I remember the cookies at the church coffee hour in the kind of detail you notice only when your chin is just above table-height. I can see platters of shortbread square-ovals half-dipped in waxy chocolate and speckled with nuts—those perfect little pebbles of diced peanuts and pecans that only show up on bakery cookies and fast-food hot fudge sundaes. There were doily-shaped cut-out cookies with bright rainbow nonpareils embedded in them. But the cookies that always caught my eye first and made my heart race were the ones with half a maraschino cherry in their centers. They were bakery shortbread (most of the cookie spread was) and they looked as though they’d been piped from a huge, flower-tipped piping bag: roundish but with enticing little ridges. And that neon-red cherry center! Those cookies were a child’s flower drawing come to life, and I wanted to eat every single one.
I was tall and capable enough to help myself, but small enough that the world under the long plastic folding tables was as real as the world above it. I still had to tilt my head way back to see adult faces. I was big enough to ladle my own “fruit” punch from the enormous plastic punch bowl, but small enough to feel semi-invisible among adult bodies. I don’t remember where my mother was during these social hours, or what any of the adults were talking about. There were children around, of course, but I didn’t interact with any of them. I was driven to consume as many of those cookies as I possibly could.
I’d keep my eyes lowered as I sneaked a cookie off its tray. (There was no need to sneak. They were out in the open, meant to be eaten—”Help yourself to refreshments after the service!”—but I still palmed each one like a thief.) I’d cram it in my mouth whole, trying to chew, but mostly letting the sugar-flour dissolve in a sea of saliva before sucking the cookie-paste down in a heavy swallow or two. I barely tasted anything. The sensation was mostly a mouthful of dry sweetness. When my saliva ran low—which I often discovered was happening only after
I’d poked the fourth or fifth cherry-flower into my mouth—I’d lift my fragile plastic cup, form the tiniest “O” with my lips and sip, flooding the dry shortbread in my mouth with syrupy punch.
Those church coffee hour cookies were everything. Thinking back on them with my adult taste buds, they were kind of terrible. A decent match to overly bitter coffee perhaps, but not high-quality baked goods by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, once a week, for an hour or so, those cookies were my entire world—especially those food-dye-red half-cherries, gleaming in the late-morning sun. They occupied the space in my mind that “sexy” would later inhabit.
We didn’t have cookies at home. During Christmastime maybe, but not certainly not on the regular.
To my knowledge, I was not on a diet as a table-height child. I don’t think I felt hungry during those earliest binges (again, thinking back with my adult understanding of what “body hunger” feels like), but I remember a kind of emptiness in my middle. It was partly fear, and a sense of shame. Despite being outdoors, surrounded by people, I was trying to hide. I was trying to eat as many cookies as fast as possible, before anyone noticed. I had the strong sense that if I were “found out” I would be cut off. Separated from the precious object(s) of my desire.
Pop psychology and many trained psychologists will tell us that eating disorders are “about” something. Often it’s “control,” or, if we’re binge-eaters, we’re told that we use food to “stuff down feelings.” Whatever our actions are “about” though, it isn’t the food.
This analysis has never sat well with me, especially when I think back to my first, feral-animal eating experiences. It was about those beautiful bakery cookies, and wanting them. If I was trying to “stuff down” a feeling by stuffing myself with shortbread, it was the feeling of aching to eat the shortbread. I binged because I had the desire to binge. And, perhaps, because the shame of actually binge-eating was preferable to the shame of experiencing desire.
Where did this come from, I wonder. Why, as a tiny child, did I feel so much shame for simply wanting?