So on Sunday, I’m at the grocery store. There’s a short line. I’m glancing about in boredom, willing my eyes to float past the gossip headlines — so my eyes settle on the other magazines. Bright and shiny things, they are, after all, and they draw the eyes — thonk! — straight to them.
I note a pattern. I start to count.
One, two, three, four… holy crow, five! No, six. Wait! Seven – and there’s eight! Eight magazines geared toward women with cover lines about weight loss.
Nine, if you count bon appetit‘s “Low Fat Cooking Secrets.”
Oprah, on the other hand, Oprah is classy. She doesn’t offer me diet tips. She presents me with a “Special Report”: “Your Relationship with Food.”
Frankly, my favorite — even to the exclusion of the (I’m certain) very Special Report — was the magazine that told me that I could “Walk off Weight” (that’s at least about increasing movement, right? That’s a good thing, right?) and then added, in a slightly smaller font: “PLUS: Get Your Diet Back on Track.”
Because, you see, it’s presumed that I am, in fact, on a diet. I’m a woman, right? It’s presumed that I’m on a diet, and that said diet is likely “off-track.” It’s presumed that I’m on a diet, it’s off-track, and I want to put it to rights. That diet of mine, boy oh boy, I can’t stick to it, but I sure wish I could!
There’s a level at which I’m not even angry about these things anymore. We’re struggling with a psychosis, a body dysmorphia of national proportions, and the truth is that we’re not even really struggling — we kind of gave up before the fight even began.
And so I will say it, loud and bold: “Dieting” is not a way of life! “Weight loss” is not an essential female concern! Our “relationship with food” should be, dare I say it, one of enjoyment! Or none at all — because it’s fuel!
But no. This is not the approach we take. We take a term that is (at the very least) fuzzy in definition — “thin” — and turn it into a totem: God and stick, item of worship and tool for punishment.
If you aren’t thin, you not only must be, you must want to be — and we will tell you what thin is. We will tell you what is enough, or too much, for you, with little or no input from you. Because more than any real God — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Flying Spaghetti Monster — this is what Americans worship. More than money, heaven knows — because if you’re rich but fat? You’re really just fat. (If, of course, you’re a woman). This is our shared narrative. This is perhaps the one thing all Americans — Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Anarchists, Independents, the quick and the lame — can get behind: If you have lady parts, you need to be “thin.”
So I fume and I fuss within the confines of my head, and then, in a clear case of the internet reading my mind, I run across the following on Jezebel: I Used To Be a Skinny Person.
I used to be really, really thin. People were always telling me I was so thin. Like a compliment. And I brushed it off and even pretended to be a little offended, because “thin” shouldn’t mean “pretty.”
Now I’m less thin. And I’m betting I’ll keep getting less and less thin. That’s the way these things seem to work. And suddenly I start to wonder what happens when “thin” means “pretty” and you’re no longer thin. What do people say, then? You know what’s scary? They say, “You look so thin in that.”
My inclination when I gained weight was to feel pretty good about it. I’d been too thin after not remembering to eat through much of grad school, and I had just met my fiancé, and I was happy. We were eating together constantly, out of joy. He clearly thought I was gorgeous, my breasts were not quite as non-existent as before, life was good.
I was obviously oblivious. I hadn’t learned a really, really important lesson. Which is the following:
It is NEVER ok to gain weight.
Emphasis, the author’s.
She does offer up one universally acknowledged exception: It is NEVER ok to gain weight, Kate Fridkis writes, unless you’re “recovering from a disease” — but having never been a skinny person, I can attest to the fact that, in fact, even that’s not so. When I had major surgery for a potentially life-threatening condition that landed me in the hospital for a week and spat me back out pale, wan, and hungry — I was getting complimented right, left and center. “Have you lost weight? You look great!”
As I’ve said in this space before, I don’t think we even really know how to talk about these things (anymore? Did we ever? I don’t know). I’ve said that we can’t even use the word “normal” with any degree of confidence. I know, intellectually, that there is some point at which health, good sense, and attractiveness meet, but I can’t even begin to talk about it seriously — every word is too fraught, and too many lives are daily ruined or diminished in this battle. I don’t want to risk adding to the destruction, even inadvertantly.
But here’s what I do know: I am not the only one who knows how to read. My daughter — along with all the other little girls who pass through American grocery stores — also does.
And I reclaim my anger when I begin to think of what these words may be doing to her.
8/16/11 update: Please also read this, about new studies showing that “fat” and “healthy” are not – hey, surprise! – necessarily mutually exclusive terms.