How Being a Picky Eater Feeds My Anxiety

Confession time: I’m a picky eater.

…And I don’t just mean that there are a few thing that I don’t like or that I’m a little bit picky. I mean I’m a really, really picky eater, and there are lots of things that I just don’t like. I don’t like peas or beans or tomatoes or sushi or eggs cooked any way except scrambled. I hate steamed vegetables. Mushrooms make me shudder.

This is not new. I’ve always been a picky eater–there are photos of little baby me, spitting out mashed peas and carrots and making weird faces at tomatoes. Occasionally someone could convince me that a food I didn’t eat was something that I actually did eat (family legend has it that as a toddler I ate fried fish because I was told it was fried hot dogs)  in an effort to get me to broaden my horizons, but that was not an oft-tried or oft-successful tactic. For a long time I wouldn’t eat things that were “delicious” because my brother told me that peas were delicious, and I hated them so very much that I was convinced that the word “delicious” meant “horrible” instead.

At some point, my mother and father stopped fighting with me about what I was going to eat for dinner, because they had already raised two children, one of them also a picky eater. They also seemed to recognize that I would’ve gone hungry rather than eat something I didn’t like. I know this is true because I had an aunt who wouldn’t let us have a snack later unless we finished all the dinner on our plates. At her house, I would sometimes go hungry because I would not eat what was on my plate.

And here’s the thing…I wasn’t, and I am not, just being a brat. The truth is far more complicated, and it has had a profound affect on my life–my relationships with other people and my relationship with food, hence my relationship with my own body.

You see, certain textures of food actually make me feel ill, physically ill. Like those peas and beans I mentioned? The texture of a bite of peas or beans triggers my gag reflex. I don’t necessarily understand how or why, but that tends to make them difficult to even begin to like. So, while I hear a lot about things that are an “acquired taste,” I’ve never really known what that was like from an eating perspective. It’s pretty difficult to learn to like something that makes you feel like you just might vomit every time you take a bite.

And boy is that a load off my chest to admit…Because I’ve been made fun of for it almost all of my life, and I really and truthfully wish that my relationship with food were different. My picky eating has caused arguments and sadness and endless amounts of frustration and anxiety. Because even though my parents weren’t hard on me about how I was eating, other people in my life haven’t always quite as kind.

And you should know that here in the deepest parts of the American South, food is a way of life. There was food at church, food at my grandmother’s house, food at family reunions and backyard barbecues. There were family dinners and breakfasts and brunches. So. Many Brunches. Everyone here loves a potluck, tables piled high with casseroles and cooked vegetables and meat….And when I sat down with a plate that had a few pieces of turkey, a buttered roll, and a bit of macaroni and cheese but nothing else, there were always snarky comments and laughter. Every time we sat down together to eat, comments were made about what I was eating, about what I was not eating. And while I desperately wanted those comments to go away, I found them preferable to the kinds of embarrassment I might suffer if one of those foods actually did make me sick.

So I started to work around having to eat with other people, trying to control as much of the environment as I could. I was lucky enough to like a few basic things–chicken and burgers, french fries and chips–that could be found at most any restaurant in some shape or fashion and that were often on the pot luck table. If I couldn’t control the menu or was going to a place that might not have anything I would eat, I’d often eat a bit beforehand (not enough to be full, so that I could be polite and eat at least a small something). Alternately, I would arrange to arrive once everyone had eaten or find a reason to leave before food was served. This way, I didn’t have to deal with rude comments or nosy people. I could, instead, focus on having fun with the people I was spending time with.

I became The Girl Who Never Ate or The Girl Who Ate Like a Bird. All of this was even more darkly comic because I am a chubby girl–even at my lightest, I was still a solid size 8/10 with curves, so there were always smug looks and occasional derisive laughter with those comments about what was on my plate.

Over the years, my relationship with food, with eating, created a spiral of frustration and sadness and fear. As a teen and young adult, especially, my food issues wreaked havoc on my physical and mental health. Food became something secret. It became something I was ashamed of, a bad habit. I ate alone, and I ate too much.  I ate things that were bad for me–because the unfortunate truth was that many of the healthiest foods were the foods that created the most anxiety, the textures I disliked and dreaded the most.  I gained weight, packing on about 75 pounds in my 8 years of college/grad school. The weight gain made me feel worse about my body, worse about food and more self-conscious about eating unhealthy foods in front of other people. This level of discomfort with food and with my own body were a kind of self-perpetuating cycle, feeding my depression and anxiety disorder. I’d feel anxious about going out and eating with other people, then my self-isolation would add to my depression.

I’ve been trying, since I first understood the nature of my disordered eating (because that’s what it is, really and truthfully) to expand my palate. This is difficult because there are emotional, psychological, and physical components to my relationship to food. In addition to being aware of the texture issues I have with some foods, I know now that, at least in part part, I have been mimicking my mother, who was constantly trying to lose weight and who had a tendency to try to hide when she ate junk food. But I now I do eat a lot of foods that I would not have eaten when I was younger, and I eat with other people more often.

I recognize that I have created a situation in which food, already culturally symbolic in so many ways, is personally symbolic. Most importantly, perhaps, I have learned to be patient with myself and to ignore snarky comments from people who cannot possibly understand how and why I am being brave when I nibble a slice of tomato.