The first thing my eating disorder took from me was my culture.
It began at the age of 15. I viewed my body through the funhouse-mirror lens bulimia conjures. I’d never been so possessed about what my body lacked before. It was as if a light switch had been turned on inside of me, the brilliance of my rapidly-changing body both tantalizing and terrifying.
I began to hone in on what I considered unattractive, habitually pressing my fingers into the flesh of my thighs and stomach. As the second semester of my sophomore year resumed, I vowed to furtively take up running in the practice gym before school.
Something inside me latched onto the idea of thinness. For the next seven years, that precarious obsession with the number on the scale fueled my emotions and thoughts.
I pursued thinness like an after-school activity, with more fervor than I did boys or grades. I dieted resolutely, and rebelled against the carb-and-meat-laden assault of my mother’s rich Nigerian cooking.
Nigerian food is pure starch. We soak our meat in stew, dip our pounded yam into bitter egusi soup. It is designed to sit heavy in our stomachs, so that we will not complain. But food has a multifaceted place in our culture: At the very least, is the most polite showing of respect. You take food when it is offered.
For children, a clean plate demonstrates appreciation for the labor of our food — for suffering the heat of the oil, the beating of the pounded yam, the burn of the peppers. And though I did not know it, such food doubled as the link between me, my mother, and a culture that I didn’t know how to love.
What had been so familiar became noxious — a threat to all I was working toward. Sure, I loved eating it as much as she’d loved cooking it, but it was making me fat. It had to go.
But that's easier said than done.
My mother connected with me through food. The best parts of my mother have always been in her cooking, because it is her most obvious indicator of love. I rarely saw her most difficult sacrifices, but I always recognized the special care she took to make my favorite meals. She would wake up early to chop tomatoes, onions, and peppers, then later fry them with egg and freshly-baked yam.
I would wake up to her grinding black eyed peas and onions with the blender to make akara. I tagged along to her dutiful pilgrimage to African grocery stores to buy ingredients for fried fish and jollof rice. Eventually, she taught me how to cut thick slices of plantain, and how to pound the fufu. She was eager to teach, and proud to pass on what her own mother had taught her.
The more I resisted my mother's cooking, the more she plied me with concoctions dreamed up by her coworkers or her friends. I welcomed her efforts, but I frantically scoured the web for whatever caloric information I could find. I threw away what I could, ignored what I couldn't, and lied when confronted. I’d promise you, I’d smile, and I’d even let you beg – but I would not eat.
I learned to lie quickly, about everything – what I was doing, where I was going, why I was counting. Counting calories was my forte. I couldn't eat what I couldn't count. I wasted hours collecting "healthy" and nearly-flavorless recipes.
I know now that this specific behavior is a trait of orthorexia nervosa, a type of eating disorder coined almost 30 years ago. Sufferers of orthorexia can sometimes be written off as "health nuts," but orthorexics are obsessed with the mathematics of food, down to the very last calorie. Orthorexics will avoid or opt out of events where they can't easily access healthy foods, and they are incapable of eating a meal prepared by a loved one without trying to control its contents.
Rejecting my mother's food allowed me to painfully carve an identity that felt solely mine, as all teenagers attempt at some point. But in doing so, I rejected my mother, deeming the very things that made her special as a hindrance. I imagine that for my mother, food was also her way to tear through the cacophony of Americanization. My sister and I did not grow up with other first-generation kids, and lacked the language to discuss the duality we felt, how we constantly toed the border between two countries.
As a child, I quickly grew frustrated with the guilt I felt for not loving more, for not wanting to know more about my culture. I hadn’t persuaded my parents to flee their home so many years ago, so why should I try to connect with something they had chosen to leave behind? Such thinking was an isolation all its own, like the self-imposed cocoon of my disorder.
Despite its severity, orthorexia nervosa and its symptoms are still not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the nation’s official resource for classifying mental disorders. I imagine that it's because the American Psychiatric Association simply isn't aware that orthorexia inherited the crushing isolation of anorexia, and the wild, impetuous obsession of the bulimic.
How does one explain what it’s like to have food captivate your every waking thought as your stomach tries to eat itself? Or how to punish yourself for days after you accidentally eat 10 extra calories? Orthorexia remains complex because, technically, you are still doing the "right things:" eating healthfully, exercising carefully. You are still an aesthetically-pleasing vessel.
I eventually, however, embraced bulimia. Though I was not the furtive bulimic cradled closely to her toilet seat, I could row and run and bench until my body shut down on me, which it often did. Excessive exercise is an ambitious purge — but your body still breaks down. You drop your textbooks in the halls when your arms give out, and your knees begin to throb constantly. Your body will warn you of its boundaries, fight against you whenever it gets the chance.
I soon became a vegetarian for the thin film of morality. I needed something to base my lies upon. Making my own meals meant I could count calories in secret. I saw my mother's visible discomfort as opposition and flared up defensively. I didn't understand how she could oppose something so obviously good for me. Why was she rallying against something so crucial to my identity?
I realize now that this idea was my eating disorder's way of protecting itself. It was easier to think that my mother was colluding against me, instead of fumbling for the right tools to address my growing issues.
Chasing thinness and counting calories didn't seem like a worthy preoccupation for girls like me. I'd never met a Black girl whose body ached like mine, who too had watched hers break under her own pressure. I envied white girls who had mothers who could see the warning signs, if only because they themselves had "been there."
I did not inherit this weakness, this silly lust for food and hip bones, and so I was left to my own devices. I cleaned up my own mess.
Recovery – from anything, really – is a terribly lonely experience, even when done right. Eating disorders themselves are quite solitary — you eat alone, and you cry alone. I spent seven years fumbling my way through my eating disorder's excess alone, from dizzying highs atop the scale, and devastating lows.
Part of me wishes I could say I've fully recovered, but I haven't. Nearly seven years later, I still struggle to meet my body halfway. Like all recoveries, some days are still better than others, but I doubt food will ever stop being a source of anxiety.
I am closer to my parents, so my proximity to my mother's food is constant, and sometimes I do eat what she places in front of me. I still grapple with my old habits, with the ever-present urge to count. A healthy eating regimen is still lost upon me.
Sometimes, I am thankful that I am not where I used to be. But mostly, I mourn that I was ever there at all, that I have lost so many years chasing something that never mattered much anyway. On the other side of my disorder, I am forced to rebuild habits that should come naturally. These things take time.
And so I start, one plate at a time, with my mother’s cooking.