[This post deals with disordered eating and isn’t recommended reading for people who are easily triggered.]
It’s Sunday morning, and we are on a mission.
After an unforgettable night in a field in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, where we reenacted the paper lantern scene in Tangled with approximately 11,000 other people, the four of us—college friends scattered post-graduation to our various corners of the country, but reunited for a sweltering weekend in Philadelphia—have decided that the only suitable way to solidify the memory of our surreal experience is by eating doughnuts for breakfast.
Federal Donuts is our destination, and we had to push aside our pre-coffee lethargy in order to catch our bus, but now we’re sauntering leisurely toward the distinctive red-, white-, and blue-striped awning. Elaine’s husband Zach and my college best friend Mike are tormenting Elaine by recounting the epicness of a previous nighttime adventure—namely, a trip we took to an all-night diner in New Hampshire while Elaine was away at a wedding. [There were no doughnuts involved in said adventure, but it was a good time nonetheless.]
It’s a nondescript storefront, but the unmistakable aroma of freshly fried doughnuts greets us as soon as we open the door. There’s something else too, the kind of subtle smell that has a certain weight to it, because it belongs to a place. It’s spicy Korean fried chicken, which I know because Mike has done his research. Until this moment I wouldn’t have thought any scent could complement doughnuts the way coffee can, but now I’m forced to reconsider. The sharpness of the spice plays so nicely with the richness of the fried dough and the sweetness of the yeast that I’m also reconsidering my previous assertion that I would not, under any circumstances, eat a doughnut-chicken sandwich for breakfast.
We choose five doughnuts—one of each of the four sugar-rolled flavors, and one specialty glazed: blueberry, Elaine’s favorite. The only open seats are two chairs with tiny tables attached to the arms, not unlike school desks. Mike and Zach sit; Elaine and I stand. Zach finds a knife and carefully divides each doughnut into precise fourths, so that no one’s experience is any less complete.
Each of the quarters is more delicious than the one before it—vanilla spice, cookies and cream, strawberry lavender, cinnamon sugar, blueberry. The sugar doughnuts have that melt-in-your-mouth quality unique to the freshest of baked goods, and the flavor seeps into the perfectly-doughy center as the sugar dissolves on our tongues. It’s the sort of moment that demands appreciation beyond the mere consumption of doughnuts, and I can feel the warmth of gratitude blossoming in my veins, radiating through my skin. This moment, these people, this place.
Doughnuts used to scare me. As a person who struggled with disordered eating, I had a long list of “fear foods,” including but by no means limited to mayonnaise (still won’t eat it), peanut butter (definitely got over that one), bacon (still like the smell more than the taste), and any ice cream that wasn’t “light.” I prioritized “health” over relationships throughout high school and for most of college, choosing gym time over going out to dinner with my friends on Friday nights, obsessively tracking my food intake, and taking personal offense every time my routine was disrupted. After a while my friends stopped inviting me out on weekends and I found myself alone with my chicken and spinach salads and my increasingly lengthy gym sessions and, underneath all my compulsive behaviors, a deep and persistent self-hatred. At a young age I had decided that my body had to look a certain way in order to feel like my existence was justified, but all my efforts failed to produce the desired result. The goal changed over time, but I never moved any closer to achieving it—I was never skinny enough, my weight was never low enough, I never got lean enough or toned enough.
And then something shifted. [This is not a #crossfitkoolaid post, so I won’t bore you with the gory details of my conversion. Suffice it to say that my focus changed and I realized that what I delusionally thought were healthy habits were in fact detrimental to my health.] My workouts got shorter, but I got stronger, and fitter, and less obsessive over what I ate. And I stopped being afraid to take up space. I stopped being terrified to eat more calories than I burned in a day. I stopped feeling worthless if I skipped a workout. I stopped constantly calculating whether I’d “earned” a serving of fat-free frozen yogurt by eating completely clean for enough consecutive days.
It was like waking up, for maybe the first time since childhood. I was alive and I had a body capable of awesome things, and there was a great big world outside that I’d had no energy to explore while I was trapped inside the loop of disordered thinking. And in that world were people with stories I wanted to know, lives I wanted to participate in, experiences I wanted to share.
Change takes time, and it wasn’t some kind of radical overnight transformation. It’s taken years to uncover and repair the damage, and I still catch myself slipping into old thought patterns sometimes. But I stood in that sunlit doughnut shop on Sunday morning in Philadelphia, savoring my last bite and soaking in the company of three people I love so much, and I didn’t think about calories, or exercise, or whether my arteries were clogging. And that freedom, to be present with my friends and to fully enjoy an experience without worrying unnecessarily about its consequences, is worth more than a doughnut made of gold.