The cruelty of chocolate cake denied

Yes please, I said as the plate of chocolate cake, slathered with a glossy frosting and embedded with toasted pecan and almond nuggets, was passed round by a man in a blue and white butcher’s apron.

The slices were thin but tall, the layers separated by an oozing cream filling loaded with bits of orange peel.

Citrus scents wafted across the room.

The man in butcher stripes piled the largest piece onto a fine bone china side plate, its translucent pale pink surface embossed at the edges with gold filigree. The perfect plate for the perfect piece.

His sweet offering had been turned down so often as he wound his way across the crowded room, the baker looked relieved to have a taker. It was why, I assumed, he chose the widest triangle to place on my outstretched plate. 

The luscious dark brown cake lay happily on the pale pink porcelain, waiting to be eaten. I took a bite. The bitter aftertaste of orange rind hidden in the brooding semi-sweet dark chocolate; the moist pillow lightness; the ganache so mirrored it reflected light; the dollops of salted caramel, the crunch of the toasted nuts … a culinary seduction.

My sigh was of such unadulterated pleasure, such contentment that it drew unwarranted attention. I wanted this exceptional experience to be private, a moment of oral sensuality, of happiness. I should not have sighed.

Three size-zero women standing close by turned to me, to each other, and gasped.

Carbs. And sugar. It was as though I was feasting on the flesh of my firstborn (well, their firstborn, since I am child-free.)

Eyes narrowed into slits. Their judgment crept across my skin; their distaste and revulsion came at me in waves as layered as their balayaged hair; as layered as the matt base concealer that settled in the fine under-the-eye cracks that had escaped “freshening” surgery.

Suddenly my smudged eyeliner and Sephora Red lippie bleeding into my own lip cracks seemed hopelessly inadequate. As was my thinning curly mop carelessly, messily piled on the top of my head.

As I was about to retreat to a dark place to lick my wounds, and my fingers, I noticed something else in those flashing eyes — envy. Wet lips, pout-open mouths; a sign of longing. Laser stares piercing the delicious muddy layers on my plate.

And then the accusatory flashing eyes. How could I break the unspoken no-carb rule in public? How could I cave in to temptation? Nothing cruel was said but I’m good at picking up on nonverbal cues.

A woman my age confessed she had not eaten chocolate since she was 18. She’s 63, is thin as a pin and looks 40 to my careworn 63.

Another woman, older still, said she gave up bread and sweets when she married her first husband. She’s on husband three and they’ve just celebrated their 30th anniversary, so we’re talking more than half a century of abstinence. She too is beautiful and exquisitely preserved. 

She wears her hair long and lets it ripple down her back, defying my mother’s instruction to the young me: hair up or short after 40. Long hair, worn loose, does not work for older women. 

It worked for these women — groomed, glowing and thin.

It was my turn to be envious — and not a little ashamed. Suddenly the cake on my plate resembled a pile of sludge; peat found in a bog; volcanic lava. I could feel it settling on my thighs.

I’ve always known it but in that moment the thought crystallised into comprehension — there is no middle ground, no compromise. Be, like these women, disciplined and (like Margaret Thatcher) always a little hungry but beautiful, healthy, gymmed and age-defyingly youthful. 

Or replete and smugly satisfied but too embarrassed to look in the mirror. What I see there are my padded hips and thighs so thick I am knock-kneed. I am also breathless when I climb a flight of stairs carrying all that cake with me. My inflamed knuckles signify a surfeit of sugar; my distended liver feels hard to the touch. 

This is the language of diabetes, a disease that is fed by sugar and indulgence. Fact: obesity is believed to account for 80% to 85% of the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

I complained about the women to a friend after the cake incident. Mostly, I’m jealous that they’re thin; that they probably rose from their beds the morning after the party, no sugar hangover, ready for punishing gym sessions, smug in the knowledge that they had faced, and stared down the evils of carbs and sugar … If “get thee behind me, Satan” is their motto, they had stayed well ahead of the devil.

I slept badly and woke up with a familiar headache and aching joints.

It’s a line in the sand; us and them, my plump male friend shrugged. 

We had just ordered breakfast: a croissant with Boerenkaas cheese and artisanal raspberry jam for him, toasted brioche with bacon and fynbos honey for me. We ended with a shared coffee cake.

But I want to be like them. They’re healthier, they’ll live longer, they eat right, they exercise their bodies, exercise restraint. They’re, well, moderate.

When, 15 years ago, I realised that I was in trouble with the drink and hauled myself off to rehab to get sober, it was a choice I made to change my life.

Those thin women have had years of saying no to things that hurt their bodies. The terms abstinence and “self-care” spring to mind. 

As a result, they are comfortable in their small bodies and their little clothes. They can go into a store and grab their size off the rack and know it’ll fit. I vacillate between the large, XL and 2XL. I rarely choose sea holidays because I don’t like the sun, yes, but also because I cannot bear to be seen in anything other than a kaftan on the beach.

Name a diet and I’ve tried it — Atkins, South Beach, ketogenic, paleo, The Zone, Dukan. 

A  friend who’s lost enough weight to make a remarkable difference told me she’d just got tired of being fat. “I made a decision,” she said.

I’ve made a decision too. I’m tired of feeling tired and airless and out of control and lethargic and bloated with sore feet and a distended liver.

And so I’ve checked myself into a remarkable place of healing and am spending a month at the Body Alchemy Centre, a wellness retreat in the wintry Karoo, in the ostrich town of Oudtshoorn. 

In the mornings I can see my breath as I walk — my beanie pulled over my ears, my New York winter gloves protecting my fingers from frostbite.

Petra, the health retreat goddess, expertly pummels bodies, sticks needles in your ears for auricular acupuncture, kneads feet in reflexology, unblocks clogged lymph glands with her bare hands and heals broken spirits as she cooks nutritious food made with love and turfs you out of bed for long early-morning walks.

I am gathered in by this healer who is committed to service, whose gifts are given without self-aggrandisement or attempting to cover herself in glory. 

There is nothing luxurious or glamorous about where I am, but there are crackling fires that go all day and in front of them deep recliner chairs to curl up in.

I walk and fast and meditate and read books in front of a roaring fire or in pockets of sun on the lawn in the middle of the day. I think and write and sleep and dream.

My spirits are lifted and my heart feels a little less burdened.

Did I say I’ve lost 6kg with many to go? It’s a start.

So, in the future, am I going to say no to every piece of chocolate cake that is offered to me? Unlikely. Still, I live in the hope that I will make the right choice.

But for now, it’s about making a choice to start finding a new way to look at things.

It’s time to explore the freedom that comes from not turning diets into something that you are on. That somehow implies a time limit — I will diet until … And then what? Feast again? On cake?

Will I ever find the mind-body connection I’ve spent my life searching for? I don’t know. But I’ll let you know how I get on.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Charmain Naidoo
Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and regular Thought Leader contributor

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