Allison Field Bell's piece "Of the Eating Variety" appears in Issue 59: Forged
I will eat a croissant today, an almond croissant from the local café on the corner of Main and Hillside. And I will not worry about whether or not I will need to use the bathroom too soon afterward because the only reason to use the bathroom will be a normal reason so I will not need to feel anxious about using or not using it. I will not worry about the bathroom situation at all— one stall or two, secure bolt or unreliable knob lock—because I will only need to do normal bathroom things in the bathroom, which can be embarrassing, but only in the normal human way.
That is, in the bathroom, I will not be vomiting.
It’s only six and the sun is still mostly down, but I’m awake and I have decided: I will eat an almond croissant today. And I will not eat it too quickly because it is a delicacy and the proper etiquette for consuming a delicacy is to cherish each mouthful, knowing and feeling how indulgent, how wonderful to be able to sit at the café on the corner of Main, undisturbed by all the people purchasing their morning coffee in paper cups, their morning pastries in paper bags, taking everything to go because they are rushing off to work, to life. There I will be, at one of the round wire tables, enjoying unhurried mouthfuls of croissant. I will have no need to hurry because I have no work to rush off to and very little life to attend to.
Do not trouble yourself with work, my sister-in-law tells me, stay as long as you like, rent-free. This is family. This is the time for you to take care of you and your life.
Yes, this is the time, as I am almost thirty, and more determined to be more serious about my life, to take better care of me.
Thus, the almond croissant.
For some people, I imagine, an almond croissant would be the antithesis of self-care. Self-care as New Year’s resolution likely includes an intentional avoidance of croissants or pastries of any variety, and the reestablishment of a healthy diet consisting of more vegetables, more fruits, fewer calories. I suppose then, my actions in the pursuit of self-care could seem enviable: Your version of health is an almond croissant? How fortunate that, today, your health will be made better by such a delicacy!
Yes, I will eat a croissant today. And I will feel fortunate and in full service of my health. And I will not think about bathrooms. I will not need to worry about my courteous,
though wasteful, running of sink water, which is, or has been in the past, utilized so that the people in line, if there is a line, will not have to hear the sounds of vomit. Using water for its sound alone is unforgivably bad for the environment, and I imagine my water usage over the last two to eight years has detrimentally impacted the water table, especially since we are in a drought. But people do not want to hear the sound of a stranger’s vomit in public. There is a specific hierarchy of acceptable public restroom activity—the most acceptable being urination or maybe simple handwashing, though there is always a question of what provokes the handwashing, and if it is perhaps symptomatic of some compulsive handwashing tendency. And then there is the current societal debate that my sister-in-law informs me is rampant in preschool classrooms and day cares: Is there such a thing as too much handwashing? Peanut allergies, for example, are they caused by excessive hygiene? Studies are unclear.
In the bathroom hierarchy, however, it is clear that vomiting is the only activity that demands inquiry. Are you OK? people will ask, either with looks of pity or, in the cases of older nosy women in particular, with actual words. There is no best-case scenario if a stranger hears you vomiting. There are three options: food or alcohol poisoning, stomach flu, pregnancy. The truth, though an option, is even less acceptable than the occurrence of vomit or the wasting of water in the first place. You cannot just discuss your disorders with strangers in line to use a public restroom at a café.
Neither can you discuss your disorders with family members who have their own hierarchy of concerns. My brother’s concerns mostly lie with ecological catastrophe (the status of the fish population among the Channel Islands) or the ways my niece and nephew show signs of future interest in academic pursuits (yesterday, Lily: linguistics) or potential developmental delays (Zander is a very clumsy climber of trees). My sister-in-law attributes my disorder to my previously unhealthy working lifestyle. My proximity to food and alcohol and the unhealthy behaviors they encourage—excessive drinking and stress and late nights with coworkers who are sleeping together or trying unsuccessfully to do so. Slow down, my brother and sister-in-law insisted, take some time undisturbed by the rush and grind of city life, spend some time with your niece and nephew, and here’s your own private space, your country studio.
By country studio they mean trailer in their backyard, beside two rows of tomato plants and a handful of fruit trees—apricot, peach, plum, and in the fall, my brother says, bright orange persimmon, the kind that is really only good for baking or preserves, but still. Behind this trailer studio is the horse barn, the goat pen, and the chicken yard. And right now, the roosters are signaling the start of the work day. My brother and sister-in-law will already be awake and feeding and dressing my niece and nephew so that they can be off to their jobs, my niece and nephew to day care.
They will not worry about waking me because I do not have a work day, and even if I did, I would not need to rush because it is only six and I do not have children and likely my work would not start until nine. A nine-to-five, it’s called. The good American dream. Which means, even considering the time it takes to shower and dress, and because I do not have children to dress and feed, I would still have at least an hour to sit and eat a croissant well before I am needed to answer a phone call or send an email.
That is, if I were somehow qualified for a nine-to-five. Because, considering my skills and work experience, it is unlikely that I am. And if I did have some of the work that I am qualified for, here or in the city, I would either be still asleep from a closing shift and therefore not even contemplating croissants, or I would be at work already, behind the coffee bar, making drinks, serving croissants with revulsion and envy to the people who order them. And if I worked at the café on the corner of Main and Hillside—which I imagine relies on a French pastry chef who arrives every morning before sunrise with trays of croissants, chocolate and almond and plain butter—I would most likely never eat one myself.
If I were to work at a place, eating their delicacies at the free or reduced rate that I would likely be granted is unhealthy—the antithesis of self-care. Because if I were to begin eating free indulgent croissants every day, it would become a routine, a necessity, not a delicacy, so that even the days I was not working, I would have to come in for my croissant—early enough so that they weren’t sold out. And if I happened to sleep in, or be distracted by my niece or nephew (Zander’s latest cardboard-box fort or Lily’s scraped knee), and the croissants were then to sell out, the remainder of my day would be spent in perilous anxiety and discomfort and resentment of the obese patrons (I will of course project obesity onto all of them) who have so rudely consumed the entirety of the croissants, one of which should have been reserved for me.
On the other hand, if this daily croissant were available for my consumption, there is still the question of what to do afterward. At work, at the café, the bathroom would be of equal concern: line or no line, water wasting, hierarchy of acceptability.
But now that I’ve considered this, the bathroom situation, I will no longer have to worry about it while I’m sitting in the café enjoying my croissant. Because the truth is, I am convinced, as I am most mornings I have the luxury to lie in bed and listen to roosters (which so far has been five mornings, not that I need to keep track), there is a worry quota that I must meet for the day. And once said quota is met, I will have zero worry left and will therefore be more likely to sit anywhere with any food, untroubled by thoughts of bathrooms or lack of life and work. So far, I have yet to discover the limits of the worry quota, but I am confident that enough mornings in my studio trailer will provide me with a better understanding.
Again, it’s a matter of self-care.
I imagine much of the quota is currently met by my worry over spiders. The studio trailer is a great host to them. This is not something I am well-adjusted to because of my city life, which was not entirely without spiders but was also not entirely infested. Here, I believe my country life to be entirely infested. But I have decided that it is healthy for me to readjust and live in harmony with them. They were here first, after all, and my brother tells me that they are good for all the plants—they keep the insects away. I believe him because he has a successful garden with many healthy plants. Plus, they, the spiders, are also a good challenge for my sleeping abilities.
At night, I allow my worry to drift around the corners of the trailer, between the webs over the window screens and to the uncanny sensations on my skin caused by, mostly, my hair shifting. They won’t hurt you, my sister-in-law tells me, even the black widows are so shy and are usually drawn to darker places like the wood pile or the barn storage. You shouldn’t worry, but if you want we can spray the trailer for you. No, no, I am adamant: I will adjust. I will learn to live in harmony with spiders, to be more serious about my lifestyle, to be more grown-up, to handle each day as an adult and not as a woman who worries about bathrooms or spiders.
Likely, I will not become harmonious with spiders in one day, like today, though I will continue to try. But, in one day, like today, I can and will walk to the café on the corner and order and eat a croissant, slowly and without worry.
I have concluded that all of this worry is due to my disorder, a disorder of the eating variety.
It is a common misconception that disordered eating is divisible into categories or isolated to the time spent eating or around eating or measuring the effects of food. Worry over spiders and bathrooms is rarely on any checklist of symptoms. Nor is worry over mirrors. While disordered eaters tend to think extensively about mirrors as a kind of confrontation with depleted self-esteem, a venue for self-critique, my mirror routine is more closely affiliated with psychedelics. I know this because I once consumed peanut butter–psychedelic mushroom toast with some friends in high school. This was before my disordered eating habits made themselves fully present, so I did not worry about the toast or peanut butter, bathroom or no bathroom. I did, however, worry over my appearance in the full-length mirror in my friend’s bedroom.
Not my appearance so much as the appearance of my appearance. That I was just a body seemed incredible to me. That my skin was a complete sheath for all the muscles and bones beneath it. That I could touch my wrist and chest and feel the trembling of the blood there. That I had eyelashes! And fingernails! And freakish cartilage between my nostrils! I remember feeling very powerful and very afraid in front of the mirror—that I was a body seemed to be the most important revelation since food storage (we had just studied the fertile crescent in history). And then the fear: the more I thought and pressed and stared, the less body-like my body became. It was suddenly no longer a body, it was just the appearance of a body. I was just the appearance of a body.
And this is the thought, perhaps, that makes me so desirous to feel the edges of my body, to remind myself of it, which for many people, I imagine, involves pleasure, but for some of us, the disordered of us, involves pain.
And vomiting is very painful. The pain of it is not something I imagine bringing up in conversation—vomit seems synonymous with disgust, not pain. Unless we consider baby vomit, which is acceptable (in relative moderation) and referred to less as vomit, more as throw-up or spit-up. In my disordered experience, the disgust associated with adult vomit, like other private bathroom activity, is in direct correlation to frequency of experience. A stranger’s vomit will always be disgusting, but the more practiced a person is at encountering her own vomit, the less it matters whether or not disgust is part of the process. Pain, however, is always present. There is pain in the throat from the stomach acid, pain from where teeth hit the knuckle of the index finger leaving a hard red callous that sometimes breaks and bleeds, pain in the stomach and the head afterward, and sometimes the jaw, too, becomes sore. The body, no matter how adjusted it is to vomiting, resists it. The disordered body, in this case, fights against its resistance, its natural state of not vomiting, and the result is pain and an inexplicably comforting awareness of the body as body, however disordered it may be.
My brother does not call it a disorder and my sister-in-law is careful not to reference it in his presence. A brother does not like to consider his sister disordered, especially an older brother who is socialized to understand that it is his genetic duty to protect his sister from everyone in the world who may wish to harm her—lovers, friends, employers, even parents. But how does a brother protect a sister from her own body? He can’t, my sister-in-law confesses, and he knows it. It sometimes makes him angry at me. I understand, I empathize. If my brother told me he spent the morning lying in his trailer studio contemplating the perils of consuming a pastry, I would be furious with him.
But then, my brother has a wife and children that he is obligated to prioritize. Perhaps if I had a wife and children, I would not worry over whether or not I should eat a croissant. I would worry instead: Is Lily the proper weight and height? Does Zander have sunscreen on his ears?
Or, in a moment like this, if I were ever to have a moment like this, alone, in a trailer, I would wonder: What about when they’re grown? Will clean drinking water still exist then? And the next thought: Thank god I won’t be alive to see the world they’ll have to live in. Electronic screens, cancer, hungry and homeless people everywhere. Nothing green left. Robot roosters.
Lately, Zander will approach me with his latest favorite toy in hand—a plastic dinosaur, a wire bug trap, some Play-Doh crafted food item (bananas or bagels or triangles of pizza)— saying, Auntie, Auntie, and I will feel a conflict of interest. There is the unprecedented and surprising love I have for my nephew, a human who every day is becoming more human, who suddenly and currently exists, it seems, merely to receive my love. And there is also a confusing jealousy: I want one. I want my own Zander or Lily who will depend on me and my body for everything, who will come to me not just with toys but with tears. This is likely a tapping into some bizarre biology that really should be phased out genetically, considering issues of overpopulation, climate change. And then I consider whether I want one because I want one biologically or emotionally. If a child, say, were to occupy the emotional space of an almond croissant, then my worry quota would be imbued with more universally acceptable significance.
Thinking that I would rather have a child than lie here contemplating croissants is unreasonable. As though child is interchangeable with croissant. Likely this means that I am the kind of woman who should never have a child. Replace a disorder with a child. There should be a law against a woman like me—or maybe just me—giving birth, raising children. I should probably not even be around someone else’s children with this destructive, disordered thinking. If my brother and sister-in-law had any sense, they’d kick me out of my trailer studio and ban me from ever returning. At least, with the croissant, the worst-case scenario is this: I eat it too quickly, feel too guilty, vomit, have to confess my vomiting to an old woman, offering some mumbled explanation, and the whole four dollars is effectively sacrificed so I can further jeopardize my teeth and intestinal tract and likely embarrass myself in front of a stranger or two.
This is perhaps another fact of the eating variety of disorder that doesn’t occur to many— the embarrassment, the shame. It’s easy to imagine, from the outside, that a person with disordered tendencies feels shame and therefore enacts the disorder—one feels shameful about one’s weight and therefore takes drastic measures in pursuit of a solution. One of my former coworkers, for example, only allowed herself to consume one hundred calories per hour because she worried over the width of her hips. There are plenty of reasons to blame society for its unrealistic expectations imposed on women these days. I worry for Lily in this regard, and sometimes I feel anger toward my brother and sister-in-law for bringing a girl child into this world—will she be too pretty or not pretty enough? Too smart and therefore unaccepted by certain circles in high school? Or not smart enough and therefore sneaking out of class and lying about drugs or sex or who knows what? And what of her potential disorders?
The blame doesn’t necessarily rest with society though, and I imagine in many instances disordered women are blamed for our unrealistic vanity—not all of us should expect to be supermodels. But based on my somewhat limited experience, which is to say my own experience (two to eight years if we just consider the vomiting trend), it is not about vanity or societal expectations. It is more about routine, worry, and a different kind of shame. Not this abstract harm-oneself-for-beauty kind of shame. And I imagine that even if this shame is true for a person, then thinking of it as somehow integral to the physical experience seems somewhat irrelevant. Because logically, many people feel shame about their bodies (too much fat here or there, too short or tall, acne), but not everyone self-induces vomiting, refuses to eat an almond croissant.
The more relevant shame, then, is directly linked to the more immediate compulsion to feel the presence of one’s own body. This other type of shame, the embarrassment in front of a stranger in line, is more immediate, more of the body, and it drives a person to even more shameful actions.
Once, for example, in a nice restaurant in the city, in the bathroom, which was four- stalled and immaculately polished black-and-white tile, I was in the throes of my vomiting when three teenage girls walked in. There was no sink in the stall to run to muffle the sounds. They quieted immediately and whispered to each other. Through the crack in the stall door, I could see them poised, each girl, in front of her own mirror. I could wait them out, I knew. I had done that before, waited until the bathroom had cleared until I could safely rinse my mouth and wash my hands. During this period of the disorder, I did not mind what my companions, if I had them waiting for me, thought I was doing in there, unless of course they suspected the vomiting.
Initially, a positive byproduct of my disorder was that I had become unembarrassed about any length of bathroom stay so long as vomiting was not the suspected activity. This is obviously no longer the case, since vomiting and bathroom have become synonymous, any bathroom usage of any length of time worries me.
But that day, with the three teenage girls, I resolved myself to attempt the excuse I had not yet attempted, though it had occurred to me some time before. I flushed and opened the door to their curious, embarrassed faces.
Perhaps one of them understood what was really happening—teenage girls are always a risk to their own bodies, hiding their secret disorders from one another. I looked the one closest to me directly in the face—a smooth, tanned face with a small pierced nose and thick blue eyeliner.
Are you OK? she asked me.
And the others nodded in agreement with the question.
Pregnant, I said, rubbing my belly like I had seen my sister-in-law do. But shhh, I said, no one knows yet.
They all seemed relieved by this disclosure, despite the fact that I have always looked younger than my age, that even in my distorted, disordered body image, I knew from the mirror that I looked only a few years older than them.
Congratulations! they exclaimed.
And I left the bathroom, not disordered but expectant, triumphant.
I wonder now, in my spider-infested trailer studio with the sun almost fully up, the roosters still overly excited, if maybe I should have taken my lie and turned it into a kind of lifestyle lesson. This is not a thing to be congratulated, I should have said. This was a mistake! I’m getting an abortion! And I’m damn lucky I live in a state where I can, I should have said, where I don’t have to drive ten hours to a clinic with protestors holding signs and sloganing horrible things at me. But even then, I’d still have to get rid of it. Otherwise my boyfriend will leave me, I should have said, and I’ll be forced to drop out of college (assuming I was in college), move back in with my parents, and work as a waitress in the little diner across from my high school to provide for the child. Let this be a life lesson to you, young teenage girls: Get yourselves to Planned Parenthood, take your birth control pills. Promise me, right here and now in this black-and-white tiled bathroom, solemnly swear to take full responsibility for your bodies. The pull-out method doesn’t work, I should have said, pointing to my belly, no matter what he claims.
All further evidence that I should never be allowed to have children, that I am not a physiologically or emotionally viable candidate for pregnancy, and that I should never attempt to mentor Lily on matters of female sexuality.
I would be a terrible mother, I decide, resolved to quit worrying, particularly about incidents of the past or unreasonable possible incidents of the future. Don’t worry so much, my brother says. Can’t you just be a normal person? he asks, and my sister-in-law modifies his request: Can you try to take things one day at a time, maybe?
Yes, I will try to be more serious in my thinking about my lifestyle from here on out, one day at a time, without so much worry. I will shower and dress and eat a croissant like a normal human being.
It will not really be significant to anyone else, but I will feel radiant with significance. I ate a croissant! I will say in my head (a few times, not too many). And after I eat it slowly at the café, enjoying every indulgent mouthful, watching without envy or worry as people come and go with and without children, I will walk back to my brother and sister-in-law’s house and they will still be readying my niece and nephew for school. And I will offer to help Zander select socks without seams, wipe the food crust from Lily’s cheek, wash all the breakfast dishes myself—no need to help, brother and sister-in-law, I’ll handle this, seriously—and my brother will say, Good to see you up and about. And my sister-in-law will ask, Have you eaten breakfast today?
And I will respond, smiling, triumphant, Yes.
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