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A Bagel by Any Other Name

For the anorexic, food has meaning. For others, it's humdrum.

And now, for a little levity: a few years ago, my boss at the time––who also happened to be my publisher, and therefore knew my history with anorexia––was set to get an unpleasant but routine medical procedure that required him to fast for the twenty-four hours beforehand. (You can infer what you like from this.) Though dear to my heart, this boss is what we might call a wimp, so after six hours or so without food, he began to plaintively wail at me.

“This can’t be right,” he said. “I feel terrible. I can’t have toast?”

“The sheet says you can have apple juice?” I offered.

“No, this can’t be right. It wasn’t like this the last time I had this done. Call the office.”

“I’m pretty sure this is standard,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t call to whine to the doctor’s assistant. (Spoiler alert: he did, and she wasn’t terribly sympathetic.) “Besides,” I added, “It’s just one day.”

“That’s easy for you to say!” he shot back before snatching the phone.

How wrong he was!  It never ceases to tickle me that though I once used to relish in turning down food, now, the slightest deprivation galls me like the brief fast galled my boss. Case in point: last week, I observed Passover, the Jewish holiday in which one abstains from leavened bread, amongst other carbohydrates. Depending on your family background and your level of observance, you might avoid any or all of the following: chickpeas, rice, coffee, matzoh with liquid-ish substances on it (i.e. cream cheese), corn, green beans, and so on. This leaves a whole lot of food to be fair game, so it’s not particularly difficult to get through the eight days bagel-free but satiated. I’ve had big plates of matzoh brei (matzoh soaked in eggs), roasted chicken with potatoes and a generous amount of oil, and whole blocks of cheese in a single sitting. So why did I almost find myself punching a guy in the nose on the subway the other day because his Fritos smelled so overpoweringly delicious and I wanted them for myself?

To me, the answer to the above is almost the same as the answer to a question I get asked very frequently when interviewed: when did you finally start to get better? For me, it wasn’t because of a rock bottom moment, but rather an imperceptible, slow process that I didn’t realize was comprehensive until it was already over. After a long period of eating properly, maintaining a healthy weight, and thinking not much of it, I found myself one was feeling really crappy for a reason I happily cannot remember. It was that usual guilt-shame concoction––perhaps I had done something wrong?––that in the past, would have made me restrict, so I figured I should try that as a palliative of sorts. Knowing I would need to feel even darker than I already did, I challenged myself to look deep into the abyss, to harness all my melancholy powers and really believe, once again, that starvation was the key to relief from all life’s problems. That night, when dinner rolled around, I opened the refrigerator and with all my might channeled my sick-self. What Would Mary-Kate Do?, or something like that. But as I examined the contents of the refrigerator, I realized I was seeing not potent symbols, but food––ordinary, unexciting, whatever-there-is-nothing-else-I-guess-I’ll-eat-a-Hot-Pocket food. The containers of yogurt were not vessels into which I infused my pain and confusion; the grapes did not signify life or death, success or failure, control or chaos. They were just things––banal ones, even. These ablutions themselves, and whether or not I ate them, had over the course of one evening ceased to be meaningful. So perhaps there was an epiphany, though it came in media res, as opposed to at the beginning, of my recovery process.

When the language of food lost its meaning, so, too, did the importance of hunger. I couldn’t think of it as a heightened state of awareness anymore, or a morale-building exercise. It became a distracting nuisance to life itself, which proved far more compelling. The habits of ascetics, long a point of romantic envy, struck me as willful methods of disengagement, or maybe just too lazy or high-minded to go to the store and buy a bag of chips. And sort of at once, I realized that anorexia was no longer accessible to me––neither in small doses, like a single skipped meal that caused a gleeful pang of want, nor in large ones, when days blurred together into one enormous hunger headache. This didn’t feel like a triumph, exactly, but rather a belated revelation of anorexia’s inherent transparency.

You might be reading some irony in here: Judaism as a whole, and Passover in particular, is a religion that endows food with a great deal of metaphorical power. Some of this is a bit more abstract––the cruelty, for example, of cooking a being in its mother’s milk means no cheeseburgers––and some is pretty simplistic––we eat sweet things on Shavuot because the Torah is sweet! During Passover, eating matzoh is supposed to remind a person of the exile in Egypt, and the subsequent desert-wandering during which time there was no bread. For many people raised with the religion, it’s an easy transition from the clean and unclean crawling things of the Book of Leviticus to the “safe” and “fear” foods of the anorexic. I noticed this specific connection years ago, when I first encountered Hasidim, on a medical unit in Long Island. Why them, I thought, and why this?  I tried to convince a friend to write her psychology dissertation on the subject, but she decided not to; years later (yes, this is me bragging!) we have a lot of interesting writing and scholarship on the subject, including this wonderful piece by my friend Tova Ross, and this one, also about abstinence, anorexia and Passover, by Elyse Pitock. I’d say more here about the theoretical relationship between religion and anorexia, but I’m still forming my new ideas about it. Spoiler alert: it has to do with the anxiety of influence.



About the Author

Kelsey Osgood

Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely. Her essays have appeared in New York and The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog.