Yes please, I said as the plate of chocolate cake, covered in shiny frosting and encrusted with toasted pecans and almond chips, was passed by a man in a butcher’s apron. blue and white.
The slices were thin but tall, the layers separated by an oozing cream filling loaded with chunks of orange zest.
Citrus scents wafted through the room.
The man in the butcher’s stripes piled the larger piece on a fine china plate, its translucent pale pink surface stamped around the edges with gold filigree. The perfect plate for the perfect room.
His sweet offering had been refused so many times as he made his way through the crowded room that the baker looked relieved to have a taker. That was why, I supposed, he chose the larger triangle to place on my taut plate.
The luscious dark brown cake lay happily on the pale pink china, waiting to be eaten. I took a bite. The bitter aftertaste of orange zest hidden in the sullen semi-sweet dark chocolate; the lightness of the damp pillow; the ganache reflected so much that it reflected the light; hazelnuts of salted butter caramel, the crunch of roasted walnuts… a culinary seduction.
My sigh was of such pure pleasure, such contentment that it attracted unwarranted attention. I wanted this exceptional experience to be private, a moment of oral sensuality, of happiness. I shouldn’t have sighed.
Three size zero women standing next to me turned to each other and gasped.
Crabs. And the sugar. It was like feasting on the flesh of my firstborn (well, their firstborn, since I have no children.)
Eyes narrowed into slits. Their judgment has slipped on my skin; their disgust and revulsion came to me in waves as layered as their swept-back hair; as layered as the matte base concealer that settled into the fine cracks under the eyes that had escaped the “refreshing” surgery.
Suddenly, my smudged eyeliner and Sephora lipstick bleeding into my own lips seemed hopelessly inadequate. So did my curly mop that thinned carelessly, piled haphazardly on top of my head.
As I was about to retreat to a dark place to lick my wounds and fingers, I noticed something else in those glowing eyes – envy. Wet lips, open mouths; a sign of nostalgia. The laser gaze pierces the delicious muddy layers of my plate.
And then the blinking accusing eyes. How could I break the unspoken no carb rule in public? How could I give in to temptation? Nothing cruel was said, but I’m good at picking up nonverbal cues.
A woman my age confessed that she hadn’t eaten chocolate since she was 18. She’s 63, thin as a pin and looks 40 vs 63.
Another woman, even older, said she gave up bread and sweets when she married her first husband. She’s on husband three and they just celebrated their 30th birthday, so we’re talking over half a century of sobriety. It too is beautiful and deliciously preserved.
She wears her hair long and lets it wave down her back, defying my mother’s instructions to the younger me: hair up or short after 40. Long hair, worn loose, is not suitable for older women.
It worked for these women – neat, radiant and slim.
It was my turn to be envious – and not a little ashamed. Suddenly the cake on my plate looked like a pile of mud; peat found in a bog; volcanic lava. I could feel it settle on my thighs.
I’ve always known this, but then thought crystallized into understanding — there’s no middle ground, no compromise. Be, like these women, disciplined and (like Margaret Thatcher) always a bit hungry but beautiful, healthy, working out and defying age.
Or sated and smugly satisfied but too embarrassed to look in the mirror. What I see there are my padded hips and thighs so thick I have knock-knees. I also get out of breath when I walk up stairs carrying all that cake with me. My inflamed knuckles mean excess sugar; my distended liver is hard to the touch.
This is the language of diabetes, a disease that feeds on sugar and gluttony. Fact: obesity is responsible for 80 to 85% of the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
I complained about women to a friend after the cake incident. Most of all, I’m jealous that they’re thin; that they probably got out of bed the morning after the party, no hangovers, ready for some punishing gym sessions, satisfied knowing they had faced it, and watched the evils of carbs and sugar… If “get behind me, Satan” is their motto, they were way ahead of the devil.
I slept poorly and woke up with a familiar headache and aching joints.
It’s a line in the sand; us and them, my chubby pal shrugged.
We had just ordered breakfast: a croissant with Boerenkaas cheese and homemade raspberry jam for him, toasted brioche with bacon and fynbos honey for me. We finished with a shared coffee cake.
But I want to be like them. They are healthier, they will live longer, they eat well, they exercise their bodies, they show restraint. They are, well, moderate.
When, 15 years ago, I realized I had trouble with drinking and went to rehab to get sober, it was a choice I made to change my life.
These skinny women had years of saying no to things that hurt their bodies. The terms abstinence and “self-care” come to mind.
As a result, they are comfortable in their small bodies and small clothes. They can go to a store and take their size off the rack and know it will fit. I hesitate between the large, the XL and the 2XL. I rarely choose holidays by the sea because I don’t like the sun, yes, but also because I can’t bear to be seen in anything other than a caftan on the beach.
Name a diet and I’ve tried it – Atkins, South Beach, Ketogenic, Paleo, The Zone, Dukan.
A friend who lost enough weight to make a noticeable difference told me she was tired of being fat. “I made a decision,” she said.
I made a decision too. I’m tired of feeling tired and airless and out of control and lethargic and bloated with sore feet and a distended liver.
And so I moved to a place of remarkable healing and am spending a month at the Body Alchemy Centre, a winter Karoo wellness retreat in the ostrich town of Oudtshoorn.
In the morning, I can see my breath as I walk—my beanie pulled over my ears, my New York winter gloves protecting my fingers from frostbite.
Petra, the goddess of health retreat, skillfully kicks bodies, sticks needles in your ears for ear acupuncture, kneads feet in reflexology, unblocks clogged lymph nodes with her bare hands, and heals broken spirits as she cooks nutritious food made with love and kicks you out of bed for long morning walks.
I am taken in by this healer who is committed to service, whose gifts are given without self-glorification or trying to cover herself with glory.
There is nothing luxurious or glamorous where I am, but there are crackling fires that last all day and in front of them deep recliners to snuggle up in.
I walk and fast and meditate and read books in front of a crackling fire or in pockets of sun on the lawn in the middle of the day. I think, I write, I sleep and I dream.
My spirit is lifted and my heart feels a little less charged.
Did I say I lost 6 kg with a lot to do? It’s a beginning.
So, in the future, am I going to say no to every slice of chocolate cake I’m offered? Unlikely. Yet I live in hope of making the right choice.
But for now, it’s about making a choice to start finding a new way of looking at things.
It’s time to explore the freedom that comes from not making diets something you follow. It kind of involves a time limit – I’m going to diet until… And then what? Enjoy again? To the cake?
Will I ever find the mind-body connection I’ve been looking for all my life? I do not know. But I’ll let you know how I get on.