I am hungry.
For lunch I had sweet potato hash with kale and eggs. It looked so pretty, so real and pristine on my plate, I barely restrained myself from snapping an Instagram. My meal was inspired by the Whole30 challenge, a month-long eating program focused on fruits, veggies, and protein—no dairy, corn, soy, grains, or sugar. It was “clean.” It was healthy. It made me feel proud of myself, if only for a moment.
Two hours after my artfully arranged lunch and here I am, miserably hungry, sipping iced green tea and dreaming about scones. I smooth my T-shirt over my shorts and try to think loving thoughts about my overweight body. I don’t want to dwell on how I’ve landed smack-dab in the middle of America’s complicated tension over food and bodies. We are a nation of overeaters and dieters, of workout obsessives and “fat acceptance” advocates, and I find myself somewhat lost in the perspectives on what it means to feel good and look good. I want to be healthy and happy, but I want it to be based in something deeper than appearences.
I am hungry for self-acceptance, of course, but I also am interested in plumbing the depths of food equality issues in America. I want to live, and eat, with my neighbors in mind—could they afford to join the latest fad? It didn’t seem likely, which put diets like Whole30 into a position of extreme privilege in my mind. No, I thought, I would take care of myself the only way I knew how—slowly and steadily, through exercise and eating whatever I felt like.
It wasn’t until I couldn’t fit into my size 14 pants that I changed my mind about Whole30. I could practice accepting myself all I wanted, but I crossed the line at having to shop for new clothes. I am nothing if not excessively frugal.
I have lost 4 pounds.
But what is it I hope to get from this “clean eating” challenge? Beyond being healthy (a term whose definition varies by person and culture), what I really want is to get a handle on what it actually means to accept myself.
In the West, our self-image increasingly gets showcased on social media, and sometimes this public-facing setting for our faces and shapes can be a good thing. Instagram helped me to think through my body image issues, as I followed Birth Without Fear’s #takebackpostpartum campaign. They encourage women to post pictures of themselves after giving birth—no apologies for extra pounds, stretch marks, or complicated emotions.
Through that account I discovered various body-positivity cheerleaders, women who championed all variations of normal when it came to size and physical features. It sounds so incredulous, even to me, but through these images I started to think differently about myself. I started to scroll past all of the pictures of puppies and babies and artfully arranged meals and cups of coffee, and I would stop and stare at pictures of real women, people who looked like me, who were happy.
Why were their smiling faces so shocking to me? Many of us consider ourselves smart enough or loved enough or Christian enough to be immune from the onslaught of skinny, gorgeous girls in ads and entertainment. I liked to think of myself that way, but the cultural messaging had sunk in, and I swallowed the idea that I wasn’t doing well if I had extra pounds on my frame. So I absorb the pictures of big, beautiful, confident women on my phone, hoping that just a smidge of their confidence would rub off on me.
At night, after both of my children are in bed, I start to eat funfetti frosting, straight out of the can.
I am doing a modified version of Whole30, allowing myself grains like oatmeal and various beans. For one thing, the Whole30 way of eating is expensive, especially when you are trying to eat local produce and humanely raised protein. Living and working within refugee and low-income communities, I know what the average family receives on food stamps would not go far for a Whole30 menu. Most of the food available through the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program is not Whole30 approved: bread, juice, milk, cheese, beans, corn tortillas.
Not only do the poor in our country rely on these staples, so do most people on the planet. The majority world needs carbohydrates like rice and wheat and oats and corn to survive. For most, local vegetables add color and flavor; meat, fruit, dairy, and sugar products are luxuries. I can’t follow a diet filled with an array of produce and animal proteins without realizing how privileged it is.
My healthy, detoxifying meals come with a side of guilt. For every plate I create, I think of the other dinners being prepared in my apartment complex. Families eat curries and lentil soups and pasta; tacos and rice and beans and goat stew. They bring home orange soda and bags of spicy chips, Slurpees from the 7-Eleven across the street. The variety of food speaks to a wide variety of transplanted cultures, all trying to make it as best we can, to feed our families with what we have.
If I want to live with my neighbors in mind, especially those who have unequal access to resources like I do, then I need to eat with them in mind as well. That means I can’t afford to eat like this for very long.
I ran a 5K yesterday. I tried to run for myself, for the endorphins and the accomplishment. Four months ago I gave birth to my baby and almost died in the process; the run is a symbol of how far I have come, how grateful I am to be here at all. I felt good.
The salads and lean proteins and fresh fruits were no doubt helping. I still jiggled when I ran, one of the few overweight women out for a jog, but I was not ashamed. The space I take up is mine, and I feel proud of it.
I make funfetti cookies for my neighbors, who smile shyly due to language barriers. I am lighter in body, down 10 pounds due to the purity of my diet. I decided to eat a cookie in solidarity with my neighbors. We smiled at each other. We take our little feasts as we can get them here.
I’ve been a little anxious lately. Right after my son was born, I sat in the hospital and tried not to think about how sick I felt, how close I had come to leaving behind my earthly loves. Instead, I started to think about refugees, specifically the Rohingya refugees stranded in boats off the coast of Southeast Asia. I obsessed over these refugees; I could see the women and children and babies in my mind. Where was God, I wondered, how could there be so much suffering in the world? How come I almost died, but ended up being saved? Where was the justice, the lovingkindness in any of this?
And I was so surprised when I received my answer, reading through Isaiah one night in order to calm myself to sleep. God’s answer, his promise to all of us, is a feast:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
…He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces. (Isa. 25:6,8)
I thought about what it means to serve a God who wants to gather all of the most broken of our world and give them a feast. I thought of all of the refugees of the world, the ones stranded on boats half a world away, the ones experiencing violence right at that very moment, all of my friends back at our apartment complex. And they are the ones I want to be feasting alongside in the kingdom of God.
It won’t be beautiful, it might not be picture-worthy, and I don’t really think it will be Whole30-compliant. But this feast that God promises is one concrete image we have of all things being made new. We will see ourselves as we really are, loved and whole, and we will see our neighbors eating to the left and the right in the same way. But most of all, when we finally get to that great big party on the mountain of the Lord, we can be assured that we will never be hungry again.
D. L. Mayfield has lived within refugee and immigrant communities for over a decade. Her writing has appeared in various publications such as CT, McSweeney's, and Image Journal, among others. Her book of essays is forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. Find her at dlmayfield.com or on Twitter.