My ex-boyfriend and I should have known that we were mismatched from the beginning based on our eating habits alone: I keep a light version of kosher and he is a pork and shellfish enthusiast; I believe brunch is the most important meal of the day and he actively boycotts it; he can subsist on one bagel until dinner time while my stomach begins eating itself if I don’t snack every few hours; he can prepare an entire meal in the time it takes me to mince a garlic clove. When it came to what we ate, how we ate, and how often we ate, it went beyond being on different pages. We were in different books.
Despite the fact that eating is one of the most basic, regular parts of a person’s day, it had never occurred to me that it might be a source of contention in my relationship. Aside from the pre-requisite love for avocado, I didn’t place very much importance on the dietary preferences of potential suitors. While men had certainly expressed curiosity about my food choices — mostly because I’m not religiously observant in any other sense — more often than not it led to interesting conversation rather than conflict.
On my first date with my now ex-boyfriend, we went to an Italian restaurant. When I explained my restrictions he didn’t flinch; his aunt keeps a kosher home so he was already familiar with the rules. He ordered us an array of vegetarian crostinis and even asked if I minded if he ordered something of the red meat variety. We were so smitten with one another that it was easy to be accommodating in the beginning. We both loved to eat, and long before it divided us it was one of the things that united us. Together we ate Italian food, Mexican food, Japanese food, Indian food: we basically ate all of the food, and I gained all of the pounds.
He never once insinuated that he thought I needed to lose weight – on the contrary, he made me feel beautiful, and it was the surge of confidence that came from his belief in me that made me want to get healthy. I wasn’t what you’d call “thin” to begin with, and the love chub I had accrued since meeting him was not making me feel better about myself. I was visiting my sister-in-law in Baltimore, who had given birth to four children and was tinier than I will ever be in my lifetime, and she told me about her healthy, clean eating lifestyle. I thought it sounded disgusting, but after 72 hours on her diet, my clothes were already fitting better — and more importantly, I felt more energized, satisfied, and alert than ever.
Before coming back to New York, I called my boyfriend to ask him how he would feel if I tried clean eating long term. While secretly I was expecting him to tell me that I didn’t need to go on a diet, I was also relieved by his positive and encouraging response. We started cooking healthy meals together involving baked salmon, quinoa and spaghetti squash, and when I wanted to reach for the ice cream or sleep through my spin class, he saved me from myself. With a lot of hard work and discipline, I eventually lost 20 pounds and three pants sizes.
Even before the weight came off and I loosened the reins on my diet, however, our relationship had begun to go south. We were finding that the accommodations we made for each other early on were becoming harder to make as our true selves were revealed, and food became the easiest way for us to express our disharmony and the most obvious symbol for all of the ways in which we were no longer seeing eye-to-eye. Instead of connecting us it became a vehicle for us to be cruel to each other. He began having more guy nights out at steak houses and barbeque joints, and in turn, I began to while away the weekends at brunch with my girlfriends. He began to make disparaging comments when my sweet tooth got the best of me, and I began binge-eating cookies in revenge.
Days before we broke up, drunkenly enjoying chocolate fondue with my best friend, my ex-boyfriend turned to me and asked whether I realized that I hadn’t stopped eating since the moment I sat down. Once the desire to stab him in the eye with my fondue fork passed, I couldn’t help but wonder why the person who had stood by my side throughout my weight loss was the only one who couldn’t acknowledge my achievement; I was the skinniest I had ever been and I had never felt fatter.
I had always thought that my breakup diet would consist of alcohol and ice cream, and while I did do my fair share of drinking my feelings, I was surprised that the foods I craved most in those first weeks of singledom were things like baked salmon, quinoa, and spaghetti squash. I will always associate these meals with my ex-boyfriend and the cooking dates we used to have, but I also associate them with feeling good about myself, with eating the right foods for the right reasons. Slowly but surely, I began to remember that I didn’t get healthy to look a certain way for him, I did it for myself. I began to gain my self-confidence back while embracing the things about myself I had spent much of my relationship apologizing for, like my sweet tooth and my choice to keep kosher.
I started observing the inter-dietary couples around me: vegetarians, carnivores, lactose and gluten intolerants, all living in peace and harmony and working around their differences. I began to wonder what kind of relationship I would have had if my boyfriend and I had spent less time trying to disprove each other and more time trying to understand each other, and while I know that it was never his intention to shame me through food, I began to see the ways in which he subconsciously did. Had we been a stronger couple, perhaps we could have turned our food issues into a bridge instead of a weapon, but we weren’t.
We were supposed to go to Portugal together and after the breakup I decided to go by myself. On my first night, I went to a restaurant alone and the waiter looked embarrassed on my behalf. I sat outside, ordered a glass of wine and bacalhao, and overlooked the Duomo river. I wondered how I would be feeling if my ex-boyfriend had been with me. What would we be talking about? Would we want to do the same things? Would he make me feel ashamed for not eating the meat dishes this region is famous for? Would he buy a pastry and only offer me one bite? Would he roll his eyes if I was hungry when he wasn’t? And suddenly I was so happy to be alone, to be able to eat my meal without feeling like a limitation or an inconvenience, to be myself without the weight of judgment. The night was young and I was still hungry so I ordered a cheese plate, and I didn’t have to rationalize my appetite or apologize for it. I ate a plate of cheese by myself in Portugal. And I was happy.