How Living Abroad Taught Me That My Problem Isn't Too Many Calories — It's Our Culture

Our society teaches women that we are all competing in a lifelong science project. When the right formula appears, we should transform into some variation of Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé. Eat more kale, less dairy; compensate for "poor" decisions with a tough Pilates class; always remember that carbohydrates are bad. The social conversation around food has convinced us that trying to control our bodies is normal. It's not our fault that it has — this conversation is one stealthy and conniving beast — but we have the power to stop it.

In my case, I had to go to France to discover what eating really meant, to find my body after losing it to the public forum. France taught me that I could choose what I ate — without anyone asking me to defend it. No one made comments about calories and health benefits. No one discussed my diet in relation to my body. A workout regimen felt useful only because bodies need to move, not because bodies need to look a certain way. Butter and rich french sour cream meant good cooking.

When I returned to America, I went to my doctor, who informed me that I had done well: “You’ve lost twenty pounds in the past year, congratulations.” Congratulations. The word felt startling.

I bought crackling baguettes and fresh, seasonal produce from local farmers at the market on Sundays. My boyfriend’s sister gracefully dropped a piece of flaky French pastry in my hands at teatime. Occasionally, my appetite failed me, and a simple “I’m not hungry” quelled all questioning. Other times, all five courses disappeared from my plate without anyone at the table sending disapproving side-glances. I forgot about food in terms of caloric impact, and thought about it instead in terms of taste and texture.

Dishes draped in crème fraîche were followed by buttery brie de meaux. An articulate, handsome Frenchman wined and dined my winter away through tartiflette, full fat roasted duck, and a hearty cassoulet, before ending on a smoky mousse au chocolat . My boyfriend and I traveled to meet his family in Dordogne and Le Mans, where I watched his grandfather cook French fries in straight-up lard. I ate garden-grown vegetables stuck to bacon fat after we floated through Provence on light rosé, fresh olive oil, and crispy pizza. I was breaking all of the rules in favor of the only French one: enjoy your food.

As I relaxed, self-moderation arrived much more naturally. My snacking disappeared in favor of mealtimes. My body learned how to stop eating when hunger abated. I felt like I had finally returned to the delicious equilibrium I had left as a child. I engaged in the French conversation with food, and my body began to return to me — it felt good to live inside of it again, whole, as though I had reunited with a long lost friend. I began to discover the world in ways that felt clearer and brighter than ever before. Enjoying food felt much more tangible when it didn’t come with a side dish of guilt.

When I returned to America, I went to my doctor, who informed me that I had done well: “You’ve lost twenty pounds in the past year, congratulations.” Congratulations. The word felt startling. Suddenly, the entire conversation on food that had disappeared twelve months before came back. I remembered thigh gaps, obesity, and calorie counts on menus. I remembered that food can symbolize calories lost or gained in a weight-obsessed society. Mealtimes lost their relevance, portion size distorted into much too big or much too small, and moderation evaporated.

Food once again transformed into the forbidden fruit, and my body began to drift away. The more body-conscious I became, the harder it grew to hold onto the Eden that I had somehow managed to rediscover.

I listened to the French when they taught me how to eat. I tried to break the long-hardened mold of associating food with thick thighs or full cheeks. Enjoy your food; notice all of the little hums and rhythms different combinations make in your mouth; delicacy is an art and an elegance; mastering it requires forgetting about calories, gym routines, and diet fads. Be reasonable and listen; moderation is innate. Treat your relationship with food like a profound, subtle, and intensely pleasurable romance. One in which the intricacy of flavors or simple devotions deserve to be soaked in through your pores, in which a platonic relationship is impossible.

I love living in this country, and I adore New York. But every time I leave, I forget about health consciousness and somehow end up healthier. The conversation about weight loss evaporates, and, somehow, I end up thinner. It is as though my body knows what it wants, and it is finally able to listen.

One day, I hope that America can arrive in a place where bodies are not public property; where we do not feel the need to get defensive, because there is nothing to defend ourselves against. Where we live in a place that magically unites health, pleasure, and innocence; one that renews our relationship with food. I hope to find more people leaving the conversation on contours, curves, abs, and bulges — and entering into a conversation with themselves.

Here is my Eden: I walk home from the market on Sunday, stop to buy a fresh baguette and beignet, my arms heavy with earthy, cherry tomatoes, fresh from the farm across the river, and slices of homemade dairy. My phone buzzes and my boyfriend invites me to Sunday lunch with his family. The menu is entrecôte and frites (steak and fries), with an optional glass of red. It sounds delectable. Without a second thought, I agree.

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