This week marked the passing of February 14th or as some people might call it: Valentine’s Day. Despite the fact that I am perpetually single, I did not escape the ordeal unscathed: my OkCupid inbox was flooded with a record number of creepy and misogynistic messages on February 13th, which is probably not a giant coincidence.
Something else happened on Valentine’s day: one of my coworkers went out for lunch at one of the trendy bakeries in town and came back with cookies and croissants and baked goods for everyone on our team. It was a just a “little” treat for Valentine’s day, the term “little” being highly subjective, of course. While these pastries smelled so good that they made my mouth water, I declined to have one. Repeatedly. Then I declined to have half a cookie when it was insistently pressed upon me. I even declined the suggestion to have a quarter of a scone, and then I reconfirmed my final decision three more times throughout the afternoon.
At the time, I didn’t give this whole situation a lot of thought. But apparently it was newsworthy enough for my coworkers to hear through the grapevine that I’d turned down a Valentine’s day treat, with the added commentary that “no one was particularly surprised.”
When the matter came back to me as gossip, I couldn’t help but feel that this whole situation had been blown out of proportion. In truth, I recognize that I’m pretty lucky: I work with a pretty good team of people. And I do sincerely appreciate the gesture of buying your coworkers a treat. So by turning down a raspberry scone, I wasn’t trying to insult someone whom I genuinely like. And I wasn’t trying to be the Debbie Downer of V-Day, either. I just didn’t want to eat a scone.
When I first started trying to lose weight, I made the conscious decision to stop eating when I was sad or stressed or angry or just generally felt powerless. Combining bad food and bad emotions never led anywhere good. Now 18 months later, I’m increasingly becoming aware of the fact that the opposite is arguably a much larger problem: we treat ourselves far too often. Of course, with my generation accumulating record-levels of household debt, we’re probably treating ourselves to more than just food. But let’s focus on food, since it was not a new car that appeared on my doorstep last week.
While I sometimes worry that trying to fix my relationship with food has produced some signs of an eating disorder, I’m starting to realize that some of the things that I do as an individual are pretty insignificant when you consider that as a society, we have a chronic and collective case of emotional eating.
As I mentioned, my little incident happened on Valentine’s Day, when you are supposed to buy your lover flowers and chocolate. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I don’t think chocolates are terribly special. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, no one needs to buy me chocolates. I admit that there are situations where I’ve appreciated receiving a small box of chocolates from an acquaintance, and I’ve even tried to express my own gratitude with this simple act. I probably will again. The gesture itself is not misguided.
Nonetheless, about three years ago I explicitly asked my relatives to stop buying me chocolate as gifts. I don’t need a chocolate orange in my stocking and it wasn’t exactly contributing to my enjoyment of the holiday season. Maybe my perception is skewed because I grew up in a family where obesity was the norm, but we could have candy and chocolate whenever we wanted – and we did! Candy was considered a treat, but we were treating ourselves all the time, until the idea of a treat became meaningless.
Now I’m all grown up and I live in a society where food, and especially foods that should only be enjoyed in moderation, are abundant and available. I could easily choose to treat myself to a doughnut everyday. When I’m standing in line for a coffee in the morning, the immediate appeal of doing so is apparent. But are we really treating ourselves at this point? Or do we simply replace our feelings of enjoyment with complacency? How often can we justify treats before they become the norm?
Which brings me back to the box of pastries that was presented to me so expectantly on Valentine’s day. The fact that this was a Valentine’s day treat was completely arbitrary. I’d already enjoyed a more moderate-sized brownie over the weekend and it came with the added bonus of tea and good company. I could have proceeded with the mentality that I was just treating myself for Valentine’s day all week, but do I really deserve a treat simply by virtue of my relationship-less existence on February 14th? What happens next week? And the week after that? I’m on vacation now so do I deserve to relax and spoil myself?
I could come up with any number of excuses or reasons that I deserve a treat. I could just say I’m awesome and eat a piece of Baklava that would feed all of Athens. I could say, “I ate a salad for lunch. I work hard to eat healthy most of the time, so eating a chocolate croissant today is okay.” I’m sure a treat for any reason would be delicious but despite what others might think, some spinach for lunch does not magically counteract a bag of chips later in the day. More fundamentally, the idea that we somehow deserve to reward ourselves with junk food after a bout of healthy eating is totally counterproductive.
The idea that we somehow have to force ourselves to eat properly and every so often we can eat something enjoyable doesn’t exactly encourage people to play along. And truly healthy eating isn’t just a diet that we should subscribe to at New Year’s or before hitting the beach; it’s something we need to do for the rest of our lives – so we might as well figure out how to make it both sustainable and enjoyable for ourselves. Which is why even on single-player mode, I try to eat a well-rounded diet. It’s not perfect – because occasionally I do indulge – and that’s part of the balance. But on principle, I try to eat appropriate portions and whole foods and it’s entirely possible to do so without feeling deprived.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel obligated to eat a peanut butter cookie on February 14th: because I recognize that treating myself includes treating my body with love and respect, including nourishing food and exercise. The true reward that I deserve for healthy eating is much sweeter than any brownie: it’s my health.