I Like My Food

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There are similarities between eating and masturbating. To eat is an act I take with my body. I use my hands. Eating may be a source of pleasure, and also of shame. I may do it by myself, or in a circle with others. It may be slow and sensual, something to savor, or it may be rote, a rush to the finish line. The clean plate, the empty bowl. Wipe myself with a napkin and voilà, done.

But eating is also like sex with a partner. When I eat, with each bite I choose to put something into my body that wasn’t there before. I insert, I receive. I swallow.

This month I celebrate eleven years of food sobriety. To be sober of something generally suggests abstinence, but sobriety can also mean behavior that is moderate, temperate. As a younger man, I prided myself on being someone who could eat absolutely anything that was put in front of me, and drink as much as I liked (and perhaps more). Around the age of forty, however, I started suffering from crushing headaches. These headaches, called cluster headaches, also nicknamed “suicide headaches,” were so debilitating I often spent days in bed honestly wanting to die. My headaches resisted most medication; nevertheless, I swallowed all manner of pills and waited for the pain to pass. The pills had their own unpleasant side effects. The truth was, I was miserable most of the time.

One day, in the exhausted wake of one of these periods of headache, I pulled from the bookshelf A Spoonful of Ginger, a cookbook I’d bought at a tasting event and reading in Washington DC several years before. This book, by Nina Simonds, was my first introduction to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a field of knowledge and practice that would eventually lead me to pursue acupuncture and to study Tai Chi and Qigong. But first there was the question of my diet. As an experiment, I decided to eliminate some types of food and focus more on other ingredients and dishes.

Four months later, I hadn’t had a single headache. (Also, I lost thirty pounds.)

I won’t dwell on what I did or did not eat; food choices are deeply personal, as well as cultural, the details, as with masturbation, best left, perhaps, to the realm of privacy. What worked for me might, or might not, work for anyone else. I have zero desire to convince anyone of anything concerning their diet. But here’s the thing: over the past few years, as more and more people experiment with eating wheat-free, or dairy-free, or paleo or vegan or what have you, there has also been a backlash of people commenting on how absurd these “fads” are, and mocking anyone who chooses to buy a gluten-free bagel, or whatever. Does this sound familiar? Someone is making a choice about what to do with her body, and someone else is pointing a finger. Oh, how good we are at judgment. “I know what’s best for your body!”

As a person whose sexuality has been the subject of scrutiny, criticism and attack all my life, I have this to say: my body choices are my own. I understand there are many of us with strong, valid opinions about meat and factory farming and the environment, for example. I think it makes sense to educate people about major ethical issues, but for me, the bottom line is that if you don’t like the idea of human beings eating meat, then don’t eat meat. If you think gluten-free food is stupid, then don’t eat gluten-free food. If you think gay sex is disgusting, then don’t have gay sex. I’ll enjoy my body my way, and how about you do the same? I am done with the New Yorker cartoons, the Internet mockery, the Facebook posts castigating people’s dietary decisions. What these remarkably put-out people seem compelled to declare is that someone else’s woo-woo self-indulgent dietary ridiculousness has gone too far! Have a cheeseburger and shut up, already!

Well. There are days I truly wish I could have what you’re having, but if I do, I am likely to pay the price in several days of feeling really shitty. Sometimes, it works out to have a bite of this, a nibble of that, but for the most part, I find that sticking to what I learned about my body eleven years ago serves me well, most of the time. So consider this a request to please remember that someone experimenting with a new diet may be seeking relief from some terrible pain I hope you never experience.

It would have been nice to celebrate my ten years of food sobriety a year ago, but in November 2016 I was in no mood for celebration of any kind. The day after Trump was elected President, a painful sore emerged on my back. It eventually grew into what my dermatologist diagnosed as “a large and angry cyst,” so large I was unable to lie on my back for over a week. Three days after the election, I had to leave a solidarity gathering at a friend’s house because I suddenly felt ill; I spent the night vomiting. The horror of Trump had made me literally sick to my stomach. My body is an exquisitely faithful barometer of my feelings.

The food we eat, the air we breathe, the thoughts we have, the company we keep, all become integrated, for better or for worse, into our bodies, and thus become part of who we are. I’m writing about my experience here because I want to speak out against the food shaming and snark around alternative diets. It’s just too reminiscent for me of sexual shame and judgment, of people feeling entitled to comment on the body choices of others, and it’s time for it to stop.