Last summer, I was lucky enough to go on my dream holiday. I spent two weeks in Tokyo, Japan, with my best friend – who I hadn’t seen in over four years. It was the most exciting experience of my life – not only because I was in the city I’d always wanted to explore, but because I felt a shift in myself. I felt so free.
I typically experience holidays with a whole load of anxiety – even more than my normal levels of it. Several different things stir this in me, but most of them are anticipatory and dissipate once I’m there. There’s just one preoccupation I can never escape – food. Eating disorders simply do not take holidays.
However, my trip to Japan was different. For once, it felt as if my illness was an entirely separate entity to me, and this meant that we could not both get through passport control. I seemed to leave my eating disorder trapped inside the airport walls.
I was amazed at myself, amazed at the possibility of food freedom. It was the hope that I needed at that time, so desperately.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to maintain that peace when I started university. It’s an overwhelming experience – new place, new people, new routine… I quickly became extremely anxious. I felt out of place and inadequate and scared.
So I turned to my most familiar coping mechanism. I turned to food.
I’ve started my second term of university now, and I don’t want to stay in this cycle. I want to stop numbing out. I want to rediscover even just a sliver of that freedom I felt in Tokyo.
Unfortunately, I can’t return to Japan right now. But I can try to bring pieces of Japan to my life here. This is what I learned:
CALORIES DON’T COUNT
Or rather, you don’t have to count them.
The first thing I noticed about Starbucks in Japan (and the only thing I loved more than the matcha frappe) was their menu boards. They’re so different to those in the UK – and I’m not talking about the script differing from our alphabet. What struck me was this: the lack of calorie information on display.
I love a good frappe, but am always put off by the caloric values of the drinks – information which, at home, is unavoidable. The taste is always dulled by the layer of guilt that sits on my tongue. I am never present, I’m always too busy thinking about how to ‘make up for it’. In Japan, my experience was so different. Without the nutritional information shoved in my face, I could relax and enjoy every sweet sip.
Sadly, Starbucks aren’t going to change overnight (nor is our society). What I can do in the present is challenge myself not to seek out numbers. I can go to independent cafes where there’s no nutritional information, I can choose not to look up and make choices before going to restaurants. I can challenge myself to try new recipes and refuse to work out the numbers going in. Nourishment is not about numbers.
CARBS ARE COOL
Okay. Rationally, I knew this already. Who doesn’t love potatoes and pasta? But my beliefs have always been more complicated. I’ve been afraid of and avoided carbohydrates lots – as have many people, because that’s what we’ve been taught.
Japanese culture teaches something different. My friend, Satoka, told me one day about a common idea they have in Japan, that a bowl of rice is an essential part of breakfast. Why? It will guarantee that you are smiling all day.
When she told me that, something clicked. It makes so much sense, because what is rice? A carbohydrate. And what are carbohydrates? They’re energy. Without energy, it’s difficult to enjoy life.
I am now constantly reminding myself that eating carbs are the key to happiness – a notion only reaffirmed every time I enjoy a bowl of spaghetti.
We hear a lot of talk about mindfulness these days, and I tend to be pretty dismissive of it. Not because I don’t think it’s a valuable practice, but because I’m stubborn and stuck firmly in my habits of distraction and numbing out. When it comes to eating, I prefer to focus on something else – a book, the internet, a film, YouTube – than to sit with my feelings about my body and my worth.
Whilst I was in Japan, I ate at the table with my friend – and often her family – for every meal of the day (unless we were out in the city). I noticed that they were quiet, but not in an awkward way. They seemed content; appreciative of each other’s company and appreciative of the food in front of them. This appreciation is significant in Japanese culture – they have two different expressions for giving thanks before the meal, and after. This ritual was very grounding for me, and it made me more attune to the tastes and the textures of my food. It was blissful.
I don’t think it’s realistic of me to say that I will eat every meal without distraction – I love to read and it gives me a time in which to do so! But I do want to make a conscious effort to sit at the kitchen table more, instead of in my bedroom. I am aiming for just one meal a day with no distractions – no social media scrolling, no reading, nothing to watch. Just me and my plate. That sounds doable – uncomfortable, but possible.
I want to live in Japan one day, and I’m certain such a move would be good for me. But I can’t wait for the ideal setting in order to make changes in my life, particularly in my relationship to food. So I’m starting to try again, right here and right now. Freedom awaits…