Last night I went to dinner with two women from my writing group. We’re just on the edge of becoming friends; hovering on the edge of the diving board, bouncing nervously, priming ourselves to tumble into the water below (and hoping against hope that it isn’t a bellyflop).
We sat at bar stools overlooking an open kitchen, talking in mousy-quiet voices because we are Far Too British to get on board with the theatre of food going on inches in front of our noses. The sharing plates arrived in a steady trickle, and we meticulously rationed them out into ever-decreasing, scrupulously equal portions. A third of a raviolo; exactly four chickpeas; wine measured out by eye but with absolute laser precision.
With old friends, with family, I might have run my finger across the saucer to scoop up the last sumptuous smear of labne. With new friends, I watched politely as the crockery was cleared and tried to keep the yearning off my face.
There’s a weirdness when you’re perfectly conscious that you’re being constrained by bullshit gendered societal norms, but you’re not sure that you actually want to defy them.
Appetite, hunger, cravings, greed.
I read some writing advice recently (which I’ve now lost in the sea of the internet, inevitably). Most of it disappeared immediately from my head, but a borrowed phrase has been stuck there like an earworm: keep your eyes on your own plate. Focus on your own writing, on building your skill. Keep going, keep going. Don’t look with envy at what other people are doing, or measure your achievement against theirs. All very sensible, very admirable – but how do you balance that with learning through reading, with supporting your sisters? How do you tamp down the pang of anxiety and jealousy and panic and self-doubt that courses through you each time you read something brilliant that you couldn’t have, wouldn’t have written yourself?
Eyes on your own plate.
After dinner, we went to a spoken word night and listened to a series of Nasty Women perform their writing. It opened with Jonatha Kottler reading her essay Fat in Every Language; I sat in the back row and cried a few hot, silent tears. So funny, so moving, so witty, so warm.
Yes! I thought. This, exactly.
I’ve been trying hard to uncouple food from emotions for quite some time. In bereavement counselling, I found myself sitting across from Sabine (in her boilersuit and necklaces and perfect eyeliner) voicing a truth I didn’t know that I knew. That my binge eating is a distorted echo of my mum’s drinking; that “there was something inside me that was open and desperate, and I filled it up with some potato chips”. (Or M&S Extremely Chocolatey Mini Rolls, or whole pouches of Twirl bites, or spoonful after spoonful of buttercream icing).
At lunch this week I joked to Kevin that I eat all my feelings. Happy feelings; sad feelings. Answer them all with food. Grief tastes of chocolate raisins and creamy lattes consumed alone in a dark cinema. Nervousness tastes of an extra bowl of tortellini, doused in creamy sauce. Anger tastes of oozing, thumb-sized coffee eclairs. Happiness tastes of cheese and chutney and crusty white bread eaten off a picnic blanket under the stars.
Kevin laughed, and I laughed, like people have laughed at that line every time I’ve used it for the last 15 years. I think it’s probably time that I retired it.
Another performer at the spoken word night made me bristle and prickle with her slim-limbed gestures as she made ridiculous the women who fear being the ones to open the packet of biscuits. OK, maybe it’s ludicrous. But if you were the one who people look towards when there’s a final piece of food on the communal plate, maybe you’d have a little more empathy for those of us who fear the attention that the squeaking tear of the cellophane wrapper might bring.
Greed is such a luxury, isn’t it?
Last week I stood at King’s Cross in the early-morning rush hour, clad in a red t-shirt and clutching a bucket. FAMINE IN EAST AFRICA, I shouted, again and again. Ninety minutes of yelling at commuters: FAMINE. FAMINE.
20 million people on the brink of starvation; 800,000 children under 5 acutely malnourished. And here I am, stressing about the judgement that might fall upon me if I eat half a teaspoon more soft white cheese than the women I’m breaking bread with.
I do not have that open, desperate space inside me at the moment. I am happy and fulfilled and so loved and so in love. I do not need to fill a void with sugar or salt. But nor do I need to deny myself every mouthful. I’m trying, still, to reach an equilibrium.
In the very first session of Write Like a Grrrl, Kerry spoke about destructive writing behaviours: of the euphoria and subsequent crashes that binging can bring. So I’ve written, steadily, in 10 and 20 and 30 minute bursts. And the word count has crept up, and my mind has settled. It feels healthy. It feels obvious. But it never occurred to me on my own.
I need to find that steadiness in my food and myself, too. To find a way not to indulge every sugar craving (but not to fear cake), to not eat in secret (but not to fear eating alone). To give food exactly the right amount of consideration, and not an ounce or a second more.
What really has to change, says Jonatha Kottler, is how many fucks I give about all of this.