“Have The Drunk Chicken Nugget & Move On”: A Conversation On Food Anxiety With Ruby Tandoh

The beginning of a new year is a time framed as an opportunity; a chance to cut yourself off from your past self and become something new. To become someone who bullet journals and uses Tupperware, for instance. Or someone who actually responds to Facebook messages from old friends in a timely manner.

This year, you tell yourself, it will finally happen: "I'll be good, I'll be kind... I'll have the body I've always wanted." Because "fixing" ourselves is precisely what reinvention comes down to most of the time, isn't it? More specifically, at this time of the year, it's "fixing" the way we eat in order to transform, butterfly-like, into someone we can be proud of.

But for people with a history of disordered eating, this time of being told from all sides that the way they eat can be improved, can be incredibly damaging.

To get through it, friends Ruby Tandoh and Sadhbh O'Sullivan decided to spend the month talking to each other about precisely this. Sadhbh is the social media assistant at Refinery29 and Ruby is a chef, ex-Great British Bake Off contestant and author of Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, a new book that wants to bring the joy back into food in every iteration.

Both have a history of disordered eating. Sadhbh was diagnosed with anorexia when she was 18; she is in recovery today. Ruby had a five-to-six-year period of bulimia and anorexia in her teens. It's something she's written about a lot, from a takedown of the wellness and 'clean eating' industry to how anxiety around food is making us ill.

Here, Ruby and Sadhbh have published their January conversation, which covered everything from Veganuary to working out, Bounty chocolate bars and the new form of 'clean eating' in the hope that it might encourage others to see next January not as a time to "fix" themselves, but as a time to start listening to what it is their body really wants.

Click through to read.

January 1st, 2018

Hey Ruby,

Happy new year! I just got in from a walk by the sea/harbour where my girlfriend's parents live in Denmark and – bar the same walk I did yesterday – it's the first bit of exercise I've done in nearly three weeks. I love the Christmas period because it gives you an excuse to be a catatonic food monster. I feel for the past 10 days I turned into that horrible sea anemone in Blue Planet with eight fronds that is constantly stuffing plankton into its mouth, but instead of plankton it was brunekager (gingerbread biscuits) or kransekager (this marzipan cake thing, you should look it up it's delicious) or crisps. So many crisps. It's funny that we have designated a time for 'indulgence' where you have free rein with your stomach, which is then taken over by the guilty nail-biting and restriction of January.

I'm kind of scared of January. Nothing rears the head of my past eating disorder more than the idea that it's time to 'unveil' the person you could really be if you just managed to restrain yourself. How do you manage January?

Sadhbh x

January 2nd, 2018

Hey Sadhbh!

I agree January is really hard. You're carried through December on the crest of this wave of indulgence and jollity and gingerbread, and then all of a sudden the icing sugar settles and you're left looking straight down the barrel of a bright new year. It's the WORST. There's something I've been trying to train myself to do recently, though, to take the edge off the January blues. I've promised myself that I won't change a thing that I do: same old food, same work, same Search Party marathons, same skincare routine. What I reconfigure is how I think about those same old things. So I try to find something to love in everything from my morning toast to my moisturiser. Someone on Twitter mentioned the beauty of the -pop- of a fresh jar of jam – isn't that amazing?! Or if I wanna carry on going to bed at 9pm and never going out, I will do that: I'll just be mindful of the fucking glory of laying my head on that pillow, rather than chastising myself for it. Sure, sometimes there are legit things we want to change about our lives. But sometimes all it takes is looking at your life from a slightly different angle. It all looks so new. I'm imagining you as that sea anemone checking yourself out in the mirror, proud of your eight hungry fronds.

Ruby x

January 4th, 2018

Dear Ruby,

TBH that is a look I wouldn't stop staring at. All blue and porous and pink-frilled. And anemones don't have to do tax returns which is another huge tick in their column.

We actually had a piece on site today that I loved about making 2018 the year of "nothing": making no changes or goals because the constant redefining of the benchmark of when we'll finally be 'happy' just makes us horribly unhappy and never lets us appreciate or relish what we have or who we are. I cycled to work today for the first time since I went on holiday. It's not significant because I always cycle (environment and money reasons) but, after three weeks of being blissfully horizontal, I was just amazed at my legs for being able to carry me. I made myself hold onto being so impressed with the function of my able body and for a good four hours I didn't think about what I would change about my legs aesthetically once. They were just power blocks that moved my flesh across London.

I think that's what irks me about so many conversations in January: they're all riding this wave of 'self-improvement' that sets a (primarily visual, physical) ideal of how to be 'The Best Human' and (sub)consciously vilifies everyone else that can't achieve it. Fatphobia is particularly rife and feels like an inescapable flood of misinformation and hatred of fatness to justify your desire to "shed the Christmas weight". I hate that we can never see ourselves or our bodies as the final product. I'm forcing myself to think I'm just fine, thanks.

Sadhbh x

January 5th, 2018

Sadhbh,

I love that idea of legs being power blocks! That idea of the efficacy of bodies – loving them for what they can do rather than how they look – is a really alluring one for lots of people. When I was still in recovery from an eating disorder, I found a great amount of comfort in the food I ate being not just some meaningless, burdensome stuff, but something vital that would turn into blood, bones, thoughts and triumphs. It helped me reconfigure my body as something dynamic and exciting and valuable. But I guess it can go two ways: I'd hate to play into the idea of nutrition as a means of maximising 'productivity' – that's super unhelpful. And also there'll be plenty of people for whom that methodology lends itself to a horrible 'good' body narrative, whereby fat people are allowed to be fat only if they are 'good', which is to say healthy, happy and conforming to all kinds of ideas about what our diverse bodies should all be able to do. So it's about finding a mindset that works for you, I suppose. There's never going to be one single lifestyle or ideology that works for all people, and all bodies. Our diets are as diverse as we are. You just gotta – somehow – bring your mind and body in sync.

Ruby x

January 8th, 2018

Hey Ruby,

It's the moralising of food that throws me/you/everyone out of sync, though. It's inescapable. I recently learned that some weight-loss programme uses points to count what you intake and those points are called 'syns'. Syns! It's positively Catholic in its aligning of sinning and guilt and it would be funny, if it wasn't the logical extension of how I saw food for the majority of my life and do, still, from time to time. Eating disorders never really leave you, I think – even if you've managed to break the majority of your patterns, the feeling that you should be 'guilty' for what you eat isn't easy to switch off.

What I've found really hard to unstitch is the moral value we've put on food of "good" versus "bad", and the moral question of how our food has reached our plates. I'm vegan 95% of the time and have been for nearly two years, and I have so much good to say about what eating less meat, and indeed less animal produce in general, can do for the environment. But somehow, maybe as a marketing tactic, that idea [of questioning our food industry and finding alternatives] has instead been bound up in the idea of veganism being infinitely 'healthier' for you. And that has conflated the two – it's sold as a diet not an ethical choice.

I always feel wary about talking about it because I'm scared I'll be shouted down for doing it wrong, but I feel exceptionally uncomfortable about the promotion of any "diet" that doesn't take into account how psychologically damaging restriction can be for so many. I started eating vegan because I want to be good to the environment but also because, perversely, it removed the 'good'/'bad' categories for me: I hadn't eaten doughnuts for three years, but when the doughnut was vegan, it no longer was a 'bad' food. It just was vegan and for me and I ate three in 10 minutes and couldn't move. I also will eat eggs sometimes. I've had a drunken chicken nugget at 11.30pm on a Thursday night.

If I played hard and fast with the rules as I have done before I would not be a recovered anorexic, I would just be anorexic again.

Sadhbh x

January 11th, 2018

Dear Sadhbh,

That really resonates. I was vegan for a year or so, and during that time I was also bulimic, and there was a really strong overlap between "veganism" (and the restrictions that it placed on when/where/how I could eat) and the eating disorder. They played into one another in a really awful way. It's something that makes me so incredibly sad when I see it in other people. I know SO many people who have/had eating disorders who are now vegan, and who say much the same thing as you: "It actually takes away the stress!" That's definitely true for so many people, but it's worth questioning why it's true. The ethics and environmental considerations are really strong and I support them, but if a person's veganism (or ANY diet) is a way to shortcut straight to inner peace around eating, that worries me.

I'm not sure how it's different from saying "I feel so much better about calories now that I'm on a super low calorie diet" or "I cut out all carbohydrates, and I'm not scared of carbohydrates anymore". I know it's a really tricky thing, and I don't wanna disparage individual people for their choices. I'd far rather people were eating something than being too anxious/conflicted to eat at all. I just wish that we hadn't got to a stage where moralistic categorisations of food are SO pervasive that they seep into every single decision we make.

Being at peace with food, as you said, means being able to sometimes have a drunken chicken nugget and just shrug and move on – not have your whole world crumble around you. We gotta be able to stay true to our morals and principles without letting those moral codes sanctify the fears and anxieties that fuel our eating disorders. That's crucial.

Ruby x

January 11th, 2018

Ruby,

Huh. I've been trying to interrogate it more but it's painfully hard to be honest about it. Now, so long after the fact, I think I can admit that I took on veganism, in part, because of the promise of weight loss. Not a primary motivation by any means – I was working in ethical fashion and feeling intensely guilty and worried about the way I, we, consume food and clothes, and it made me feel proactive and excited about the way I ate. It encouraged me to cook which was so soothing. But I think it's irresponsible of me to pretend that wasn't part of the lure. It didn't "work" in any case, and I think I overall cared less about my weight. That might be a lie. I'm not sure. It scares me to admit it – giving into that kind of thinking feels like weakness, especially when I fundamentally am more "woke" (ugh) about food and etc. Sorry for using your inbox as a premature therapy session.

I've been trying to cook more excitingly this January to combat the greyness. I made jam for the first time last week and coated my favourite saucepan in cinnamon-y blackberry goo and it was sharp and sweet and so, so good – but it's hard to be motivated to do anything when the world feels slumped in lethargy.

I think I'm going to have a fried egg tonight because I'm scared of being "bad" for doing so even though I want one. So I'm going to do it. And it's going to be fine. Right? Right.

Sadhbh xx

January 11th, 2018

Dear Sadhbh,

I hope that didn't come across too judgemental! I don't want to harass anyone for being vegan – genuinely I think it's the right thing to do if you can do it. I just worry about the diet-vegan culture in general, you know. I guess it's just up to each of us to be honest with ourselves about which traumas we're healing, and which we're just paving over. Have the fried egg if you want it, don't if you don't want it. Whatever feels right. We have all just got to work towards a life not lived in fear. Running towards the good food and not away from the 'bad', if you get me.

I love the idea of cooking more excitingly to combat the dismal winter. I think it was @smokintofu who came up with the #cookjan hashtag, which seems to have got loads of people cooking. And even if you can't cook for whatever reason, even just taking some comfort in a chocolate bar you don't usually have can be magic. I had a Bounty yesterday and I loved it. It's the small things.

Ruby xx

January 11th, 2018

Hey Ruby,

It didn't! It wasn't. It's why I brought it up I think, cos it's a time when we are especially analytical of what we eat and I can't help but reflect on it.

The hardback of your book just arrived on my desk! I'm so, so excited for it to be out – so many parts of it spoke to me and sparked parts of this conversation tbh. I love this in particular (I memorised the page from the proof copy like a little nerd): "When diet is such an integral part of our identity, it's easy to succumb to the tempting idea that you can reinvent, resurrect and evolve simply by going on a diet. But it just doesn't work that way.... life is confusing and strange and often unhappy, and there's no diet that can gloss over this. No perfectly choreographed parade of little vegetable nibbles or energy balls can cure that feeling inside of you, because you know what? There's nothing to cure."

I want to print it on scrappy bits of A4 and paste it to every lamppost I come across.

Sadhbh xx

January 12th, 2018

Sadhbh!

<3 I'm so pleased you're enjoying it! There's this idea that I've been thinking about loads recently – something mentioned by Susie Orbach – that our bodies are projects in society as it stands right now. "The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself." The idea of our bodies being things to be worked on is so pervasive: apparently, we should always be working on looking better, being fitter, getting healthier, and just perfecting our bodies and minds. But it doesn't have to be this way. Like you said in one of your earlier emails, sometimes it's fine for your legs to just be 'power blocks'. Our bodies are already so unbelievably complex, beyond anything we could possibly imagine. That's an amazing thing! Sometimes it's fine to just be, and do, and feel. It's not a moral failing to be content with yourself, just as you are.

Ruby x

January 17th, 2018

Ruby,

Wow that quote. It's so obvious when you read it but the most obvious things are often the most revelatory.

One thing that blew my mind that is now obvious is that I'd seen my brain and body as distinct parties that were fighting each other – the former would be 'perfect' if only the latter could make it cooperate. That's what clean eating is, it's what 'wellness' is, it's what whatever is coming next is. And at some point, though I can't remember what triggered it, I realised I am one whole mess of a human instead of separate, angry parts. Maybe it's optimistic, but I think the backlash to clean eating and wellness has opened up the door to this kind of thinking. Or do you think it's just going to reform into some new spirulina-coated monster?

Sadhbh x

January 18th, 2018

Hey Sadhbh,

I think it's going to carry on in various guises, but I think the movement will get better and better at co-opting the language of body positivity, wolf-in-sheep's-clothing style. It's very much the rhetoric of 'love yourself! love the skin you're in! spend £50 on a jar of honey! practise self-care!' It's really noxious. With that in mind, I don't think we can just keep battling every new incarnation of wellness, 'cos they come at you so thick and fast. Instead, we need to look at the causes of this culture: the anxiety that underpins our food decisions, our increasing instability in the world, and the movement of asserting power through spending. You gotta find a way to give people a base level self-esteem and sense of stability, hope and health, otherwise of course we'll always carry on getting dragged back to the wellness trend du jour.

Ruby xx

January 23rd, 2018

Hi Ruby,

We have to keep talking about it imo. I often feel ashamed of bringing up food and ED when I'm at the stage I'm at – it feels like it's a really basic thing to say, it's so five years ago. 'Cos for me, at least, I've been parsing it out for that long. But it can have such real impact.

And it sounds trite, but I really really, sincerely think your book will do that too.

Sadhbh xxx

Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want by Ruby Tandoh is out now, published by Serpent's Tail.

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