I crept away in the guise of using the toilet, which I did. I locked myself inside and sat there, cackling and congratulating myself on my escape. Had I a chocolate bar I would have gobbled it down in spite of Joeleen. I stayed as long as I thought I could get away with, then sauntered back to the group, like a cow meandering into the slaughterhouse.
“Right.” said Joeleen. “Who can tell me why raisins make you fat?”
* * *
The greatest thing about traveling is the people. Unfortunately for me (and for everyone perhaps), a lot of those people are met late at night at bars and clubs. Drinking. All night long. Which is great fun, but after a few weeks of this I realized it was starting to show.
It started innocently enough. I had signed up for a membership at a beautiful gym in Capetown. By American standards, it was super cheap and had a spa-like atmosphere, with a jacuzzi and sauna in the changing room. I could take classes like yoga and boxing, and even better it was an all women’s gym, which gave it a more laid back vibe.
I had been going for about a week when a friend suggested I attend a group training class with her for free, to see if I liked it.
“Sure,” I said. Why not?
After a grueling hour workout where I did lunges and squats and pull-ups until I could barely move and was soaked with sweat, I signed right up.
“I’ll have to get you my book, which is R100, so you can follow my eating plan,” said Joeleen, the trainer, as she was taking my measurements and recording them in her notebook.
“Uh, right,” I said. I had been a vegetarian for a while, a vegan for the past year. I’m really interested in food, and I had banked on the training sessions for the physical training— not an eating plan. I figured it couldn’t hurt to read her book and listen to what she had to say, even if I planned on ignoring it.
“What are three things you should eat sparingly in your LIFETIME. Notice I said LIFETIME, not monthly or yearly.” She look at me expectantly, then at the other South African sticks in the class.
One girl’s hand rose tentatively. “Seeds and nuts, avocado, and oils.” She recited the line like she was reading a textbook.
“Right,” said Joeleen. “And olives. You must never have these things. They will make you fat.” All of a sudden, he hand lunged toward me. She grabbed a handful of skin and, presumably, fat. I tried not to wince and pull away.
“Your fat is quite hard,” she glanced around the group of girls forming a circle around us. “It’s because you’re an American, and what you’ve been eating. They don’t have healthy food over there, do they?”
“Yes,”I said defensively. “I’m a vegan,” I added. “I’ve been staying at hostels, and I’ve been drinking every night. That’s the problem.”
She turned away, and started writing in her notebook. I envisioned the page.
She turned back and handed me the notebook.
“You must sign this.” she said.
On the page was a written note, and it said:
I will not drink any more than 4 alcoholic beverages a week.
I signed it.
* * *
Food is a beautiful thing. There’s nothing I like better than spending an evening out eating and drinking with friends. Nothing. My parents are both excellent cooks, and I’ve grown up on European-style dinners— we enjoy our food and don’t apologize for it.
But now every day, for an hour, there was a constant stream of dialogue about food. About how eating is a battle, and one must be vigilant every single day. Beets will make you fat. Carrots will make you fat. Coffee is a meal.
“I don’t drink coffee,” I said.
“Then you must be eating too many oils and meat proteins.” I rolled my eyes and increased my rhythm on the elliptical, as Joeleen’s penetrating glare swept over the group of us.
“You must not eat butternut either, it’s very dense. What are some examples of dense carbohydrates you shouldn’t eat?” She whirled around, glaring at each of us in turn.
The girl next to me, sprinting on her elliptical, practically shouted, “Potatoes! Butternut! Carrots!.”
“Exactly,” said Joeleen. And wandered off.
* * *
I started dreaming about food. The more Joeleen talked in class, the hungrier I became after working out. I had never had a problem with food before, we always had a loving relationship. But with Noeleen it became a battle. A slice of cheese was out for my buttocks, a piece of bread for my arms. I could hear her in my head, with every piece of food I put in my mouth. “Almonds will make you fat!” she cried in my dreams. I started craving wine during the workout sessions.
One day, she asked me and two other girls if we had any friend’s or co-worker’s bodies we’d like to discuss. Normally, I tried to ignore the conversation. But with this particular instance, I look up incredulously. Joeleen pointedly turned her gaze my way, and I tried to re-arrange my face into a neutral expression.
“Yes,” said the girl next to me promptly. “There’s a girl I work with who runs all the time, and eats salad for lunch.”
“But she’s still fat?” questioned Joeleen. As the girl shook her head yes, Joeleen nodded brusquely. “Right,” she said. “She must be eating too much protein. Even though she works out, and eats salad. It’s not enough. If you eat too much protein, you will never lose weight.”
I started laughing, then tried to turn it into a cough. I looked around at the other girls, hoping one of them would catch my eye, and acknowledge how ridiculous the whole thing was. Nothing. It must have been the most idiotic conversation I had ever had to suffer through. Not only did I not care what anyone else was eating, or what they weighed, we were discussing someone who might have unknown health problems, or could be eating candy bars in the toilet for all we knew. And who CARED, honestly?
Later on, Joeleen enlightened us with a tale of the dangers of consuming nuts.
“You should never eat nuts,” she said. “And let me tell you why.”
She then recounted a tale of when she had spent several weeks in Australia, and had taken to eating a snack after working out: macadamia nuts. Several months later, after she had returned home, overnight she gained 5 pounds. She then enlightened us on her theory, a theory that all the bad food one eats (alcohol, nuts, and oils) will come back weeks, months, and even years later. I could starve myself for a week, but if I had had wine the previous week, it would show on my rear end.
I was horrified. Not only by the story, which seemed like some tragic horror movie in which the beloved heroine is killed, but clearly Joeleen had some mental issues. Aside from her theory being biologically impossible, it became quite clear to me she had no background education in exercise science. It was time to flee.
“See you next week!” I called, beaming and waving to Joeleen as I left.
I never returned. I started going for a run outside every morning, and ate all the things I normally ate— including nuts, seeds, and oils.
And promptly lost 5 pounds.