When Our “Normal” Is Way Too Much

I was very sick yesterday. So sick, in fact, that in dragging myself to a “last hurrah” breakfast and walking up four flights of stairs, I found myself in tears in the middle of a small living room, overwhelmed with vertigo and nausea and a fever that left me numb. I feel better today, after much sleep and broth-based food consumption, but those lingering aches at the corners of my body remind me that if I do not spend this week taking very good care of things, I could easily become sick again.

I know why I was sick. It was the end of a grand, gluttonous two-week period, where friends arrived from all over multiple continents to stay with us in New York and travel with us to Puerto Rico where Marc and I celebrated our engagement with them. By the time the last beloved visitor left last night, my whole body was spent, exhausted from a non-stop parade of good food and good wine and nights that didn’t end until the sun rose because who could bear to miss it when we barely ever see these people? Our lives have taken on that pattern, in a lot of ways. When you are from different places, when you live in various countries, the rest of your life is in some ways doomed (or lucky enough!) to be marked by these indulgent periods of catch-up. Everyone is so excited to see each other that another late night, another drink, another gossipy smoke outside the bar is always justified.

And so my body had had enough. With low blood sugar and a high temperature, and nothing in my stomach because nothing would stay, I realized just how easy it is to not take care of myself. Yes, this was a particularly hedonistic few weeks, but I would be lying if I said I had not been here before, to lesser degrees. Like everyone else, I have had periods of weight gain and weight loss, fatigue and high energy, grouchiness and pep. I know when I’ve not been treating myself well — too many pizzas with not enough of those cure-all “side salads,” too many glasses of red with only one or two waters between. We have all indulged, treated ourselves like Medieval kings at the feast of our own lives.

But what is shocking to me in all of it is how easy it is to consume this way. Like many millennials, and certainly millennials in cities like New York, the “food and drink” portion of my budget represents by far the biggest category of discretionary spending, the place into which all of those famed “experiential” purchases fall, the place where memories are created (and sometimes, let’s be honest, totally forgotten). The food and nightlife and bottle-based portions of my budget always seem to be expanding, justified by an “I-have-no-time” lunch Seamless order of sushi and Diet Coke, or a night out with friends who happen to be in town (and friends always happen to be in town). It is easy to stop by the store and stock up on all the things I need, and several blocks of fancy cheese that I definitely don’t.

Looking around me, though, you would think there is nothing particularly abnormal about eating and drinking and stay-out-late-ing yourself into real sickness. We are surrounded, bombarded, with constant encouragements to indulge ourselves and to reward ourselves for everything from a promotion, to an engagement, to the fact that it is Friday, to the fact that it is Wednesday which is pretty close to Friday, to Game of Thrones night, to making it through yet another day as a woman in our society. We are told to rosé all day, to to treat ourselves to an ever-expanding list of foods that do nothing for our insides and spell disaster for our skin. Netflixing with a lit candle and a bloated Thai order all to ourselves is celebrated, and somehow considered in an unplaceable way to be self-affirming. You don’t need a man to eat two times your daily recommended intake of calories and sodium in one meal, do you?

This drives me to spend. I know it does. I see how much in my everyday life I associate adulthood, femininity, success, and friendships all with some kind of indulgent, caloric, pricey “experience” to mark the occasion. And while, no, I would never suggest that all of these moments be removed from life — give me the occasional basket of fries and a glass of ice-cold white on a summer day, or give me death! — I wonder how we are ever supposed to properly ration ourselves when even the slightest bit of pulling back is considered deprivation? When even to write about our indulgences, to acknowledge them in stark terms for what they are, is considered taboo?

Because that’s the truth of it: It has become, in many ways, harder and more demanding of awareness to do what is right for our bodies (and wallets!) than to do what is wrong for them. It is difficult to find out what we actually need and eat within those needs, to make sure that our meals are balanced and nutritious, to socialize as a young adult without every other event involving some sort of alcoholic component. It is much harder to say that we are abstaining, that we are cutting back, that we are paying attention — it’s easier, and more socially-valorized, to affirm with vigor that we are indulging. The girl who knocks back four beers and 10 chicken wings is much, much cooler, after all, than the girl who drinks two nights a week and makes sure her plate is 2/3rds veggies.

I have planned out my meals for the next few days, making sure that I’m giving myself what I need and doing what I can to restore my immune system. That means early, long nights of sleep, plenty of soups and salads, and long walks with a podcast in my headphones that actually teaches me something new. I am trying to think of it not as an “undoing,” because that only reinforces this view of life as some kind of constant, violent pendulum swing between “too much” and “not enough.” The truth is, for many of us, our “normal” errs towards the “too much,” and the idea is to remind yourself that the days you are “taking care of yourself” are the resting state.

We cannot think of treating ourselves healthfully and attentively as some kind of deprivation, repenting for prior sins by robbing ourselves of enjoyment. The giant pan of broccoli I’m making has handfuls of rough-chopped garlic: it’s plenty enjoyable. The point is that this lean, inexpensive, restorative way of treating myself should be my baseline, with a few notable (and thoroughly-enjoyed) spikes throughout my week. Because it is so easy of us, for any of us, to slip into habits and routines that conflate satiating our pleasure centers with satiating our bodies, and which infuse gluttony with an oddly-moral sense of justification. We are not somehow triumphing by doing things that are simply delicious and satisfying.

A brownie is just a brownie. A glass of wine is just a glass of wine. And sometimes they are worth it, but just like anything else we do in life, they don’t come without a price.

Image via Pexels

  • Anon

    I eat at home more and drink less than I did in my early 20s. I can’t say there was a moral epiphany attached; I just started having hangovers and feeling like shit if I ate too much takeout. I think it’s a pretty natural part of aging

    The language of price and counting calories and excess makes me uneasy because it reminds me of a period of disordered eating. It’s still too moralized for my taste to think of foods in terms of punishment and reward, cost and benefit, excess and abstention. Honestly, I think women are shamed all the time for their indulgences.

    • Keisha

      Such a good point, anon

    • Summer

      What makes me uneasy is how the mere mention of calories can never be made without someone bringing up disordered eating. There’s nothing inherently disordered about being aware of calories. Whether we choose to be actively aware of the number or not, we all have a baseline caloric need that, if repeatedly exceeded, will lead to weight gain. Making decisions about what to eat now, based on other things we have eaten or will eat later, is not disordered. If I turn down a slice of cake after lunch because I had a bacon egg and cheese biscuit for breakfast, I’m not punishing myself, I’m not practicing disordered eating habits, I’m not shaming myself for having enjoyed a hearty breakfast, I’m simply being aware of what I’ve already eaten and subsequently choosing not to consume more calories than my body really needs. Sometimes I don’t give a shit and I will eat both the biscuit AND the cake, but there’s never a time I’m not aware of the fact that if I make that type of choice every day, I will gain weight.

      • Miss Meg

        I completely agree. Being aware of caloric intake is not about punishment/reward, it’s about knowing your body needs a sane amount of healthy fuel – eating what you want, whenever you want will make you suffer way more than avoiding the supposed “shaming” of being smart about eating healthy. If every meal is a reward or an indulgence, nothing is!

      • Anon

        That’s a fairly narrow reading of what I said. It isn’t disordered to talk about calories or regroup after an indulgent vacation or even to be roughly aware of how your food makes your feel. What’s unhealthy is to talk about your eating habits as something that happen to you because of external forces/social pressures, rather than choices you make, to characterize your relationship to food as a wild pendulum swinging between abstention and excess, and to link your consumption habits to the social validation of others (you drink beer and eat wings because you need to be seen as cool, not because they sound good).

        I personally happen to dislike counting calories. It’s fine if it works for you or other people. Keeping tabs on your food in a general sense isn’t disordered.

        What I do think is genuinely pernicious in this piece is the idea that it’s somehow speaking truth to power to call out the odd brownie or glass of wine as an unsustainable indulgence that needs to be “paid for.” It’s in no way breaking any taboos to tell women their eating choices are indulgences. While there may be the odd “rosé all day” hashtag, women are told *constantly* to worry about their food and meticulously count what they eat. Saying we need to cut back and abstain and pay more attention to food is more of the same.

        • Summer

          Thanks for elaborating! I actually completely agree with you. Our personal eating habits are not the fault of society, and if someone is consistently living between the extremes of over-indulgence and restriction, the need to reevaluate habits is on them, not the world of advertising or trending hashtags or whatever else can be blamed. Same with consumption for approval. If you’re honestly only eating wings and drinking beer because you think it makes you “cool,” please look deep within yourself and figure out what’s wrong. Nobody actually gives a damn what you eat or drink at a bar.

          • chelseafagan

            Damn, I feel like these are harsh readings of my piece — I feel like it’s pretty undeniable (and actually statistically, tangibly provable) that living in America means constantly being bombarded with calls to eat in excess, drink in excess, and associate the two with happiness. (Forget even traditional advertisement, which is mostly for food and beverage — my Instagram explore feature is a non-stop barrage of competitively-caloric ‘food porn,’ and studies show that I am far from alone in that.) I am not saying that my personal choices are someone else’s responsibility, I am saying that it’s difficult to be truly healthy in a society with a vested, financial interest in you not being so.

            Also, I literally write for the last part of the post that it is super-unhealthy to think in terms of abstention, or repenting, or pendulum swings, and rather that ‘the return to health’ should be the baseline from which you start. I’m honestly not sure if Anon read the piece fully.

          • Nkambako

            I was just coming down here to write exactly that! I feel like your piece was talking about how in a lot of Western society (I applied it to society in the UK), socialising is inextricably tied up in indulgence.

            As much as I wish more of my friends wanted to go for walks or have group healthy cooking meet ups, they are far more likely to be ordering take out or going to a bar. I am responsible for my own decisions, and certainly have impact in my social group, but there is only a certain number of times I can request going to a cheaper place or turn down another drink.

          • Jack

            I feel incredibly lucky to live in Vancouver where it’s totally normal to go for a walk, bike ride, or workout class and grab smoothie bowls after as a hangout. I’ve visited the UK a number of times and remember thinking I’d have a hard time there.

          • AubreyS.

            Chelsea – I feel like you should be happy that this piece, which in itself doesn’t tell me much beyond your personal revelation that you’ve been treating your body poorly, actually spurred a productive conversation between two of your readers. Maybe it just upset you that their comments drifted from the substance of your piece and onto other topics that deserve discussion.

            PS – Instagram discover’s algorithm is based on accounts you look at/follow

  • I also find that as one phases out of the college and just-after-college days of internships and entry level jobs, the expectation overwhelmingly is that discretionary money should be spent on these things. Now that I’m making a bit more comfortable of a salary and am not able to beg off with the “I can’t, I’m so broke!” refrain quite as convincingly, the pressure to normalize indulgence feels huge. I hate it as all it leaves me with is grogginess, tighter pants, and a smaller savings account, but it feels hard to engage with my peer group without participating in the never-ending cafe lunches, dinners out, and after-work meetups.

    • Jack

      I’m the same, I make ok money but it’s just that I choose to spend it on travel and other things that are more important to me than constantly eating out. I try to be honest and just say it’s not in my budget because I have a trip planned. Rather than “I’m broke”. Hopefully people will understand!
      And boooo….tight pants….THE WORST!

      • Travel is also where I prioritize my spending. Going to try your tactic of just being upfront/firm with people about wanting to save for trips!

  • Caila Henderson

    Can relate!! As I’m sure many of us can at this point in the summer; when weekends are filled to the brim with excess everything! I agree overindulging has become too normalized and it’s a tough cycle to break. This spot on article is a helpful reminder (as I gulp down water and green tea after a long weekend).

  • LynnP2

    Ugh, I really relate to this. The problem is compounded by the fact that I travel a lot – for fun, for work, for weddings/bachelorettes, etc. This is, obviously, an incredible privilege, but there is always so much encouragement to indulge, because I’m on vacation, experiencing a new city/country, celebrating a marriage, or at least seeing friends/coworkers I don’t see often. I used to think of travel as the perfect time to indulge, but when it’s on such a regular basis it’s started to really make me feel like crap. I’ve balanced this some by trying to pull back when I’m at home in NY – I eat most meals at home, and often invite friends over for dinner or wine and snacks, which usually ends up feeling much more reasonable – but I need to find a way to feel better when I’m away from home.

  • Emma B.

    Thank you, Chelsea. This really resonates with me because of my relationships with my co-workers. I am very grateful to be on a team of such hard-working and pleasant co-workers, but frequent happy hours and non-cafeteria lunches are too much for me. I don’t want to feel left out of the group–especially since we all work together, often late into the evening. However, I’m a few years older and my mid-to-late twenties metabolism cannot keep up with my younger co-workers (I’m also a bit more health-conscious). The Zoe Report had an article from April that depicts the isolation of a healthy lifestyle (http://thezoereport.com/living/wellness/how-to-survive-a-diet-isolation-tips/). Between these two pieces, I feel better knowing that I’m not the only one committed to making some positive lifestyle changes. Thanks 🙂

  • Kara

    Awesome article! It’s really hard to strike the right balance while having fun, relaxing, celebrating and maintaining a healthy diet. Our culture reinforces food = fun at every turn. Unfortunately it’s just another area, like spending money, that requires a lot of self control.

  • Franchesca

    You’re the best.

  • Nkambako

    Excellent article!

  • SN

    This is my favorite piece you’ve written so far. So spot on that I can forgive you for this personal attack: “Netflixing with a lit candle and a bloated Thai order all to ourselves is celebrated, and somehow considered in an unplaceable way to be self-affirming. ” Called. The fuck. Out.

  • Jay0623

    “You don’t need a man to eat two times your daily recommended intake of calories and sodium in one meal, do you?”

    I mean, I really don’t. But that’s mostly a side effect of not swinging that way in the first place. 😉

    Maybe it’s just the part of me that worked in a cafe for half a decade speaking, but food is a simple and tangible way to show people I care about them. Cooking for my friends, letting them cook for me, sharing meals together and breaking bread at one another’s tables — we do weekly dinners and it’s a bonding experience, keeping all of us from feeling isolated in careers and lives that could otherwise leave us feeling alone. We’ve all had traumas, many of us have had abuse, it’s hard for most of us to express and accept loving others and being loved in return; preparing and sharing food with each other can be healing, a bridge over that gap, a physical way to show that we care, an entry point into one another’s lives and hearts.

    Women are so often shamed for what they choose to do with their bodies, lectured and guilted to make sure we never do anything — eating, drinking, showing emotions or affection — to excess. And while I acknowledge that there’s a line where anything in large enough quantities becomes unhealthy, I refuse to feel bad for making those weekly dinners with my friends a valued and integral part of my normal life.

  • Désirée König

    It’s interesting how different society’s message is depending on whether you’re thin/normal or fat. If you’re thin, it may be cool/quirky for you to eat 2 meals of Thai food while watching Netflix. If you do the same thing when you’re fat (as I am), you’re considered a disgusting slob unworthy of any respect.
    Society just needs to reduce the amount of judgement it passes on people for how they eat.