How I Gave Myself Permission To Be Gluten-Free
I was more concerned about how my celiac diagnosis looked to other people than I was about what it meant for me.
When I opened the email from my doctor, I expected it to tell me that the reason I had been exhausted for weeks was some combination of the anxiety of starting a new job, the anemia that runs in my family, and way too much Walking Dead before bed. I was hoping that I could buy some vitamins, eat a steak every month, and suddenly feel amazing. Instead, almost hidden among pleasantries and the contact information for a gastroenterologist, was the cold, hard truth: My screening for celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder caused by a reaction to gluten — had come back positive.
Even if the word "celiac" doesn't ring a bell for you, you've definitely heard about people who don't eat gluten. I'm pretty sure gluten-free has replaced veganism as America's No. 1 dietary punch line, lampooned by everyone from The Onion to The Colbert Report to South Park. And as I read and reread my diagnosis, fear overtook my body. My legs were shaking, my hands were sweating, and I was breathing as if I had just returned from a special trip to Red Lobster on my visiting parents' tab, complete with two doggie bags of now-forbidden Cheddar Bay biscuits. But as the vise of anxiety closed in on my chest, I wasn't thinking about the higher incidences of cancer associated with celiac disease, or the likely bouts of infertility or osteoporosis — I was freaking about about being perceived as That Girl.
Who is That Girl? At least the way she exists in my mind, she's white and privileged. She's wearing Uggs and Lululemon and has an Instagram-ready manicure. She considers Sex and the City an instructional manual for life and takes medical advice from reality stars. And she cycles through trendy diets faster than her RPM at SoulCycle, from Skinny Bitch to Jennifer Hudson-era Weight Watchers to the current craze: Wheat Belly. And so, of course, she dropped gluten from her fair-trade, BPA-free diet after the first mention of its evils in a Goop newsletter.
I think That Girl makes me uncomfortable because she is so fully invested in — obsessed with, maybe — how she appears to others. Everything must be on point and on fleek. That Girl changes her diet whenever there's a new Dr. Oz episode about it, less because she cares about her health than because she wants to be on trend — and thin. She wears Lululemon for the logo, not for the quality. She drinks Pumpkin Spice Lattes for the hashtag, not the flavor.
As someone who doesn't want to look like I care what anyone thinks of me (but secretly does care very, very deeply what everyone thinks of me, losing sleep over why no one is looking at my LinkedIn profile and telling co-workers my vitamin jar is full of gummy vitamins when they are, in fact, just candy), I couldn't handle the idea of my new dietary restriction marking me as one of Those Girls.
Ever since I'd encountered the online quagmire of "shit white girls do" and pumpkin spice memes, I had actively tried to avoid any of the outward signifiers I thought might fall into That Girl territory. I'd maintained that, even though I really do love pumpkin and really was intrigued when I heard girls on the subway talk about styling their hair with curling wands, I was totally above it all. I sighed when someone asked the server if a baked potato was gluten-free. (It was.) I rolled my eyes when a co-worker spent 15 minutes arranging her lunch on her desk to make the Instagram "visually perfect." (It was.) I grimaced when my friend told me I was the Stanford Blatch of the group. (I am.) And now I had to face the idea that That Girl might actually be me.
When I got the email from my doctor, the first thing I did was panic. Clearly, the next logical step was to Instagram it (without a filter, of course; Kelvin was way too intense and Sierra just seemed to be making light of the situation). At the time, it made sense: If people knew I had celiac disease, no one would call me out on it if I ordered my burrito in salad form, right? And it seemed like an easy way to alert my friends without a Facebook post (too needy), or tweet (too likely to get lost amidst actual news).
About an hour after the Instagram (and like, 10 likes), my friend texted me to ask if I thought publicly sharing a confidential email regarding medical information was a good idea. I realized that it probably was not, that the desire to oh-so-casually broadcast my news was actually coming from a place of insecurity — and that worst of all, trying to mask my insecurity just made it more visible.
I learned that there was a fine line between trying too hard and not trying hard enough to make room in my life for my new diagnosis. A few weeks post-email, I went out for dinner with my partner at a restaurant I had been pining after for months. I was pretty sure the chicken liver, which my therapist had raved about, was gluten-free. But then, of course, it arrived flanked by beautiful thick slices of challah, grilled in chicken fat. And between the gorgeous toasted-marshmallow scent of the bread and my sudden need to prove to the server that my diet wasn't regulated by the male gaze (or some pesky autoimmune disease), I couldn't resist.
"Even Paleo people get cheat days," I whispered to myself as I inhaled the challah. The exhausting gluten hangover I suffered through for the next few days was enough to make me avoid gluten full-time after that.
But, I discovered, it wasn't enough to impress other celiacs. Gluten does make me feel heavy and tired and like I need to stay in bed and read mommy blogs all day, but I don't exhibit the gastrointestinal symptoms that usually accompany the disease. And when I mentioned my lack of G.I. distress to the few other celiacs I know, I started to feel like I might not be celiac enough. A friend of a friend was shocked at the idea that I might still finish a bottle of barbecue sauce I'd started before realizing that it included (forbidden) malt vinegar. "Don't you get immediately ill from eating it? Don't you have to run to the bathroom? Don't your bowels explode?" she asked, incredulous. I could feel myself transforming into That Girl before her side-eyes, using gluten as a convenient excuse.
Instead of being welcomed into a sisterhood of celiacs who shared experiences while we sang songs and braided each other's hair, I felt like I was being one-upped and told, implicitly, that I wasn't enough of something I had made sacrifices for. So, of course, the next obvious move was to overcompensate: At a party later that week, I loudly turned down a piece of birthday cake no one had offered me. "If I eat wheat or gluten, I will have to run to the bathroom. My bowels will explode. It'll totally ruin the party," I (lied) to another party guest, who was unprepared for this conversation. "Great..." he said, and walked away.
Eventually, I realized that the mental gymnastics of constantly justifying my food choices to other people, and to myself, were more exhausting than anything else. I was reacting defensively to criticisms that no one was actually making, and wasting time that I could have spent enjoying my now-energy-filled, gluten-free life. Worst of all, I was denying myself things I liked and/or that my body needed because I was worried about how I would look to others — which, in retrospect, is the most That Girl trait of all.
As backward as it would have seemed to me months ago, my celiac diagnosis has made me feel better. I don't have trouble breathing after eating, I don't wake up exhausted, and it's forced me to confront many of my insecurities and become more comfortable with who I am, even if it is the Stanford Blatch of the group. As I vowed to start turning down challah and birthday cake without shame, I also slowly started to embrace other embarrassing habits. I openly discussed my love for competition-based reality TV; I wore peplum because I liked the way it looked; I started writing navel-gazing essays about things that were important to me.
Coming to terms with my own very real gluten intolerance has made me realize that, as a self-proclaimed feminist and a closeted materialist, I've been trying to maintain a façade of chill that isn't honestly in line with what I want and need. Eating whatever I feel like because I (theoretically) give zero fucks about what other people think, while my G.I. tract actually gives every fuck exactly what I eat, doesn't work. The same way that pretending I don't spend time googling Dance Moms plot points doesn't actually make me any more intellectual, and pretending I'm confident while silently repeating inspirational quotes from Pinterest en route to social gatherings feels fake. Of course, I had to learn that the hard way.
The next time I was at a party, drinking a delicious combination of cinnamon-sugar vodka and lime Perrier out of a water bottle, the hostess asked if I was drinking water and if I would like a beer. I took a deep breath and proudly said, "No, I'm...gluten-free? Also, there is a lot of vodka in here." I braced myself for a cheap shot about the Uggs and North Face jacket I was wearing, or the apologetic uptalk that accompanied the words "gluten-free."
Instead, she launched into an unsubstantiated story about Elizabeth Hasselbeck and the severe gluten allergy that allowed her to wear only very specific makeup brands. From there, our conversation devolved into the best, most lowbrow of all things (Bristol Palin's memoir), and by the end of the night, we had bonded over our love of diet ginger ale, Mormon fashion blogs, and Ann-Marie MacDonald novels. Instead of worrying about not being someone else, I was being my feminist, materialist, gluten-free self. No inspirational quotes needed.