Polka dot jeans, and my relationship with food


On Sunday, I changed my clothes twelve times.

It was one of those days where nothing seemed to go right. My husband and I had argued about something trivial. The house was a mess. I had a long list of emails to catch up on. And I suffered a humiliating fall in front of my kids while playing tennis. Earlier in the week,  I had bought a pair of jeans from Urban Outfitters, a store whose clothes seem better suited for long-limbed gangly teenagers than a middle aged mom such as myself. They were slim cut with a playful polka dot print and ended right at my ankles. I wanted these jeans to work for me. I wanted them to make me look laid-back and relaxed and youthful. I wanted them to turn me into the wistful models in the Urban Outfitters catalog, with their long straight hair and penchant for standing on cliffs in the middle of the desert staring out blankly at nothing.

I slid the jeans on and paired them with a selection of tee shirts and button-downs and thin knit sweaters. Nothing worked. The jeans constricted around my stomach and thighs. I felt myself becoming anxious. I changed and changed again, until clothes piled in a depressing heap on my bed. I felt fat. I know fat is not a feeling, but that was all I could think about. I was old and fat.

I had eaten a big meal out with my husband the night before, a meal I couldn't stop thinking it. The food was luscious - the kind that features butter as both a main ingredient and a garnish, and I felt guilty about eating it. I felt like the jeans were punishing me for it. It was hard for me to even decide if I'd liked what I'd eaten because the meal was so indulgent. I couldn't separate the guilty feelings I had from eating foods I classified as "bad" with whether I had even liked them in the first place. The jeans only made my confusion more pronounced.

There is so much discomfort about food and what normal eating is. We worry about our weight and qualify foods into "good" or "bad" types. We count calories and carefully monitor what we do and do not eat. We might shun foods that are actually good for us in an effort to avoid weight gain. Whether we count points, calories or fat grams or keep a food journal or observe and restrict ourselves in other ways, the message is the same: Following the rules is more important that actually tasting or even enjoying what we're eating. So it's no surprise that we lose touch with our bodies, and get iffy about signs that we're even hungry or full, and feel guilty when we do eat. Sometimes, once a meal is over, we often don't realize how much we ate. At the end of the day we might even struggle to recall what we put in our bodies.

Yesterday I came across an article which quoted Ellyn Satter, a renowned eating and feeding expert and a registered dietician and therapist. I love Satter’s definition of normal eating:
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
I worry about enjoying eating. Especially during times like now when I find myself trying more foods I've previously been uncomfortable with. I feel ashamed that I like to eat, and wish that food was just neutral to me. But enjoying food, as Satter writes on her website, is healthy.
Eating is supposed to be enjoyable. For too many of us, eating represents trouble. We feel guilty if we eat what we ”shouldn’t” and deprived if we eat what we ”should.” We eat more than we think we should, and we worry about weight. Surveys show that when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.
I don't have a very refined palette, but honestly, I adore food. I love the memories certain foods have for me - latkes at Hanukkah and cookies during Christmas; a particularly memorable piece of strawberry creme cake devoured during my 26th birthday while living in Brooklyn; the sushi my husband and I ate during one of our first dates. But of course, because I’m a woman, and because I’m a woman who grew up in an era of food awareness, in a household that reinforced dieting, I can't love food without reservation.

What's your relationship with food? How often do you feel guilty after eating? Do you categorize foods as "good" or "bad"? Do you ever feel confused about what normal eating is?


  1. Paragraph 3 sounds all too familiar. Thank you for your honesty, as always!

  2. Well, I relate. This morning I put on a pair of pants that I thought would be comfortable and fit loose. Only to discover that these were tight and unexpectedly several sizes larger then what I really want to be. Food is the thing that clings to my thighs. So, to me there are bad and good foods, bad and good weights. The guilt never stops! Every meal is like another chance to feel like 'I should not eat". Really....what is normal?

  3. This is a really great post! Normal in any circumstance can mean something different to each and every person, so why do we all have to think the same way about eating. I tend to eat small portions throughout the day instead of 3 big meals. When people see me eating one small portion, they seem to feel the need to tell me that I am not eating enough etc, when in reality, I am eating what is normal for me.
    I never feel guilty about what I need, because I know myself, I know my body, and nobody else has the right to judge me. Stay true to yourself and ENJOY your food!

    xo Leah.

  4. I am trying for about the zillionth time to write a comment on this piece, because I think it's worthy of comment given how sensitive a topic it is. But each draft somehow lands me in a field of emotional landmines.

    In a nutshell: I am with you, girl. I have a horrible relationship with food, which comes from a combination of ballet and my mother. I yo-yo between feeling guilty about drinking a cherry limemade or eating a piece of dark chocolate after a meal, and saying "screw it" and eating as much junk food as I want and then gaining 5 pounds and being angry with myself afterwards.

    I have yet to find the magic diet that balances good foods with the occasional bad foods and that will keep me at a weight that's comfortable for me. I have many metaphorical pairs of polka dotted jeans in my closet that make me feel bad about the way I look, and it is incredibly frustrating! I have spent a lot of energy for the past year or so trying to be ok with myself no matter what I weigh. It is definitely an on-going challenge.

  5. Such an interesting post, I really enjoyed it :) I had a very poor relationship with food in the past, but I have found a balance that mostly works for me. I eat healthy foods during the week, and then I have one or two 'treat' meals, say for Sunday morning brunch, and a dinner out with the girls. I don't feel guilty about indulging at these 'treat' times, and I truly enjoy the food so much more, because I have waited for it and put thought into it. And usually have a big night out is enough to remind me how much more energetic and happier I feel when I eat nutritious foods :)

  6. This is quite similar to what Susie Orbach's writing that helped me re-learning to eat. I wrote about it some time ago:

    I'm feeling pretty ok about my relationship with food now. I do overeat fairly regularly, but overall I've got a decent enough balance, I think. My weight related guilt is more about lack of exercise these days.

  7. I have a trying relationship with food.

    The pros---
    I love trying new things.
    Exotic dishes are exciting to me.
    I love the communal experience of going out to eat.
    I enjoy cooking and baking.

    The cons---
    I am constantly judging what I put in my body.
    Restricting and indulging.
    RIght now as I type this I am enjoying a very rarely enjoyed English Breakfast Latte and I am feeling guilty ('I have been so good! I can't believe I fell of the wagon!' thoughts)
    I associate food with feelings.
    I assign eating good and bad identities.

    I don't have an eating disorder--- at least not in the classic sense. But I do battle with it. Especially because I am body, conscious. I do want that pair of jeans to fit, that dress to look great, whatever.

    I guess negotiating this relationship finding the balance is my challenge. I don't think there is a quick fix in changing these conversations...

  8. Another beautiful post!! WOW... you'll see this on my link love tomorrow! I have many thoughts about this.. too many to post here. Yes, at times I have guilt. I've had the exact experience and thoughts in the dressing room as you described above as well! wow. Thank you for your openness!!

  9. Cookies would be the food that make me feel guilty...probably because I can never eat just one. I'll bet those polka dot jeans will slip right on come spring.

  10. I am fat, always have been fat, and probably always will be fat. I say this not in a "I hate myself way, but in a matter of fact way." I do my best (under doctors orders) to watch what I eat and to exercise and at the end of the day that's all I can do.

    By the way, polka dot pants or not, you are fabulous and I wish I would have made Saturday (I overslept :()

  11. It is wild how one piece of clothing will send your whole mood spiraling down. I do this too. One piece of clothing will not fit/look the way I want it to and I obsess over it. My husband thinks I'm crazy some days. Kudos to you for writing about this. I can definitely relate.

  12. I love food! But I really should cut down on my sugar consumption. It's a little extreme!

  13. I heart you for quoting Ellyn Satter! She is my favorite dietitian. Her teachings have completely changed the way I practice (also a registered dietitian).

  14. Hello, I was looking for pictures of polka dot jeans online when I found your blog post. I'm so glad I did! Food relationship is so complicated and often a source of conflict and guilt! thank you for being so honest!

  15. Hello, I've just found your blog. I was looking for pictures of poka dot pants when I found your post. I'm so glad I did. Food relationship is so complicated and is such a source of conflict and guilt. Thank you for your honesty.


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