Growing up, I spent a lot of time on diets. At first, it was just something I did to make my parents happy; I didn't really care too much, I had other shit to do—underwater headstands, amassing an enormous Garbage Pail Kids collection, reading about the color of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield's eyes (Pacific Ocean Blue, btw). However, as I got older and saw how much importance was placed on a woman's looks, particularly in terms of weight, I become more invested in the thought that, with enough hard work and determination, I too could one day be Long Legs Louise. I poured over diet books, back issues of Cooking Light magazine, and studied Lifetime movies about anorexia like I was a 10-year-old sociologist from Fatlandia, sent to observe the Skinny people and learn their tiny ways. My parents sent me to and enrolled me in every diet program available—Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Overeaters Anonymous, doctors, psychiatrists—you name it. However, no matter what I did, I couldn't shake the weight. The only result of my endless starvation (and the relentless bullying of middle school) was the forgotten enjoyment of all the things my body could do (skip, hopscotch, read) and a budding disappointment in my own faulty size.
Jami Attenberg, the author of the The Middlesteins, a new novel with a central character who is a compulsive overeater, had a similar childhood. After reading My History of Being Fat over at The Hairpin, I'm guessing that her main character's association with food is — at least — partially informed by Attenberg's own troubled relationship with the good stuff. She was a fat kid and now she's a socially acceptable sized adult, and it's apparent that the scars from childhood trauma cut her deep, too.
One incident strikes me as particularly rough:
In junior high school, in the advanced English class, our teacher engaged us in a verbal exercise. She wanted us to learn about the powers of description. So she had us all stand up in a circle, and everyone had to go around the room and say one word to describe the person standing. Funny, smart, etc. And when it was my turn to stand, a boy named Mark said, "Thunder thighs." Mark, you idiot, that's two words.
OMG, fire that teacher immediately and often. Middle school is hard enough as it is (playgrounds overrun with hormonal sociopaths just looking to fight, cop a feel, or get out of running the mile) without having the target on your back that extra pounds seem to earn. I remember, it was near the beginning of my seventh grade year and I was new in school; My entire math class was milling around the classroom door, waiting for our late teacher to arrive. I naturally gravitated toward the other fat girl, I think maybe subconsciously hoping that by standing next to her, I'd appear smaller. Not the case, it was as if our individual fat multiplied by 100 to make one MEGA FAT. We immediately attracted the attention of a group of guys, who began sizing us up and loudly proclaiming what was wrong with both of our bodies. I was too round, whereas she was too square. I don't know, kids are weird and have terrible snaps, but I still think about the shame and embarrassment I felt that day. All I wanted to do was cry forever, and also firestart the whole school.
So yeah, being picked on as a kid is the fucking worst.
Attenberg carries this self-hate into her adult relationships. She writes:
It is the year 2000, and I weigh around 200 pounds, a fact of which I am unaware because I never get on a scale. (Although I find it out a few weeks later in the bathroom at my brother's house, finally too curious to resist.) I am sleeping with a man who is not a very nice man, and perhaps not even particularly attractive, but he is quick-witted and sort of cool, and this covers up the not-nice part of him, at least for a period of time. Also, we are always fucked up in one way or another when we are together, either on booze or drugs, and I am still insistent on proving my own attractiveness to myself by having sex as regularly as possible, even if it is with terrible people. We are lying naked on his couch in his shitty Lower East Side basement apartment, and for some reason he is talking about other women he's seeing, and I'm starting to feel terrible about myself. It's this feeling that's creeping slowly up my spine, an unfolding self-disgust, and then he says to me, "But you know, there's something about a big girl," and, after a pause, he pats my ass, and all of a sudden I realize he's talking about me, I am that big girl.
Hold the phone. Maybe Attenberg is "that big girl," but the the main lesson here, to me, is that the boyfriend was a fucking asshole for talking about other women he's sexing, as well as fetishizing/generalizing "big girls." But when someone talks to you like this when you're fat, you're supposed to shut up and take it because it's your fault—why don't you lose the weight, heifer? Attenberg does acknowledge that he's not a good dude, but doesn't really make the leap that the problem isn't that she's big, but that he's a douche. She may in fact be big. He's still a douche. That's the problem. Ultimately, this dude's uncouth (uncouth, I say!) behavior and her sort-of acceptance of it is not so much a reflection on her weight as it is on her self-esteem.
As I grew into adulthood (process ongoing, please check back), I headed down a similar path of destructive behavior. But I got lucky, and was able to hop off that bullshitmobile before it got me into real trouble. I was already battling feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and just general sadness at the fact that I was such a different person than I was before I started dieting. Also, I was just really hungry.
I began gravitating toward a change when I moved to San Francisco and started meeting women who were just more comfortable with themselves than I was. Sure, they thought about their bodies, but more in terms of what they could do for them, not about how they looked in a short skirt. Also, I learned that all kinds of legs can look damn good in a short skirt, that clothes didn't necessarily fit them "worse" — just different. The more time I spent with these women,, the more time I was bummed by my singular obsession of being skinny in skinny jeans, a goal I'd never attain, and one that was just so damn draining. Society taught me to diet, but it also taught me to be okay with myself — that there are different ways to be okay, healthy, happy, and attractive. While these ladies brunched, I was compulsively kicking at Billy Blank's god-forsaken Tae Bo-loving face; and when they were getting late-night pizza, I was enjoying a nice glass of ice water. It was no fun, I wasn't happy, and I think my inner-fat kid was just like, "Fuck. This. When's Dinner."
Bizarrely enough, I had this revelation at fucking Weight Watchers.
There I was, sitting in a weekly meeting (that took place after my Jazzercise class, which I still love and participate in because fit is it, my friends!), gnawing my way through one of their disgusting Aspartame-flavored diet gummy candies, and my "leader" was going on and on about the fact that sure, she didn't really love eating air-popped Molly McButter-drenched popcorn-like-food, and that she'd rather have a bowl of popcorn tossed in real butter, but she needed to maintain goal weight. A light just went off in my fat-deprived head and I was like, holy fuck, what the fuck am I doing here talking about goal weight with 60 year old women who are trying to lose the last ten pounds? I don't to be doing this and I don't want Molly McButter either. Furthermore, carob can suck my dick. I want a fucking candy bar. I don't want 50 candy bars, but fuck if I'm gonna eat a fruit-juice sweetened cookie-like product called a Frookie (tm) again. I'm out.
And this is when my path takes a distinct turn in the fat girl road and I made straight for Attempting Body Acceptance Lane. Attenburg, on the other hand, took the fork in the road toward Salad Town, Population: Extreme Self Control. She lost the weight, she says, almost by accident. She had the good fortune to move into a cabin in the woods to write a book of short stories. As she poured more and more of herself into her work, she poured less and less bacon grease into her waffle batter. She was filling the hole, you guys.
She doesn't own a scale, which I think is a good call in general, so she weighs herself at a café (?) near her house.
I was at 156 with my clothes on but my shoes off, probably because I ate an entire personal pizza the night before because I found out a certain publication wasn't going to review my book. (What is it about eating an entire thing, I wonder? Is there a sense of accomplishment? Or perhaps it's that there's nothing left behind to remind you of what you just did.)
AN ENTIRE PERSONAL PIZZA!? Get a rope! Maybe she ate the whole thing because she was hungry from chronic dieting, but I am only projecting from my own days down on old diet gulch. When I dieted, it went one of two ways, either something extreme like: cabbage soup, cabbage soup, cabbage soup, all the tears, entire pizza, box of donuts, repeat. Or, I'd take a more reasonable stance, and cut calories down by a decent amount — this would always last longer, until my body would eventually revolt from the calorie deficit and start by eyeing the cat food and would only stop when I'd eaten all the carbs in the house, replaced them, and then eaten them again. So, yeah, dieting didn't really work for me — well, at least not in an enjoyable way for any period longer than a few years.
Attenberg and I were on similar trajectories, but we ended up at pretty different places. One is not better than the other, they're just different.
"...I like being responsible to myself. I like taking care of me, as much as I love food. So here I am. Alive," she writes.
That is fair, and I honestly feel the same way; I am here and Alive too. And I'm fat. And although she issues the disclaimer of, "I realize this is not how it works for everyone, but this is how it worked for me," it pains me that she correlates her thinner weight with her happiness. It's natural, but it breaks my heart a little, I'm not gonna lie. "Taking control" of your life when said in regard to weight shouldn't be synonymous with losing pounds. At least, I really don't want it to be, because that burden is not healthy. But in every article like Attenberg's that I've ever read, the one where the woman who triumphs over her hunger and emerges a svelte butterfly from her cocoon of lard, there are always tons of comments like, "Congratulations!" and, "You're an inspiration!" I'm like, really? An inspiration? I think the fact that she writes and publishes novels is a fucking inspiration, but her weight? Nope.
I don't blame Attenberg for this, or at least I really actively try not to, but it does make me sad.
I went through a lot of my life dealing with the aftermath of chronic dieting and childhood teasing, and it's those things that attempted to make me feel less than whole, less than human. It wasn't some mysterious "hole" inside of me that I was trying to stuff with Cheetos, it was put there by a society that's unrelenting when it comes to women's bodies. And it wasn't something that I ever tried to cram with snack packs; if anything, it was something that I tried to dig out and make thinner, make smaller, make gone.
We can't reframe the way society thinks and feels about weight overnight; there will always be cheering when a fat woman (or probably any woman who doesn't suffer from visible anorexia) loses weight. But we can fight damn hard for the right to be comfortable in and with our own bodies, even if it's really, really fucking hard.
I'm not telling you not to care about your body and to let go and eat your house; I know it's normal to care, it's beaten into us to care, and honestly, it's probably healthy to care about what you look like to a certain extent or we'd all walk around with toilet paper hanging out of our butt cracks and wearing polka dots in public when we're not Minnie Mouse. I just want you to know that you can get to a place where you're okay with you, and maybe for Attenberg that place involves restricting a part of her, and that's okay, ya know, but I don't want that. I want to acknowledge that shit is fucked re: weight in our society, and I want to invite myself to opt out as much as I possibly can, and if that's not always, I want to fight back. And most importantly, I want to leave my remaining brain cells open for thinking about the things that are really important to me, including loving my friends, family, and yes, delicious food.
My History of Fat [The Hairpin]
Image via Sergio33/ Shutterstock.