The annual Guild of Food Writers Awards is a bit like the Oscars for foodies. When my name was called, I leapt out of my seat and ran to the stage to receive two awards. I even gave a speech, though I managed to keep it short – and not cry. In the audience of 300 food writers, journalists and chefs packed into a trendy warehouse venue in London, I could see many of my heroes applauding. Previous winners of the awards for food book and investigative food work included Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal. It should have been a moment of great triumph. But I felt like a fraud.
What the hell was I doing here? I had become a food writer entirely by accident. I looked around at all these modern-day gurus on how to cook and how to eat and knew I had a very different relationship with food. I had a terrible secret.
It started at school when I was 14. I was upset, because I had not been invited to a party hosted by a boy I fancied. So I went to the disabled toilet, which smelt of puke, where I knew the other girls did it, and I put my fingers down my throat.
It was hard at first, there was blood. I knew there would be, it was discussed in the dorms. It always took two or three goes and plenty of saliva before a final warm release. I was disgusted, less by the vomit than the fat, unpopular girl I thought I was. I was ashamed, so deeply ashamed I was afraid to seek help. Instead it became a coping mechanism, an intermittent cycle until I was 34.
Bulimia is not a word I have ever used before, not even in my diary. I used to refer to the habit as “the B thing”. Like many men and women in our modern world saturated in food and driven by stress, binge eating became a safety valve, a way to comfort and forget – even if it was momentary. NHS figures estimate that one in 12 women experience bulimia at some point in their lives. But the secretive nature of the illness and the fact that only very serious cases are picked up means that the number could be much higher.
Until now, I have never fully acknowledged to myself or to anyone else I had an eating disorder. I went for months or even years without being sick and each time I was, I vowed it would be the last.
I would scoff a family-sized chocolate bar in front of the telly, a loaf of homemade bread on the train, a box of chocolates in the car – then bring it all up. I would always hide the evidence, down the back of the sofa or in the foot well. I would never admit, ever, even to myself, it was happening.
I knew what real bulimia was – piles of cream cakes every day. I wasn’t doing that, so it was OK, right? For a long time, I was able to pretend that this was just an occasional habit picked up at school…
But winning those awards forced me to think about my relationship with food in a very different way.
I remember getting on the tube after the truffle arancini and raspberry friands at the ceremony with an enormous goodie bag. It contained various kitchen implements I could not even identify and salt-cured cod that would spend months at the back of the cupboard. Who was I kidding that I was ever going to use any of these foodie gadgets? I handed out a bag of retro sweeties to a gaggle of drunken commuters, amused at my generosity, then I went home and I cried.
For weeks I kept my head down, crippled with imposter syndrome. What if I was found out? My book, The Ethical Carnivore, was originally in the environment section, awarded for exposing the reality of the modern meat industry. Now it was in the food section surrounded by books on eating clean, cooking perfectly balanced meals and presenting them in an elegant Shaker kitchen. What could I possibly contribute? Food writing tends to be about an aspirational lifestyle, about men and women who you want to look like and cook like. Who wants to read the opinions of a woman who is afraid of food?
For a while I tried to invent a new persona: someone worthy of these awards, someone who has kale juice for breakfast and avocado on toast for lunch. I posted colourful photographs of my meals on Instagram, I invented eccentric new recipes, I even did a cookery demonstration at River Cottage. But the worry kept niggling at the back of my mind, a guilty secret eating at my conscience: food writing, like any writing, is only any good if it is true.
The moment I was forced to confront my past was going back to give a talk at my old school. The limestone boarding houses, manicured playing fields and Georgian classrooms had all shrunk. The uniform looked marginally less hideous. But the pupils were exactly the same, boisterous around one another, yet clearly self-obsessed, awkward in their growing bodies, achingly vulnerable.
I couldn’t help thinking of that teenager kneeling by the toilet. I too was confident and outgoing on the outside. Inside, I was struggling with self-confidence and a troubled home life. My mother died when I was three. Her death was seldom spoken about, largely because we were all still grieving. When I was 14, my father divorced his second wife, a confusing time of split loyalties and further upheaval. My four siblings and I were loved and certainly privileged, but home was often a tense and even frightening place. At school, I told no one. I did well in classes, muddled along in sport and found myself a social status somewhere between the class clown and geek. I never questioned my bulimia – the most important thing was to be popular, to pass exams, to survive. As long as I could keep up appearances, be brave, then that was the most important thing.
But is survival enough? I looked at the young faces at my talk asking difficult questions, mostly to amuse their friends, and I could see the same patterns; the need to impress peers and suppress fears. I suspect it is even worse for teenagers today.
The advent of social media means that the image of the perfect body, the perfect food is even more prevalent. Young people are expected to be thin while at the same time boasting about their gastronomic exploits online. The latest NHS figures show a massive increase in the number of under-19s admitted to hospital with an eating disorder. Finding a way to nourish your body while also reflecting the unrealistic images in consumer society and your own – often unreasonable – expectations of a washboard stomach must be tough. I thought, I owe it to them, to my younger self, to tell a different story about food.
Food is about more than fuelling your body or even impressing your friends on social media. It is bound up closely with emotion. We eat food to comfort ourselves, to make us happy and quell anxiety. In a growing child it can be especially difficult to recognise the difference between the hunger for food and the hunger to fit in, to be loved.
When I stuck my fingers down my throat, it was not because I had been rejected by a boy I fancied. It wasn’t about the shape of my changing body or even about my dysfunctional home life. Later in life, it wasn’t about my impending deadline or the broken friendship or the failed job interview. It was the inability to deal with the emotions those experiences brought up, to express them, to seek help and to move on.
Once I accepted that, I began to see a pattern. After the school visit, instead of sitting down to write about “clean” food, I wrote about my binges and the reasons for them. Why did I wander around Borough Market eating banana bread until I felt sick? Because I could not help comparing myself with all those happy people and wondering why I was so lonely. Why did I ruin a perfectly nice Sunday lunch? Because a stranger talked about my mother and I did not know how to respond, how to say I want those memories, too. Why did I eat so much wedding cake in the back of a taxi? Because I was drunk and exhausted and I could not let the image of a confident, fun person slip, even when I felt hurt and rejected.
The most important question is why did I stop? I never sought professional help for bulimia, but in my early 30s, the emotions I was suppressing finally exploded on to the surface. For five years, I’d worked as environmental correspondent on a national newspaper. Crazy though it may sound, I felt responsible for waking the world up to climate change and every day I felt I was failing. A series of foreign trips to environmental disaster zones tipped me over the edge. I saw the world as a terrifying place, but struggled to explain to anyone why, or to accept that there was little I could do about it.
I would run to the toilet at the newspaper office, not to vomit this time but to have panic attacks. Looking back, I can see how that resembled my bulimia: the need to find a dark corner, to force my body to extremes, to increase my heart rate, decrease my oxygen and at the end of it all to feel some form of relief. Except this time it was without my control. I knew I had to get help before the chaos I felt inside leaked into the outside and ruined my seemingly successful life.
I began to see a therapist and talk about the feelings of fear, the “icy claw” gripping my heart. I discussed my family and my job. But I never discussed bulimia. I did not consider it relevant. I still thought of food as unimportant, and any discussion of eating habits seemed neurotic and embarrassing. In fact, I was still vomiting occasionally.
I remember the last time: it was after an eight-hour train journey, an exhausting weekend of putting on a brave face and keeping it together for another wedding. I could not rest and I could not cry, so I ate. It was no different to any other time, I’m not even sure I made the usual vow that this would be the last. But it was. Something in me was shifting. Through simply talking, I was learning to deal with emotions, to “soothe myself”.
Until now, I had never put together my recovery from bulimia with therapy. I had always thought it was about food, and it was my fault, that I was too greedy and too weak. I look back and see it was never about food, it was about my emotions. Somehow that makes it better. Food is not something I need to be afraid of any more.
I still overeat occasionally. Who doesn’t? Food is not rational and expecting yourself to act in a rational manner is going to mean constantly beating yourself up. But I am lucky to have made my peace with food. This is part of me, part of my food experience.
Telling my friends and family has been a revelation. I expected disgust but of course all I have found is sympathy and support. I am a food writer now and food writing is helping me to make sense of this. Perhaps being a little bit afraid of food, struggling occasionally is how a lot of people feel in 2018. Perhaps it is easier to identify with than someone who is perfect. Perhaps that could be my contribution.
After The Ethical Carnivore, I wanted to write about food ethics beyond meat. I have found it to be a challenging subject. Practically every food we eat comes with a question mark over ethics, whether it is fair-trade bananas or the ubiquitous organic avocado. I found myself slipping into the old habits, trying to control everything I eat, panicking about being “clean”, punishing myself for getting it wrong.
Then I remembered food is more than a label. It is a story. Yes, I can try to be an “ethical eater” and find out as much information as I can on behalf of others. But my food story is so much more than that. It is my memories and my body and my mistakes.
I can’t tell you how to be thin, or cure your irritable bowel syndrome, or reverse the process of ageing. I can’t tell you everything about where your food came from, or where to shop to save the planet. But I can look back at my 14-year-old self and offer a little reassurance. It’s OK to be hurt. It’s OK to feel ashamed. It’s OK to get it wrong, for years. It’s OK to eat. It’s OK to panic. It’s OK to cry. Because, one day, you will recover.
If you or someone you know is affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can ring Beat, the eating disorder charity’s helpline, on 0808 801 0677