Picky Eater Disorder

Here’s a fun fact: I have an eating disorder.

I feel co-optive whenever I use that term—several of my friends live with ED’s and are the bravest souls I know, and my comparing my bullshit eating habits to theirs has always felt disrespectful. My eating disorder has nothing to do with body image, or with control, or with trauma. All my life I have been labeled by others as—and have understood myself to be—a picky eater. Because I do not eat fruits and vegetables.

This is me with pasta.
This is me with pasta.

Yeah, seriously. I don’t. For as long as I can remember I have survived on the other food groups: meat, dairy, grains, and sugar. Eggo Waffles are my shit, as are hamburgers, sandwiches (with no lettuce, tomato, or mayo), and pasta. I am a mac and cheese expert. I’m learning to love seafood, cautiously trying mussels and oysters despite their bizarre texture. And as long as I can remember, people have been telling me I will grow out of my food aversions. First my parents had a theory that once I left for college I would expand my horizons—a mixture of dining hall peer pressure and new maturity. Then it was once I moved out I would experiment with cooking out of necessity—yeah, that didn’t happen either. The theory was revised a third time to be once I found a great boyfriend I would broaden my horizons (not sure what the logic was there, but more on that later). About certain things, such as the afformentioned seafood, I can try new things. But fruits and vegetables? Absolutely not.

It’s hard to explain exactly why I cannot eat them, other than to say they’re disgusting to me to the point of terror. I used to call it a food phobia, but that’s not really it either. It’s a combination of the texture, smell, and the fact that they can sneak into everything. At eight I had a meltdown when a chef stuffed gigantic onion slices into my innocent-seeming hamburger. The only occasion I’ve been truly daring and tried something new was when I got drunk my junior year of college and let a friend feed me baby carrots. I was just too drunk to feel the usual feelings of revulsion.

But what I have come to realize is that this isn’t something I choose. It’s not like I enjoy being a difficult eater. My food issues have been a source of stress for my entire life, increasingly so as I have begun entering real relationships and the work force. In the past few months I had to:

  • Explain to my old boss that I didn’t want anyone to bring in snacks to celebrate my last day, afraid they would present me with an apple tart that I wouldn’t be able to touch.
  • Explain to my new boss that I would rather not try the house speciality platter of locally grown vegetables, and that mac and cheese was just fine.
  • Politely refuse the expensive salad my ex-boyfriend’s parents had gotten for us all to share before our main course at the Hollywood Bowl without sounding ungrateful or rude (because I was so, so grateful, seriously, his family is the nicest).
  • Plan half a dozen dinners in advance with new Berkeley friends at restaurants that would have options for me and where I wouldn’t embarrass myself struggling with the menu.
  • Hunt down an acceptable sandwich at Pret a Manger, which must have discontinued their ham and cheese melt, while a new co-worker waited for me to check out, because I couldn’t leave empty handed. I went on to eat my sandwich on the roof alone where I could pick out the bits I didn’t want and not feel judged.
  • Turn down a kind offer to stay for dinner with a friend’s family because the main course was some sort of corn soup disaster meal.

Some of my worst relationship memories have been the moments I had to explain my food issues to new partners, and the struggles we occasionally had going forward. Men usually find it cute at first, a strange novelty. Fantastic, a woman who prefers a burger to salad! Viva la sexism! But when going to fancy restaurants causes me incredible anxiety and they realize Thai food, Chinese food, sushi, Moroccan, etc. are all off the table, the new relationship glow wears off fast. “We can’t go anywhere,” an otherwise respectful partner said in a moment of frustration. Another partner with an abusive pattern of behavior bullied me into trying his mother’s vegetable smoothie in front of his entire family. After taking a tentative sip and playacting my positive reaction, I retreated to his bathroom and cried while dry heaving over the toilet.

The fact is I’m not a “picky eater.” That implies that I have some power over it. It also makes it cute, palatable, and normal-seeming. The truth is food stresses me out. I live in fear of business lunches. The smell of melons, of apples, and especially of bananas make me feel physically ill, and I used to ask my incredibly patient ex-boyfriend to brush his teeth after eating an apple before kissing me. I need to stop feeling like a brat, hating myself, and putting myself down when I explain my dietary restrictions to new people. I need to call it like it is—I have a selective eating disorder. And I’m not the only one.

I realize this has been a, well, a deviation from my blog’s usual subject matter. But this blog is as much about me crashing into adulthood as it is about sexuality and erotica, and entering a new workplace always brings up my food issues fresh and strong. Everyone who knows me well knows I’m weird about food but it’s not something I broadcast if I can avoid it—like other eating disorders, my selective eating disorder occupies a place of deep shame in my life. I’ve never been one to let shame control me, and if there’s something upsetting me that usually means I need to write about it. I’m more afraid of posting this than I am a piece about STI stigma. And that, as my mother recently put it, is “pretty fucked up.”

I now return to reading Alison Tyler’s new novel out in the sunshine. Happy long weekend, everyone!

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

3 thoughts on “Picky Eater Disorder

  1. I feel what you’re saying and totally sympathize that your food tastes are a source if anxiety for you, but there’s a difference between psychological eating disorders and an inconvenient aversion for certain foods. As someone who’s suffered from a more “typical” ED, I actually see a lot of my own experience in the stress you feel over finding restaurants/choices ahead of time that will be safe for you – food shouldn’t be a source of anxiety, and it sucks when it becomes so. However, I do feel your use of the term “eating disorder” is a bit co-optive – mental obsessiveness, low self esteem, image desire for control, and (often) physical abuse of one’s body are pretty central to having an ED, and frankly, it doesn’t seem like your aversion to fruits and veggies has much in common with the disease suffered by someone who restricts or has an otherwise unhealthy relationship to food, eating, their body, etc..

    This certainly isn’t to invalidate your experience – this was extremely brave to post, and I certainly don’t want to silence you about your struggles. (And you have no more reason to be ashamed than anyone else who struggles with food or eating!) As someone who struggles with a number of mental illnesses, it just makes me feel a bit uncomfortable to see you placing your dietary habits in the category of “eating disorder” based on the external effects of your hang-up, rather than the internal causes.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and no offense on my end was intended in claiming such a fraught label. I know that whatever I have isn’t a typical eating disorder, and most of my roommates from college live with eating disorders themselves. Anorexia and bulimia run in my family, and for so much of my life I was blamed for my food issues because they didn’t seem as legitimate in comparison—as a result I never received treatment for them. The politics of diagnoses and treatment of eating disorders aren’t something I know much about, and whatever I know about selective eating disorders comes from google searches. I’m literally starting from square one.

      That unease on my part in terms of what to even call what I have is why I started this post by acknowledging that I do feel co-optive. Maybe I am being co-optive, I don’t know. I’m sorry if I am. All I know is that when I google “selective eating disorder,” the results perfectly describe what I am. SED’s were recently renamed Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, so I’ll be sure to use that in the future.

      1. No apologies needed, your post and reply are both very thoughtful and considerate of others’ experiences – I was just offering my two cents and parsing through some of my thoughts on the matter. (I find the politics of ED diagnosis incredibly messy and complicated, but I ^^do^^ believe in the importance and validity of self-diagnosis, even if my previous comment didn’t seem like it.) I don’t know much about SED, and it’s interesting how it does and doesn’t fit my own preconceptions about disordered eating. As I said, I see a lot of parallels between your relationship to food and my own, even if the sources of our anxiety are quite different. The way I see it, having an eating disorder makes the whole process of finding/choosing/eating food an incredibly stressful and exhausting experience – and that seems to be something you’re struggling with.

        I certainly don’t think it’s my place to dictate who is and isn’t allowed to lay claim to having an eating disorder, and I’m sorry if my post came off as suggesting otherwise (and I feel like it sort of did). I was working through my initial reaction to a condition I’ve never really given much consideration too, and I think I’m just wary of extending “eating disorder” to anyone with unusual neuroses about food and thus erasing the experience of those who truly suffer from disordered eating. ^^However^^ you’ve clearly put a lot of thought into your personal experience, as well as your use of the term to describe it.

        At the end of the day, if you understanding what you have as an eating disorder helps you to make sense of it, find support, or whatever else you need to try to live with it, I’m all for it. Thanks for your bravery on the subject, and best of luck with moving forward!

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