Fat and Feminist: Reflections on a 9 Day Experiment
For a long time now, I have been thinking about how I might tackle the intersecting subjects of food, fat, and health in this space. These are topics that so permeate every aspect of my internal dialogue that to not address them would feel disingenuous, and yet they are scary things to comment on publicly. This is vulnerable territory for me. Every inch of it is fraught and messy-- a place of powerful struggle. Struggle to be thinner, stronger, more disciplined. Struggle to be smarter, prouder, more deeply rooted in my political convictions that the whole myth of beauty = thinness is a garbage heap of toxic bullshit.
This week I am reading Roxane Gay’s stunning memoir Hunger. To say it resonates is an understatement. It is like a Mack truck to the heart. It is worth pointing out that I am what Gay refers to as “Lane Bryant fat,” meaning that there are some experiences at the far end of the thin-to-fat spectrum I have not had to endure. For example, I my clothing choices, while less than ideal, are not nearly as limited as for much larger women. I have never been afraid that a chair in a restaurant won’t hold me, or that I will be asked purchase an extra ticket on a plane. My size is not so large that strangers feel the need to point or comment on it. These are just some of the dehumanizing punishments and humiliations that our society reserves for very large folks. I recognize that their pain, their stories, are not the same as my own. Still, I found myself bookmarking a ridiculous number of pages in Gay’s book. There is so much I could comment on, so many quotes I could point to, but you should all just run out right now and read it for yourselves. I have cried over so many passages. For example:
“Before I got on the plane, my best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat on the plane, but I denied myself that. I told her, ‘People like me don’t get to eat food like that in public.’ and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said. Only the depth of our relationship allowed me to make this revelation and then I was ashamed for buying into these terrible narratives we fit ourselves into and I was ashamed at how I am so terrible about disciplining my body and I was ashamed by how I deny myself so much and it is still not enough” (147).
The shame I feel as a smart, educated fat woman who has never been able to eradicate either the fat or the desire to be thin is a slippery, layered thing. It is a tangled heap of emotion and images and ideas and associations that would probably make for a very good graduate thesis. Except that I already went to graduate school and am never going back. Except that I am an (almost) 35 year old, grown-assed woman who is supposed to have figured this shit out by now. I am smart (did I mention that already? Are you aware that I went to graduate school?), and yet, in so many ways, I still feel plagued by secret the fear that I am actually very dumb. After decades of grappling with all of this, I still can’t quite figure it out.
I recently completed a nine day cleanse that I reluctantly undertook with the support of my kind personal trainer, who I see twice a week for an intense and sweaty half hour of weight training. I say ‘reluctantly’ for so many reasons, but they all come down to fear of one sort or another--fear of ending up one of those crazy women from the 80’s who always on some sort of insane and dangerous fad diet; fear of violating my feminist beliefs; fear of being seen as fat-phobic; fear of having to relinquish my identity as a proud woman who loves everything to do with eating and cooking; fear of having to actually live for 9 days without dairy or bread or sugar or coffee. Above all, the fear of making a serious misstep in my quest to raise daughters whose relationship with food is not as painful and confusing as mine has been.
I strive, always, to guild my girls towards a love and appreciation for their own bodies, and for the power and pleasures of food. We talk about balancing ‘power foods’ with treats, we talk about moderation, but it is important to me that there is never any shame around any particular food, or around being a woman with an appetite, or having a body that jiggles and takes up space. This is not always easy. I have had to hold back tears more than once that have welled up in reaction to honest responses my daughters have had to my body. Mothering is not for the faint of heart.
I am a hungry woman who loves all kinds of food. It has taken me a long time to admit that this is a cornerstone of my personality, because I grew up believing in the unspoken rule that cool girls, cute girls, feminine girls, do not really like eating. I felt so embarrassed as a kid when I would eat dinner and my girlfriends’ houses and their mothers would praise me for being ‘such a good eater.’ I knew that their approval was in direct proportion to my friends’ disapproval. Eating too much or with too much enthusiasm was gross. The prettiest girls, the ones the boys liked best, were constantly being scolded for not eating enough. It has taken me most of my adult life, but I have finally (kind-of-sort-of) gotten over this. If I had to choose one person to thank for this shift , it would probably be Nigella Lawson. As a teenager, there was something absolutely transformational about watching this gorgeous, obviously sexy woman wallow in unabashed pleasure as she slurped a bowl of linguine or tucked in to a voluptuous pavlova. Nigella wrote about food using a vocabulary I had previously understood to be totally taboo, language that evoked love and deep sensory pleasure and even lust. She celebrate the female appetite, while my instinct had always been to hide it, to push it down.
So why did I do I agree when my trainer suggested this cleanse? Well, one answer is that my husband, listening to me slowly spinning into some sort of panic as I tried to articulate the heavy complexities of my reservations, simply said, “It’s only 9 days--what is the worst that could happen, really? Does it have to be about all those things? Could you just try something new and see what happens?” And of course he was right. I talk a good game to my oldest daughter about the importance of trying hard and scary things, of taking courageous first steps even when you are nervous or uncomfortable, given that you know you are not actually in danger. Here was a chance for me to walk my talk. Maybe I could frame this undertaking in terms of trying something new and hard. I could model being vulnerable and just a little bit brave.
Another answer would be that, if I am being honest, I often feel pretty crappy. I am usually exhausted, because my children are adorable demons who rarely sleep, but also because I stay up way too late watching random stuff on YouTube. I battle this by drinking what most people would call obscene amounts of coffee. While I am watching said YouTube stuff, I am usually indulging in some sort of not-very-healthful late night snack to celebrate the fact that for the first time that day no one is making a mess for me to clean up or requiring me to fetch them something.
Also, if I am being very honest, I hate that I have all of these clothes that I love from before Mae was born that don’t really fit anymore. They hang in my closet, taunting me, reminding me how cool and (relatively) fashionable I used to be. I dream of wearing whatever I want and looking the way I want to look in it. That sounds shallow, I know, but there you have it.
But the best answer might be that, even though I am (obviously) still a hot mess in this department, I am finally at a stage of life when I have been able to decouple my body image from my self worth to some extent. I have a family and a partner and friends who love me regardless. I do not doubt that. That is one of the amazing gifts of my 30’s.
And so, I did it. The three first days were excruciating and exhausting. There was some yelling, and some weeping, and a lot of complaining (sorry family and select friends!). I went to bed at 9:30 one night. But then then it became not so bad. Some things were very hard, and some things, surprisingly, were not. Here are some things I learned:
All of those doctors/experts/etc. who claim that less sugar and caffeine actually leads to feeling better and having more energy are not, in fact, the liars I previously suspected them to be. Shocker. Having removed those foods and drinks (mostly) from my system, I do not actually want to go back.
Some of my bad habits, it turns out, were not actually bringing increased joy and pleasure to my life, and removing them did not lead to feelings of deprivation. These include eating all of the remaining food on my children’s plates because I do not want to waste it, grazing on delicious garbage late at night (see above), and eating copious amounts of bread and muffins all the livelong day.
I actually appreciated coffee more once I began to limit its amount. I became very conscious of when I would enjoy my tiny two cups of half-caf. I ritualised their consumption, really willing myself to enjoy them fully. Bonus: because I was not propping myself up on caffeine, I was suddenly going to bed early and waking up on my own before everyone else, a previously unheard of phenomenon. This meant I could enjoy my little mug of joy alone on the porch with a book. With a book, I tell you! On a weekday morning! I still can’t quite believe it.
The hardest moments for me were social situations where everyone was sharing the experience of eating or drinking something truly delicious without me. For example, I attended not one but two barbeques during the 9 days, both of which featured amazing spreads of my very favourite things. I survived, I resisted, but it was painful. Which lead me to the following (rather obvious) revelations:
There will always be another party. If I don’t eat it today, it will still exist tomorrow. One aspect of my privilege is that I do not actually experience the injustice of food scarcity, as so many others do. I can say no to something knowing that I can enjoy it another day.
I should remove all of those things that bring me no joy and make me feel like crap, and enjoy those things that do bring me actual happiness with abandon, but only on weekends and special occasions.
For me, the beauty of feasting is social. I love feeding people, and enjoying food in community with those I love. I will never, ever give this up. When I am alone, however, feeding myself breakfast or lunch on a weekday, I can still find pleasure and beauty if fresh, wholesome foods while limiting or eliminating certain foods that can be problematic for me. I actually kind of enjoy the possibility inherent in such restriction--kind of like challenging myself to work in form poetry as opposed to always choosing free verse, or painting with a restricted palate. There is immense creativity within limitations, though it is easy to forget that. The shift here is more mental than physical, a choice to focus on what is available rather than what is not.
In the end, I am really glad I undertook this cleanse, hellish though it was at times. It was a good exercise in remembering that most of the things we fear will happen when we jump into the unknown do not actually come to pass. In fact, some really great things can happen when we let ourselves lean in to discomfort with an open-ish mind. It is also a reminder that I have the power to frame my choices in new ways, to decide what they mean for me. I hope I did an okay job articulating this particular choice to my children in a way that does not cause them harm. In any case, I believe in my gut that it is healthy for them to see me struggle to figure things out, fail, and struggle some more. They need to know that I am still a work in progress so that when they are approaching 35 and still don’t know what the fuck they are doing, they hopefully won’t feel so alone.
In one particularly powerful passage from Hunger, Gay writes about the look that people give her when they meet her for the first time, expecting to see someone who looks different because their image of a successful woman from a beautiful family does not match up with how she appears. She is not who they expect to meet. She writes:
“I know the look well. I’ve seen it many, many times at family gatherings and celebrations. It’s hard to take. It crushes whatever shreds of confidence I muster. This isn’t in my head. This isn’t poor self-esteem. This is what comes from years of being the fat one in a beautiful family. For so long I’ve never talked about this. I suppose we should keep our shames to ourselves, but I’m sick of this shame. Silence hasn’t worked out that well. 223
This isn’t the first time I have talked or written about this stuff, but it is always very hard and very scary. It takes me a long time to compose each paragraph, because I have to think so hard about how much to say and how to say it. I want to be part of the much larger conversation about these issues because it is the only way to change the way we treat people of size, not to mention the way we treat ourselves. But it sucks to be this vulnerable, it truly does. At the end of the day, though, I am old enough to know that, as Gay points out, silence rarely works out well.