Thursday, July 29, 2004

Weighing In


I loathe clothes shopping.

I've hated shopping for clothes since I was about eleven or twelve, when my mother could no longer find my size in the children's section and had to drag me - kicking and screaming - into the women's section of Mervyn's to find a pair of jeans that actually fit me (this was back before there were "teen" sizes/sections). At the time, I was horrified at what I saw as the out-of-control escalation of my weight. I'd been hounded about being overweight since I was about five or six, and being dragged to the women's section of the store just before the sixth grade was just about all I could handle.

I had failed. It was all over.

A year or so later, I started bleeding.

Women's section, indeed.

What, did I expect I was going to stay on the kid's side forever?

But in fact, most women I know rebel with mortal terror against the escalation of fat that their bodies kick in during and after puberty. All that hip, thigh and butt weight is quickly being toted as the next big "epidemic" threatening the Civilized World, `cause someone with a fat ass is taking up too much room on the subway.

You want to know what the number one cause of death is, worldwide?

Infectious and parasitic diseases, also related to poor health care and malnutrition. Funny, I wouldn't have guessed that.

But let's not get too far off topic. I was ranting here.

So I went looking for a pair of pants the other day. I'm not a small woman. I've vacillated between 175lbs (my preferred "fighting weight") and 270lbs (my highest benchmark, which I hit briefly when I was 18) for the last twelve years. The war against my body is ongoing.

According the infamous and ludicrous BMI "charts" that the US health and diet industry continues to promulgate, I have to be 168lbs in order to be at a "normal" weight for a woman. Most of the people I go to high school with would say 150. Hollywood would say 130. Everyone would say, and has said: Less is more.

As a woman, there should be less of you.

For the entirety of my life, I've been told that there should be less of me. Going clothes shopping reminds me of this.

I am fascinated at the American fear of fat people not only because it was so often directed toward me, but even more because I direct it at other people. I'll be at the grocery store, watching some fat-ass stacking up doughnuts and rice crispy treats, and I'll start an internal diatribe against The Fat. I'm standing next to my own cart whose contents rarely change from week to week: strawberries, bananas, lean ground pork, skinless chicken breasts, string cheese, half & half, eggs, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, green onions. There's not an ounce of shit in my entire cart. If I'm feeling especially rebellious, I might add some whole wheat pitas or rice noodles.

All this health: boxing classes twice a week, a climbing class on Sunday, bike ride on Saturday, and starting today - jogging once a week: and I don't look like a fucking supermodel. I will never look like a supermodel. I will never, in fact, be even 150lbs, unless I want to work out three hours every day and look like I walked out of Auschwitz. I don't have that sort of body, or that sort of metabolism.

So I stare at my whole wheat pitas and growl at the Fat Masses who allow themselves the luxury of chocolate eclairs and doritoes.

And, of course, I am ever cognizant of the woman behind me: a thin blond cheerleader type sneering at *my* fat ass and lusting after my whole wheat pitas while she looks down at the apples and non-fat milk she's bought to sustain her for the week.

I've been told my body's all wrong for most of my life. First, because I was a "girl" which somehow had a world of meaning outside of the way I actually viewed myself (you know - as a person). There were and are things that "girls" do that make them girls, and if you don't do them, you start to feel a little like a failure. I don't wear makeup. I don't carry a purse. I don't dress fem: that means no skirts, no dresses. I can't dance. I can't sew. My cooking skills are merely adequate. I'm not thin (a recent addendum to the "being female" camp). I'm too tall (5'9 is the average height of the American male, not the American female). My feet are too big, like giant portable skis (size 11). My breasts are too small. I have the wrong color hair (brown, not blond). I don't like soap operas. I don't like romance novels. I don't like big butch men. I don't like girls enough. I can defend myself from most threats. I know how to change a tire. I have too much education. I'm loud. I'm opinionated. I speak out of turn. I swear a lot. I drink beer. I don't care much for roses. I find syrupy sentiments exasperating.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to be smaller, quieter, to dress the way I was supposed to, to stop talking about myself, to pretend I was stupider, to pretend I read less and partied more. But at the end of the day, that only made me more miserable.

I remember a highschool boy friend hauling me home after school one day and saying, "I have to show you something."

He pulled out a book of ancient Greek art and opened it to full color pages of nude and partially nude statues and portraits of women. Anyone who's seen a lot of Greek work and its Renaissance imitators knows that their female subjects tend to be hourglass or pear-shaped women, fleshy, intimidating figures big in the hips and thighs. They often look like they could thwart an onrushing chariot merely by holding out one strong arm.

"See," this guy said to me, reverently turning the pages of the art book. "These are real women. This is the way women are supposed to look. This is how you look."

I likely should have been flattered. A lot of the men I've met expect me to be flattered when they compliment me, as if their opinions are some sort of manna from heaven. In fact, I was startled.

"How women are supposed to look?" Isn't that the whole problem? Men deciding how I'm supposed to look, and giving me a grade based on their opinion? Who the hell gave you white male assumption of privilege to assess my worth? Oh, that's right: you were born white and male. Congratulations. Manna from heaven.

And really, this is what it all came down to.

When I stepped back and looked at the Fat Issue as being about class, about affluent people looking for another way to look down on poor people, sure, that made a lot of sense too. Weight loss symbolizes sacrifice and restraint and good pious Christianity, which would, of course, be really popular in Puritan America. Hungry women get more media attention. Hungry women get more attention, period.

"You're so thin! Did you lose weight!" is considered the highest of compliments.

The reply to that, in fact, should be, "Yea. Do you think I have cancer?"

So, fat is a class issue, sure. Yea. And it's a feminist issue, because the vast majority of dieters, the vast majority of people hounded about weight, are women. Because women generally have a higher ratio of body fat than men (women with less than 10% body fat do not menstruate. If women don't menstruate, the human race dies out. So...).

To get us back to the beginning: Why do I really care about my pants size anyway? Is it because I think people will look down on me? Sure. Because I won't find attractive clothes? Sure.

Hey, wait a minute. Why do I want to be so attractive? Who am I trying to attract? I am not, in fact, attempting to attract anyone, and have not been trying for quite some time. So what gives?

Fat is, at its heart, about standards of beauty. And who controls them. By controlling standards of beauty, you can control people.

What do you do to silence a strong, smart, financially and emotionally independent woman so that you'll feel superior to her?

Tell her she's fat.

Make her neurotic about something she can't change, or worse, something she can only change with thousands of dollars of surgery performed by a (male) doctor, dollars she'll earn working in a crap job she hates for a (male) boss. Tell her the same sorry story that I've been getting since I was six years old: there's something wrong with you. You have the wrong body. You have the wrong bones. The wrong shape. The wrong mouth. The wrong hair. The wrong eyes. It's just all wrong.

Who's telling you this? Pretty much every loud, blaring media outlet around. The vast majority of them owned by... Huh.


After settling on my pair of pants and bundling it into my bag, I walked down Washington and stopped in at a sandwich shop for dinner before my boxing class. I settled on an Italian sandwich packed in thin bread, no sides, and an iced tea. I stared vehemently at my sandwich. I wanted to eat the whole thing. I wanted to eat the whole thing not only because I was hungry, but because I wanted to wave a big "fuck you" at the entire marketing industry. How can the opinions of other people have so much weight on my mood? Why do I give a shit about what number is on my pants, as long as they fit? Who the fuck cares? I WANT TO EAT THIS GODDAMN SANDWICH.

I ate half the sandwich, set it back on my plate, and stared at it. I was satiated, but not totally full. I would be hungry again in two hours. I stared at the sandwich. I WANTED TO EAT IT. I WAS VERY HUNGRY.

But I couldn't eat it. I went through a list in my head of what I'd eaten that day. A protein shake. A string cheese. Half a cup of brown rice with chicken.


I thought about health, and losing weight, and what were people going to think of me at Christmas? I thought of the numbers on the tag, I thought of the girl who was a size 8, standing in front of me in the line to the dressing rooms. She was not built like me. She didn't have these broad shoulders and these bones. She also didn't have these arm muscles. Mine are much scarier. I thought of the fact that I was not, had never been, and would never be one of the Beautiful People. My face would not launch a thousand ships - and that was a good thing. I was a writer, and a human being, and I really liked who I was and what I was doing with my life.

I went through, again, an inventory of what I'd eaten that day.


And then...

Greedily, rebelliously --

I did.

I ate the rest of the sandwich. I was full. I was happy. Then I had a great boxing class. I went home to my own place that I upkeep with my own money and curled up in my own bed that I paid for myself, in a room that was all mine.

I'm not even 25, and I've been to lots of places, met really strange and weird and funny people... I've done some crazy things. I've done some wonderful things. I write books. I sell short stories. I can pick people up and carry them around the room.

And there I was, sitting in a sandwich shop, spending 15 valuable minutes of my time obsessing about whether or not to eat another serving of bread.

There is something fucked up about a society that's ground at me so much that I still catch myself performing these perverted parodies of self hate.

Who are other people, to tell me how to look, what to wear, what to eat?

The answer is, in the end: they're no one.

I think the greatest fuck-off of all is that the world conspires to make you think that it's got you in a corner, that there's no way out. No way up that wall.

They're wrong. And the minute we realize that, I think, everything changes.

Wouldn't that fuck things up.

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