I also learned from a very young age that desiring such a life was wrong. It was excessive and inappropriate, shameful and gluttonous, self-involved and not normal. And oh, in so many ways did I long to be normal, too.
My mother, an anorexic with body dysmorphic disorder, did not see the importance of taste, only the power it had to change our physical form. She spent most of her life trying to guide me to thinness: Weight Watchers when I was 8, daily trips after school to the gym shortly thereafter. I once stole her weight-loss supplements from the trash and took them in a desperate, secret attempt to appease her and the world. One time, I even went on a diet of phentermine pills and protein shakes. None of it worked, but it did make me feel isolated and broken. Occasionally I would binge-eat in secret just to feel something other than shame and sadness, particularly after one of her many encouraging pep talks about my body. “I’ve never seen a stomach like yours before,” she would remark, grabbing my own fleshy bits while pointing out the body of another person my age. So I stayed away from people, afraid that my excesses would push them away anyway. Always hearing the refrain “You’re too much!” in practice or its echoes.
I’d been itching with a physical desire for others since I was perhaps too young to be doing so, or to really understand what it meant.
It’s amazing how, in their literal form, taste buds do so much to affect us; these small, raised, pink dots that cover our tongues are tiny sensors. They are capable of bringing us joy, evoking a memory, or satiating a desire. They protect us from harm, guide us in determining our preferences, help us to experience what we want and need and crave.
Our metaphorical taste buds can do the same. I’d been itching with a physical desire for others since I was perhaps too young to be doing so, or to really understand what it meant. From books and movies, I grasped the vaguest terms of what physical intimacy meant, and could feel the pangs of desire within my body. We never talked about these things in my family, and nobody wanted to date the fat weirdo in middle or high school, making my physical experiences minimal. So I buried myself in books and TV—and I ate, finding solace in sensory titillations that were safer and more accessible. I found comfort in experiencing the wonders of food and the world through the stories of others. And it kept the leering eyes of odious men mostly at bay as my body grew slowly bigger. It also made the rare times I attracted male affections that much sweeter, somehow—until I realized what I was tasting was actually sour.
When I’m depressed, food tastes different: blander and less alive, less satisfying.
Do you know how many people lost their sense of taste over the pandemic? Thousands. Probably hundreds of thousands. When I’m depressed, food tastes different: blander and less alive, less satisfying. I’ll often realize I’m depressed by how much hot sauce and salt I need to add to my food before I even recognize the emotional signs within myself, so used to it as I am to push it all down and ignore it; eschewing my own feelings for the wants and needs of others. My cooking goes from grandiosity to microwavables. It’s hard to feel like I deserve to feel joy.
By the fall of 2020, I was under 200 pounds for the first time since 6th grade. I felt better in the idea of my body than I ever had, but I had also never been lonelier. The pandemic hit a year and a half after I lost a job and a circle of friends that I had loved quite deeply and were my whole world. I was broke and depressed and because of that, skinny, consuming food only when my roommates encouraged me. I was hungry, but not for food.
So when I met a man on Hinge who seemed genuinely smart and funny, we agreed to take it slow: Zoom dates and texting, until it was hard for us both to want anything else but each other’s physical company. I craved him ferally; his intellect, his humor, and his honesty felt real to me in a way I’d not often experienced, and I was delirious to hold onto it. Our connection felt like something authentic and fizzy, one that could be fostered into something bubbly and maybe even serious—I hadn’t experienced that in years. It excited me, made me feel hopeful and alive. It also scared me. Usually it was I who was the distant one, quick to shut somebody down at the slightest hint of a red flag. But this man—who told me the first night we met in person that he was emotionally unavailable—I wanted in a way that took over me and brought out my most insecure, ravenous self. I didn’t want to lose what, at first, felt so good and tasted so sweet. As soon as I showed myself as “too” interested a few weeks in, his walls went up, but I was too hungry to care, focused only on knocking them all down (which only made them grow higher).
I knew what this meant, but I was starving, so I accepted the crumbs of his affection. After all, we were nearly a year into a pandemic, and by that point his attention was the only thing that felt satisfying. Being around him pleased me, so I gorged myself on every chance I could get, draping my body over his in a suffocating manner every moment we weren’t being intimate. Every so often he’d even tell me that he “really liked” me—talking to me, hanging out with me, f**king me—so I held out hope, waiting and lapping up every errant text or hookup, all while knowing in the back of my mind that he would ultimately leave me.
Slowly, I’d become vanilla, my least favorite flavor.
Most of the men who wanted me only did so in secret, on their terms, and I thought that this was different. But every day showed me that it wasn’t, and I could feel myself regressing because of it: I thought constantly about how different his exes must have been from me, to be able to hold his attention, wanting, and desire. He told me tales of people he fell for quickly and intensely, and it would always gnaw at my core, because he wasn’t that way with me at all. For us, it was always “let’s keep it casual, and if it becomes something serious, so be it.” Flirtatious attention at a distance. I wanted him to become addicted to me the way I was for him, so I tried harder, hoping attempts to make him see me differently would change our situation for the better. I texted too often, overthought every word to the point of negating my own personality. I often worried about my body to the point of inactivity and a lack of pleasure during sex. In doing so, I created a different version of myself, one that I hoped would be more palatable, but was only more desperate and overly amenable. One that put his tastes and desires for our situationship above my own. I was a woman driven by shame. Slowly, I’d become vanilla, my least favorite flavor.
During this time, I could barely taste a thing, so I gorged myself trying to find something that could feel like love, but nothing did. It was in the not-tasting that my imagination grew wilder. My mind cooked up scenarios of him with other women, imagined him longing for certain exes—thoughts and behaviors that simply were not me, not my normal behavior. When I tried to ignore them, I ate everything in sight to drown out my feelings, hoping to tamp down the cravings that I had for the morsels of our beginning. And so all of the 50 pounds I’d dropped during the pandemic gradually returned, and I was back in my old body again. He asked if we could just be friends in September, a year after we started “seeing” each other, over text.
So I did what many impulsive people in my situation would do: I slept with a ton of random men. I said yes to everyone who was willing, determined to remove the memory of the man I wanted so deeply from my mind and body. But I quickly realized—by sleeping with all of these mediocre men and doing whatever it was they wanted—all that I had given up and needed to build back from my pandemic situationship. I saw, with every passive acceptance of their wants and desires at the cost of my own, just how bland I’d let myself get, how ashamed I was of myself as a person. And for what? A projected sense of what might make me palatable? More likely than not influenced by the words and urgencies of my mom in childhood? It’s like a panic switch that goes off every time I sense somebody slipping away: I assume it’s because of what I look like and what I want. And so the snake continues to eat its tail.
It’s easy to succumb to something you know is bad for you when it tastes so good in the moment, when it satisfies what you ultimately crave.
It’s easy to succumb to something you know is bad for you when it tastes so good in the moment, when it satisfies what you ultimately crave. The problem is those few stolen moments of pleasure ultimately lead you to feeling like shit, and then all you’re left with is feeling bad and the weight that those emotions leave behind in you. But feeling shame around these things was what I was ultimately used to: and sometimes our bodies push us towards familiar feelings and patterns rather than the new and different that we deserve. This man was merely an embodiment of all my internal issues, and trying to win his love was my body’s desperate way to conquer shame and feel normal, desirable; to feel like I was allowed to desire at all.
Cooking is all about finding balance. For things to really sing, they need a bit of everything in an alchemic, harmonious accord: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. But it’s different for everyone. For years, a lot of my cooking and the things I gravitated towards were in extremes. I over-salt. I have a sweet tooth. I crave spice so hot it burns. I love junk food. I am a bipolar-II woman, so it’s not surprising that I go overboard in every direction. It takes time to learn how to handle these things—and I mean that in both instances. Cooking and impulse control both involve lots of failure and practice.
In February, I set a boundary and told the man from Hinge that he and I could no longer communicate. I told him it was confusing to hear from him more frequently after we’d stopped f**king than while we were. I knew it was not healthy for me to stay connected with someone who did not want me—well, who wanted my time and attention to sate his own tastes, but not in a reciprocal manner. I knew I was addicted to the way his scraps made me feel; they were an approximation, which felt good and close enough. He was like a challenge to win, to prove I deserved self-acceptance. He replied back, quickly, that I was right and he was sorry, but also that he was too busy to actually talk about it.
When we take the time to listen to our bodies and try to understand why we crave what we do, those addictive, overindulgent impulses can sometimes wane. It’s not easy to change one’s tastes, especially if they’re all we’ve ever known: there can be comfort in the familiar, even if it’s just a familiar hurt.
These days, I’m trying to cook again: whipping up new things and listening to my body and the voice in my head that knows what I really want. Slowly, but surely, I am realigning my tastes with what is good for me, without feeling shame for the things I want out of life: connection, good sex, openness, and vulnerability. A less shame-based relationship with my body.
In time, I will find the perfect recipe.
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