Bodies, Rewards, And “Taking Care Of Yourself”: A Letter From The CEO
Read more of Chelsea’s Letters from the CEO column here.
There are certain things we know are bad for us, but we love anyway. For me, I could list a dozen off the top of my head, including reality shows that in the best of cases degrade a few individual women who appear on them, but likely degrade us all on some level. I know this, but watch anyway, because the indescribable pleasure I receive from watching these rich women fight outweighs my queasiness at the ethical implications — and that’s just one sinful joy among many. And among my list of “love you even though I shouldn’t” items, I am heartbroken to admit that you will also find sugar. No, I do not mean that sugar is “bad” in some kind of amorphous moral sense, i.e., I am “being bad” when I eat it. I don’t consider it a “cheat” food (because I hate that entire term and concept, but more on that later). And I don’t have any guilt or shame when I am taking down a generous slice of moist chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream and slightly-melty vanilla bean ice cream. I feel glorious in that moment, even, and full of present, life-affirming joy. But I know that sugar is bad for me in very literal ways. It has a noticeable effect on my mood and energy (depressing them). It leaves me both sluggish and raccoonishly hungry for more. It causes me to break out, and to bloat. It even causes my joints to ache and head to throb in a kind of “sugar hangover” that happens when I eat way, way too much of it. And I know, because I have access to Google and common sense, that these are totally normal side effects, and that sugar is a sort of low-grade poison for our bodies, quietly and consistently eroding us while holding us in its delightful, ubiquitous, addictive grip.
I will never give up sugar, because there are too many wonderful things in this world that contain it, but I am reminded every time I take a break from it (as I am now, mostly), that I would be better off seriously mitigating the degree to which I consume it.
As of this writing, I am 36 hours into one of my semi-regular routines in which I reclaim myself from a period of time in which I was at the whim of nearly everything but my internal organs. In this case, I was traveling in New England and started most days with fried confections and usually ended them with some kind of seafood dipped or slathered in butter, plus tiki drinks or drinks that were very much verging on tiki in nature. Though I walked an enormous amount and even got some good biking in, the quantity and quality of what I was putting into my body took its toll, as it always does: by the end of the trip, every cell was crying out for vegetables and lemon water, which is never a good sign. And I should clarify that my process of reclaiming myself is by no means any kind of crash diet or cleanse. I simply get back into my normal fasting schedule (which usually takes some adjusting, as I enjoy breakfast if I want to while traveling, though normally do not eat it), and go low carb for some time while heavy on the greens, which invariably increases my energy, gets me back into my Pilates practice without fatigue, and — yes, I would be disingenuous not to say it — drops the water weight I’ve invariably retained from chasing rum punches with curly fries.
And while you might imagine that these moments of “restoration” would be the times I feel most deprived or punished, I can say, even through the gritted teeth of a sugar withdrawal, that it’s quite the opposite. Though in this first day or so I can lose an entire hour fantasizing about the sensory experience of biting into a hot churro, it is strangely a time at which I feel my most rewarded. The degree to which my body is thanking me feels nearly audible, and the calm certainty with which I select my groceries for the meals which will leave me feeling both satisfied and light, put me in a state of low-key joy for however long I choose to keep it going. I don’t have a set time, and will likely break the streak over the holiday weekend because I will want my Fourth of July hot dog in a proper bun, dammit! (And importantly, I will not consider this a cheat, but rather a simple integrating of one rhythm of my life into another.) But this will be my new baseline for a while, likely until I leave for the West Coast next week for work.
Simply put, there is a bone-deep goodness I feel when I am gently navigating the ship of my own body back into the harbor in which I want it. The times of plenty, when I’m simply along for the ride of my senses, also feel great. I am not going to pretend that eating buttered lobster twice in 24 hours was not fantastic in the moment. But it was a different kind of fantastic, one that felt giddy and ephemeral, rather than serene and lasting. Both are good sensations, obviously. But my life has undeniably improved since I have both embraced my body as a very fundamental part of myself (rather than just the fleshy mecha suit that thanklessly carries around my brain), and since I have learned to recalibrate the entire concept of “treating” myself.
I have made no secret about the fact that I am wary of a lot of the “self-care” discourse. And on the frequent occasions in which it overlaps with bodies, I find the entire subject even more fraught. (So fraught, in fact, that I have rewritten this paragraph about ten times to make sure that I am choosing my words very carefully.) To start, yes, there is an undeniable degree to which women are expected to deprive themselves of “indulgent” (which I am using as a shorthand for calorically-dense and nutritionally-deficient) foods, to the point that about three out of four of us show at least some signs of a disordered relationship with eating. And this is of course tangled up with the enormous pressure we are under to remain slim, which is something increasingly difficult to do as we age, have children, and continue to live in a world in which the aforementioned “indulgent” foods are much more ubiquitously-marketed and affordable than the nutritionally-dense, calorically-lighter foods (such as fresh produce), which are often a key part of a diet that (generally) makes one more slim. Fighting against this overwhelming tide of deprivation and restriction, there has emerged an entire subgenre of self-care which is centered around eating what you want without judgment or shame, which frames the eating of a fresh pan of cinnamon rolls or basket of chicken tenders and french fries as a sort of defiant act. Which it undoubtedly is, particularly for some bodies.
And there is also part of this framing which rightfully acknowledges that this kind of food is often what we are craving, as in, we may opt for the salad because of social pressures or our own fraught relationship with our bodies, but what we really want is the carbonara. On some level, of course, this is true. Our brains are often practically screaming at us to reach for the Pringles or the ice cream bars, and suppressing that desire can feel like an act of self-punishment, something we are doing against ourselves, largely driven by that need to fit a mold of feminine consumption and appearance. But I would argue that those very noises in our brains, the ones crying out for the food that makes us feel so goddamn good in the moment, are not really our brains talking. For example, I described my love-hate relationship with sugar here because it is very literally that. I am addicted on a physiological level to experience that sugar provides to my brain. And though I may be able to manage and mitigate it, it is a very literal addiction, and that is no accident. Americans are overwhelmingly addicted to sugar, and the massive corporate interests which profit off of this addiction are stoking the flames of this addiction in an extremely effective and intentional way. The same goes for the snack foods and fast foods we find ourselves constantly reaching for and thinking about (I am fantasizing about a bag of crunchy Cheetos as we speak). These foods are crafted in a meticulous way so as to play off our bodies’ natural propensity towards fatty or sweet things and render us helpless against their siren call. Combined with their unavoidable marketing and social saturation, and these foods become a sort of backdrop of our lives, present to help celebrate every special occasion or pick us up after a difficult moment.
I am no exception to this. As someone who loves food, and considers the preparing and consuming of a rich, special meal at home to be a top-three favorite activity of all time, it has been incredibly difficult to separate the fireworks in my brain when I am enjoying these foods with a more general sense of rewarding myself. And as a 30-year-old woman who is very familiar with the crushing social obligations to eat “well,” remain thin, and never look like she’s trying, I also recognize that the unabashed enjoyment of these foods can feel like a personal moment of resistance. And there are times in which I lean into that feeling: for instance, I recently offered at the opening of a dinner with several women at a particularly heavy, delicious restaurant, that we should challenge ourselves to not once comment on the “bad” nature of food we’re eating, or how much we did or didn’t eat before, in order to somehow assuage our feelings about the indulgent nature of our dinner. They happily agreed, and we spent the meal talking about how delicious everything was, rather than making sure to frame the food in such a way as to lessen its blow. In moments like that, the act of “resistance” becomes a very true and social one: we are not going to have our moments of sensory pleasure robbed from us because we are women who shouldn’t feel entitled to them.
But on a more general, day-to-day level, it’s important to separate these foods from a “reward” or even “treat” framing. Because ultimately, when we think of “self-care” as a true caring for the self — not just our fickle and susceptible brains, but our entire bodies — we quickly realize that the real “reward” foods are the ones which help our bodies work best, which make us our most alert and full of life, which leave us feeling buoyant and fresh rather than laden down. And of course this means a body which is even more primed to enjoy the moments of “indulgent” food, which is even more present in the sensory experience because everything is firing on all cylinders. (For many of you, I imagine, that first spectacular meal while on a trip feels so much better and more full of color than the last one, after several days of spectacular meals in between.) It is on a very real level rewarding to realize that your brain has been tricked, and is hooked into a system which keeps it addicted and yearning for certain foods as a driver of profit. Does this mean that you will forever cut yourself off from foods that have been crafted with your dependance in mind? Hell no. You can pry my Shake Shack from my cold, dead hands. But it does mean learning to take a step back and be lucid about the difference between “what I want” and “what I need,” and realizing that the latter is the true territory of self-care.
It would be dishonest to say that I don’t find these moments of “resetting” to be less fun than the times of plenty. It is fun to indulge, and to follow the more impish part of your brain down whatever rabbit hole it desires. But I am very aware that this — this moment, this presence and reclaiming of my own self — is the real time of reward. This is the time at which I say to the world around me, the food porn Instagrams that sing to me from my explore page and the bakery on my corner which has between five and seven freshly-baked cakes on display whenever I go to grab my iced coffee in the morning, “Not right now.” It doesn’t mean never; it doesn’t mean that their eventual consumption will be furtively and temporarily enjoyed under the forgiving banner of “cheat;” it just means not right now. There will be a time for that again, and when it comes, it will be wonderful. And knowing that I can follow these rhythms as they come, without holding myself to brutal, fixed windows of time in which I am deprived only to explode back into indulgent patterns of eating (as is so often the case with crash diets, cleanses, and challenges that impose this cycle from an external framing, rather than allowing it to be under our control), means that I am able to crest the tiny waves of desire and let them pass.
I am in control of the ship, and I know what the signals coming at me from the shore really mean — and which ones are worth listening to. And more even than that generous slice of moist chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream, I can say with no hesitation that being the captain feels really, really fucking good.
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