I'm here today with Sarika Chawla. Sarika is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor and mother of two. By day, she does marketing for the travel and tourism industry. In her spare time, she writes about women’s health and parenting. Her freelance work has been featured in places like Salon, VICE, and The Washington Post. Her recent piece on abortion after twenty weeks, which started with a moving story about her best friend’s troubled twin pregnancy, was selected for an honorable mention in ASJA’s 2018 Awards.
I actually discovered Sarika Chawla on Facebook. Her essay which was called “How I'm Raising My Kids to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food Despite My Eating Disorder” was published in The Washington Post’s On Parenting section. I thought it was awesome, so I reached out to her.
Hi, Sarika. It’s Zibby Owens from "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Sarika Chawla: Hi.
Zibby: Hi, how are you?
Sarika: How are you? Good.
Zibby: Good. Thanks so much for doing the podcast.
Sarika: No worries. I know it’s crazy for you too. How old are your kids?
Zibby: I have twins who are almost eleven, a four-year-old -- almost five-year-old, and a three-year-old.
Sarika: Wow. I remember when I had just one. I was like, “I'm so tired all the time.” Now I have two. How does anyone do more than this?
Zibby: It’s crazy. How old are your kids again?
Sarika: My son is six. My daughter is twenty-one months, very cute. They're at an age now where they can interact with each other, which is nice.
Zibby: That does make life easier.
Sarika: Exactly. They play together now.
Zibby: Sometimes not so well for mine. I'm kidding. [laughs]
Sarika: Now she’s at the age where she's annoying to him, which is kind of funny. He’s like, “Leave me alone.” She’s also really pushy. It’s very cute to watch.
Zibby: I wanted to talk today more about your Washington Post On Parenting article about how you had eating disorders of your own, diagnosed or not, and how you find that impacting your kids. The beginning of your essay was so amazing. You paint a picture of pouring butter into your kid’s waffles, and a lot into your little boy’s, and maybe less so into your little girl’s. Then you say, “This is how is starts.” Talk to me about this.
Sarika: I don't know if that was an aha moment or just something that really stood out in my mind as, “I need to take stock of what I'm doing here.” My son is six. He’s on the smaller side. He’s a smaller kid. He’s very thin. He eats okay. I wanted to make sure that he’s strong and healthy. I'm very liberal about giving him extra calories wherever. I don’t think about it much. My daughter, she's almost two. She's a solid little thing. She's built like me. Her doctor did comment once, “Time to switch to low-fat milk.” When I was spreading that butter and realizing that he had a lot more than she did, it brought up a whole well of emotions in terms of weight and also gender, that it’s okay to give the boy more because he has to be big and strong. The girl has to be small. That's where it all came together in my head, that this I something I need to think about and address.
Zibby: You did so in a really moving way. Thanks for getting it down on paper for us.
Sarika: Thank you.
Zibby: It’s true. I really, really liked it. That's why I'm interviewing you. You say in your piece that your eating disorder was never diagnosed officially, that you weren’t thin enough to be hospitalized or obesity-level heavy, yet you were consumed, you said obsessed with the scale and your body.
Can you tell me about what it was like for you growing up with your focus on eating and weight? What made it disordered in your mind?
Sarika: It goes back to when I was very young, probably eight or nine. I hit puberty very early as well. It was about nine. My body was changing at a very, very young age. They called me sturdy back then. I was never a thin girl. It began very young with the pediatrician saying, “The kids need to eat more vegetables and not so much junk food,” and my mom being like, “I'm trying, but I can't control everything they eat.” I had a sweet tooth. I loved sweets. I became very conscious of my appearance and how I looked when I was eight or nine. It was almost too young for a girl to be dealing with that.
I started dieting when I was fifteen or so. It was after my sophomore year. I lost some weight. I was really proud of myself. I was exercising and watching what I ate. Back then it was [indiscernible]. That was the low-fat revolution. Everything was low-fat. To me, that was a revelation. I can have cookies because they have no fat in them. We had SnackWell’s and all those. What I didn’t understand, or what nobody talked about was that they were loaded with sugar. I was really messing up my metabolism by eating nothing but bagels and low-fat cookies. Anything that was high carbs but low-fat was okay. I did lose weight. I felt really great about myself. People noticed. I messed up my metabolism pretty drastically.
It was all-consuming. That's pretty normal for teenage girls, which is unfortunate. We would sit around all during our free periods talking about food, talking about how many calories are in a bagel, how many calories are in that. I love eating this, but I can't because my mom said it’s going to make me fat -- not mine. My friend said that. It drove everything. It was always there. Even gym class was like, “Are we running fast enough to burn calories?” Everything that we did and talked about and thought about, food was always there. It became really problematic in day-to-day things like going out to eat with my family. I would order grilled fish with no oil on it, no butter. One day a fish showed up and it had some oil, I think that came from the fish itself because it was a fattier fish. I was crushed. I was devastated. I'm like, “Now I can't eat it because there's fat on it.” I'm trying to mop up the fat. My parents are looking at me being like, “What is wrong? What's happening?” At the same time, since I was losing weight, everyone’s like, “Well, she's doing such a good job. This is okay.”
That's where it all started. It grows and becomes consuming. I became a binge eater too. I’d be so obsessed with sugar. My body was craving so much sugar that I would go through half a box of cereal every night. I’d be doing my homework. I'd eat a bowl of cereal with my fingers, no milk, just dry cereal, super sweet stuff too. It was Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Golden Grahams. I would eat one bowl after another until it was almost all gone. It was a lot of unhealthy habits that grew upon one another and really impacted me mentally and physically.
Zibby: I have to say that could have just been me talking. [laughs] There were so many similarities down to the SnackWell’s. Can she see me sitting here with my Life cereal bowl that I eat with my fingers at my computer? Oh, my goodness. I can completely relate. Maybe having grown up in about the same time and all the fascination on food and the low-fat and all these trends, I’m completely relating with everything.
Sarika: I think a lot of women do. I did go to therapy later in college. I joined a group therapy. The school psychologist held something small for some women. We all walked into that room. We all sat down talking about SnackWell’s. It was pretty common.
Zibby: I had a similar moment with some scrambled eggs at a wedding brunch once. It was the only thing. They were drenched in butter. I was like, “I can't eat this.” Everyone’s like, “What's wrong with you? It’s scrambled eggs.” Enough of my issues.
In your piece you say you desperately want your kids to remain free from your burdens. In the article you outline a few steps at the end that can help. Some of the things you mention are having dinners as a family, limiting social media, being easier on yourself, not talking about your own weight, not labeling foods as good, bad, healthy, or unhealthy. Which of these things do you feel like you need to work on the most? Which is the hardest for you? Which is the easiest for you?
Sarika: The hardest thing for me to incorporate into our lifestyle is eating together. It’s a family effort to make that happen. My husband’s not so into the idea. He gets the concept of it. If I'm coming home from work, he’s getting the kids inside, that's just not going to happen. Weekends roll around and it’s hard to organize everybody. “It’s time to sit down at the table together and not look at our devices.” I'm trying to ease up on myself on that guilt a little bit. Even though we don’t all sit together and eat, the kids will sit together. My husband and I eat when we can, often in front of the TV. We do interact a lot. I'm in and out of the kitchen while they're eating, or my husband will be. I’ll be making food. There's a lot of movement in our house. I try not to worry too much that we’re not sitting around a table together and try to focus on the fact that we’re communicating while we eat. That's one step.
I've gotten a lot better about not creating that line between good and bad food. That started with my son. I always feed my kids at least one fruit or vegetable with their meal. They’ll have chicken nuggets and apples or something. That's standard in our house. They expect that. I stopped trying to define that as, “Here's the good food that you have to eat in order to get your cookie.” If they eat it, great. If they don’t finish it, fine. They’ll still get the cookie. Recently with my daughter, she’s little, she was in her high chair. She saw her brother getting a cookie after he finished eating. She started making noises for it. I thought, “Let's just see what happens.” I put the cookie on her tray along with the rest of her food. She still had chicken, and some carrots, and some apples, or something. She ate the cookie, then she went back to her chicken. That's interesting. She's not seeing this as a reward or as a, “I have to do this to get that cookie.”
I'm trying to do more of that, incorporating everything, sometimes even yogurt for dessert. To them, that's also a treat. In my head, I'm like, “Great. They're getting protein too.” I don't say it out loud. I'm trying to be active. I wasn’t a hugely active kid. My family and I didn’t do a whole lot outside of going out to eat and going to the movies together. I'm trying to do a lot more hiking or going outside. I'm not an outdoorsy person. It takes some effort on my part too, getting them out.
Zibby: You're in LA, right? Isn't there great hiking there?
Sarika: It is great hiking. It’s also hard to park. It gets crowded. It’s hot. It’s not my first go-to. I'm trying.
Zibby: I wasn’t trying to make it sound like you needed to do it more. [laughs]
Sarika: I get it. There are options here, which is great.
Zibby: Are there any mistakes you've made with your kids and food, something you might look back on already and think, “Oh, no. I can't believe I did that?”
Sarika: Daily. I put this in the article too. My son also gave me this aha moment. I wound up overpraising him for making good choices. I tried to give him a bite of my food. I forget what it was. He said no. Normally, I don't make a big out of it. I'm like, “I'm just offering it to you because I think you'll like it. I'm not trying to give it to you for any other reason except I think you might enjoy it. I'm trying to expand the palate a little bit.” He looks at me and he goes, “Then I might like it. Then you’ll be really proud of me. I can't deal with that right now.” It’s true. If he likes something then I'm like, “You're going to have it for dinner for the next month.” We found a new food for you. We’re going to put it in your lunchbox. I get so happy. Food brings people together. Food’s great. I love it. I love the experience of it and feeding people. It makes me happy when people like my food. I realized I was overdoing it with him. That's when I try to back off.
Zibby: Makes sense. You also mention how kids sense what's going on with their parents eating, even if you're trying to hide it. I feel like my oldest son can basically read my mind at this point about most things.
Have you seen your kids sense intuitively things you're trying to hide about your issues with food?
Sarika: Nothing’s come up where I feel like they’ve caught on to something. My son knows I have a sweet tooth. I'm pretty open about it even though he doesn't necessarily see me eating those cookies. He knows that mommy likes sweet food. I try not to talk about weight at all. I try not to talk about numbers or scales or anything. My mom and I did that a lot. It was a bonding thing. I'm trying not to pass that on to them, that numbers are important. My daughter’s too little. My son hasn’t really said anything to me about, “Mommy’s weird about food,” except that thing I mentioned before where I get overexcited if he likes something. I'm trying to quiet that down a little bit.
Zibby: Let’s make sure he doesn't listen to this. [laughs]
Sarika: Exactly. [laughs] Maybe when he's older.
Zibby: You said in your article beautifully that now your relationship with eating has softened into more of an easygoing partnership than toxic abuse, which I thought was really beautifully put. I know you've talked about this a little already. Can you give me an example of how it’s more easy going now?
Sarika: I don’t really restrict foods the way I used to. In that low-fat revolution days I didn’t touch cheese for years, which is a tragedy because cheese is amazing. I only ate frozen yogurt instead of real ice cream. Now, I feel much more free to eat what I want. I can do it in moderation. I'm not as afraid that if I eat one bite of real ice cream that I'm going to eat the whole tub. If I do gain a pound or two, it’s not going to balloon into twenty pounds. I feel a lot more free to eat and to enjoy food. I do love it. I think a lot of women will say it’s a love-hate relationship. Now, I don’t hate food. I love it. I appreciate it. I enjoy it. It’s still always there. I'm still always conscious of, “What do I weigh today? Am I going to weigh the same tomorrow? Is it going to go up or down?” It’s always there. It does drive a lot of my choices and decisions. It’s not consuming. It’s not depressing. It’s not scary.
Zibby: That's good. As you watch your daughter growing up -- I know she’s still in a high-chair -- what do you really want her to know about her body? What attitude do you want her to have? What are you going to do to help her get there aside from your suggestions earlier?
Sarika: It’s tricky. I know myself. I know if I see her starting to put on weight when she’s eight or nine like I did then I might be like, “Let's choose the carrots instead.” I hope I don’t do that. I want her to know that our shape is our shape. We’re shorter women. I come from a long line of women with larger thighs. That's how our bodies are shaped. I don't know if her’s is, but I think it is. That's adorable. That's what you are. I'm trying to also make sure that my kids are exposed to people of different cultures, different colors, different races to know that the norm that I grew up with in a very white part of Connecticut isn't the norm around the world. What was the standard of beauty back then has evolved, as long as I can expose them to more.
I want her to understand that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes as long as she feels really good about herself. That was another lesson I learned from writing this article was food does impact your body physically. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. That can actually really inform a lot of the good choices. I don’t do pancakes with syrup in the morning because it makes me feel sick. That's great. I feel better if I have eggs and vegetables or toast. By looking at it, reframing it that way of “How does it make you feel?” not “How is it going to affect your weight?” will probably be beneficial for her.
Zibby: To what you said a minute ago about your shape being your shape, this little anecdote. I went to a SoulCycle class once where the teacher said her whole life she said wondered “Why do I have these big thighs? I hate my thighs. I hate my body. I have these big thighs.” Then she got on a bike. All of a sudden, she was this amazing cyclist. All of a sudden, she had this aha moment. “This is what my thighs are there for.” I like that. Our bodies are made the way they are. We have our skills. It is what it is.
Do you have advice for other parents out there who are struggling with the same weight or eating issues in front of their kids? I know you’ve given advice already. Is there anything more specific that you say to someone out there listening, to moms who don't have time to read books, about what they should do or how they can be easier on themselves?
Sarika: That's it. Moms have to be easier on themselves. Our bodies after we give birth are not the same bodies before we gave birth. That's okay. That's great. You see the world differently when you have kids. You start seeing ice cream as a joyful experience and not something you have to do when you're sitting by yourself in front of the TV. If you feel like food is driving your choices, if you feel food is becoming a battlefield between you and your kids, it’s okay to get help. It’s okay to talk to people about it.
What you’re going through is incredibly common. It’s something that people don’t talk about a lot or don't even articulate a lot. They figure, “I'm trying to lose weight. Of course I am. Why wouldn't I try to do that?” It becomes disordered very quickly. People don't pay attention to that. It’s worth getting help or talking to someone if you feel like it’s consuming you. Ease up on yourself. Make food a joyful experience. Eating around the dinner table’s a great idea. If you can't do that, again, going out for ice cream, going out to eat together when you can, anything to make it not about the actual food, but the experience of being together.
Zibby: That was really insightful and great. I was wondering what other articles or projects are you working on now? How can we all keep up with your work?
Sarika: I have a website that's always in progress because I can never find time to sit down with it. It’s at sarikachawla.com. I do some occasional writing, usually about topics that I'm passionate about. I have a full-time job in marketing. I fit in writing when I can. My full-time job is also writing and editing. I'm in front of a computer all day long. At sarikachawla.com there's some links to my articles. I do some stuff for The Washington Post, and for VICE, and lots of stuff for LA Parent magazine. You can follow along.
Zibby: As a last question, as a journalist and a marketing executive and a mom of two, how do you manage it all? Does anything fall through the cracks more than other things?
Sarika: I fall through the cracks more than other things. [laughs] There's no time for myself. It’s all stuff that I love. I have a really supportive husband. He’s the one who’s putting dinner on the table for the kids for the most part. He’s super supportive. Everything I do I really enjoy. I'm lucky that I'm able to have a full-time job that involves writing and editing, and dealing with words, and that then I have that mental space to then go pursue topics that I'm passionate about.
Zibby: That's awesome. Thank you so, so much for being on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Sarika: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Zibby: Thank you for talking. I wish you all the best.
Sarika: Thank you. Let me know when it’s all complete. I’ll share it around.
Zibby: Thank you so much. Take care.
Sarika: Thanks. You too.