2019 Spring Amideast External Programs Gwen Jensen Morocco

Finding Gratitude Abroad: Food, Body, and Soul

NEDA week is February 25-March 3, 2019. It is important to have transparent conversations about the intersection for experience and troubled relationships with food. In this blog I reflect on my struggles with self-love and how studying abroad and immersing myself in the culture of food has helped me grow to accept and even love indulging in the food I restricted myself from for so long. If you think you or a loved one may be struggling with disordered eating https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support is an excellent resource.

My freshman year of college brought a lot of new things to my life: new friends, a new city, a new home, and several pounds of new weight. At the summit of Summer 2018, I sought to shed the pounds as quickly as possible, through diets that eventually culminated into a deeply unhealthy relationship with my body and with food. Though I’ve never had an easy relationship with food, the summer marked a new era of self deprivation in the name of being skinny: I can’t pinpoint when my dieting overtook my life, rather, dieting became my life; but reflecting on the fall semester of my second year at Temple, my thoughts were overwhelmingly occupied by my body and the ways I could ‘cheat’ my way out of eating and maybe shed a few more pounds. I recall spending late hours in the The Tech, sustained on nothing except several Venti black coffees from Starbucks, strategically drank throughout the day to give my body the illusion of fullness and ward away hunger. It became almost a competition with myself, how long could I hold on to the addicting feeling of emptiness before I caved. Each meal was a ritual within itself: a carefully planned and executed equation to keep me chugging along without dipping too far into indulgence and sending me into a tailspin of self hatred and agonizing regret. Each morsel of sustenance that I let enter my bod was followed by careful self reflection and critique of my body and self.

The validation I received from friends and family and acquaintances after my continuous weight loss was almost more addicting than the weight loss itself. When I announced I would be spending this semester abroad, several of my biggest weight loss fans quickly became the living, breathing, human manifestations, which gave human voices to my pre-existing insecurities. Comments like these cast a new cloud of anxiety over the pre-departure process:

“You’ll gain the study abroad fifteen, just prepare yourself for it”

“When my sister/daughter/niece/goddaughter went abroad she gained so much weight, you’ll have to really watch what you’re eating”

“Its ok to be a foodie, as long as you don’t come back a fatty”

Living with a host family requires a lot of compromise and the sacrifice of many freedoms, which a college student becomes accustomed to having full autonomy over. One of these is food. Each morning a fresh and delicious breakfast greets me–what was initially a begrudging and foreign part of my day. As I partook in a real breakfast for the first time since early high school, initially out of concern of being rude to my host mother, has now become a staple in my daily routine. With a body nourished each morning on more than just coffee, I have the energy to spend my day indulging and getting lost in the culture of food which surrounds me. In the Medina with friends, we snack on some tea, or a cookie or two, or any of the other multitude of street food: holes in the aging stone walls, lined with decadent and glistening treats we just have to try or risk losing forever in the twists and turns of the ancient market.

Unlike in the United States, where fast food has adulterated the communal tradition of eating, food in Morocco is a family ordeal and a group undertaking. Breakfast each morning with my host mother and roommate eases us into the day ahead. Breakfast time fills us with not only the physical ammunition to navigate the day, but also an emotional sustenance from each morning’s conversations and pleasantries. Children in Morocco, regardless of age, are given a lunch break from school long enough that they may leave school to eat with their families. And every night’s elaborate dinner is carefully planned by my host mother.

After school, I am mesmerized by her quick moving fingers, preparing fresh and beautiful vegetables that she crafts into delicious and multi-course meals, cooked with love and compassion: meant to be enjoyed slowly, with room for conversation, and several helpings of each dish. Despite the language barrier, dinners together take upwards of two hours as we freely discuss politics, religion, classes, families and whatever else we can piece into a conversation between the buzz of four languages, five people, and infinite spoonfuls of steaming slow cooked tanjeen.

So maybe I’ll come back to The States with a little extra weight, but the weight is just another reminder of the happy times I had in Morocco laughing around the table, or exploring in the Medina with friends, or seeking out the best street food in every city we visit, and the afternoon tea and cookies brought out for no particular reason but enjoyed and cherished gratefully.

I’d like to finish this post, with some long overdue thank yous to my body and the food which has made the past two months rich and flavorful and fulfilling.

Thank you to the breakfast I ate in Chefchaouen that gave me the energy to hike 10 miles to see the most beautiful waterfall nestled among hills and valleys
Thank you to my body for waking up early enough on a Saturday morning to catch an early train to see the largest mosque in Africa 
Thank you to my body for climbing endless rocky hills and endless flights of shimmering tiled staircases to catch beautiful views in Fes
Thank you to the entire ‘tajeen for two’ I ate after spending a day digging for fossils along the Morocco-Algeria border 
Thank you to the breakfast that got me out of bed early enough to see the sunrise in the Sahara Desert
Thank you to my host mother's heaping piles of Cous Cous, diligently prepared every Friday, for keeping me full and happy on long journeys and travels around the country
Thank you to the delicious fruit that I happily feasted on in the beaches of Agadir, as the sticky juices drippled down my bikini body and my stomach expanded joyously full of freshness

Lastly, thank you Morocco, for pushing me to love my body and the food that helps me experience the most in life, and thank you to my body for its forgiveness from the trauma of cyclical restriction and punishment

One comment

  1. I relate to this so much. I have also had an unhealthy relationship with food in the past, and I am trying my best to change my view of it. In college, I have tried my best to eat healthy but it is almost impossible sometimes given the stressors of life and the convenience of quick food. During my exchange year, I also gained weight, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I got to try so many amazing foods and experience the culture in an intimate and beautiful way. I’m so glad that you are also having an amazing experience trying all knew of new things, and I’m proud of everything you do! Stay strong and enjoy every moment of your study abroad!

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