At twelve years old, I’m convinced that I’ve elucidated the latest enigma that has crept up on me: I have gradually stopped eating, because food, inexplicably, revolts me. I like to be in control, and in front of food, control somehow evaporates.
When I eat, I picture tiny notches in an imaginary scorecard, a tally I didn’t know I was keeping. I survive days on the bare minimum.
I feel masterful; that is, until I experience a series of dam breaks, giddy episodes of craving and excess consumption, followed by torrents of emotional maelstroms from which I emerge more repulsed by food than I even thought possible.
It is in this mindset that my interest in cooking and baking shows begins.
There is something undoubtedly sneaky, almost voyeuristic, about my hate-watching. I am cheating, staying the hand that keeps count on that imaginary scorecard. I am able to entertain a relationship with food that does not involve eating it.
I don’t yet understand that I am in the early grips of disordered eating: that the frightening ease with which I starve myself, and my constant malaise in the face of an increasingly hostile world are deeply intertwined. I don’t yet understand that at age twelve, on the cusp on teenage-hood, I have already become keenly aware of the tacit correlation between my blooming physicality and the sensual nuances therein; that I have already started exploring that power with profound dedication.
Most of all, I don’t yet understand that I am not just watching culinary shows in order to recalibrate my relationship with food. I don’t yet understand that, in these manifestations of culture and history and togetherness, I am searching voraciously for something.
I am trying to make sense of and understand my own cultures, and where I fit in among all this chaos; because while I keep my gaze doggedly turned outward, far from the intrinsic implications of my eating disorder, I have intuitively understood that its root may be at the center of a Venn diagram where food, culture and personal turmoil coexist.
I am sixteen years old, and seemingly, awash with a wave of renewed understanding about everything that is wrong with me. My fixation is no longer about food but about discipline—or rather, the projection of discipline.
Because of my family’s occupation, I have spent the last few years relocating and traveling between two worlds. The move is not just literal. As a first-generation American of West African ancestry, this figurative voyage between two spaces is one I have always unknowingly made. I have never not existed without a deep-seated sense of displacement, a slight void that has not only informed my relationships with others but also with myself.
To be astride two cultures is to be well acquainted with the nuances and pitfalls of perception, and I am no exception. In the US, I am an aberration, a multilingual and multicultural oddity who doesn’t align with what society narrow-mindedly expects from a person of color. I live in a world that doesn’t value what I look like: dark-skinned and kinky-haired.
In Senegal, I am the westernized native who wasn’t born on the continent, and who, consequently, cannot possibly belong. My broken Wolof and clumsy mannerisms are indicators of that Otherness, even though my ancestry is rooted there.
I am pinioned between having to constantly justify my existence, and barely registering at all for others, because I constantly flit in and out of different countries. I can barely make friends and when I do, I find that we have little in common. Alienation and anger only exacerbate the cyclical thinking and obsessions I have always dealt with, but which, lately, have only gotten more pronounced.
But in my eating disorder—because I am now able to recognize it as such—I find utter comfort and safety. It is the only thing that reconciles these independent parts of my identity; this, because both the American and West African societies have eerily similar messages regarding my body. What I’ve recently seen, as I’ve darted in and out of both worlds, has quieted the worried voice in my head, the one that tells me it is wrong to do this to myself.
Western culture has always taught me that beautiful, conventional girls don’t look like me: they are white, svelte, well-liked. Extra points if they are blue-eyed blondes. I cannot change my skin nor my eyes—at least not easily—but I can change my physique.
I sit up jolt straight, so as to vanish the stomach rolls a pediatrician has kindly pointed out to me. I elongate my neck to emulate the ballerinas I am trying so hard to resemble, although I’ve always hated my ballet classes. I apply my previous reticence toward food with even greater zeal: I live on four hundred calories a day; I exercise feverishly to work off what little I consume, or else I throw it up; I weigh myself to the ounce; I prowl pro-ana and thinspiration websites and hold onto anorexia or bulimia stories as markers of where I want to be.
It works. The frailer I get, the more compliments and normalizing attention I receive. I am, at long last, acceptable. I walk into any store at the mall, and know that what I try on will fit me. My friends’ fingers no longer linger on love handles, because they aren’t there. My willful ignorance about the gravity of my situation is lessened by the fact that according to the world, I don’t fit the illness stereotype: if I am not depicted under the umbrella of illness, it follows that I am not ill.
In parallel, the West African side of my upbringing only reinforces my objective: I have grown up with the tacit knowledge that beauty rhymes with pain, duty, dignity, stoicism, and above all, that beauty is sacrosanct. To be called beautiful is tantamount to being called holy, and it starts early. At age sixteen, I am already considered a woman, and held to the same standards as everyone else.
I watch the women around me contort like elegant flowers to fit the criteria imposed upon them; and if I don’t look too closely, the strain of their torsion barely registers to my eye. I watch my gorgeous mother, a former beauty queen, being hailed for the way she takes care of herself and I, too, fall freshly in love with her. I watch aunts and cousins busy themselves with skin bleaching creams and hair straighteners, the smell of lye relaxer as common as that of the perfumes, incenses, and nail polishes that surround them.
It is strongly conveyed that women should never be seen without jewelry and light makeup, even in their own homes—that is, unless they want to fluster their spouses and partners. I am taught that they should revel in cooking abundant, hearty meals for their families, but must not partake too liberally themselves because that svelte figure does not come cheap.
If I have reservations, I am not immediately aware of them. All of this is entrenched in the experience of being a woman: it is normal, no more, no less. I want to be like Senegalese women because even if my dialect is heavily tinged with English and French inflections, even if I don’t live on the continent, even if my Westernized experiences are not the same, I can still belong, in a way.
My examination of culinary shows is now colored with a heavy dose of scorn; I can better appreciate my mother’s dismissive attitude toward them. These people, gathered merrily around heaps and mounds of food, savor and salivate, while I exercise utter restraint, while I remain debonaire, following from the corner of my eye like I’m not interested.
As a pseudo-woman, I am finally understanding what this all means. It means that if I supposedly have an eating disorder, I should be proud of it. The inverse attitude would imply that it is a problem, and that I want it to go away. But I don’t want it to go away. If it is acceptable to change oneself to fit a standard, why should my eating disorder be the exception?
I don’t yet understand that I am not thinking straight, that I have spent my life listening to the grisly connotations of womanhood in the Western and African worlds; I don’t yet understand that I have been lulled by them for so long that they are now a litany I am unable to stop reciting.
This epiphany tastes coppery. I am a live wire, ablaze with vindication, because there is a method to my madness after all.
I am twenty, and my dalliance with anorexia and bulimia has lost its poetic tint. This, because everything else I’ve relegated to the backseat has finally caught up to me. Self-harm no longer offers me the prompt relief it had for so long; what I dismissed as a lifelong propensity for quirk has become full-blown OCD; my anxiety severs me away from people and wonderful opportunities; my mood free-falls so frequently I am not surprised when I am diagnosed as bipolar.
My eating disorder, the ward I’ve been nursing all my life, is what backfires most cruelly. I no longer feel vindicated, no longer feel in control. I no longer feel the savage rush of pleasure when I throw up or spend an hour on the elliptical. I am fainting regularly, my hair is falling out, my menstrual cycle is out of whack, I am always cold, my teeth are always hurting, my muscles constantly ache, my heart burns from the acid reflux I’ve subjected upon myself.
I’ve nearly died, people no longer consider me attractive, and suddenly, it just doesn’t feel worth it anymore. I come to this realization with a leaden, ashen taste in the mouth.
I still watch cooking shows, but there’s a desperate edge to that form of entertainment now. I have grown from the teenager who feigned disinterest to salvage her ego. I am listening, actively. Whenever I feel the familiar pangs of restlessness and the uncontainable agony, I make the pilgrimage to the Food Network. As my thoughts wander ever predictably toward the nourishment I will not allow myself, I settle down in front of the television to see it praised and worshipped by adoring gourmands.
My emotional collapse is a blessing in disguise, because it permits me to take a clinical at look what I am doing; what I find doesn’t sit well with me. I have gradually come to resent the lessons doled out in my parallel worlds. I no longer admire the women around me who have dieting and self-criticism imprinted in their DNA. I examine my mother now, try to find, between her impeccable lines, an anguish that echoes mine, an anguish that surely, must be there. I study models on American runways, try to prod beneath their inscrutable veneers for something resembling actual suffering.
Always, I am disappointed.
Americans, when confronted with the unseemly, look the other way, after they have had their say. We’ve all heard a variation of “you need some meat on your bones.” Sometimes it’s an insult, sometimes it’s a well-meaning but ill-phrased expression of concern, which highlights a similar sentiment: if one could only eat, one would get better (which, in this case, means to be “normal”).
I witness friends of mine succumb to their anorexia and their purging disorders and they are met with similar attitudes of resignation, as if slowly killing oneself is merely a rite of passage reserved for girls. I watch a friend of my sister, who is clearly unwell, become the center of hushed gossip: she exercises constantly; what a freak.
The opposite reaction is the norm in most African societies. Bold commentary one another person’s appearance is not only expected, it’s encouraged: other people keep you in check. Unlike Western societies that espouse individualism, most African cultures operate on a sense of community. Caring about others’ opinions is considered wise and selfless, and as strange as it sounds, it’s not all bad. There is always someone to rely on, people watching out for each other. Everyone can become surrogate family. But this also means that you live under constant scrutiny. When you fail, you do it loudly, for all to see. When you show unacceptable signs of weakness, you become a public spectacle.
Senegalese women are stunning. They are fascinating creatures, a paradigm of beauty as comparably unattainable as the polished one American magazines shove down our throats, and this is no mere accident. I know how hard they work for it, and I know how hard a Senegalese woman pays when she doesn’t walk the line—seeing a popular news anchor shamed off television for her weight gain, only for her to return months later, much slimmer, apologetic for the mishap, is permanently seared in my memory.
You are expected to shed your baby weight soon after you deliver, or you become the butt of fond-ish jokes about your appearance. Strangers are allowed to give you unsolicited advice, criticize you for looking seemingly old, plump, tired. One constantly excuses oneself for one’s appearance, as if to say pardon my rudeness.
Consequently, I circle the drain of my emotional turmoil, feeling shunned by my African side because I cannot keep it together, because I am not stoic and dignified enough. I should not be making mention of the disordered feelings and chaotic thoughts, so antithetical to the grace I’m supposed to be projecting. I look to my own mother, who is considered an epitome of strength, even in the face of personal turmoil, even as she deals with the grief of losing her own mother, even as she weathers many intimate storms, and I feel woefully lacking because I will never live up to her.
I resent that I cannot ask for help because doing so goes against everything I’ve indirectly learned from both the Western and African halves making up my whole. I resent that I must always be on my guard because it is not okay to be weak and vulnerable. I resent that I have so successfully internalized these messages that crying and feeling scared is chased with familiar thoughts of inadequacy. I am tired of all of it.
I am twenty-three, and my desperation to find acceptance somewhere, anywhere, has soured, as the realization that my body doesn’t belong to me becomes painfully obvious. This fourth epiphany tastes of bitter irony. At long last, my wish has been granted. I finally belong somewhere, in that floating space where all women are catapulted to as soon as they hit puberty—sometimes much sooner, if they’re particularly unlucky.
When I travel to West Africa, I notice that of late, people’s comments have shifted from my physique to my worth as a whole. What can I contribute when I’ll have a family of my own? When am I getting married? Will I be as praise-worthy as my legendary mother when I eventually have kids?
In the US, the questions are the same, although posed in subtler ways: What do you think about abortion? How do you think you’ll juggle a career and a family? Do you think your ambition will scare men away?
In addition to the fact that I have never wanted children—something about an association made between pregnancy and weight gain, as well as the crippling fear that my own neuroses will pass onto and ruin my children—the objectification is insulting.
While I have spent the last few years oscillating between blaming my eating disorder on my skewed understanding of beauty and blaming it on my inherent turbulence, somehow, it always comes back to food.
One day, visiting a newly married cousin while on vacation in West Africa, her husband makes a remark that I try to dismiss in the moment but that, days later, continues to rub me the wrong way. We are barely seated in their living room when his glance sweeps over me and my sisters, and he asks which one of us is the best cook. The question is meant to titillate us, throw us into a show of proud competition with each other, but I feel cheapened somehow, like prize cattle dragged front and center at the auction.
When he doesn’t get a reaction from us, he tries to save face by insinuating that it’s a trick question anyway. He knows we’ve been overseas too long, and that we couldn’t possibly surpass his wife in terms of talent.
It is an off-the-cuff remark that means nothing to him and everything to me, a remark that insults me twofold. The part of me that grapples with my eating disorder is instantly triggered. But it goes deeper than that: we have just met, this man barely knows us, who does he think he is? Is this all we’re worth to him?
I’ve always known that a woman who can cook is considered a valuable asset. It is a given that you will know what to do because you belong in the kitchen. I have heard it thrown around in America as an insult—make me a sandwich—by angry misogynists and Nice Guys alike.
In Senegal, the connotation is more delicate. African culture is rooted—nay, held together—by food and cooking. Calendars and dates are punctuated by the culinary affairs that unfurl during gatherings and events; many a woman’s character has been measured by how well she can replicate recipes passed down from her mother, and her mother before her.
The quintessence of womanhood is being able to successfully host exquisite meals for large family gatherings, which occur often and sometimes are unplanned. Women swap recipe hacks (add some sorrel leaves to your thiebou dieune, it’ll bring out the tomato flavor) the way women in American beauty salons trade gossip, and little girls learn at their feet. It is a rite of passage that determines how blessed you will be later in life.
If this is a contest, my mother has undoubtedly won the prize. She is lauded far and wide, which is a feat, considering that she is one of many girls in her family. It suddenly dawns upon me that I have spent the better part of my childhood at the stove next to my mother on weekends, watching her simmer a peanut-imbued sauce for the mafé, roast chicken and golden, caramelized onions for the yassa, or churn a paste of garlic and spices for the braised mutton intended for an upcoming celebration.
It is not because I am actually interested in the food—again, it has always morbidly repelled me; it’s because I am trying to get closer to my mother, seize that aura of transcendence she exudes, one I might be able to replicate one day, if I am lucky.
But now, at twenty-three, and with sharp irony on my tongue, I am conflicted: despite my lifelong resistance to that fact, it has become impossible to disregard that I am a terrific cook, a phenomenal baker, with a reputation of my own. It is like being gifted with something you cannot or will not use. I am an oracle who, while dispensing answers to all those who seek them, cannot predict my own future.
It’s a betrayal of my convictions, this art of cooking, because I am playing into the trope of the submissive girl, groomed to please others. It is also a more personal betrayal, a betrayal of my eating disorder and other mental illnesses that I have finally started to deal with. This thing I am so good with, food, is seemingly at the root of my unhappiness.
On the other hand, I struggle because I am proud, of course I am proud, of what food means to the cultures I have grown up with. Americans bond over dinner, over family celebrations during the holidays, and among friends. Baking pies on the weekends is as patriotic as tossing footballs on the Fourth of July. Barbecues are etched into the very fabric of African-American culture. Neighbors are welcomed into the fold through offerings of warm cookies.
Sometimes, when I am not paying too close attention, a feeling of pride in my African connection to food also catches me off guard. I find myself thinking of my grandmother, and her mother before that, and I revel in the obvious, sacred ancientness of it all. By cooking like them, I am doing justice to my heritage, my ancestors, those who have walked this earth before me.
It’s impossible not to feel ashamed about throwing up when my mother has told me countlessly how sacred food is; how some West African recipes have been borne out of necessity; how even the most prosperous family takes the time to appreciate the beauty of it all, out of respect for a time when it was not so easily available. In these moments, my eating disorder feels nothing less than capricious.
The comment from my cousin-in-law sets off a chain reaction that clears that smoke screen at last, and I come full circle. Maybe I had already understood this, at twelve years old. Maybe my interest in culinary shows has always been a search for some strange form of therapy, an attempt to prod the entanglement at the center of three levels of budding dysfunction: with food, with my sense of belonging, and with myself.
I’ve been watching professionals, aspiring pastry chefs, culinary artists, and the like devote their sweat and blood to something antithetical to who I am. I’ve been watching them with fundamental incomprehension, they who speak a language so foreign to the one I’ve sung and screamed, in turn, for years.
Perhaps I’ve been watching so as to understand what it must be like to have that fondness and appreciation and sense of belonging. Perhaps I’ve been trying to link culture and food in a way that is not laden with toxicity. Perhaps I’ve been trying to substantiate the fact that people can be genuinely happy to cook and eat, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to define the way they live their lives. Perhaps I’ve been resenting food all my life because it’s the figurehead for everything wrong with all the lessons on womanhood I’ve culled.
I don’t yet know that in finally seeing all this, I have already cleared the way for the last in a long line of epiphanies.
I am twenty-six years old, and after all these years of false starts, I have officially seen it.
I tell myself the following, in my newfound infinite wisdom: the term “eating disorder” is a red herring, one that misdirects the attention to only part of the problem—namely food, and the act of eating. It is about control and lack thereof, about compulsions and skewered self-perceptions, about abysmal self-worth and the need to deflect from that which is eating you from the inside.
Food is merely the conduit through which the dysfunction is filtered: it is the smoke screen, the knotted complication and the deceitful solution. You are made to believe that if you can somehow tend to that part, the rest, the engine fueling your madness, will melt away.
The hardest part of going to the mat with my eating disorder has been to focus my vision and trust my objectivity: this has necessitated reevaluating the misleading flashes of insight that have brought me to this point. Only then was I able to see that aforementioned Venn diagram that has always, in retrospect, been right in front of my eyes.
It is made up of the part where my perfectionist (read: obsessive and self-destructive) tendencies have made me hate my body. I never stood a chance.
It is made up of the part where Western and African societies have propagated a standard of beauty that I find thankless and punishing.
It is made up of the part where I resent food as a symptom of two cultures that besmirch my body and my worth as a woman.
This last epiphany is a salty one, is fifteen years’ worth of shed and unshed tears.
I tell the twenty-three-year-old, who is ringing in her birthday bent over a sink in a Korean restaurant bathroom: You have permission to be yourself. Honoring your cultures while validating your pain doesn’t have to twist your gut with shame.
To the twenty-year-old, chewing on ashen resentment: Gently take your mother off her pedestal. Look beyond her perfection, and maybe you will get to know the woman she is, the woman who shares more of your insecurities than you know.
I know the sixteen-year-old is too furious to listen, but I’ll tell her anyway: You have got it all backward. Beauty does rhyme with strength—but real strength, not projected strength. It is not a mask you put on and hope people will believe.
And to the twelve-year-old who is ruminating on all these messages that will lead her astray more than once, I say: Little girl, you are right. There is more to this spleen of yours than simply food, and you are closer than you think. It’s just going to take you the long way around to figure this out.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.