Food: A Relationship

By Nicole Zelniker

Seven is really too young to really understand germ theory. You will not die if you don’t wash your hands again today. You will be okay if that piece of fruit touches the table before you skewer it on your fork.

But your compulsions aren’t rational, and science takes no part. So you wash your hands until they bleed, cracked and raw and on fire. You stop eating food that touches the table, or that someone else handled first. Soon, you stop eating food altogether.

This is the first time food takes on a life of its own. Food wants to hurt you, to make you sick. Better to avoid it and go about your OCD-riddled life.

Back then, you are also too young to understand the human body, how it needs food to work. You wouldn’t care, even if you did.

Counting calories is all-consuming. Every apple, every peanut has a number attached. At the end of the day, the numbers all come together to form one, gigantic number, one that looms over your head like a thunder cloud. It is one of two numbers that defines how you’re doing, how much control you have over your body. The other, of course, is the one you see on the scale each night, the one that dictates how hard you have to push yourself the next day.

Each number adds weight to your rapidly thinning frame, and you spend your time conceiving of ways to keep them off. Skip a meal here, dodge a lunch there. More than once, you lie to the people you love.

Food becomes a minefield. Too much sugar in this, too much fat in that. This one has less calories, but this one has, you know, vitamins and protein and all that. In the end, you always go with the former.

You start to avoid group gatherings. Birthdays with cake, dinners with friends. When you order pizza, you act like it’s normal to eat half a slice, and hope that if you fake a smile and pretend you haven’t spent all day planning on how to navigate this one moment, everyone else will believe it’s normal, too.

You believe that food is the enemy. And you waste away.

After six years, you start to recover. You find badass, body-positive friends in college. You eat when you’re hungry and sometimes even when you’re not, just because. You reacquaint yourself with food. You aren’t quite friends yet, but you’re not enemies, either. It’s a strange place to be.

Soon, though, you stop eating, for other reasons. Your stomach cramps after breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. You miss a few classes because you just can’t get up in the morning. Come spring, you’re diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and food becomes the enemy again, a temporary truce called off. Food has stabbed you in the back.

You stop eating dairy, and corn, and fruits with skins, and small seeds that get stuck in your intestinal tract. You miss yogurt, so three days after you quit, you eat it for breakfast in the dining hall. It’s a mistake.

The whole disease, quite frankly, is gross.

It’s taken a long time, but your treatments work. All of them, but the most recent one controls the physical pain, lets you go to classes on time. You stop looking to food as an adversary, and start looking at it as a necessity, sometimes even something to enjoy. You’re still working on that last part. Maybe you always will. Maybe that’s okay.

You and food reconcile. Food apologizes to you: it promises to behave the best it can. You apologize to food: you acknowledge that maybe it isn’t as scary as it seems.

After years of violent battles, you’ve learned to manage the war. You sit in the kitchen as an adult, looking down at a plate of pasta or tacos or lo mein. Whatever it is, you take a bite, chew, and swallow. You smile.

This essay was previously published in the literary magazine, Lemon Theory, which has since stopped publishing.

A person with long, dark hair smiles as she looks off to the left. She wears a pink shirt with pink, purple, and blue flowers on it.

Nicole Zelniker (she/they) is the author of several books, including Until We Fall, which was a finalist for the Forward Indie Awards in LGBTQ+ adult fiction. Check out the rest of her work at or keep up with her on Instagram and Twitter at @nicolezelniker.

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