog, coming soon. Alongside a cake recipe (of course) I will discuss how food can overturn what consumer society has taken from us. Nourishing our bodies in a healthy manner should be a positive way to look after and love yourself, not a trip into guilt-ridden angst. By recognising how our consumed image makes us alter what we in turn consume, literally, we can use food as a means to change the way we view ourselves and others. Our bodies should not be labelled as pre-judged chunks of meat, and from my experience forming a positive relationship with food can be an excellent way to stop butchering our self-esteem. 

Lindsay x