that this essay
is a fat lady
obese or enormous
but full-breasted and pleasingly
plump, curves of flesh every
where—zaftig, is the word.
Think Reubens. Picture hips wide
tummy ringed by a roll or two of pulp-filled skin
full-figured an earth mother body meant for babies.
but soft to touch
Now imagine your response to her.
Do you take her seriously? Do you look askance? Do you look at all? When she stands beside her thinner sister, do you even see her? Are you another woman who would like to have this woman for a friend? Does it enter your mind that beside her, you will look better? Are you a man who would or wouldn’t like to take this woman to bed? Do you wonder huffily if she should pay more for her airline seat?
Or are you this woman?
And if you are would you trade your healthy body in a heartbeat for a smaller one, one with a flat stomach, collarbones that jut and willowy limbs?
Now ask yourself why.
What does it all mean?
I weigh myself every morning.
This morning I am happy enough, clocking pounds at 131.4. (An internal and capricious rule of mine, under #132 is “all right.” I don’t know what that means—over #132 is all wrong?) But it’s not “good.” Good was back when I was still working and weighed in at 128 or 129. Under 130 was the rule back then. It doesn’t matter. They were, are both silly rules. Rules. I have a personal antipathy for them in most arenas of life. Why then this fixation with weight?
Some ten or so years ago, I lost forty pounds.
How did I do this, women, even men, want to know.
Three tactics merged in the melting of my flesh; I do not know if one or the other was more or less effective. First of all, I began taking thyroid medication. Secondly, my husband of twenty-five years ran off with a younger (and thinner?) woman. Diet by divorce. Effective, but I don’t recommend it. And finally, I read Mirielle Guiliani’s book French Women Don’t Get Fat, took her at her word, and followed her advice almost to the letter. (Except for weekend’s worth of leek soup. I mean, I made it, but I didn’t fast on it.) I still write down every mouthful I swallow. Otherwise, I have a pretty sensible attitude toward food. Have never much liked meat. Live on fruit and veggies as long as I can have bread. (I once offended a woman at work when she was lauding the benefits of her Atkins diet plan by butting in with the unsolicited information that I would rather die than not eat pasta. It was rude, but mostly true.)
But here’s the thing: it didn’t change anything. I am still the same me with the same joys and the same problems. All right, it’s a little bit easier to buy clothes, but mostly my self is the same. I’ve never measured my worth by my weight. My appearance, yes, but not my merit as a human being. I was lucky enough to be born into a matriarchal tribe that ran high to girls and valued all of them no matter the shape or size or looks.
I am sixty-three years old.
I weigh what I weighed in high school.
And while I honestly do not obsess about my body—what can you do, after all, and at my age, working parts are what matter most. As long as I can hike, garden, paddle a kayak and pick up my granddaughter, I’m good with the droopy skin, saggy ass, and tummy bumps. (Just now, when I hold her, bare-armed in this hot July, my granddaughter wraps her soft baby arm around my bicep and captures the fleshiness there in sharp pinches of her tiny fingers. I am so enamored of the baby, that I’m grateful for the fat for her to feel.)
I don’t mind what I look like.
But somewhere pounded deep and buried long in my brain there is a voice that makes me care about numbers on a scale.
There is a senseless woman in my magna cum laude brain that sighs when her weight wavers over an arbitrary number, half a pound higher, momentary depression that develops into either guilt or defiance for every extra bite for the next twenty-four hours; half a pound lower, a second’s celebration and a full day of thinking, ha—I can eat whatever I want today.
I know enough science to know that this is stupid.
I do it anyway.
I have a friend who writes me e-mail messages regularly informing me that she has been “bad” because she ate three cookies with her nighttime tea.
My eighty-five-year old mother runs fingertips along the crepe-iness of skin on her inner arm and complains. Then wears longer-sleeved T-shirts in the heat.
My best friend from high school, whose presence works on me like a balm—at my father’s funeral a few months back, an ordeal I’d orchestrated and zombie-like passed through, she caught my eye across the aisle of the church and I simply eased, knowing for sure that life was good and everything was going to be okay. That’s how much power she has in her amazing person—asked me recently, as we drank tea on her patio surrounded by flowers, how I managed to stay thin. I tried to give her an answer. “It’s easier when you live alone.” “I don’t go out to dinner much any more.” Something to make her feel better about her own full and womanly and good and beautiful body.
I drove home annoyed at my response.
I’ve been wanting to write to her for weeks to tell her what I know inside is true. What I’ve finally figured out in attempting this essay is that it wasn’t my answer that was wrong—though it was inadequate and unhelpful and pushed aside her concerns without addressing them. What’s really wrong is the question itself. What’s really unjust is that we spent a second of our limited time together worrying about weight.
So then I start to wonder what started it all.
Even back in junior high school I can remember sitting on a stone stoop with another friend grabbing bits of our skinny schoolgirl thighs and bemoaning the handsful of “fat” we believed them to be. Stuffing ourselves into too tight jean shorts and reveling if the size were “right.” Even now, knowing full well that sizes on women’s clothing mean next to nothing—at this same weight at eighteen, I wore a size 12; in the current atmosphere of be-littling women, I buy size 6. (Unless I shop at an upscale retailer who’s done away with conventional sizing where I might purchase a ½ or even a 0.) Think about it, women yearning to be a size nothing. To whittle themselves away. Wanting to disappear.
Elizabeth Gilbert tackles the issue in her sojourn in Italy in Eat, Pray, Love. Marge Piercy skewers it in her poem “Barbie Doll,” when the young woman finally attains fulfillment, small and thin, in her casket. So it’s not as if it’s a new problem, this wishing oneself away. And I don’t know what extrinsic powers cause it, but I’m pretty certain the only people who can fix it, are women themselves. Women with the gumption to pull their minds out of their protruding bellies and be willing to look at bigger pictures. Women who can, all by themselves, if they choose to do so, change their definitions of beauty. Redefine their meanings of worth.
I’m disappointed with myself, my psyche, when I arise on rainy mornings, gloomy, and suddenly cheer when the sun comes out. How can I let a little light lighten my mood, I wonder. At least I can assure myself that that is a chemically-induced phenomenon. The fact that I stand on a scale and measure my emotion by a fraction of a pound’s presence or absence—be honest, have you ever weighed yourself in the morning, then weighed yourself again after a bowel movement and congratulated yourself on your weight loss? What kind of twisted people have we become who know the weight of our own shit?—is entirely societally-induced. Which means we can change it if we choose to.
I don’t spend much time regretting or reliving my past. But I do feel a ruefulness for the younger me, strong-bodied—big-boned, my mother used to call it to my perpetual horror—able, with a good heart and a smart mind. I never gave her enough affection. I never appreciated her firmness of breast, her roundness of buttocks, her curviness of waist. I never even let her wear a dress with spaghetti straps, for godssake! I only ever wanted to make less of her. I can remember only one time in my entire adolescence—I was walking home from high school on the stretch of sidewalk after leaving my girlfriends whose houses were closer to school than my own, wearing blue tights, a short blue skirt, and a green-blue sweater, and thinking—no, knowing—I looked good. The happy jaunt of that girl makes me glad.
I like food.
I revel in mealtimes and snacktimes. Plan them and prize them. I once made my Alzheimer’s-afflicted father laugh out loud by telling him that I often go to sleep at night thinking about breakfast. Food is not, not ever, the enemy.
And neither, truly, is size. Ancient Hawaiian rulers reveled in fat. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that little woman who changed a world for the rest of us, deliberately gained pounds because she wanted to make of herself something bigger, more imposing, weightier.
Why are we wishing ourselves away?
Isn’t it just another form of mental anorexia?
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If every time we look at a wispy, waifish, Twiggy-shaped woman, we remember our embarrassment of breasts in the sixties; if every time we see a six-pack of abs on a bikini-clad young woman doing something athletic and powerful, we tug our t-shirts over our unhungry bellies and bemoan; if every time we hear a fat joke, we chuckle and cover-up our own full hips, we are exacerbating the problem. We know this. It’s hard, possibly impossible, to, by will-power alone, change the way we think. But can we at least agree to stop talking about it? To promise each other to not ask, how did you stay so thin? To make a pact to not, not ever, gripe about our bodies. To wake up every morning, pat our fleshy parts and smile?
I think it is the only way.
No one’s going to do it for us.
Embracing the women we are no matter what size we come in, might be the only solution to breaking the cycle, to showing our daughters and granddaughters that an ounce of fat does not define anything other than an ounce of fat. So that the little girls can grow up with the weight of one less worry lifted from their rounded shoulders, proud of their plumpish tummies, spooning themselves hot fudge sundaes that do not get served with a side dish of guilt.
This essay is a fat lady.
It’s over now.
Can you hear her singing?
RUTH DANDREA published non-fiction in Rethinking Schools, Paddler, Weber Studies, Prairie Schooner, Adirondack Life and other magazines and newspapers and co-authors a book on women’s kayaking, called WOW: Women on Water, which was named the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Nonfiction Book of 2012.