If you were to look at me now and knew nothing of my history, you would never believe I’ve ever been overweight. You would assume that I have no intimate knowledge with the struggles many women experience trying to attain and keep their ideal weight. But my appearance is misleading.
I’m on a diet. I’m always on a diet. I’ve spent a great deal of my life since the age of 14 on a diet. It hasn’t always been an effective diet, sometimes it was more an idea than an actual plan that I was implementing, but I can say there hasn’t been any time since adolescence that I was free from thinking I should be thinner or that I needed to be more vigilant to maintain the weight I had achieved.
People don’t know I’m on a diet because I don’t talk about it. I was brought up to never mention such matters, to keep struggles with my imperfections to myself. If my mother was alive and knew I was confiding my history to you, she’d haul me up short.
A genetic tendency to plumpness runs in the family. My mother and sisters have devoted themselves to combatting this tendency with single-minded focus. Nothing has been of greater importance in their lives than their weight, being thin and maintaining it. Nothing has dislodged this focus. Vigilance is my mother’s middle name. Unlike my mother and sisters, I fear that left to my own devices, I would turn to rot, that all lines of self-discipline would collapse and I would be overrun by drives I don’t comprehend. I understand why some people, particularly women, but not only women, become secret eaters. In public they eat like birds pecking at their food. They appear to be immune to hunger pangs nor are they tempted by luscious foods laid out on groaning tables. However, these same women who push their plates away in public, are apt to steal down in to the kitchen when no one is looking, when others are asleep in their beds, and stick a spoon into a jar of peanut butter or a quart of ice cream in a feverish spell. They’re anxious about being discovered and don’t take the time to scoop the ice cream into a dish. Furtive eating. If no one sees them eating, the reasoning goes, it’s as if they aren’t eating. Control. Control over themselves is paramount and not eating in public correlates with a test of their control, a test they often ace. It’s what happens when no one is around that is troublesome.
What is wanted is to eat, but not eat too much.
I want to be someone who, when invited over for dinner, happily eats what is put before her, savoring the tastes, feeling the pleasures. I don’t want to be the woman who has been invited over and picks around the food as if she had been served mouse turds. How often have I been frustrated by spending hours preparing a good meal only to watch as some very thin woman pushes the food around with her fork distastefully. I don’t want to be that woman, a woman for whom not eating means everything, whose self-worth and self-image is so tied up with being a non-eater, with being in control of herself. I want to live larger, but not be larger, if you know what I mean. And there’s the rub. So many of us veer towards one extreme or the other, complete lack of control or complete slavery to control.
It pains me to admit that I have the potential within me of losing control. I have a fat woman inside me who can emerge with volcanic force. For example, during periods of heightened stress I stop at a bakery on my way to work and buy the occasional very large peanut butter cookie and eat it ravenously in the car by myself. When the cookie is gone, I want another. If I bought multiple cookies, I would eat them all in one sitting. I can’t control myself; I don’t feel full. This eating is not calm, a nibble at a time with a swirl of coffee. No. There is something shaky about it, something a little compulsive and it worries me. Mostly I buy one cookie and control the damage that way. Still I recognize I am lacking that mechanism that tells me I am full, that I feel satisfied and should stop eating now. It’s as if I have a hole that I am filling with food only I can’t see the size or dimensions of the hole and so I keep putting stuff down the hole as if it was a bottomless pit. I stop and ask, why all this indulgence? I haven’t been deprived, have I? What is my neediness about?
I weighed five pounds when I was born. The third and last of my mother’s pregnancies, my mother was determined to not be saddled after delivery with the extra weight she had with her first two girls, and so undertook a strict diet and gained less than ten pounds. She was proud of this feat, and presented her post-delivery sleek self as a model for how pregnancy should be managed. She was thinner after I was born than before she became pregnant. I was the scrawniest, ugliest, sorriest looking baby I’ve ever seen.
From a very early age, like many girls, my sisters and I were subjected to continual maternal scrutiny, especially about our weight. The ideal was thin, to no one’s surprise. But not too thin. Although what is considered too thin is a subjective matter famously difficult to nail down. For my mother, too thin meant diseased-looking. She was perfectly happy with what could be called movie star or model thinness, and this is what my sisters and I were to set our sights on. At five foot nine inches tall, my mother never topped one hundred and twenty-five pounds without an emotional breakdown and an almost instantaneous recommencement of her dieting rigor. In the course of the years I knew my mother, I don’t recall a single instance of my mother over-eating, under any circumstances. Breakfast consisted of a single slice of low-calorie toast, one small glass of orange juice, and unlimited black instant coffee. Lunch—a cup of instant soup mix and melba toast. Dinner was the only meal that resembled what other families regularly consumed, except my mother’s portions were much smaller and seconds were verboten. So were snacks. After-school trips to the cookie jar were supervised to insure that we stuck to our two-cookie limit. Ice cream for dessert was a rarity, and my mother must have measured our portions with a tablespoon. A gallon of ice cream was meant to last for eternity in our household.
My father struggled under my mother’s regime and only survived by escaping for breakfast and lunch elsewhere. I used to imagine that he ordered a hearty breakfast complete with hash browns or pancakes—two items we never had—and had dessert at lunch, a slice of cream pie or chocolate cake. Even with two meals on his own, which was more than my sisters and I could claim, he would often be discovered by my mother sneaking into the pantry for crackers or peanut butter after dinner. These were strictly rationed by my mother. He loved nothing better than grabbing a handful of Ritz crackers on his way to reading the evening newspaper. Alas my mother was never far from the kitchen and possessed the most sensitive ears, a prowler would have had better success breaking into our house than one of us entering the cookie jar without detection. From early on I took after my father and was drawn to peanut butter and felt like a thief tiptoeing into the kitchen to plunge a guilty finger into the peanut butter jar. Through the night I worried that my mother would detect my plunder.
As a young girl I was a bit plump, something of a mystery given my mother’s vigilance. Looking at photos of me from the fifth grade until high school when I shed my baby fat and more, you might say I was pot-bellied. When my parents forklifted me out of the public school system and sent me to Moravian Seminary for Girls for high school where we had to wear uniforms and attend chapel every morning, I went on a diet, my first. I had no say in my fate and so I exerted the only control I had and starved my body. High school was the era of the mini skirt and the bikini and it was then that I became truly thin. For the most part my mother approved of my slimming down though there were periods when even she, queen of thin, worried that I was slipping into that gray area of being too thin, of looking like there was something wrong with me. During high school I began obsessively monitoring what I ate. I wrote everything I ate down with the calories listed and exchanged my account with a fellow dieter in geometry class who sat behind me because our teacher, Mrs. Rubenstein, famous for her glass eye and full length mink coat, was inattentive. We did sums alright, they just weren’t the assigned ones. We were budding anorexics before the term had been coined.
Watching the differences in approval my older sisters received from my mother was instructive. My older sister Carol was deemed to have a weight problem. I remember her physique being compared to the side of a barn when she was in college. My other sister Judy was slight and petite and did not have a weight problem. Looking at photo albums now I see no evidence that my sister Carol was ever even mildly overweight, yet at the time I accepted my mother’s assessment of her appearance. Not only was Carol not overweight, she was remarkably perfect. In every way, she was the picture of beauty, and went on to be chosen the May Queen her senior year in college. Yet family history has it that Carol struggled with her weight, loved to chow down, and never succeeded in controlling her appetite. As a grown woman Carol has dieted and become the embodiment of our mother, but she never received the approval that was so easily given to Judy, who began and stayed small, shopping in the petite sections of the stores.
Not long ago, one of her scintillating holiday specials, Barbra Walters interviewed Posh Spice — or Victoria Beckham, as she is now known. At some point Walters inevitably got around to Posh Spice’s weight—how little she is. “Do you ever eat a chocolate chip cookie or a piece of chocolate cake?” Walters asked in a voice laced with incredulity. Not missing a beat, Posh replied with utter seriousness: “Never.” She didn’t say not often, or rarely, or upon occasion. She didn’t have to pause to think about her answer, or laugh at what a silly question it was. Never was her ready answer, just as it would have been my mother’s answer. Never. My mother could have said truthfully that she had never given in to temptation. I couldn’t help but think that Posh Spice was a grim little soldier in the body wars. What a barrel of fun she must be–so disciplined, so focused on achieving her tight little body, just like my mother.
Most of my life up until my mother’s death, I’ve worked to keep my body on a leash. My weight went up and it went down, depending on whether I was watchful, but it stayed within an acceptable range. After the births of both my children, I immediately worked to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight and succeeded. But staying thin never got easier—it didn’t seem to be my natural state to be small, sleek and slender—all those s words. My body didn’t want to be cultivated and ruled and kept in check. All the management wore me out—sometimes I just wanted to let go to see what would happen. I even wrote a poem in my twenties that revealed a secret desire in me to be larger than I was and a distaste for all things small. I liked people who towered over me, who took up space in the world, people with big feet and heavy footprints, big hands that could shake my hand so that I never forgot it. I was the product of the relentless female training I had been subjected to all of my life by my mother and reinforced by the culture at large. Big bellies, double chins, pudgy hands—these were discouraged, signs of unattractiveness in a woman, tolerated in a man, but disapproved of in women. But there was another part of me, long pushed down, that resisted the relentless pairing of small and female.
When my number one critic, my mother, died, a period began of letting myself go. No one during this period would believe I began life so meagerly. If my mother had been alive, she would have cringed at my growing heft. Because she was cremated she couldn’t roll over in her grave, but surely her ashes would give themselves a royal shiver if she laid eyes on me.
It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up one morning and find a giant me lying on a broken bed that couldn’t support me anymore. It wasn’t a Kafka-esque metamorphosis. It began when I moved to Michigan to start my tenure stream assistant professor job. I had two small children and a husband who had given up his job for us to move as a family to Michigan. It is not an exaggeration to say I felt the weight of the world resting upon my then-small shoulders. Each year that followed that first, I put on a couple of pounds, as if I was a bear preparing for hibernation in the cold long Michigan winters. Another winter, another weight gain.
There’s something that happens to the female body during the months of cold gray days and early darkness. Women move inside, nesting and overeating as if there will be a food shortage. If I’m not vigilant (there’s that word again), during winter the flesh begins to mount, and the weight accumulation gains momentum. It’s hell to put the brakes on this—the body says here we go, we’ve got you now. It’s war: me against my body. My body wants to increase, that’s it’s motto, mantra, winter slogan, reason for being. Yes, it says, give it to me, I want it, put it in your mouth. That’s right, I’m talking about that hunk of cheese, that slice of carrot cake, slide it on over and let’s get going. My body becomes my enemy. Locking my body in a cage and delivering prisoner-type portions gets close to what is required because the goddamn flood gates have opened and all the hard work I’ve done losing last year’s winter weight is going down the drain. It takes no time at all for my body to gain back what I painstakingly took off over months of controlled eating and exercise and add a few more.
Part of the problem is I haven’t wanted to be that vigilant, to be as vigilant as my mother. Being vigilant means that I cannot forget about my body, and thinking about my body, my body so intensely means that I can’t think about something else, something that might be more important, like my children or my job or my neighbor or world peace. There are so many candidates for what is more important than my weight, but here you see how the plot thickens, how I get into the yo-yo of weight loss and weight gain. It’s hard to maintain the belief that keeping my body healthy is all that important in the big scheme of things.
And so, one day in March when there were faint hints that winter was on its last legs, I noticed that my pants — which formerly rode loosely on my hips — were tight, really tight, that the fabric was pulling across my hips, and that my middle, which had been flat in November, was rippling with layers. Clearly weight had been gained, flesh had been added, and I was back to needing to lose weight.
Along with weight came the appearance of strain and unhappiness. I never felt I was on top of all I had to do. I was scrambling, never performing any aspect of my life at the level I expected of myself. This is perhaps the hardest script to change: the script of perfection. I wasn’t accustomed to failing or falling short. I wasn’t accustomed to feeling out of control or perhaps it is more accurate to say I no longer felt I owned my life. Other forces were driving me and they were often insatiable. My face looked bloated, my eyes tired. I struck a weary and defensive posture—a don’t touch me look, a I’m barely holding myself together and if you touch me I’ll fall apart look.
Whoever I once was I seemed to disappear inside the braided scripts of raising children and managing some kind of career. At the end of the day, when children had been put to bed and I had done as much of my own work as I could eek out, I routinely would reach for a glass of wine, some peanuts, perhaps some crackers and cheese, just like my father, and watch a television show from ten to eleven, preferably a cop show where the stories revolved around people whose jobs and lives were a lot tougher than my own. This hour was cathartic. I was aware while in this period of my life that I was seeking out television shows about people whose jobs were wrecking their personal lives but whose jobs were who they were. I identified with these characters who couldn’t walk away from their jobs — they had gone too far to turn back, invested too much of themselves to walk away. I wasn’t a New York City cop; I was an academic, a teacher and a writer, a far cry from the corruptions and heartaches of fighting crime. But I felt I was in the trenches nevertheless, not the same kind of trenches, still I was trying to meet what felt like impossible expectations, worrying that whatever I did it wasn’t enough, it would never be enough. I was always falling short as a mother, a friend, a teacher, and a writer and I was having real trouble paying my bills. Clearly, I was self-medicating. Maybe I even used that term when I was straight with myself. I was gathering comfort foods, foods with artery clogging fat. I was eating and drinking and watching cop shows by myself to blot out everything, to hold the pressures at bay for just a little while.
I gained a lot of weight during these years; I called it sorrow weight. I was large, but I was not living large.
Why does the subject of weight compel me? Because it connects me to others. Because it is a dynamic issue, not static, not something you solve once and for all and are done. It’s a process, it’s a lifetime objective. It intersects with other interesting and sometimes contradictory issues, and that’s interesting to me. It isn’t simple, no matter how simplified self-help approaches and diets try to make women and weight seem.
Five years ago I returned to the weight I was when I first moved to Michigan. I went on a diet after the school year ended over the summer, a rigorous, get on the scale every day kind of diet. It was time to take action and I did. At a party when school resumed in the fall, many people I worked with saw me for the first time since I had slimmed down.
I got out of the car on the street in front of where the party was being hosted at the same time a colleague and her husband arrived. We both started walking from opposite directions towards the house, meeting at the driveway entrance. In the last years when I’ve run into my colleague’s husband at social events, he’s given me a weak hello, perhaps offering to shake my hand, and then he’s turned away quickly to speak with someone more compelling than me. This time he greeted me warmly, enthusiastically, one might say with a touch of passion. Instead of the limp hand being extended, he wrapped his arms around me and held me for a moment longer than one might expect. He looked at my face with appreciation. We then proceeded up to the house and entered the party, where I was warmly greeted by my male co-workers all night long.
What accounted for these exuberant embraces and admiring assessments? The short answer is: I lost weight. The long answer would have to include some of the changes in my appearance and self-presentation that the weight loss had brought about, changes uniformly seen as positive. Losing thirty pounds felt like I stepped out of a fat suit I was wearing, recovering a self that had gotten lost under a thick encasement. The muscles I’ve always had were visible, the shape of my arms and legs and neck revealed.
One woman said I looked “happy.” She mentioned how fit I looked, but was more struck by an intangible inner change that she saw registered in my face, in my manner. She was right. I was happier than I had been in a long time. I wondered, not for the first time, whether my more welcoming manner, my less strained behavior sets the stage for people to in turn treat me more warmly? Unhappy people drive others away even when they don’t intend to.
The reactions by women fell into one of two camps—they were either pleased for me or they were envious. If the woman was thin, she was able to congratulate me on my transformation. If she was battling with her weight or her self-perception that she should be thinner, I heard envy tinge her voice. These latter women were the ones who wanted to know how I had lost the weight—was there a secret formula, how long did it take, how difficult was it? After a couple of these conversations, I realized the questions were just excuses for the women to rehearse their own histories with weight. I didn’t follow a known diet, joined no groups, and so I disappointed them. What I didn’t say is that to lose weight I had to put it at the top of my list and couldn’t let other priorities bump losing weight off its perch, and that was hard. I had to be single-minded and unwavering in my commitment, and those mental and emotional changes were what really were tedious and killing, not the exercise and eating. I felt like I was a monster of selfishness. But I didn’t tell them that. And I didn’t tell them that I doubted I could sustain the behavior now that the school year had begun.
The men’s reactions were of an entirely different nature and troubling. On the one hand, I was flattered to be the recipient of admiring looks and praise. Who doesn’t want others to find them attractive? On the other hand, who wants to confront how much others’ reactions and treatment are based on our physical appearance? I had known these men for a long time and suddenly they were behaving like men on a first date or like strangers who whistle at you on the street. I was the same woman they had shunned. But was I? Was I sending new signals out to the men at the party and were they being received as inviting flirtation? I was unaware of behaving in a flirtatious manner. I did recognize a change in my manner, however. I felt lighter in all ways since I’d lost weight, as if a burden had been lifted from me that made me move more easily. I had a spring in my step, a spring in my voice, warmth in my eyes, an ease. I was bringing less doom and gloom to my interactions. Men responded to this new airiness with flirtation.
After a couple of drinks, when a co-worker and I had been thrown together without any bystanders who could overhear his comment, he leaned into me and said in a whisper, using a voice dramatically unlike his normal voice, while slanting his head to catch my eye in what can only be described as a knowing look. “By the way, you look absolutely wonderful.” When I write those words, they don’t sound so bad. When I add the tone of voice, the leaning in, and the look, the words are charged with a meaning and intention that makes me uncomfortable and remind me of how over the course of my life, when I was younger and thin, men wanted to please me, to help me, my appearance made them predisposed to not reject me, to let me cross the street, to fix the clogged garage disposal, not give me a parking ticket. You name it, from the small to the large, my appearance played a role I came to depend upon without knowing it until I traded in my sleek model for a clunker.
After I graduated from college and took a short paralegal course, I interviewed for jobs with some of my classmates in Philadelphia. In that particular group of female paralegals, I was the most attractive, but I was not the best paralegal. I was decidedly inferior because I had no interest in being a paralegal. I was just doing it to support myself for a short time while the other women were planning on a long career. Yet, in every instance I got the job offer. And in every instance the hiring was done by a group of male lawyers. Either my appearance made them overlook my weaker skills or it made them overestimate my abilities. In either scenario, I won.
Because I have operated in a man’s world, I can never know how much my appearance has brought my way, how much has it factored in my small successes. I am certain I have received preferential treatment at times—one example is particularly glaring and did not make me happy. At the oral examination for my Master’s, I received a remarkable lack of grilling by my committee members, a committee composed of four men who had been appointed by the Chair of the Department. I had produced a reading list and read everything on it, taken copious notes, over-prepared and yet there was little anyone wanted to ask me. Frustrated, I finally asked why there were so few questions coming my way. The distinguished poet in my program looked taken aback by the directness of my question. I remember what he said to this day. He said, “Your attractiveness is too distracting.”
An uncomfortable laugh followed with the shrugging of shoulders, but no one corrected him. I felt deflated, cheated out of the exam I was prepared to take and pass. What had transpired was not what I expected or wanted. I thought academic gate-keeping was fierce. I felt lightweight, a doll for their amusement, and yet I didn’t feel I could tell anyone, after all, I had passed with “flying colors,” the first person in my family to earn a graduate degree.
The reactions of my committee to my candidacy made me think about Marlon Brando, how he had let himself become a very fat man to the everlasting bafflement of others. Almost every obituary upon his death rehearsed the story of how one of the world’s most beautiful men had become a fat man, obese. No one knew how to interpret his obesity as anything but a horrible self-indulgence, a lack of discipline, and the dominance of his appetite. I seemed to be the only person who thought his letting himself go showed contempt—contempt for his early beauty and the over-evaluation of him as a physical specimen. In his career and his life he went out of his way to mess up his beautiful face and body with elaborate disguises and costumes, by taking unappealing roles, even by feminizing himself and letting himself get soft. He embraced these physical transformations that most movie stars would do anything to avoid. When Greta Garbo aged and no longer presented the image of youthful beauty she was famous for, she retired from the screen. She got the message loud and clear that her value adhered in a certain appearance and nothing else. Perhaps I’m all wrong about Brando, but it allows me to see the contempt I felt for myself trading, as it were, on my good looks and thin body, contempt too for complying with my mother’s deadly values, and contempt for the whole system of exchange.
Five years later, another spring, another expanded waistline. I can’t say that my weight loss five years ago was final, definitive, the diet of all diets, and put an end to the saga of my weight gains and weight losses. It was a turning point, I can say that. I’ve never gained all the weight back, but I have gained some, and I’ve gained it in the same familiar way during the long Michigan winter. I’ve gained it incrementally as I’ve slipped under the mountains of demands.
While I don’t think there is any final resolution unless you consider illness and death a resolution, and I don’t, I will say that I have not become my mother. I have not become vigilant, and that is a victory.
I often see two women in the locker room of the place I go to swim. One woman spends her afternoons sitting on the lower shelf of the sauna. She slumps in the corner on a mound of towels with her arms resting on her legs. She’s weak from her punishing routine. Her hips jut out and you can count her ribs. Every once in a while she pulls herself to her feet with difficulty, shuffles out to the water fountain, fills her water bottles and slowly returns to her shelf in the sauna. where she will sweat all her imperfections from her flesh. And then there’s the large woman who sits on the bench in the dressing area in her kimono of flesh, its beautiful folds spilling over her earthly frame. Nothing passes between these two women but me, the woman in the space in-between.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Her book Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Essays. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years.