(by Esme Michaela)
In July, 2019, my mum, living in the United Kingdom, called me in New York for a catch-up. This spontaneous call came at the perfect time and changed the whole course of our relationship, and my life. I ended up in tears as I finally admitted to another person, as well as to myself, that I had been struggling with an eating disorder for years, and I wanted to get better.
Throughout my childhood, diet culture was heavily present in the home I shared with my mum, step-dad, and sister, as well as with my dad and step-mum. I was described as “chubby,” which I took to mean a bad thing, while my sister was very slender, so my belly was often pointed out. When we went shopping for clothes, my mum and sister told me how to suck in my stomach by breathing deeply, like “all women” did. As I was already experiencing body image issues, I got hooked on the idea that changing the way I looked would magically make me like myself.
Once I started working with a therapist, I began looking into factors that may have contributed towards my eating disorder. I remember wrapping my Barbies' dresses tightly around the dolls to accentuate their tiny waists. I realized that I could look at any picture from any day, or think back to any memory of the past year, and remember exactly what I had eaten that day. It felt like my hidden super power.
In the village where I lived from the age of seven to 12, there was a “Slimming World” meeting held weekly in the local community center, and signs advertising these meetings were displayed throughout the village. Even at that young age, I realized society’s attitude about weight. Developing an eating disorder isn’t as simple or trivial as reacting to cultural attitudes, but the negative effects can contribute to a poor body image. At one point, my step-dad decided that he wanted to diet, eliminating lots of carbohydrates, which meant two different meals were made. I particularly remember him swapping out diced lettuce for the rice in a curry or for the pasta in my mum’s homemade Bolognese sauce. I wanted to be able to eat the lettuce version of the meal. I saw it as a prominent factor in my goal of losing weight and, ultimately, liking myself more.
My parents’ divorce had caused a strained relationship with my mum and step-dad, so when I was 12, I moved in with my dad and step-mum. There was less focus on family mealtime, and I often made my own meals, as well as packed lunches for school, so it was easy to restrict my diet. If I didn’t want to eat much, it wasn’t policed, or noticed.
Once I moved to New York to study at the New York Film Academy and eventually work as an actor, my mum and I talked about once a week. The phone call when I finally admitted to my problem was important because I’d had a bad binge/purge episode the night before, so I was in a lot of physical pain that day and very emotional. It was also close to 100 degrees out, but because I was so self-conscious, I was wearing leggings and a big top, so I was hot and uncomfortable. I couldn’t go on in denial any more.
After my confession, my mum called me every single day for months, knowing that was what I needed. Straightaway, she helped me take the next steps: finding support groups, information resources, a doctor and nutritionist. It felt like the necessary steps were clear and obvious. It also meant that I knew I had to keep choosing recovery. I had someone to show up for and to make proud.
Three months after I began recovery, I took a trip to England, where I stayed with my mum and her new partner. Any time I had stayed with them in the past, meals included foods that I wouldn’t normally eat myself. I wanted to be able to restrict my food in peace, and any temptation of foods on my “bad” list disgusted me. My mum offered me the option of making my own food so I could track what I was eating and keep away from any trigger foods. But instead I allowed myself the luxury of food freedom, and I ate what I was given. I can’t remember if we ate my favorite, mum’s Bolognaise, but that’s one of the best parts of recovery, that I don’t have to remember what I ate on every day for the past year.
My mum and I still talk on the phone nearly every day, but we don’t always have to talk about food. And any time I get to see her, I look forward to eating whatever delicious meal she's made.
Esme Michaela is an actress who lives in New York City. She can be found on Instagram.
1 – 2 T. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
big handful of chopped fresh herbs (mix of rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme), or
2 t. dried Italian herbs
1/2 lb. 12% fat chopped beef
1/2 beef stock cube, dissolved in 1 cup boiling water
14 -16 oz. canned chopped tomatoes
1 T. ketchup
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
4 – 6 oz. dried spaghetti
grated Parmesan cheese
fresh basil leaves
Add oil to a pan over medium heat.
Add onions garlic, red pepper, and half the herbs, stirring until browned
Add meat, and stir until browned.
Add water with stock cube, and simmer until most of the water has dissolved.
Add chopped tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, and remaining herbs.
Simmer for 10 minutes or until thickened.
Add 1 t. olive oil to a pot of boiling water, and cook spaghetti al dente.
Serve sauce on top of pasta, with grated Parmesan and a leaf of basil.