Growing up, my best friend had a candy drawer in her kitchen. I don't mean the kind of drawer with snacks and candy mixed in with other kitchen flotsam. I mean that some adult in her house had designated an entire kitchen drawer specifically for Jolly Ranchers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and full-size Snickers bars. I spent many a sleepover at her house, watching The Nanny while painting my toenails, and accruing a childhood's worth of memorable anecdotes. But no matter what we did, my mind was only half engaged. The other half was in the kitchen, lurched over the candy drawer, trying to figure out how much I could take without anyone noticing. Needless to say, I didn't have a candy drawer in my house, and as an adult, I never kept candy in my own apartment. Even after I quit dieting, I was so accustomed to thinking of myself as someone who couldn't handle the presence of candy in the house, let alone having it out for the taking. Then, last fall, I moved in with my boyfriend, and his candy bowl. We moved into the apartment the day after Halloween, and somehow wound up with a bag of discounted Three Musketeers bars sitting on our brand new kitchen counter, amid all the move-in chaos. "Can I put them in your turquoise bowl?" Harry asked. Looking around at the maze of boxes and bubble wrap, the thought of anything being unpacked sounded good, so I gave an emphatic thumbs-up. Cut to: A few weeks later, the bowl now sitting on our coffee table, Harry noted how nice it was to have this little bowl of treats out, and maybe we could make it a regular thing. "For guests!" he added. I raised an eyebrow, wary of his motives. But, no matter. The Halloween leftovers would be gone soon, I certainly wouldn't be shopping for candy refills, and surely he'd forget about the whole thing, too. Fade in: A few weeks after that, Harry came home with — how best to describe it? — a goddamn sack full of candy from a party supply store. Oh, there were Hershey's Kisses of all varieties, Lemonheads, Cry Babies, Gobstoppers, and those tiny toffee bars they sell at Ikea. This was my come-to-Jesus moment. "So…this is going to be a candy bowl, officially." "Yeah!" "You'd like us to have a candy bowl, just out, like, forever." "I would like that, yes." It was one of those conversations you have very carefully. My mind swung between an old, familiar anxiety I felt around all processed sugar, and the brand new neurosis of someone who's just moved in with her boyfriend and has to choose her battles. That's when I looked down at the newly dubbed candy bowl and realized I didn't have to choose anything. I'd been living with a candy bowl for over a month and had barely noticed it. I didn't think about it once, except when Harry drew my attention to it or a visiting friend asked if they could take a piece, please. I'd tell them, "Yes, of course." "Are you sure? I don't want to deplete your supply." "It's just candy, not meth. You can't have my meth."
"People who live with a designated candy drawer, unlocked and accessible at all times, don't generally obsess over their stash. That's because it's not a stash to them."
I thought back to my elementary school self, frantically calculating how much I could sneak out of my friend's family candy drawer. Suddenly, I realized that I could have emptied half of it, and no one would have batted an eyelash. People who live with a designated candy drawer, unlocked and accessible at all times, don't generally obsess over their stash. That's because it's not a stash to them. It's not a secret or a crime. It's a thing they don't think much about unless they're in the mood for a Hershey's Kiss. I used to think those kind of people were up there with the natural blondes and piano prodigies — people who were just different (better?) than people like me, and who possessed skills that could not be taught. I was half right. They did possess something I didn't have: food security. Well, candy security. To be clear, the term "food insecurity" is typically used to describe a lack of sustained access to an adequate food supply. It can be applied to whole countries or individual households, and depending on the degree of severity, food insecurity incites not only dire ramifications on health and mortality, but serious anxiety and mental strain. The issue of nation and worldwide hunger is nothing short of an atrocity, and that's why I don't want to conflate it with the food insecurity that a lifelong dieter experiences. But the fact of this phenomenon is real, and frankly, even more appalling when framed within the context of our global hunger problem.
As a lifelong dieter, candy was never allowed or available. That's why I treated it like something to be hoarded whenever I found myself alone with this forbidden fruit. It didn't matter if I was in the mood for sweets or even if it was the kind of candy I liked. My brain was conditioned to just smash and grab, adding to my stash or stuffing my face because this might be my last chance. Whether it was an adult walking into the room or the next diet taking over my life, candy and all its sugary brethren could be locked away at any moment. When I quit dieting and began the intuitive eating process, I made a point of creating food security for myself, specifically around the foods I'd behaved so bonkers around: potatoes, bagels, grapes, and hamburgers. But candy? I was right to fear it, surely. It never occurred to me that I needed to quell my candy angst because, while those other foods served a purpose, in my mind, candy was just junk that nobody needed. Of course, that kind of thinking is exactly why I did need it — in a bowl, in my apartment, totally available at all times. That anxiety created the need, and vice versa. So, when I fulfilled the need (or, my boyfriend did — thanks, baby!) the anxiety vanished. So did my compulsive behavior around Hershey's Kisses. It's been almost four months now, and my interest in the candy bowl remains consistently meh. There was one premenstrual afternoon when I forgot to eat lunch until 4 p.m. and was suddenly overcome with a desire for something sweet, grabbing a few pieces from the bowl on impulse. But other than that, I just don't notice it on a daily basis. On average, I check out the candy bowl about once a week, picking through for a Lemonhead to suck on while I'm forcing Harry to watch America's Sweethearts (I've learned to pick my battles well). You just can't tell yourself to stop obsessing over Hershey's Kisses and expect your brain to say, "Roger that! Deleting all anxiety, behavior patterns, and personal history in regards to chocolate products." Perhaps that would be possible if you committed to a lifetime of deep psychological work or a partial lobotomy. Or, you could just get yourself a candy bowl. Fill it with all the sweet stuff you're most afraid of and keep it in plain sight. Have some whenever you want and keep that sucker well-stocked. Maybe your brain will freak out at first, telling you to scarf down everything in the bowl, and then lick the bottom. But if you keep the candy bowl around regardless, that voice in your head will quiet down, quick. We just don't behave that way around the mundane and plentiful things in our lives. When your brain knows it's not going anywhere, it doesn't hold onto it for dear life. Okay, maybe it's not that simple. But it's definitely not that complicated.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at email@example.com. If you just want to say "Hi," that's cool, too.