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Why I Struggle on Mardi Gras as a Catholic With an Eating Disorder

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

Today is Mardi Gras — a day when (among other things) some Catholics take every opportunity possible to eat delicious food before observing Ash Wednesday the following day. This seems pretty innocuous and a lot of fun, too — who wouldn’t want to enjoy all of their favorite foods before a far-less-tasty day of religious observance? But as a Catholic woman with an eating disorder, I personally find the “food narrative” I grew up with on Mardi Gras problematic — and I may not be alone.

Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. The Lenten season stretches for six long weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it’s a time of sacrifice and religious reflection. Barring any type of chronic illness or medical condition, Catholics adults are expected to fast on Ash Wednesday, and many Catholics — both adults and children — “give up” their favorite things for the entirety of Lent, which all too often involves choosing to “abstain” from certain foods or drinks.

Since being diagnosed with an eating disorder at 23, Ash Wednesday has been a struggle for me, but the narrative many Catholics push on Mardi Gras affects me just as much. I grew up understanding — rightly or wrongly — that Mardi Gras is a day to “indulge” in all kinds of food, including the types of food society deems “unhealthy.” If Ash Wednesday is about “restraint” in the name of religion, then Mardi Gras seems to be about ingesting as much tantalizing food as possible — regardless of food group — to prepare for that collective Catholic exercise of “restraint.”

Eating whatever you want, whenever you want on Mardi Gras sounds like a body-positive, recovery-oriented ideal, but the way some Catholics frame their eating habits on Mardi Gras feels like anything but intuitive eating to me as I progress in my own eating disorder recovery. In the years prior to my anorexia diagnosis, I felt like eating food society deems as “unhealthy” was more “acceptable” on Mardi Gras because I’d be observing Ash Wednesday the next day. And I wasn’t alone — from the time I was a child, I heard a narrative of “indulgence” on Mardi Gras because the Catholic adults in my life knew they wouldn’t necessarily be eating as much on Ash Wednesday as they would on a typical day.

But food isn’t an “indulgence” — and to treat certain types of food like they are completely “unhealthy” or a “cheat day” food or a meal to only truly enjoy the day before 24 hours of religious fasting completely negates all of the types of nutrients our bodies need. No matter which religions — or lack thereof — we practice, our bodies do not exist to take in certain types of foods sparingly because we might “work them off” or have a “lighter food day” in the future. The truth is that all types of food are “OK” to eat — regardless of whether or not their consumption is followed by a day of religious fasting.

Changing this mindset around food and religious observance, though, takes time — which is why Mardi Gras is still extremely challenging for me. In the past three years since my eating disorder diagnosis, I have no longer been able to observe Ash Wednesday the same way as many others — but that doesn’t stop me from latching onto their thoughts about food. Whenever someone expresses that they’re going to “treat themselves” because it’s Mardi Gras or justifies their Mardi Gras food consumption using their subsequent observation of Ash Wednesday, I feel tempted to fall into my eating disorder. I know I’m not supposed to observe Ash Wednesday as fully as other Catholic adults, so every Mardi Gras, I feel a powerful desire to not eat in a way that supports my recovery. And as Mardi Gras fades into Ash Wednesday, I have to fight myself to choose balanced, nutritious meals when I know my other Catholic family members have taken a different path in observing the beginning of Lent.

I don’t know if I will ever feel comfortable with food on Mardi Gras and not chastise myself for my Mardi Gras food choices every Ash Wednesday, but I do know the basis for my food beliefs in this important season in the Catholic faith is neither healthy nor productive for my recovery (and does not bring me any closer to God). Today — as much as I dislike the messages about food I receive from some other Catholics on Mardi Gras — I’m going to try to challenge myself to eat in a way that resonates with me. I’m going to choose foods I enjoy and eat them as guiltlessly as possible — not because I’m “indulging” but instead because what I’ll eat tomorrow shouldn’t dictate how I eat today.

Getty image by Westend61.

Originally published: March 1, 2022
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