Wellness

I'm a Food Writer—With Some Food Issues

May  3, 2018
Photo by Alexandra Bowman

“If you work in a bakery,” a woman in the back row hollered, “why are you so thin?” She had short hair and big earrings and dropped the last word the way you would a dirty dish towel.

Back then, I did work in a bakery, a pie shop in North Carolina. My shifts started in the middle of the night, when roaches scurried along the sidewalk and the only other people awake were on the radio across the sea. I also worked as a recipe developer, a restaurant critic, and, every so often, a culinary instructor to home cooks.

That particular class was on latkes, Jewish recipes, the food of my mom and grandma and nana and this seventy-something with the loud voice and cool earrings. I wanted to ask where she got them. But instead I answered her question, sort of: “I run marathons.”

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That felt more appropriate than getting into it. Than saying, I haven’t felt thin since the seventh grade when one of my friends—you know seventh grade friends—whispered behind me in the hallway that I had the biggest butt in school. I started wearing a lot of sweatpants and A-line dresses, but this didn’t preclude many a boyfriend and friend and co-worker from sharing “feedback” on my proportions until my cheeks flushed like peaches.

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Top Comment:
“I am a baker by trade, however have been out of work (aside from Thanksgiving pie order madness and the occasional gig) for two years after having my daughter. I just love, and am really feeling ready to start a small, manageable business of my own. However, I also have a past freckled with eating disorders and a ridiculously complex relationship with food and eating. I have been asking myself over the past few days if these issues will stand in the way of my success. I know in my heart (I think...) that they will not, but your article gives me an extra dose of courage. Thank you! And much applause to you! ”
— Emma O.
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I could have told the woman in the back row that my torso is thin but my thighs complicate things, the way they lean toward each other like teenagers in the back of a movie theater. I could have told her that in college I used to weigh myself twice a day, used to do Food-Free Mondays until my friend, who used to be anorexic, suggested I go to therapy and I did, and the therapist, who also used to be anorexic, spent our first and last session talking about how she’s worn the same pants size for a decade. I could have told her that I chucked that scale years ago. That I haven’t bought one since. That “thin” isn’t a compliment.

But all I said was: “I run marathons.”


I don’t work at a bakery anymore. “Do you miss it?” a friend asked me over a work-night dinner, which wouldn’t have been possible with the bakery, which made answering easy: “No.”

I don’t miss it. Not really. Not the hours: falling asleep to the sun, waking up to the moon. Now, I work a sort-of 9-to-5, writing about food and developing recipes for Food52—oh hey, hi, funny meeting you here! But I still get up in the dark because old habits die hard. Or something like that.

Eating is one of those, too: a habit. It sounds silly to put it like that—we all have to eat! But we also have to sleep. And everyone sleeps differently, and everyone eats differently.

I sleep a little and eat a lot. When I was a kid, any time my family had a get-together, there were so many snacks. Eggplant spread and crackers and cheese and olives and, my favorite, Grandma’s mushroom puffs. However many I ate was, inevitably, remarked upon: “Where does it all go?” setting up another relative to reply, “Hollow leg! Ha!”

A hollow leg? my 6-year-old self wondered. Could this be true? Was it bad?

Somewhere between worrying about that and learning the truth—whew!—I started worrying about other things. And that became a habit, too. Did I eat too much food for my age? My size? My gender? The answers here were tricky. If I wanted to look different, I could eat less. But that was tough because—how do I put this?—I didn’t really want to.

I love food, and I’m lucky to be able to say that my job is my dream job. Ever since I was a teenager, when I figured out that food writing was a thing, it’s all I ever wanted to do. And talk about, and think about. You know when people meet the love of their life and, before even knowing their name, they just know? I just knew. This is the love of my life.

But relationships are complicated and imperfect. Most of the time, that’s workable and okay. You find a way to get through the day, and then it’s another day. Other times, you have to change yourself or learn how to hide parts of yourself. Like when my relatives asked me, “Where does it all go?” and I always had a ready answer, even from the earliest age: “I figure skate.”


“How are you?” My skating coach would ask. It was a weekday, just before 6 a.m. I was 10 or 11, wearing a sparkly velvet dress with a sparkly velvet scrunchie and zip-up fleece covered in cat hair. “Tired,” I would say. “Then go splash some cold water on your face and come back with a different answer,” she said. And I would, and I did: “I’m good,” I said. “Well!” she said. “I’m well. How are you?”

Like most parents, mine always told me that lying is bad. But it didn’t take long to figure out that they meant to say: Lying about your actions is bad. Lying about your feelings is polite. Like, if you said you did your homework when you didn’t: bad. But if you said you’re well when you’re actually tired: good.

I was in a Whole Foods the other day shopping for work when the cashier made my same mistake. “How are you?” I asked.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay?” I said.

“I can’t sleep,” he said. “Nightmares.”

I get those. “Have you tried melatonin?” I said. “I used to work as a baker, that helped me.”

“Tried it.”

“Meditation?”

“Tried it.”

“Therapy?”

“I don’t like talking to people,” he said, “and I have trust issues.”

I started putting the bags in my cart. “I hope it gets better,” I said.

And I like to think it always does, if you try hard enough, or wait long enough, or both. That's what I did, at least, after my friend told me she worried about how much I worried about my body. Doesn’t everyone worry about their bodies? I wondered.

My first year in college, on non-Mondays, I exercised a lot—mostly the elliptical, with that little calorie-burning calculator. I adored that calculator. The higher the number, the less badly I felt about whatever I was feeling badly about that day. Probably food: Last night’s French fries. This morning’s bagel.

But also, I hated the elliptical. It was—what’s the word—boring. No technique or challenge or community, just a giant piece of plastic in a gym stuffed with sweaty lacrosse players and caption-only TV.

By that time I’d decided that I didn’t like my therapist, so I tried another approach: me as my own therapist. Which, because I’m me, meant rules—I find these comforting, soothing, like a knit blanket or bowl of matzo ball soup. Rule #1: No more Food-Free Mondays. Rule #2: The Exercise Test. Which went something like this. Why did I want to exercise? If the answer was because I’d eaten pizza, I said sorry—try again tomorrow. And just like that, I didn’t exercise regularly for years. I was waiting for something to come along, something meaningful, something I actually enjoyed.


I was almost 21 the first time I ran for more than 30 minutes straight. Within a few weeks, I signed up for a half-marathon, started researching full ones, created a schedule for every day for the next three months. I was in love: hopelessly, head-over-sneakers, googly-eyed, blabber-mouthed in love.

This was senior year of college. I was writing a cookbook instead of taking classes, so I had no schedule—but I’m not the kind of person who can’t have a schedule, so my training became my schedule. Today, 12 miles. Tomorrow, ice bath. Next day, 4 miles. Next day, weights. And on and on.

It was sort of like the first month of dating someone. Everything was the best thing. Running along the endless corn fields, up and down the hills, all alone, for hours and hours and hours. Running in Boston for my first race with my mom. Running by the Atlantic Ocean for my first marathon, where I cried at mile 17 because I thought I was going to die, and mile 26 because I realized I wasn’t going to die. Running around my college campus, naked.

That’s, well, exactly what it sounds like. My school had a track team and a cross-country team, neither of which I had any interest in. But we also had a streaking team, which I always admired from afar. Those people—hey, I recognize that guy!—ran naked. They took their bodies in stride. They didn’t worry about their butts or thighs. They didn’t worry about anything. At least not in that moment, as they sprinted through the dining hall, blowing kisses to everyone they passed by.

You didn’t have to be a runner to join the team, but I never thought about joining until I was one. The meets often happened in daylight and, in daylight, everyone would see me, and then what would happen? I didn’t like the idea of breaking rules. But more than that, I didn’t like the idea of being bare in front of strangers, or even worse, someone who might recognize me, like a new friend or an old boyfriend. Then I started running and something changed.

A month or so before college ended, mid-finals week, I went to the library with many strangers and friends and my new boyfriend—we were falling in love and he was perfect and my whole life was perfect—and we crammed into the stairwell, stripped down to our sneakers, tied bandanas around our faces like cowboys, then charged. We sprinted through the bookstacks, between the desks, out into the cold—at our college, it was always cold, even in the spring. My boyfriend grabbed my hand and we picked up speed, sprinting past the gym and dining hall and counseling center, faster and faster until our bodies were a blur.


And now everything’s perfect! Bad joke. Nothing’s ever perfect, right? At least, not for long.

I’m not going to tell you that I made coconut cream pie this weekend and had it again for breakfast and didn’t think twice about it. Or how I did yoga last night and my YouTube instructor, Adriene—have you met Adriene? You should!—told me, “Life is good. Do you know what’s better? Eating!” And I laughed and nodded. I’m not going to tell you how I haven’t weighed myself at home in years. That I’ve figured it all out. Tied it into a bow.

I’m going to tell you that the fourth time I ate coconut cream pie this weekend, I thought about how this was the fourth time I had eaten coconut cream pie in half as many days. You again, I muttered. You again. And I only did yoga that day because I felt swollen from schnitzel and wanted to wring myself out like a dish towel.

But I’ve also added some positive new rules. Like, I’m not allowed to talk to myself in a way that I would never, ever talk to someone else. I break that one a lot, but it’s there and that’s something. It’s nice to have something to work toward.

The other day, I was testing some tots and cheese, and I couldn’t stop testing because I couldn’t get them quite right and I had to keep trying. The first round of testing didn’t go so great. There was too little tot, too much cheese sauce, and the cheese on top became less crispy, more greasy. The second round: too much tot—when they’re overcrowded, they steam instead of crisp—and too little cheese. I wanted it to be perfect.

So I started on the third round, and the fourth round, and on and on. After some time, I felt like I was half person, half potato. Medium-sized, extra-starchy, dusty skin; a patch of dirt above my left eyebrow, a warty-looking spud growing on my arm, and another, even bigger one on my hip. But whole, worthwhile, and good to cook with all the same.

Most days, I really believe that.

78 Comments

Emma O. October 11, 2018
Could not have come across this at a better time. I am a baker by trade, however have been out of work (aside from Thanksgiving pie order madness and the occasional gig) for two years after having my daughter. I just love, and am really feeling ready to start a small, manageable business of my own. However, I also have a past freckled with eating disorders and a ridiculously complex relationship with food and eating. I have been asking myself over the past few days if these issues will stand in the way of my success. I know in my heart (I think...) that they will not, but your article gives me an extra dose of courage. Thank you! And much applause to you!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. October 11, 2018
Thanks so much, Emma. Grateful for your openness and that this story spoke to you. To me, acknowledging our own shortcomings is the hardest part; after we do that, there's little else between us and whatever we want to achieve. Rooting for you!
 
Winifred R. July 2, 2018
Thank you for opening up. I suspect many of us have gone through or are going through something similar. Even in my 60s I have a complicated relationship with food that will not end until my demise because medical personnel seem to feel that anything associated with disease --dis ease for my body is associated with weight. To heck with the fact i am now 85 pounds lighter than 5 or 6 years ago, and have kept it off or that I am currently dealing with some slight arthritis associated with age according to my recent trips to physical therapy. So we, the nurturers starve ourselves to be compliant and have bodies that are not unruly socially or medically. How ridiculous is this?
 
Nancy July 1, 2018
Thank you for this. ❤️
 
Emma P. July 1, 2018
I felt so connected to this article that I created an account just to save it for later, so I remember that other people go through the same thing. “I love food,” I tell people, but I don’t talk about the negative relationships I have with it as well. Keep working on the positive self-love, girl! We are too.
 
Mandy B. July 1, 2018
Thank you for this. We prepare food, we pay tribute to the ingredients and the preparation but we don't often discuss the rest of the equation - eating it. How we feel about food and our bodies and eating in public versus eating in private. How we feel in our soul after a meal, versus how we fell in our skin. Please feature pieces like this regularly!
 
melissa Y. May 21, 2018
Many people have already commented about how brave and wonderful this article is, but I wanted to add one more fangirl to your club! Thank you for publicly sharing what many of us are ashamed to admit, even to ourselves. I adored reading it, and I am so glad you are part of the Food52 community!
 
Melody P. May 19, 2018
Emma, thanks so much for sharing! This was so amazing to read as I'm going through the same food struggles right now and have gone through similar scenarios (like that calorie counter!). Hope more foodies can be as transparent as your article is. <3
 
Emily R. May 13, 2018
This made me cry in both a good way and also in the way that I am furious i’m not friends with you, Emma. Such a wonderful piece.
 
Ilana S. May 11, 2018
Emma, I loved this so much. So many great takeaways, but the best was this: I’m not allowed to talk to myself in a way that I would never, ever talk to someone else. You'd think by now (I'm 57) I would have figured this one out, but hey...I guess that's the flip side of trying to be 18 til you die! Seriously, as a lifetime food person (eater, then chef, then writer), I agree that there is no perfect relationship with food. It's central to our lives, but like other relationships, is not always comforting. It was lovely reading your words and thank you for your honesty.
 
Ilyssa May 10, 2018
Emma, Would you believe me if I told you that in 7th grade my friend Nancy told me i had a big butt when we were going up the stairs (she was obviously behind me)! I still blame her for all of my body issues! Loved your piece. Thanks for sharing!
 
Angie May 7, 2018
HELLOOOO relatable! I've also loved food my whole life but had more of a secretly complicated relationship to it so this really resonated with me. And yea, one of my biggest pet peeves is people who ask me how I stay so "skinny" when I'm like ugh, let's not even get into that. Great piece!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thanks so much, Angie.
 
Sarah May 7, 2018
If anyone on here has issues similar to those of the author, I highly recommend The Dessert Club. www.dessertclub.com<br />Katie, the coach, is highly effective.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thanks for sharing this resource, Sarah.
 
Kayla R. May 7, 2018
<3 Wow. I think you and I have gone through many similar struggles. Thanks for sharing them in a way that honors the complicated nature of loving food and having food issues. I started working at a bakery last year--a dream of mine (if I could figure out how to make the money work, I would love to be a food anthropologist). My job awoke a lot of demons I shoved under the rug, but I'm trying to face them and get to a better place. This process often leads to trying to create "good" rules instead of the "bad" ones that have become habitual -- but often those terms become so mixed that I run myself in circles, putting the two ideas in competition (is this one good for my mental health or good for my body?). I don't spend all of my time at work baking in the back. I had most of my hours shifted to the front of the store during the slow winter months. During almost every shift out there, a customer will remark, "How are you so thin if you work here? I love this place, but I never could. If I did, I'd weigh 10,000 pounds!" My comment is usually something along the lines of excusable exercise, "I walk seven miles a shift" or "I run, bike, and do yoga." A huge part of me wants to scream out "Why are you evaluating my body?" or "How can you possibly think I'm thin with this stomach?", but instead, I politely smile and bury my feelings further. I'm not sure how I'll end up resolving my love for food with my relationship to it, but your article has given me hope and a new inspirational place to start (to, "Find What Feels Good" as Adriene would say). Keep fighting the good fight.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thanks so much for reading and sharing your story, Kayla. The "Is this one good for my mental health or good for my body?" question is one I know well. So hopeful that you'll "find what feels good"—even if some days that feels harder than others. I'm cheering for you.
 
Ttrockwood May 6, 2018
Thank you for writing this deeply personal piece. It’s so brutally honest and inspiring to know you have been able to move past harmful behaviors.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thank you, Ttrockwood.
 
Rashda K. May 5, 2018
Gorgeous, complex and thought-provoking!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thanks so much, Rashda.
 
Erica May 5, 2018
This made me tear up. Beautifully written, and so resonates with me (now a dietitian specializing in eating disorders).
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thank you, Erica! And thank you for the work you do.
 
Jessica J. May 5, 2018
So many of us publically perform our food issues in our very jobs (writes the professor of Food Studies!) - it legitimates, and makes praisable, our obsession. To many of us with fraught relationships with food and our bodies, being an amazing cookbook author, scholar, researcher, dietician etc means that we get to perform our struggle for a living. I think that more of us need to address this in public forums. I can not confidently say that my 25+ year struggle with disordered eating has improved as I have gotten older because I have to “do” food for my job. I sometimes think about my life before my issues. I can barely remember what it was like to eat without thinking about food, as a kid does - not congratulating oneself for “being good” for fasting, or throwing away the scale in ceremony declaring oneself free from its shackles. When people get ill, they often spend hours researching the illness; its cures, treatment protocols, and recovery rates. Aren’t we just doing the same?
 
Hillary May 5, 2018
I think it depends on how you are approaching your job. I've experienced my job very differently depending on where I am in recovery. When my eating was still very disordered, it did feel a bit like a performance. The obsession with what I allowed to go past my lips despite what I did for a living (baker), working with butter and sugar all day but so focused on being thin. I remember my thinking then and it did feel like an obsession, but not a fun or interesting one. It felt like a chain in my brain. Now, I think about recipe development with excitement and I get inspired without it feeling like weight (pardon the pun) in my brain. There are times when I have thought about getting out of the food industry because I was so tired of thinking about food all the time. The performance was exhausting. I really think it's about being honest with yourself and, like you said, speaking out in these public places. Hiding and secrets have never solved anything. Especially for women in the food industry, there's a dichotomy between the image of a beautiful, glamorous, dainty-fork-holding lady who only orders salad with dressing on the side, and the fact that being in the food industry requires one to eat food and enjoy food. So many people are surprised when I tell them I've struggled with anorexia because I am a baker. They are so confused yet I know so many women in the food industry who have or are still struggling. Food is wonderful, but damn can it be compicated!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thanks so much for reading and sharing your story, Jessica.
 
Jessica J. May 7, 2018
Thanks, Emma, for making a space to share it!
 
Lauren R. May 5, 2018
Thank you for sharing this. I so identify with the moments and milestones you've experience good and bad, but have never seen on paper in such a way. Love this so much.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thank you so much, Lauren!
 
Jr0717 May 5, 2018
As everyone above has mentioned, I can appreciate, respect, and admire your honesty, bravery, and struggle. It is something too many of us are familiar with, and giving it the attention it deserves in the hopes that sharing can lead to a new discussion about ending stigmas and finding resolutions is something I commend immensely. Thank you, and know that you're not alone, but instead supported by a community of those who struggle and those who love food and life unabashedly alike.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thanks so much, Jr0717.
 
Hillary May 4, 2018
Love this honesty! I am a baker who struggled with anorexia for many years. I hated the comments about how skinny I was for being a baker. My relationship with food is better, but there is still progress to be made. I love your new rules and I hope be a voice about food issues in the food industry. It's not often talked about, but it is there.
 
g. M. May 4, 2018
Hillary, thank you so much for being open about your anorexia struggle. In another comment I replied that I'm so grateful to people like you who say it out loud. My daugher, 15, has anorexia and the more we shout it out loud, the more the stigma will end I hope. Thank you!
 
Hillary May 4, 2018
I developed anorexia when I was 14 and will be 31 this month. I battled for more than half my life and man finally getting to healthy place physically and mentally. I am so open about my struggles because mental illness is not something to be ashamed of and needs to be talked about. I hope your daughter can find her footing and more quickly than I have. I use baking as a way to heal and to combat those pesky perfectionist thoughts. Encourage her to find something outside of her eating disorder to explore. Try something, make mistakes, learn to sit with being uncomfortable (recovery is uncomfortable in so many ways so practicing that with less important things can be helpful), but know that things will be okay. The only way to get through it is to go through it. <br /><br />Thinking of you and sending strength to your daughter
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 7, 2018
Thank you, Hillary. And thank you for sharing your story. As you said, our struggles are nothing to be ashamed of—and I know we can all learn so much from each other. Admiring your strength.