“Adrienne, can I see you after class, please?”
Nobody’s favorite phrase, to be sure. But this was especially disconcerting coming from my health teacher, Ms. Bliss.
Her real name was Ms. Blickenstaff, but I referred to her as Ms. Bliss because she was an adorable little Muppet of a person, constantly blissed out on life. For this, I simultaneously idolized and despised her. It was like she had figured out some magical secret to the universe–the secret of perpetual joy–but when asked what the secret was, she would throw back her mane of multicolored corkscrew curls and cackle hysterically.
Holy crap, I just realized that my high school health teacher was actually Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.
*ahem* Anyway, after the classroom had drained of all the other teenagers, she turned to me and asked, “Are you having some issues with food?”
“Yes,” I said before I could stop myself, and then promptly flung my hand across my mouth with an audible slap!
That was the first time I had admitted to anyone, myself included, that I had a problem. Up until then, I had convinced myself that those who expressed concern over my dropping weight were just jealous of my amazing self-control.
Exposed, embarrassed, and utterly terrified of what would happen now that the proverbial cat was out of the bag, I burst into tears. She held me for a bit and just let me cry before continuing.
“Your friends are really worried about you.”
“They are?” I sniffled from her freckle-flecked shoulder.
“They are. They came and asked me to talk to you.”
I was simultaneously touched and outraged. On the one hand: how dare they go behind my back and throw me under the bus to someone I looked up to?!
On the other hand: how many times and ways must they have already tried, and failed, to get through to me before resorting to this? And how touching is it that they didn’t just give up on me?
“Honestly, I’m pretty concerned myself.” She produced the food and exercise journal I had turned in that day, complete with numbers of calories ingested, including the 3 calories from a postage stamp I had licked earlier that morning. “Could you summarize for me your daily routine, please?”
“Well, at 6 a.m. I get up and either go for a run or do a Buns of Steel exercise video, depending on the weather. Then I eat half an apple and drink a big glass of water. I ride my bike to school–that’s about a four mile ride–and then I drink more water. I go to weight training class and after that I eat the other half of the apple so I don’t get dizzy. At lunch time, I usually run up and down the back stairwell a few times, and then I eat my lunch: celery and carrot sticks with a little bit of hummus or watered-down peanut butter. Then after school I ride my bike to the YMCA and swim laps for an hour or so. Then I ride home and I do leg-lifts or stretch while I do my homework. I can usually just avoid dinner because my Dad doesn’t really like to cook anyway.”
There was a pause as she took this information in.
“I think,” Ms. Bliss began carefully, “that you have an eating disorder, and that you may need some professional help.”
This was the least blissful I had ever seen Ms. Bliss, and I felt compelled to relieve her distress. “What do I do?” I asked her.
“Well, you should probably talk to your father–“
I snorted. Loudly. My father, an Electrical Engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was a classic scientist. Great with data, not so great with emotions.
“If I set my hair on fire,” I told Ms. Bliss, “my Dad might say ‘Have you done something with your hair?’ “
Ms. Bliss put her small, speckled hand on top of mine. “Give him a chance to step up. You might be surprised what parents can do when their kids’ lives are on the line.”
A chill went down my spine. I agreed to talk to Dad that night.
Wanting to get it out of the way quickly, I accosted him the moment he walked in the door.
“Dad,” I told him, “I think I may have some issues with food.”
“Well,” he sighed, putting down his weathered black briefcase and taking off his coat, “I have noticed that you’ve lost some weight.”
My father is originally from England, and his accent remains quite strong. Somehow hearing this Captain Obvious statement in his Oxford-educated dialect fucking infuriated me, and I did something I’m not proud of. I pulled my sweater (which was several sizes too big on purpose) up over my head, and threw it on the ground. I stood there in nothing but a bra and jeans (which were hanging down below my hip bones by that time), each and every one of my ribs on clear display.
He looked as if he might pass out. No, throw up. No, pass out. He covered his mouth. Then his eyes. Then he buried his head in his hands. It was at that point that it occurred to me that my father is the descendant of Holocaust survivors, and that my petulant unveiling of my skeletal state was probably triggering as fuck. Like I said, not one of my prouder moments.
Finally, he said, “Get dressed, and get in the car.” He was crying. I had only ever seen him cry once before, when his mother died. But that’s another story.
“Where are we going?” I asked, pulling my sweater back on.
“To the hospital.”
Not one to argue with a man with tears in his beard, I did as I was instructed and got into the car. We drove across town to the Boulder Medical Center, and not a word passed between us.
When we arrived, my father whispered something conspiratorially to the receptionist, and she told us to have a seat. A few minutes later, I was weighed (facing away so I couldn’t see the numbers), measured, and left to wait in the office of an eating disorder specialist. I’ll call him Dr. Disorder.
Dr. Disorder came in with a pleasant smile and told me he was going to ask me a few simple questions.
“What did you have for breakfast this morning?”
“Mmmkay.” He made a note of this. “How would you describe yourself, physically?”
“Well, I’m a work in progress. But I’m a lot healthier than I used to be.”
“Used to be?”
“Back when I was fat.”
“I see. And how much weight do you think you’ve lost since that time?”
“Oh I don’t know. Maybe fifteen pounds?”
He put down his pen. “So, when you were ‘fat,’ you weighed a hundred pounds? At…” he looked down at his notes, “Five foot five inches tall?”
I was genuinely confused by this statement and didn’t know how to respond.
“Because, when you weighed in just now, the number on the scale was eighty-six. You weigh eighty-six pounds, currently.”
“Oh,” I said, trying and failing to disguise my satisfaction at having finally managed to dip below that stubborn ninety-pound barrier.
It was at that point that Dr. Disorder folded his hands under his chin and asked me, “Do you want to die?”
“That’s interesting, because all the evidence points to the contrary.” He let that sink in for a moment before launching into what I’m sure was a well-worn speech:
“What do you think would have happened if you had tried to drive here in a car that had no gas in it?”
“It would have broken down.”
“Right. Because cars need fuel to be able to function. Well, surprise! Bodies need fuel to function, too. They’re pretty amazing organisms and can actually get by on a very small amount of fuel if they have to, but only for so long. Your car, I’m afraid, is running out of gas. You aren’t giving it the fuel it needs to function, so it’s starting to break down. Your body is eating itself to stay alive. Have you noticed that you have a hard time keeping warm?”
In point of fact, I was constantly freezing, regardless of how much clothing or blankets I piled on. I nodded.
“Do you see how thick the hair has grown on your arms? It’s trying to help you stay warm. Have you noticed that your nails and hair are getting brittle and breaking more than usual?”
My hair, was, in fact, falling out in chunks. That’s why I wore it in a pony tail most days. I nodded again.
“When was the last time you had your period?”
I shrugged. It had been months but, to be honest, I considered that a bonus.
“Stand up.” He instructed.
I stood, and immediately had to plant my hands onto the desk to keep from falling over. “Dizziness. Head rushes. Low blood pressure. These are all symptoms of starvation. Your body is starving to death. Have a seat.”
“Soon enough, your car is going to break down. Definitively. You might have a heart attack. Or a stroke. Or you might just slip into a coma – there’s a girl about your age in a coma down the hall, would you like to go and have a look?”
“No thank you,” I whispered.
“Good choice. Point is: if you don’t want to die, you need to start eating again.”
“I eat!” I protested.
He picked up his pen and touched it to his temple à la Carnac the Magnificent. He closed his eyes for a moment and then said, “Was it one Cheerio? Or two?”
I froze. This guy was good. “Well… I said Cheerios, didn’t I?”
“That’s a brand name, not a plural.”
Goddamn it, I thought, This man is a genius.
Having convinced me that I did, in fact, need help, Dr. Disorder called my father into the room to hash out a game plan.
“Your daughter needs to gain back about 25% of her current body weight in order to stay alive. I recommend a full-time in-patient program.”
“But I’m playing the lead in the school musical! And I’m in High Altitude and Madrigals this year. And I’m the president of French club, and my grades are finally improving…”
“What?” Dr. Disorder feigned surprise, eyebrows high, “An over-achieving anorexic? Well this is simply unprecedented.”
It was at that point that my father finally spoke up. “What about an out-patient program? Something she can do without missing school?”
Dr. Disorder gave him a long, hard look. “If you can personally guarantee that she will be consuming a minimum of two thousand five hundred calories per day at home, then I will allow her into the outpatient program, yes. It’s completely full and there’s a wait-list, currently, but given the severity of the situation, I will make an exception.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Dad said, shaking his hand, “I won’t let you down.”
In the car, holding the key in the ignition but not turning it yet, my father said, “If you get yourself back above a hundred pounds by the time you graduate, I’ll pay for a trip to Switzerland. You can stay there all summer and take language courses at the University, like you wanted.”
“Thank you, Daddy!” I was about to throw my arms around him, but he went on.
“But if you don’t, you’re going straight to the hospital. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Is that clear?”
Thus began the period of Meal Enforcement. Dad would watch me eat breakfast, make sure I packed a decent lunch, and then watch me eat dinner, not allowing me to leave the table until I had cleared my plate.
Now, being monitored at mealtime is unpleasant enough. But let’s just say my father is not the world’s most talented cook. Aside from foods that come from a cardboard box in the freezer or a tin can on the shelf, he had, let us say, a rather limited repertoire. Most dinners consisted of home fries (which we jokingly referred to as “Cajun Fries” because they were so often blackened), some sort of fried meat, and steamed broccoli or spinach.
I spent most of these meals crying and insisting I wasn’t hungry. Like a toddler, only way less cute.
But it worked. I gained back the weight, and by the time I graduated, I weighed a perfectly respectable one hundred and fifteen pounds.
Secretly, though, I still felt disgustingly fat, and was just counting down the minutes until I could fly off to Switzerland and get back to my usual routine.
Little did I know what lay in store…
My first stop in Europe was Paris, where I stayed for a few days before taking the train to Geneva. I was at the Musée d’Orsay, looking at the statues, when I noticed something odd. All the women were pear-shaped!
And not just a little bit. They were decidedly, unapologetically bottom-heavy. And yet they were considered the very pinnacle of feminine beauty!
I was awestruck. It had never occurred to me that the body type I had been born with would, in some other cultural context, be considered not just acceptable but ideal. No alterations needed, no starvation required.
I began to question all the years of programming I had received through fashion magazines and T.V. shows.
What if thinner isn’t better?
What if that insane diet and exercise regimen I had put myself through was completely unnecessary?
What if I just decided that I am beautiful and that’s all there is to it?
Fear is a powerful force, however, and despite that conscious epiphany, my subconscious mind was still steeped in the programming I had grown up with. So when I arrived in Geneva at the home of my father’s cousin, Claire, I was still very much in the grips of my internal portion control police.
Claire, as it turns out, had been given strict orders by Dad to FEED ME, and to make sure I didn’t go overboard on the exercising. She had also been instructed to pretend she spoke no English so that I would have no choice but to communicate in French. But I didn’t find out either of those things until many years later, when Claire was visiting the U.S. and blew my mind by chattering away for several minutes in perfect English.
And let me tell you, feed me they did.
Claire and her husband Joachim fed me delicious muesli every morning, with full-fat yogurt and fresh apricots from the garden.
They fed me lunches ranging from a simple baguette with double-creme brie and the sweetest black grapes I’ve ever come across, to homemade pesto over fresh pasta, to Spanish paella (Joachim’s specialty), and so much more. Always with the freshest and finest ingredients, and always with a salad from the garden and Claire’s homemade dressing.
She even taught me her recipe:
You let the oil soak up the garlic flavor while you’re preparing the rest of the meal. Then you add the greens and any other toppings–which range from shredded carrots and sliced tomatoes to sheep’s milk feta, raspberries and walnuts–and you wait until everyone is seated at the table before tossing it all together. That way you don’t need a separate container for the dressing, but the salad doesn’t get soggy before it’s time to eat. Brill.
After lunch came siesta time. This was strictly enforced in Claire and Joachim’s household. For at least one hour after the midday meal, silence reigned, and if you weren’t napping you had best be snuggled up in a sunbeam with a good book.
Weekday dinners were fairly light and simple. Often we would simply finish up whatever was left over from lunch, or Claire would throw together an omelet or a stir-fry from whatever she found in the fridge.
After dinner, Claire and Joachim would enjoy a cup of Espresso (I never understood how they could drink it right before bed like that, but apparently they were inured to the caffeine), and we would all partake of a single square of delicious dark chocolate and a bit of fresh fruit and cheese.
But on the weekends? Ho-ly moly.
Family weekend suppers in Switzerland are epic events that can stretch on for hours or even for the better part of a day. I’ll give you an example.
One Sunday, the extended family arrived at around 2 PM. We started with hors d’oeuvres / amuse-bouches and chit-chat for an hour or so while Joachim prepared the first two courses.
First, of course, was the soup course. After draining our bowls of fresh gazpacho, we all went outside to play badminton for a while.
Next came the appetizer course: a beautiful charcuterie plate with salumi, prosciutto, and an assortment of hard cheeses, pickles, and olives. More badminton followed.
Next came the salad and fish courses: Claire’s classic three-bean salad and a traditional salade niçoise featuring fresh grilled tuna.
Naturally, I assumed we were done with eating by that point, having already enjoyed a four-course meal and then some. So I put on some music and started a little dance party in the living room. My cousin Sophie broke out the Trivial Pursuit, and we all sat around quizzing each other for a good long while.
Then, at nearly 6 PM, Claire announced that it was time for the entree: a beautiful saffron risotto. I was floored.
After the entree, we all headed over to a nearby park. There we played frisbee for a while, lounged about for a bit, and then headed back home. That’s when Claire brought out the secondi: a classic Swiss fondue. And how do you say no to fondue?
Finally, it was time for dessert. After a small bite of sorbet to cleanse the palate, we were treated to a homemade pear tart with crème fraîche.
At that point, I was starting to feel a bit panicky. Though the serving sizes were small, that was still a LOT of calories, and I didn’t feel like the badminton and frisbee were going to do the trick. I suggested we take a walk into town. The others were amenable, so we all took a lovely sunset stroll to the main shopping strip. There, to my absolute awe, they proceeded to order ice cream(!).
That’s when I started to question all my existing assumptions around nutrition. These people were champion eaters, obviously. And yet they were all, to a one, healthy and fit. I also realized, watching them enjoying their ice cream as we walked back home, that in all the time I had been in Switzerland, eating what they ate and doing what they did, that my weight was no longer going up. It had stabilized, all on its own.
Maybe portion control isn’t the real issue here, I thought. Maybe this is about quality, not quantity.
Back at the house, Claire busted out a soft cheese plate, a few chocolates and hazelnuts, and of course, the Espresso.
And finally, the meal was complete.
In Switzerland, I discovered a secret that changed my life. That secret, which would later be captured in books like French Women Don’t Get Fat, was that fat is not the enemy. Taste is not the enemy. FOOD is not the enemy.
The enemy is the terrible relationship we North Americans tend to have with our food.
The sad truth is that Americans get almost everything wrong about nutrition and wellness. As Katie Couric so deftly exposed in her documentary, Fed Up, our obsession with the low-fat diet has made a lot of corporations extremely wealthy, and a lot of North Americans extremely unhealthy.
We are deeply disconnected from our food. We don’t know where it comes from, nor do most of us care. We don’t know what kinds of pesticides are being used on it, what kinds of hormones are being fed to it, how soil depletion is affecting its nutrient content, or what kinds of chemicals are being used to process it.
We don’t set aside sacred time for the act of eating. We rush through meals and judge food by its speed and convenience, not its nutritive value or flavor.
In Switzerland, I learned the art of food gratitude: taking the time to fully appreciate the food we choose to put into our bodies. And that made all the difference.