A Weight That Women Carry – The Compulsion to Diet in a Starved Culture
By Sallie Tisdale (taken from Minding the Body: women writers on Body and Soul)
I don’t know how much I weigh these days, though I can make a good guess. For years I’d known that number, sometimes within a quarter pound, known how it changed from day to day and hour to hour. I want to weight myself now; I lean toward the scale in the next room, imagine standing there, lining up the balance. But I don’t do it. Going this long, starting to break the scale’s spell—it’s like waking up suddenly sober.
By the time I was sixteen years old I had reached my adult height of five feet six inches and weighed 164 pounds. I weighed 164 pounds before and after a healthy pregnancy. I assume I weigh about the same now; nothing significant seems to have happened to my body, this same old body I’ve had all these years. I usually wear a size 14, a common clothing size for American women. On bad days I think my body looks lumpy and misshapen. On my good days, which are more frequent lately, I think I look plush and strong; I think I look like a lot of women whose bodies and lives I admire.
I’m not sure when the word “fat” first sounded pejorative to me, or when I first applied it to myself. My grandmother was a petite woman, the only one in my family. She stole food from other people’s plates, and hid the debris of her own meals so that no one would know how much she ate. My mother was a size 14, like me, all her adult life; we shared clothes. She fretted endlessly over food scales, calorie counters, and diet books. She didn’t want to quit smoking because she was afraid she would gain weight, and she worried about her weight until she died of cancer five years ago. Dieting was always in my mother’s way, always there in the conversations above my head, the dialogue of stocky women. But I was strong and healthy and didn’t pay too much attention to my weight until I was grown.
It probably wouldn’t have been possible for me to escape forever. It doesn’t matter that whole human epochs have celebrated big men and women, because the brief period in which I live does not; since I was born, even the voluptuous calendar girl has gone. Today’s models, the women whose pictures I see constantly, unavoidable, grow more minimal by the day. When I berate myself for not looking like—whomever I think I should look like that day, I don’t really care that no one looks like that. I don’t care the Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t look like the photographs I see of Michelle Pfeiffer. I want to look—think I should look—like the photographs. I want her little miracles: the makeup artists, photographers, and computer imagers who can add a mole, remove a scar, lift the breasts, widen the eyes, narrow the hips, flatten the curves. The final product is what I see, have seen my whole adult life. And I’ve seen this: Even when big people become celebrities, their weight is constantly remarked upon and scrutinized; their successes seem always to be in spite of their weight. I thought my successes must be too.
I feel myself expand and diminish from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour. If I tell someone my weight, I change in their eyes: I become bigger or smaller, better or worse, depending on what that number, my weight, means to them. I know many men and women, young and old, gay and straight, who look fine, whom I love to see and whose faces and forms I cherish, who despise themselves for their weight. For their ordinary, human bodies. They and I are simply bigger than we think we should be. We always talk about weight in terms of gains and losses, and don’t wonder at the strangeness of the words. In trying always to lose weight, we’ve lost hope of simply being seen for ourselves.
My weight has never actually affected anything—it’s never seemed to mean anything one way or the other to how I lived. Yet for the last ten years I’ve felt quite bad about it. After a time, the number on the scale became my totem, more important than my experience—it was layered, metaphorical, metaphysical, and it had bewitching power. I thought if I could change that number I could change my life.
In my mid-twenties I started secretly taking diet pills. They made me feel strange, half crazed, vaguely nauseated. I lost about twenty-five pounds, dropped two sizes, and bought new clothes. I developed rituals and taboos around food, ate very little, and continued to lose weight. For a long time afterward I thought it only coincidental that with every passing week I also grew more depressed and irritable.
I could recite the details, but they’re remarkable only for being so common. I lost more weight until I was rather thin, and then I gained it all back. It came back slowly, pound by pound, in spite of erratic and melancholy and sometimes frantic dieting, dieting I clung to even though being thin had changed nothing, had meant nothing to my life except that I was thin. Looking back, I remember blinding moments of shame and lighting-bright moments of clear-headedness, which inevitably gave way to rage at the time I’d wasted—rage that eventually would become, once again, self-disgust and the urge to lose weight. So it went, until I weighed exactly what I’d weighed when I began.
I used to be attracted to the sharp angles of the chronic dieter—the caffeine-wild, chain-smoking, skinny women I see sometimes. I considered them a pinnacle not of beauty but of will. Even after I gained back my weight, I wanted to be like that, controlled and persevering, live that underfed life so unlike my own rather sensual and disorderly existence. I felt I should always be dieting, for the dieting of it; dieting had become a rule, a given, a constant. Every ordinary value is distorted in this lens. I felt guilty for not being completely absorbed in my diet, for getting distracted, for not caring enough all the time. The fat person’s character flaw is a lack of narcissism. She’s let herself go.
So I would begin again—and at first it would all seem so . . . easy. Simply arithmetic. After all, 3,500 calories equal one pound of fat—so the books and articles by the thousands say. I would calculate how long it would take to achieve the magic number on the scale, to succeed, to win. All past failures were suppressed. If 3,500 calories equal one pound, all I needed to do was cut 3,500 calories out of my intake every week. The first few days of a new diet would be colored with a sense of control—organization and planning, power over the self. Then the basic futile misery took over.
I would weigh myself with foreboding, and my weight would determine how went the rest of my day, my week, my life. When 3,500 calories didn’t equal one pound lost after all, I figured it was my body that was flawed, not the theory. One friend, who had tried for years to lose weight following prescribed diets, made what she called “an amazing discovery.” The real secret to a diet, she said, was that you had to be willing to be hungry all the time. You had to eat even less than the diet allowed.
I believed that being thin would make me happy. Such a pernicious, enduring belief. I lost weight and wasn’t happy and saw that elusive happiness disappear in a vanishing point, requiring more—more self-disgust, more of the misery of dieting. Knowing all that I know now about the biology and anthropology of weight, knowing that people naturally come in many shapes and sizes, knowing that diets are bad for me and won’t make me thin—sometimes none of this matters. I look in the mirror and think: Who am I kidding? I’ve got to do something about myself. Only then will this vague discontent disappear. Then I’ll be loved.
For ages humans believed that the body helped create the personality, from the humors of Galen to W.H. Sheldon’s somatotypes. Sheldon distinguished among three templates—endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph—and combined them into hundreds of variations with physical, emotional, and psychological characteristics. When I read about weight now, I see the potent shift in the last few decades: The modern culture of dieting is based on the idea that the personality creates the body. Our size must be in some way voluntary, or else it wouldn’t be subject to change. A lot of my misery over my weight wasn’t about how I looked at all. I was miserable because I believed I was bad, not my body. I felt truly reduced then, reduced to being just a body and nothing more.
Fat is perceived as an act rather than a thing. It is antisocial, and curable through the application of social controls. Even the feminist revisions of dieting, so powerful in themselves, pick up the theme: the hungry, empty heart; the woman seeking release from sexual assault, or the man from the loss of the mother, through food and fat. Fat is now a symbol not of the personality but of the soul—the cluttered, neurotic, immature soul.
Fat people eat for “mere gratification,” I read, as though no one else does. Their weight is intentioned, they simply eat “too much,” their flesh is lazy flesh. Whenever I went on a diet, eating became cheating. One pretzel was cheating. Two apples instead of one was cheating—a large potato instead of a small, carrots instead of broccoli. It didn’t matter which diet I was on; diets have failure built in, failure is in the definition. Every substitution—even carrots for broccoli—was a triumph of desire over will. When I dieted, I didn’t feel pious just for sticking to the rules. I felt condemned for the act of eating itself, as though my hunger were never normal. My penance was not to eat at all.
My attitude toward food became quite corrupt. I came, in fact, to subconsciously believe food itself was corrupt. Diet books often distinguish between “real” and “unreal” hunger, so that correct eating is hollowed out, unemotional. A friend of mine who thinks of herself as a compulsive eater says she feels bad only when she eats for pleasure. “Why?” I ask, and she says, “Because I’m eating food I don’t need.” A few years ago I might have admired that. Now I try to imagine a world where we eat only food we need, and it seems inhuman. I imagine a world devoid of holidays and wedding feasts, wakes and reunions, a unique shared joy. “What’s wrong with eating a cookie because you like cookies?” I ask her, and she hasn’t got an answer. These aren’t rational beliefs, any more than the unnecessary pleasure of ice cream is rational. Dieting presumes pleasure to be an insignificant, or at least malleable, human motive.
I felt no joy in being thin—it was just work, something I had to do. But when I began to gain back the weight, I felt despair. I started reading about the “recidivism” of dieting. I wondered if I had myself to blame not only for needing to diet in the first place but for dieting itself, the weight inevitably regained. I joined the organized weight-loss programs, spent a lot of money, listened to lectures I didn’t believe on quack nutrition, ate awful, processed diet foods. I sat in groups and applauded people who’d lost a half pound, feeling smug because I’d lost a pound and a half. I felt ill much of the time, found exercise increasingly difficult, cried often. And I thought that if I could only lose a little weight, everything would be all right.
When I say to someone “I’m fat,” I hear, “Oh, no! You’re not fat! You’re just—“ What? Plump? Big-boned? Rubenesque? I’m just not thin. That’s crime enough. I began this story by stating my weight. I said it all at once, trying to forget it and take away its power; I said it to be done being scared. Doing so, saying it out loud like that, felt like confessing a mortal sin. I have to bite my tongue not to seek reassurance, not to defend myself, not to plead. I see an old friend for the first time in years, and she comments on how much my fourteen-year-old son looks like me—“except, of course, he’s not chubby.” “Looks who’s talking,” I reply, through clenched teeth. This pettiness is never far away; concern with my weight evokes the smallest, meanest parts of me. I look at another woman passing on the street, At least I’m not that fat.
Recently I was talking with a friend who is naturally slender about a mutual acquaintance who is quite large. To my surprise my friend reproached this woman because she had seen her eating a cookie at lunchtime. “How is she going to lose weight that way?” my friend wondered. When you are as fat as our acquaintance is, you are primarily, fundamentally, seen as fat. It is your essential characteristic. There are so many presumptions in my friend’s casual, cruel remark. She assumes that this woman should diet all the time—and that she can. She pronounces whole categories of food to be denied her. She sees her unwillingness to behave in this externally prescribed way, even for a moment, as an act of rebellion. In his story “A Hunger Artist,” Kafka writes that the guards of the fasting man were “usually butchers, strangely enough.” Not so strange, I think.
I know that the world, even if it views me as overweight (and I’m not sure it really does), clearly makes a distinction between me and this very big woman. I would rather stand with her and not against her, see her for all she is besides fat. But I know our experiences aren’t the same. My thin friend assumes my fat friend is unhappy because she is fat: Therefore, if she loses weight she will be happy. My fat friend has a happy marriage and family and a good career, but insofar as her weight is a source of misery, I think she would be much happier if she could eat her cookie in peace, if people would shut up and leave her weight alone. But the world never lets up when you are her size; she cannot walk to the bank without risking insult. Her fat is seen as perverse bad manners. I have no doubt she would be rid of the fat if she could be. If my left-handedness invited the criticism her weight does, I would want to cut that hand off.
In these last several years I seem to have had an infinite number of conversations about dieting. They are really all the same conversation—weight is lost, then weight is gained back. This repetition finally began to sink in. Why did everyone soon or later have the same experience? (My friend who had learned to be hungry all the time gained back all the weight she had lost and more, just like the rest of us.) Was it really our bodies that were flawed? I began reading the biology of weight more carefully, reading the fine print in the endless studies. There is, in fact, a preponderance of evidence disputing our commonly held assumptions about weight.
The predominant biological myth of weight is that thin people live longer than fat people. The truth is far more complicated. (Some deaths of fat people attributed to heart disease seem actually to have been the result of radical dieting.) If health were our real concern, it would be dieting we questioned, not weight. The current ideal of thinness has never been held before, except as a religious ideal; the underfed body is the martyr’s body. Even if people can lose weight, maintaining an artificially low weight for any period of time requires a kind of starvation. Lots of people are naturally thin, but for those who are not, dieting is an unnatural act; biology rebels. The metabolism of the hungry body can change inalterably, making it ever harder and harder to stay thin. I think chronic dieting made me gain weight—not only pounds, but fat. This equation seemed so strange at first that I couldn’t believe it. But the weight I put back on after losing was much more stubborn than the original weight. I had lost it by taking diet pills and not eating much of anything at all for quite a long time. I haven’t touched the pills again, but not eating much of anything no longer works.
When Oprah Winfrey first revealed her lost weight, I didn’t envy her. I thought, she’s in trouble now. I knew, I was certain, she would gain it back; I believed she was biologically destined to do so. The tabloid headlines blamed it on a cheeseburger or mashed potatoes; they screamed OPRAH PASSES 200 POUNDS, and I cringed at her misery and how the world wouldn’t let up, wouldn’t leave her alone, wouldn’t let her be anything else. How dare the world do this to anyone? I thought, and then realized it I did it to myself.
The “Ideal Weight” charts my mother used were at their lowest acceptable-weight ranges in the 1950s, when I was a child. They were based on sketchy and often inaccurate actuarial evidence, using, for the most part, data on northern Europeans and allowing for the most minimal differences in size for a population of less than half a billion people. I never fit those weight charts, I was always just outside the pale. As an adult, when I would join an organized diet program, I accepted their version of my Weight Goal as gospel, knowing it would be virtually impossible to reach. But reach I tried; that’s what one does with gospel. Only in the last few years have the weight tables begun to climb back into the world of the average human. The newest ones distinguish by gender, frame, and age. And suddenly, I’m not off the charts anymore. I have a place.
A man who is attracted to fat women says, “I actually have less specific physical criteria than most men. I’m attracted to women who weigh 170 or 270 or 370. Most men are attracted to women who weigh between 100 and 135. So who’s got more of a fetish?” We look at fat as a problem of the fat person. Rarely do the tables get turned, rarely do we imagine that it might be the viewer, not the viewed, who is limited. What the hell is wrong with them, anyway? Do they believe everything they see on television?
My friend Phil, who is chronically and almost painfully thin, admitted that in his search for a partner he finds himself prejudiced against fat women. He seemed genuinely bewildered by this. I didn’t jump to reassure him that such prejudice is hard to resist. What I did was bite my tongue at my urge to be reassured by him, to be told that I, at least, wasn’t fat. That over the centuries humans have been inclined to prefer extra flesh rather than the other way around seems unimportant. All we see now tells us otherwise. Why does my kindhearted friend criticize another woman for eating a cookie when she would never dream of commenting in such a way on another person’s race or sexual orientation or disability? Deprivation is the dystopian ideal.
My mother called her endless diets “reducing plans.” Reduction, the diminution of women, is the opposite of feminism, as Kim Chernin points out in The Obsession. Smallness is what feminism strives against, the smallness that women confront everywhere. All of women’s spaces are smaller than those of men, often inadequate, without privacy. Furniture designers distinguish between a man’s and a woman’s chair, because women don’t spread out like men. (A sprawling woman means only one thing.) Even our voices are kept down. By embracing dieting I was rejecting a lot I held dear, and the emotional dissonance that created just seemed like one more necessary evil.
A fashion magazine recently celebrated the return of the “well-fed” body; a particular model was said to be “the archetype of the new womanly woman . . . stately, powerful.” She is a size 8. The images of women presented to us, images claiming so maliciously to be the images of women’s whole lives, are not merely social fictions. They are absolute fictions; they can’t exist. How would it feel, I began to wonder, to cultivate my own real womanliness rather than despise it? Because it was my fleshy curves I wanted to be rid of, after all. I dream of having a boy’s body, smooth, hipless, lean. A body rapt with possibility, a receptive body suspended before the storms of maturity. A dear friend of mine, nursing her second child, weeps at her newly voluptuous body. She loves her children and hates her own motherliness, wanting to be unripened again, to be a bud and not a flower.
Recently I’ve started shopping occasionally at stores for “large women,” where the smallest size is a 14. In department stores the size 12 and 14 and 16 clothes are kept in a ghetto called the Women’s Department. (And who would want that, to be the size of a woman? We all dream of being “juniors” instead.) In the specialty stores, the clerks are usually big women and the customers are big too, big like a lot of women in my life—friends, my sister, my mother and aunts. Not long ago I bought a pair of jeans at Lane Bryant and then walked through the mall to the Gap, with its shelves of generic clothing. I flicked through the clearance rack and suddenly remembered the Lane Bryant shopping bag in my hand and its enormous weight, the sheer heaviness of that brand name shouting to the world. The shout is that I’ve let myself go. I still feel like crying out sometimes: Can’t I feel satisfied? But I am not supposed to be satisfied, not allowed to be satisfied. My discontent fuels the market; I need to be afraid in order to fully participate.
American culture, which has produced our dieting mania, does more than reward privation and acquisition at the same time: It actually associates them with each other. Read the ads: The virtuous runner’s reward is a new pair of $180 running shoes. The fat person is thought to be impulsive, indulgent, but insufficiently or incorrectly greedy, greedy for the wrong things. The fat person lacks ambition. The young executive is complimented for being “hungry”; he is “starved for success.” We are teased with what we will have if we are willing to have not for a time. A dieting friend, avoiding the food on my table, says, “I’m just dying for a bite of that.”
Dieters are the perfect consumers: They never get enough. The dieter wistfully imagines food without substance, food that is not food, that begs the definition of food, because food is the problem. Even the ways we don’t eat are based in class. The middle class don’t eat in support groups. The poor can’t afford to not eat at all. The rich hire someone to not eat with them in private. Dieting is an emblem of capitalism. It has a venal heart.
The possibility of living another way, living without dieting, began to take root in my mind a few years ago, and finally my second trip through Weight Watchers ended dieting for me. This last time I just couldn’t stand the details, the same kind of details I’d seen and despised in other programs, on other diets: the scent of resignation, the weighing-in by the quarter pound, the before-and-after photographs of group leaders prominently displayed. Jean Nidetch, the founder of Weight Watchers, says, “Most fat people need to be hurt badly before they do something about themselves.” She mocks every aspect of our need for food, of a person’s sense of entitlement to food, of daring to eat what we want. Weight Watchers refuses to release its own weight charts except to say they make no distinction for frame size; neither has the organization ever released statistics on how many people who lose weight on the program eventually gain it back. I hated the endlessness of it, the turning of food into portions and exchanges, everything measured out, permitted, denied. I hated the very idea of “maintenance.” Finally I realized I didn’t just hate the diet. I was sick of the way I acted on a diet, the way I whined, my niggardly, penny-pinching behavior. What I liked in myself seemed to shrivel and disappear when I dieted. Slowly, slowly I saw these things. I saw that my pain was cut from whole cloth, imaginary, my own invention. I saw how much time I’d spent on something ephemeral, something that simply wasn’t important, didn’t matter. I saw that the real point of dieting is dieting—to not be done with it, ever.
I looked in the mirror and saw a woman, with flesh, curves, muscles, a few stretch marks, the beginnings of wrinkles, with strength and softness in equal measure. My body is the one part of me that is always, undeniably, here. To like myself means to be, literally, shameless, to be wanton in the pleasures of being inside a body. I feel loose this way, a little abandoned, a little dangerous. That first feeling of liking my body—not being resigned to it or despairing of change, but actually liking it—was tentative and guilty and frightening. It was alarming, because it was the way I’d felt as a child, before the world had interfered. Because surely I was wrong; I knew, I’d known for so long, that my body wasn’t all right this way. I was afraid even to act as though I were all right: I was afraid that by doing so I’d be acting a fool.
For a time I was thin. I remember—and what I remember is nothing special—strain, a kind of hollowness, the same troubles and fears, and no magic. So I imagine losing weight again. If the world applauded, would this comfort me? Or would it only compromise whatever approval the world gives me now? What else will be required of me besides thinness? What will happen to me if I get sick, or lose the use of a limb, or, God forbid, grow old?
By fussing endlessly over my body, I’ve ceased to inhabit it. I’m trying to reverse this equation now, to trust my body and enter it again with a whole heart. I know more now than I used to about what constitutes “happy” and “unhappy,” what the depths and textures of contentment are like. By letting go of dieting, I free up mental and emotional room. I have more space, I can move. The pursuit of another, elusive body, the body someone else says I should have, is a terrible distraction, a sidetracking that might have lasted my whole life long. By letting myself go, I go places.
Each of us in this culture, this twisted, inchoate culture, has to choose between battles: One battle is against the cultural ideal, and the other is against ourselves. I’ve chosen to stop fighting myself. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills; the cultural ideal is ever-changing, out of my control. It’s not a cerebral journey, except insofar as I have to remind myself to stop counting, to stop thinking in terms of numbers. I know, even now that I’ve quit dieting and eat what I want, how many calories I take in every day. If I eat as I please, I eat a lot one day and very little the next; I skip meals and snack at odd times. My nourishment is good—as far as nutrition is concerned, I’m in much better shape than when I was dieting. I know that the small losses and gains in my weight over a period of time aren’t simply related to the number of calories I eat. Someone asked me not long ago how I could possibly know my calorie intake if I’m not dieting (the implication being, perhaps, that I’m dieting secretly). I know because calorie counts and grams of fat and fiber are embedded in me. I have to work to not think of them, and I have to learn to not think of them in order to really live without fear.
When I look, really look, at the people I see every day on the street, I see a jungle of bodies, a community of women and men growing every which way like lush plants, growing tall and short and slender and round, hairy and hairless, dark and pale and soft and hard and glorious. Do I look around at the multitudes and think all these people—all these people who are like me and not like me, who are various and different—are not loved or lovable? Lately, everyone’s body interests me, every body is desirable in some way. I see how muscles and skin shift with movement; I sense a cornucopia of flesh in the world. In the midst of it I am a little capacious and unruly.
I repeat with Walt Whitman, “I dote on myself . . . there is a lot of me, and all so luscious.” I’m eating better, exercising more, feeling fine—and then I catch myself thinking Maybe I’ll lose some weight But my mood changes or my attention is caught by something else, something deeper, more lingering. Then I can catch a glimpse of myself and think only: That’s me. My face, my hips, my hands. Myself.