On Health

By JoAnna Novak

Essay

JNovak

There is no clear path around the Park District. I’m one of sixty-four second graders led across busy Wolf Road in Burr Ridge, a small suburb dense with green and white ash trees. It’s 1993. Cars idle as we dawdle through the crosswalk.

I’m in the middle of the line, my last name centered in the alphabet, but I wish I could fall back. I wish I could hide in the chapter book stacks at the library or chisel out my linoleum block print in the art room. As a new kid at Pleasantdale, I don’t like gym class, where I’m reminded of my lack of friends every time we form teams. I also don’t like this walk, which means we’re running the mile.

I’m not the worst-looking girl. But I’m close: chubby plus homely. I have round cheeks. A pudgy stomach. Legs like tree trunks rather than twigs. My hair is a brown mushroom, and every girl at my new school seems smaller and blonder than the last. Even my front teeth came in too large for my mouth. Sometimes I wish I could just be fat—really fat—so I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle.

Woolf_Emma

As my second book The Ministry of Thin comes out this month, the question I keep being asked is this: what does a ‘recovered anorexic’ have to tell us about body image and feminism?

Quite a lot actually. I believe that, as women, our desire for thin is getting way out of control. I believe that many women who do not have an actual eating disorder have profoundly disordered eating; diets such as 5:2 are normalising deeply abnormal habits. You may roll your eyes (as I do) at the crazy tongue-patchers, drip dieters, intermittent fasters. You may laugh at the Werewolf or Vampire or Caveman devotees. But no matter how feisty or feminist you think you are, I bet you’d like to lose weight. 

When I first read The New York Times write-up “Fiona Apple Faces Outwards”, I am struck by how deeply her transformation over the past seven years from big-eyed girl-woman to gaunt and isolated artist has affected me. Apple was always talented, but this write-up of The Idler Wheel encapsulates how Apple has transcended the fleeting pop stardom that is often offered to young, attractive female artists and has instead become a full-fledged musical auteur.

What has happened to gay male porn? What has happened to gay male self-image? Not that either has ever been built on an overly strong sense of self, but I’d be amiss not to notice the growing trend from within gay culture to look like gay male porn stars, while gay male porn stars are, more and more, looking like über-masculine dudes. Let’s get one thing straight (no pun intended): Gay male pornography of today is not filled with mages of “gay” men; gay male pornography of today is filled with projections of the aggressive, competitive male, suppressed of emotion while engaging in one sexual conquest after another: they are images of a hegemonic masculinity fucking itself.

A friend of mine said something to me the other day:

“A man would rather date a smoker than a woman who is overweight.”

Another friend of mine confessed that she dislikes overweight people. “Not just the usual chubby that we all get to be from time to time,” she said, “but really fat people. “ She told me just couldn’t find anything to relate to. Felt nothing but disdain and disappointment and from the sounds of it, actual contempt.

And both of these women are people that I consider to be kind, understanding, generous, humanitarians. People who care about people. Give-you-the-shirt-off-their-back types.

I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. As someone who has struggled my whole life with weight issues, I have been plagued by these two conversations ever since.

* * * * *

My own eating disorder started way back in the days when my devout parents would celebrate Lent; a time when ‘Good’ Catholics deny themselves simple pleasures to commemorate Christ’s time spent in the desert wrestling with Satan before his eventual crucifixion and consequent resurrection.

During those six weeks, my family and I would strike “Alleluia” from our Lenten lexicon, we’d double-up on our cake-walk confessionals (I lied to my mom, I cussed at my brother), we’d get contact-highs from the incense overload, and we’d don our purple dresses and palm fronds for the live-action parade on Palm Sunday, complete with ugly shouts from the crowd and a live donkey.

But the biggest thing I remember, other than switching our Friday night McDonald’s orders to Filet-O-Fish Happy Meals (hardly representational of Christ’s forty-day fast-a-thon), was the easy opportunity to lose weight without the embarrassing admission of being on a diet.

I would sacrifice chocolate (or candy, or French fries, or BBQ potato chips) not because eating it was so hedonistic and giving it up was cause for canonization, but because maybe I would feel more Christ-like if my ribcage stuck out from my bathing suit bikini top – akin to skeletal representations as painted by Goya or Caravaggio.

I would be a better Catholic (person) if I were a thinner Catholic (person).

* * * * *

When one uses the words “eating” and “disorder” together, the phrase often invokes images of either Karen Carpenter** or Mo’Nique.

I was neither.

I was the girl who ate her problems.

I would use food to mask the agony of being imperfect.

When I was twelve years old, and I couldn’t lift my body in some sort of “simple” contortion that should have required hydraulics vs. mere under-developed ‘tween arms, my gymnastics coach, tired of heaving me onto the uneven parallel bars, said: “If you want to win, you have to lose weight.”

And thus, a lifetime of chronic fasting began.

I blame Mary Lou Retton.

* * * * *

That, my friends, is not just an eating disorder, it’s a billion-dollar industry.

Thinking I would morph to the shape of whatever skinny spokesmodel was hawking it, I spent years and years following one fad diet after another, each time with moderate results and the consequent return of the lost pounds, plus five.

When I was thirty-three, the same age as Christ as he hung on his cross, I was a scale-tipping 188 lbs at 5’-5”: well beyond most physicians’ recommended limit.

It was then I decided to stop the cycle.

I had to break the fast.

Just like I had lost the weight of Religion (note the capital “R”) so many years before, I had to lose the literal and figurative weight of constant dieting by — can you believe it? — eating.

However.

I had to gain control over what I was eating. How I was eating. When I was eating. Rather than stuff my face, I had to face my stuff.  Talk myself through emotional difficulties. Claim responsibility for my actions. Release myself from pressures that weren’t mine to take on. Forgive myself when I felt like a failure. Forgive others when they failed me.

Turned out, food had very little to do with my eating.

I had to ‘Let Go and Let God’ (as it were).

So NOT dieting became my new religion (note the small “r”). Never again would I categorize food as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”. Nor would I blame my problems on a hapless pork chop. I would not be afraid to admit that I wasn’t perfect to other people, OR to myself. I would not judge others based on their appearance. I would not judge myself based upon my reflection.

I would stop repeating my daily mantra: “If I could, I would liposuction my entire body.”

I would finally allow myself to fail; but in that permission, I found success.

It took 18 long months, much more than 40 days, to find that kind of self-acceptance.

I still struggle with it every single day.

It’s my cross to bear.

Comparably, my own effort may seem small next to Christ’s temptations in the desert, but I feel like wrestling with the demon of self-acceptance is a hell of a lot closer to what Christ did for forty days than what I used to do by selfishly giving up M&Ms or French fries.

I’ll happily down a Filet Mignon (4 oz, sans bacon) on Fridays since I know that I’ve long-suffered for self-acceptance.

In fact, I’ll follow it with a decadent, dark chocolate-covered strawberry, injected with Grand Marnier.

But only one though.

The fast may be over, but so is the feast.

* * * * *

**That link is to SUPERSTAR, quite possibly the most brilliant Todd Haynes film, ever. When you have 43 spare minutes, WATCH IT!!!**