The first time I discovered comfort food was when I moved into hostel. Until that point I was irresistible in high school. Girls hated me, boys and men couldn’t keep their eyes off me. I had the shortest skirt at school and lean long legs. I had long relaxed hair and fair skin without the blemishes or acne my peers were facing. I had a size 6 waist, B cup breasts and thin firm shoulders. I was the ideal and envied and I knew it. I wore miniskirts without any shame despite the comments and goading from men in the street, I was hot. But I wanted to be beautiful, captivating, wonderful and irresistible all at once.
Beneath all the beauty was a voice trying to come out asking the world to see me and love me for who I am and not what I looked like. I knew that beauty according to the magazines was fatal and short-lived and I wanted to know that when this beauty faded I would still be loved. While everyone was lavishing their attention on my legs and long hair, my inner world was in shambles trying to make sense of the world and the journey of finding my space in the world began.
My discovery of comfort food was in the form of brown bread with strawberry jam and any kind of MSG infused snack especially cheap chips called Shwamas. When I moved into hostel in grade 10 I rediscovered regular meals. At home we had suffered a meltdown and poverty had set in (in Grade 2 we had our first eviction). At some stage we could only afford 1 kg of mealie meal that we knew would last us a week in the form of umphokoqo, so in essence it was easy for me to stay thin, but nobody knew this.
Poverty was unacceptable in my school and my sister and I made sure we weren’t discovered as being one of “those people”. Our school was one of the most expensive government schools in town and people often wondered if it wasn’t a private school. We had managed to stay at the school because once upon a time my parents could afford the luxuary of expensive schools and when they could no longer pay fees we weren’t asked to leave because it was a government school and children could not be expelled because of fees.
We weren’t very successful in our attempts at hiding our poverty because we were the kids who didn’t get new shoes at the beginning of the year, we didn’t go on outdoor education excursions that required too much money, we didn’t have Billabong school bags (we bought our school bags from hawkers in the street and when they tore Mama would sew them. Later she took up to making our school bags herself from material people gave her), we didn’t get new stationary and after a while we stopped taking lunch boxes to school, we stopped taking the bus and walked to school and we couldn’t afford the textbook levy at the beginning of the year.
Our precarious position was finally discovered the day my sister and I came to school after a weekend of hunger, we had eaten nothing since Friday lunch our friends had shared with us. The weekend of hunger was spent in doors, sleeping from fatigue and no energy. My dad had disappeared (which had become commonplace at this stage)l and when he did eventually materialise he disappeared again saying he would make a plan. And he didn’t because I didn’t see him until after the weekend. Walking to school on Monday was the longest morning I’ve ever had. My sister and I walked slowly, taking longer than the 45 minutes it took us getting from Quigney (a suburb near the beach) to Selborne where the school was. We had to walk through the CBD area (though we discovered a short cut through the industrial area in Arcadia so that our friends on the bus wouldn’t see us walking to school), through Southernwood before we could get to school (this was usually a 40 minute drive on the bus). My stomach had stopped grumbling and felt as though it was feeding on itself. The pain of hunger was however exceeded by the pain of the lump that settled in my throat when I realised my world had changed. I knew neglect first hand and I knew the pain of being in need with hope of very little.
I hadn’t noticed that anything had changed in my body until someone at school laughed at me asking if I had been locked in the cupboard while my family ate meals on the weekend. I went to the bathroom mirror only to discover that my eyes had sunken in and I had black rings around my eyes. My skin had lost its colour, I looked ugly. My world was shattered because my father could no longer provide and our secret had been exposed, we were poor.
Obviously the teachers noticed but they never asked my sister and I for any details. When they did, we would answer that everything was fine, we did our homework when we could or we arrived early at school to use a friend’s textbook. The school intervened by giving us textbooks without the levy that everyone else paid, this was after a meeting with the principal who first asked why we didn’t have textbooks, my sister and I both responded with tears because somehow we couldn’t explain that there was no hope of a salary at the end of the month to pay for the textbooks. A staff member was designated to bring us lunch everyday anonymously leaving it in a discreet place only my sister and I knew about. The biggest intervention was when I was awarded a scholarship that would pay 90% of my school fees and full hostel fees for the remainder of high school (sadly my sister didn’t qualify for this as she was almost in matric but her fees were exempted in her final year at school) so this is how I escaped the food insecurity in my family.
Moving into hostel was another mountain because I had to have my own clothes and bedding. My sister and I were sharing blankets and clothes (we didn’t have a bed, we slept on a mattress together) and I couldn’t take everything with me to hostel. Mama informed the scholarship staff about this and they organised everything for me and I moved into hostel a week later than everyone else. For the first time in almost 10 years I had my own bed( in matric I had my own bedroom as this was one of the privileges we had as seniors). I had electricity to do my homework properly (the flat we lived in had no electricity as it was switched off after we had stopped paying rent and finally we were evicted and moved to a place where we didn’t have to pay rent), I had some privacy as I shared a dorm with four other people. I had structure, 3 meals a day with snacks at breaktime But I was plagued by guilt. I had comforts my sister and Mama hadn’t had in years.
Brown bread with strawberry jam was made available during every meal in case someone wasn’t satisfied by the meal provided. I was one of those people that was at the bread table after every meal, but the insatiable hunger I had was not because of the hostel food that everyone complained about. I began to use food for the emptiness and the loss of being away from Mama and my sister for the first time.
Even though I saw my sister at school everyday, hostel was a new world where I discovered that my peers didn’t come from a place of need as I had. There were children who had more than enough of everything school and hostel required-toiletries, tuck food, cd players, cellphones, clothes and any other luxury to make life easier. I stuck out like a sore thumb because all I had were the basic essentials and when my toiletries were finished my friends would buy things for me. What manifested from my changed eating habits was fatness. My clothes stopped fitting me. I was given a new school uniform from lost property at hostel because I couldn’t afford a new one. The only clothes I could wear were tracksuit pants and long skirts and t-shirts that made me look pregnant. I stopped playing sport so I had no exercise.
Friends who knew me in Grade 8 comment on my weight to this day. Things have thankfully changed at home (my sister has a job and I have a scholarship that supports me as well as a salary for being a teaching assistant). I haven’t been able to shake off the results of the comfort eating. Instead I buy clothes that make my size 14/16 body look good. I keep healthy through regular exercise. I’ve never been able to go on a diet. Underlying this process of looking after my body is trying to still my inner world that was disrupted by the instability in my family. I still have bouts where I binge, but somehow it’s easier now because I feel have control over my life.
I don’t know if it’s something I’ll ever break free from.