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When I meet the father of my children, he is muscled and brown-skinned with freckled shoulders from swimming in the ocean in the midday California sun. I am a protozoan. Soft and open. Absorbing everything. When I change, we change. This pattern will repeat. By the time our children are born, my husband is shaped like the Buddha. I don’t mind the change in his shape. He doesn’t mind the change in mine. There are other things that will come between us and end us, but the shape of our bodies is inconsequential. Later there would come the confusion of how my body would be regarded as it aged, what my shape would telegraph to the next person who loved me. When our marriage ends, I am lean and shrewd. An apex predator.

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. 

If you have access to the Internet, and use it for something other than checking for winks on Match.com,  you may have read how the lovely folks at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have discovered a new particle they believe to be the Higgs boson, affectionately known by us laypeople as the “God particle.” The LHC is a 17-mile tube situated a football field or so below ground outside Geneva, near the Swiss-Franco border.  In this tube, ridiculously smart physicists are able to accelerate tiny particles called protons to nearly the speed of light by using 1,600 superconducting magnets, each of which weighs almost 60,000 pounds. And for these magnets to work properly, they must be cooled to a soul-crushing temperature of -456.25 degrees Fahrenheit, which is two degrees colder than outer space.

The Jenny Craig Weight Loss Center I knew was located in one of the blank-faced strip malls that  make  up  a majority  of the  commercial architecture where I grew up. South Florida is a place where impermanence is part of the culture—the result of the collective influence of hurricanes, tourism, and retirees. This atmosphere of change persists today in storefront  plastic surgery shops, where you can buy a new shape  or a more  expressionless  face on your lunch hour.

I took a while reviewing Diana Spechler’s new novel, Skinny because I was too busy trying to fit into itty bitty shorts at Banana Republic. I tried to do double-duty—reading some of the book while I waited in line—but it was too confusing. All those size zero mannequins that looked like Gray Lachmann, the protagonist of Skinny and her co-counselors at “fat camp” telling me to go to work out, while a new, blank document in MS Word sat on my desk at home saying feed me!

Dear Dust

I DARE you to print this. I know you won’t. And when you don’t, I’m going to start posting this on comment boards around the site.

Why? Because I’ve been studying “The Dust” ever since the (I won’t say your, because you are not you) first column. I’ve done a good deal of research: cross-checking, old posts, word comparisons, repetitions, likely suspects. And I’ve finally narrowed your identity down to one person.

A few weeks ago, a prominent newspaper ran an article with the headline: “Women Who Drink Gain Less Weight.” I suspect I was not the only woman who resolved to hit the bottle at once, inspired by promises of alcohol-assisted svelteness. I would be buzzed and beautiful. Liquored up and lithe. Snockered and skinny. I would lose my unloved love handles. The close relationship my thighs had with one another would yield to a passing acquaintanceship. I resolved to buy the big bottle of Maker’s at Costco asap.

Beneath the encouraging declaration was a picture of icy cocktails in slim wineglasses. My girlfriends and I would order extra rounds, tightening our belts as our evenings progressed. We would not be those girls. The ones who drink for the wrong reasons. Men would love us – yes – but they would love us for our steadfast resolve. The investment would be sort of like paying for a gym membership.

I envisioned the Holy Grail: Smaller jeans. I would look great sipping scotch in smaller jeans.

I had not read the article. The (dormant) attorney in me kicked in. The headline did not promise weight loss. It did, however, quite clearly declare that drinkers would gain less weight. I adjusted my enthusiasm accordingly. My jeans size was ok. I would save money on new clothes, both smaller and bigger.

Still, I did not read. I considered less attractive reasons for drunken weight stability. Do women who drink more gain less weight because they pass out before making late-night runs through the Jack in the Box drive-thru for curly fries? Does the cost of alcohol deplete their food budgets?

I’m not a big drinker. Two drinks over the course of an evening does me fine. Maybe three if it’s a very long evening. How much more would I need to drink? Would I need to invest in a flask from which to nip throughout the day? Where does one buy a flask? Are they expensive? Because I would want a really nice one.

I read. The dormant attorney in me was pissed. And not in the way she planned to be.

The article describes a study that does not endorse the promising declaration of the headline.  It ends with the caveat that the study’s findings do not mean that women should drink to lose weight; rather they suggest that women with weight problems are probably not getting their extra calories through alcohol consumption.

It seems I was not the only one peeved with the writer. I did not read all 356 comments, but a number of physicians dismissed the writer’s reasoning as simplistic and chastised her for giving women false hope and potentially harmful advice. Quite a few “fattie” and “drunkard” bashers chimed in. Some provided thoughtful commentary about whether the results of the study were meaningful, in that they did not take into account lifestyle choices, such as drinking sugary sodas or smoking.

A particularly sage commenter agreed that the study was missing an essential component: Wealthy men. By marrying one, she has been able to maintain her petite bottom by going to the gym before hitting the expensive wine with her rich girlfriends or personal trainer.

Her observation is compelling in its simplicity. Though anecdotal, it is difficult to argue with her logic. Longitudinal studies are unnecessary. I am disappointed in myself for not having pursued this avenue.

Upcoming headline: The Sugar Daddy Diet: The Bigger His Wallet, the Smaller Your Jeans.


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!!!**