The softness of my index finger hovered over the paper menu as the patient server looked on. I was ordering my first meal in Paris—dessert—at a brasserie called Café M, and trying to be as cool as possible while doing it. But there was a growing sense of panic expanding in my chest, and it had very little to do with nailing my French pronunciation, and everything to do with my decadent order: crème brûlée. It was an order that required me to eat a creamy, luxurious treat in close proximity to others. It was an order that screamed indulgence—something I actively don’t participate in, having navigated a minefield of fatphobia since childhood.
There is rarely a travel story that doesn’t touch upon, make reference to, or sermonize about food. It makes sense: regional cuisine is an integral part of a traveler’s experience—a literal taste of the culture you are inhabiting. Instagram feeds are an endless flow of tributes to the dishes, the restaurants, the viral ice cream sensations that pinpoint and validate your having being there. But restaurants have never been priority for me when creating a travel itinerary, because then I'd have to eat in public. I have spent a lifetime avoiding the act of public consumption—even in the healthiest form.
In that Parisian brasserie, I was suddenly my 12-year-old self again, watching my mother remove food from my plate while trying to persuade me to attend activities camp (a.k.a. fat camp) for the summer. I was 25, listening to a date telling me not to eat the bread at a restaurant. I was 27, enduring uninvited weight loss tips from a former friend ordering the same full-fat latte as me. I was 30, staring at an executive laughing that she needed to contract malaria to lose weight after recounting her “fat, indulgent weekend.” No matter how much I’ve dieted or worked out or restricted calories or tried to make myself small or refused to eat in front of other people, I have always been reminded of how indulgent, gluttonous, excessive my plus-size body is. I am always being told how to behave around food, no matter what continent I’m on. An insult dressed in a different language isn’t going to soften the blow of how it feels.
I can handle myself when I’m on home turf: a rogue comment about my body doesn’t faze me when I can easily access my home, friends, family, and list of preferred comebacks for support. Traveling doesn’t offer the same comfort—everything is too new to know how you’re going to react miles away from home—and hearing a food comment is a reminder that even if it's a vacation from daily life, plus-size bodies don’t take a vacation from being perpetually disenfranchised.
Before Paris, there was the time in London where I tensed up the moment I realized I was eating in a Shoreditch pub filled with zealous football fans—in the end, I only grabbed a beer. Then there was my solo trip to Chicago, where hotdogs are king but I opted out because I kept replaying the visual of myself eating one alone, and just couldn’t bring myself to try. Even in Toronto, I didn’t try poutine because, wow, that’s a lot of food so close to me, a person with a body who is constantly associated with too much. I can’t help but think: Did I really get to experience everything from those trips if I was always worried about my body in relation to food?
My Parisian crème brûlée changed things. Delivered to my table along with a glass of merlot, the dessert’s undisturbed sheet of burnt sugar, with its beautiful amber flakes, stared back at me. The presentation was perfect: not a fleck of sugar on the rim of the ramekin; the elongated stem of the spoon magically balanced on the edge of the dish. And there I was, at 11 p.m. in Paris, my XL body sitting in a tiny Parisian chair in front of a tiny Parisian table about to crack into a dessert in front of everybody in the restaurant. It was more than my first meal in the most romantic city in the world. It was the act of mentally and emotionally breaking through years of internalized food shame approximately 3,600 miles away from home.
I scraped the golden crust tentatively with my spoon, and, with a few gentle taps, cracked the center to release the rich innards from its caramel shell. Then, I took my first bite.
Have you ever eaten something so good that the world fades away around you? As my mouth filled with sugar and butter, it felt like a dimmer switch being turned downwards; my eyes growing heavy as the cloud of insecurity pressing down on my shoulders began to lighten. My dress size wasn’t applicable, my choices weren’t up for debate, there wasn’t a DM from an anonymous man telling me I was contributing to the nation’s health crisis. No one was looking at me, and no one cared.
Each bite felt like another euphoric slip into enjoying myself. I’ve associated my body with someone who isn’t allowed to enjoy treats, or any kind of comfort, for fear of being seen as too insatiable. But that crème brûlée made me forget about the orchestra of self-conscious, contentious thoughts that fill my head. It was drowned out by the symphony of flavors left behind on my palate by the melting custard.
Travel for me—and maybe for you—has a unique way of holding a mirror up to my routines in order for them to be acknowledged and swiftly broken. In London, I learned that I check work emails too much on vacation after a barfly told me that I had glared at my phone more than I looked up at others. In Chicago, I realized how much I love art but never actively seek it out when I’m home in New York. And that night in Paris, I realized that I gave too much power to other people’s opinions about my body. I had become paralyzed with the fear of being a fat girl publicly enjoying a meal. I had no idea what it was like to simply enjoy a dessert in a sincere way.
I went back three more times on my trip. And I spent every one of them sitting in a tiny chair, across from a tiny table, ordering the same thing: a glass of merlot and a crème brûlée. I gave myself the power—and the freedom—to forget about eating in public. Indulgence be damned.