Review: Eating With My Mouth Open by Sam van Zweden

Eating With My Mouth Open begins with a lovely vignette – three-year-old Sam Van Zweden looking in the mirror at her dance class and admiring her “precious peach bottom”. But that delight in her body was not to last, “its tender edges pressed against the world and hurt.” “Where does that self go?” she wonders, “Who is unafraid of her own body, and who believes she is beautiful.” Over the course of this book – which slips into a number of genres without quite belonging in any of them – she examines her relationship to her body, food and memory, “unpacking shame and fear” in search of a better one.

Her story begins with family. “My father was a chef for twenty-five years. My mother is morbidly obese,” she writes. These two figures come to frame Van Zweden’s relationship to food, seeming polarities, but as her investigation progresses it becomes apparent that they are closer than they first appear. She does not have an easy childhood. She grew up on Phillip Island, her parents separated. Her mother has schizoaffective disorder, her father is depressed. She self-harmed in her teens. There are inherited and experienced traumas.

Yet food comforts, reassures, binds. Through food Van Zweden connects to her Dutch heritage, which gives her the concept of gezellig, “between cosy and comfortable”. Raspberries from her Dutch grandparents’ garden: “an enduring kindness and source of plenty”. Her dad whips up masterful dishes in the kitchen, and she watches her brother, who also becomes a chef, at work. These are some of the book’s loveliest passages, such as when she and her dad magic up some marshmallows:

‘Marshmallows’ – I half-whispered this, not truly believing that we might be able to create our own saccharine slabs of pillowy fluff.

While her mother and her spend their time “talking together about what we’re not eating”, her mother is also the main cook in the home:

so her food tastes like home. Nothing special, just home. Just home – just everything.

These food memories may be gezellig, but food’s meanings are much more complicated. Food is sustenance, art, burden and performance. Van Zweden investigates these many meanings of food, from Instagram snaps of brunch, to eating meat and offal, and shows how “good” and “bad” food is never as simple as the food pyramid would have us believe. These are loaded terms, and the moral lines we draw around food are intimately entangled with the politics of gender and body size:

You are what you eat. If food falls into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, then you are good or bad for consuming them. You are to be watched and considered and spoken about. You are what you are seen to be eating. It’s not just the chaos of post-binge trash and guilt that piles up against you, but the smaller decisions in your life that make this judgement apparent.

Van Zweden’s “war” with her body begins when her GP (kindly) tells her to “try” and lose weight. She runs, eats salads, loses weight: “I am smaller, I am weaker, I am lighter, I am more timid”. For me, the book’s most incisive parts are around the politics of size and dieting. I learned of the Health at Every Size concept, and that a minuscule 5% of diets work. Most diets are simply “creating intricate mandalas of punishment and shame”, to the point where it could be said that diets are designed not to work, which would seem conspiracy thinking if it weren’t how so much of capitalism works. It is infuriating, painful reading and it helped me see my own complicity in a system that makes people “want so badly to crawl out of my body”. It is desperately cruel that a whole group of people are made to feel so alienated from two things we simply cannot live without, food and our bodies.

If this weren’t enough, having a large female body, or a female body at all, Van Zweden writes, is to be subject to endless scrutiny:

Eat fruits, eat vegetables, eat conveniently; cook, but don’t cook too much. Be all; be nothing. Be slender, be gourmet.

If you’re a woman, be delicate in every aspect of your life. Have an appetite, but it mustn’t be too large. Take up space, but only a little. Have a sense of humour, but don’t be funnier than the men. Smart, but not smarter than the men. Be baffling in your ability to be both. Be balance. Be sorry.

In this all-guns-blazing chapter Van Zweden ridicules the notion of a “ladies’ serve” and the ways food advertising is gendered (on hyper-masculine stacks of burgers: “if anyone needs to boost their iron intake, wouldn’t it be the people who menstruate?”). Women and their appetites are told to take up less space, while men’s appetites, strength and size are celebrated.

So what’s the way out of this mess? This book, Van Zweden writes, is itself a way of taking up space. In writing she is feeling her way to a better relationship to food and her body. “I want to be fully, finally, embodied,” she says, and later, “I want to balance on my feet, rather than on scales.” She finds new comforts, new rituals and routines, but this is not a self-help book. It is a call for “softness”, for soft, comforting foods, soft bodies, and treating each other softly. The writing is fragmentary, circulating. It gets its power from laying out its thinking, and letting ideas sit alongside each other for us to draw our own conclusions. The best thing a book can do is to make you think – and this book made me think of my own complicated relationship to food and body.

Gay rating: 2/5 – for one of the great parental responses to a coming out.

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