Lately, I’ve been doing a thing at restaurants I don’t typically do. I will scan the menu and land on the exact item that sounds the most delicious and I will order that one. Sometimes it’s a salad. Most times, it’s a pasta dish, or risotto, or the spare rib with french fries. This is a departure for me because I used to scan a menu, see the item I wanted the most, reject my own desire, and then end up choosing the bland, secondary, “healthy” item that makes me resent paying for my meal — but hey, the optics, as a woman, are better when I get the tasteless salad, dressing on the side please!
You see, the societal “rules” are clear: Women eat salads and they “steal” fries from their male partner (if they are in a heterosexual relationship, of course — the logistics of fry-stealing and salad-ordering in same-sex relationships are not clear to me, so I’ll stick with what I know). Women are meant to decline dessert. Say no to fries. Eat the burger, but without the bun, naturally. It’s all very demure. Very sexy. All this self-control exerted over food — delicious, incredible food — untouched, unseen, but never not wanted. Us women, we are full of wanting. Big appetites. There is so much we have been taught to deny. As if denying itself is womanhood. Deny sex. Deny food. Deny pleasure. Deny ourselves. Deny our authenticity. Deny — worst of all — our anger, our humanity, our power.
I used to buy small plates as a dieting tactic. The smaller the plate, the less food you’ll eat, a woman told me this when I was a young girl and I internalized it as gospel, desperate to feel control over this rampant, unruly appetite I’ve “struggled” with. How I’ve wanted and how I’ve denied.
Unconsciously until I realize it, and to this day, I drink a huge glass of water before, during, and after eating, so “my brain knows I’m full.” Another dieting guideline.
I still eat my salad first, if I get a salad with my meal. Supposedly, a salad will stop you from wanting your full meal. I used to feel a small bit of exhilaration when I left food on my plate — even though I hated myself for feeling it, hated that it made me feel more feminine, more acceptable, more palatable.
In the past, I’ve spent entire dinners half-listening, half-participating because I was busy fixating on the bread basket, willing myself to not eat a piece. Willing my willpower to have power over me. Willing myself to not want that bread, to not want to slather butter over it and moan as it melted in my mouth.
The first college party I ever went to, I don’t remember who was there or what we did, but I do remember staring at a plate of chocolate chip cookies and wishing that I didn’t want one, forcing myself not to eat one, and using all my energy to stop my hand from reaching out for one. It was the night of my first kiss, too, but all I remember were those chocolate chip cookies and the intensity of my want, the intensity of my denial, and what it taught me about the way momentary decisions become patterns become ways of life.
I’ve spent decades afraid of bread. Afraid of pasta. Afraid of sugar. Afraid of butter. Afraid of “too much fruit, because fruit has sugar.” Afraid of cake. Afraid of wanting, wanting, wanting. Afraid of eating. Afraid. Terrified. I wish this was hyperbole. Every woman knows its not.
A few months ago, something changed in me. Perhaps it was moving to Paris and being in France where eating is meant to be savored, meant to be enjoyed, and have the butter, have the bread, have the frites as your side. Have it all!
The first month in Paris, I left food on my plate at every restaurant. Servers would look at me strangely, some bold enough to comment on it — each time, they were offended, perturbed that I’d waste their food. I’d look around me and see people everywhere scraping the last remnants of their plate — you’d know a tourist if they asked for a to-go bag. Suddenly, I was in a country where food was celebrated, instead of fraught with guilt and guilt-free and gluten-free and fat-free and calories on every menu and tension-filled dinners as women tried to negotiate with each other who was going to admit they wanted the fucking fries, the fucking pizza, the fucking pasta — as if admitting to an appetite was shameful. And, who can blame us? We’ve been taught that our hunger is shameful, unladylike.
The change in me started slowly and then all of a sudden, as change often does. Part of it was living in France, yes, that cannot be denied. But, another part of it was that I was living for the first time in a very long time, if not the first time ever. I was out of my head, feeling and living first, without thinking it through, without overthinking every decision. And, what I found was that when I trusted myself and when I was in that electric feeling of being alive — what I wanted was food. Not, binge in the dark at midnight and feel bad about myself kind of food. No, I wanted crusty baguettes and soft cheeses and the feeling of a full belly of capellini and my own thin-crust Neapolitan pizza, not to share, goddamnit, I want my own plate, my own dish, my own serving of this goddamn life that is mine, for fuck’s sake!
In those cafes in Paris with this new desire to explore and experience life — it felt like my appetite had been set alight, sparked from deep within myself, revealed beyond the place of denial, beyond the woman who had shopped for small plates only, who drank water to suppress herself, and who, in her twenties, considered weight loss surgery every day, who harbored so much shame around food eating felt like navigating a minefield of bad decisions, guilt, and regret.
I used to hate my hunger.
Now, eating feels like a fucking revolution.
Scanning a menu and saying to the waiter, I want this one, I want it bad, I want what I want and I allow myself to have it. It doesn’t just feel like I’m ordering asparagus risotto — it feels like I’m saying yes to my fucking life. It feels like I’m finally saying to myself: let yourself desire, let yourself be nourished, let yourself experience the pleasure of being in this physical body, of being able to taste and feel and touch and see and hear — and use those senses as if they’ve been given for a purpose. Don’t waste them. The language of denial is stitched into the fabric of us women — and fuck, don’t we want to experience our senses on fire, let them loose, let ourselves be devastated by life in the best way? Don’t we want to let our appetites be fulfilled and satiated?
Aren’t we ready to be satiated? To be full?
I am so fucking ready. Give it all to me. Fill me up.