Fighting the Constant Hunger

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Years ago, when I worked at a church in Grand Rapids, I drove in early on Sunday mornings, when 28th Street was still silent and gray, as the pale morning sun rose over the pawn shops and used-car dealerships. I worked all morning, talking with people, holding a thousand tiny details in my mind, and when I left in the afternoon, head spinning and feet tired, I always hoped I was in the car in time to hear The Splendid Table on NPR.

It was a good day if I made it to the car in time for it and a bad day if I missed it and turned on the radio only to hear A Prairie Home Companion instead, because it meant I’d stayed longer than I’d intended and because, to be honest, I really don’t like A Prairie Home Companion.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host of The Splendid Table, says there are two kinds of people in the world: people who wake up thinking about what to have for supper and people who don’t. I am in the first camp, certainly. But it took me about 20 years to say that out loud.

I’ve always been hungry. Always. I remember being hungry as a small child, as an adolescent girl, as an adult, and just after I locate those feelings and memories of hunger, in my peripheral vision another thing buzzes up, like a flash of heat or pain: shame. Hunger, then shame. Hunger, then shame. Always hungry, always ashamed. 

I have always been on the round side of average, sometimes the very round side and sometimes just a little round. I was a round-faced, chubby baby, a little girl with soft, puffy cheeks, a teenager who longed to be skinny and never was, who routinely threw all her pants on the floor and glared at them like enemies.

A woman who still longs to be skinny and never is, and who still, from time to time, throws all her pants on the floor and glares at them like enemies. After all these years, the heaviest thing isn’t the number on the scale but the weight of the shame I’ve carried all these years — too big, too big, too big.

I’ve always wanted to be thinner, and I’ve always loved to eat, and I felt betrayed by my appetites.

Why couldn’t I be one of those people who forgets to eat? Or who can’t eat a bite when she’s stressed or sad? When I’m stressed or sad, I eat like a truffle pig, hoping that great mouthfuls of food will make me feel tethered to something, grounded, safe. And I eat when I’m happy too—when the table is full of people I love, when we’re celebrating.

My appetite is strong, powerful, precise, but for years and years, I tried to pretend I couldn’t hear it screaming in my ears. It wasn’t ladylike. It wasn’t proper. So I pretended I wasn’t hungry, pretended I’d already eaten, murmured something about not caring one way or the other, because I was afraid that my appetites would get the best of me, that they would expose my wild and powerful hunger.

I learned something about hunger from my friend Sara. Sara was one of the first women I knew who ate like a man. When she was hungry, she announced it. And then she ate. A lot. We were traveling through Europe together in college, when I was in the throes of a deep and desperate hatred toward my body. I watched Sara with confusion and fascination, the way a child watches an animal he’s never seen—wide-eyed and kind of nervous. If Sara was hungry while we were on our way to a play, she’d ask us to stop. Because she was hungry. All of us stopped because she was hungry. I would have sooner lost consciousness on the sidewalk than draw attention to my hunger and, therefore, my body.

I realized that even most of the thin women I knew had learned to demur about food and hunger—I already ate; I couldn’t possibly; I’m absolutely stuffed. But Sara loved to eat and believed it was her right, and a pleasure. She didn’t overeat or undereat, cry or hide food. She just ate, for sustenance and enjoyment both, and I was fascinated. Still, it took almost a decade more for me to say those words—those words, “I’m hungry”—without feeling ashamed.

It took becoming pregnant to finally say to the world, out loud and without embarrassment, “I’m hungry.” My first pregnancy shifted so many aspects of my understanding of my body and, with it, shifted my view of hunger. Even if at 29 years old I couldn’t claim my own hunger without experiencing a shiver of shame, I could claim hunger on behalf of my baby, and that small step might as well have been a mile for all it unlocked inside me.

Several years later, I’m learning to practice gratitude for a healthy body, even if it’s rounder than I’d like it to be. I’m learning to take up all the space I need, literally and figuratively, even though we live in a world that wants women to be tiny and quiet. To feed one’s body, to admit one’s hunger, to look one’s appetite straight in the eye without fear or shame—this is controversial work in our culture.

Part of being a Christian means practicing grace in all sorts of big and small and daily ways, and my body gives me the opportunity to demonstrate grace, to make peace with imperfection every time I see myself in the mirror. On my best days, I practice grace and patience with myself, knowing that I can’t extend grace and patience if I haven’t tasted it.

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