A typical Saturday night for me can be summed up one of two ways: food or sex. Do I skip dinner and start drinking, adopt the “eating is cheating” adage so I can feel thin and attractive and get tipsy quicker, thus increasing the chances I’ll get naked later, or do I cave and open the box of Triscuits, resigned to an evening of stuffing my face in front of the TV and going to bed with a bloated stomach full of carbs and a phone full of sexually frustrated text messages from potential paramours? Since puberty, it’s always been a choice between one or the other. For me, food and sex are mutually exclusive, and yet, at the same time, they’re opposite sides of the same coin, tangible embodiments of my bottomless sensual appetites. I’ve historically been a person who operates in extremes, trying to point my compass toward the middle ground but inevitably veering towards one pole or the other, and this dichotomy I have created between food and sex is certainly an example of that. My tendencies toward excess and indulgence speak to both my joie de vivre and my darker, more self-destructive impulses.
I can trace the schism between food and sex back to my adolescence. Like virtually every girl I know, I struggled with body image issues. I saw my body changing, turning into something that other people desired, and for a very long time I was intensely uncomfortable with that notion. I saw the innocence of my childhood slipping away, and as my hips widened and my breasts got fuller, I felt myself crossing over into uncharted territory from whence I could never return. I began to realize the power that sex held and that my body, in particular, contained.
My relationship to – and dysfunctions over – food certainly grew out of this confusing and painful period of change, and was partly an attempt to exert control over my body, which was quickly becoming unfamiliar and unrecognizable to me. But the story is more complicated than that, rooted in dozens of other external factors and elements of my psyche that are more difficult to pinpoint. What I know for sure is that when I started having sex at age 16, I became acutely aware of my body and how what I consumed made me feel about it. If I knew I was seeing my boyfriend on any given day, I made sure to eat next to nothing so that I felt light and sexy around him. And contrarily, if I was unable to control myself and ate to the point of being stuffed – something I am prone to do – I made excuses for why I couldn’t hang out.
This pull between the two poles has defined much of my adult life. I have been sexually active for roughly 13 years. During that time, I have gradually grown to enjoy and revel in my sexuality and, by extension, become very comfortable with my body. I’m outspoken to the point of shamelessness when discussing my sex life, but with food it’s another story. It’s something I consider much more personal and thus feel compelled to keep to myself. War stories about overindulging in sex is the stuff that makes for perfect weekend brunch fodder with girlfriends, but overindulging in food is something to be hidden and repented for, certainly not the sort of thing one confesses even to her closest friend. It’s the final frontier, the dirty little secret no one talks about.
I find it strange that, at their root, food and sex are the two most basic human necessities for propagating our species. And yet they’ve become shrouded in meaning, loaded with the weight of personal dramas and hang-ups. I’ve recently entered an academic program to pursue an advanced degree in the anthropology of food – a topic which I can truly say I arrived at with purely intellectual motivations. But the irony of attempting to grapple with the cultural underpinnings of food when my own relationship with it is so stormy isn’t lost on me. It’s forced me to confront my own sense of uneasiness about food and eating, and it’s also driven home the point that food is never just food – it’s a metaphor for our desires, an embodiment of our intrinsic self-preservation instincts, and so much more.
I’m resigned to the knowledge that, for me, food will always be imbued with meaning and sometimes frightening power. But I hope that in thinking deeply and honestly about it, it will become less polarizing. In my ideal world, food and sex would co-exist harmoniously, providing pleasure and sustenance somewhere in that elusive middle ground.