Generations of Fat

It's August, which means it's time to worry about my weight--again.  Yes, I know I've written about this before, and every time I've promised myself I was going to stop worrying about it.  But it's there, lurking, waiting to get at me if I let my guard down.

Why should this be?  I've read lots and lots of answers over the years, but curiously, every woman writing about it seems to think that it is a problem peculiar to her generation.  Thus Courtney E. Martin, in Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (2007), written when she was 25: "Our mothers had the luxury of aspiring to be 'good,' but we have the ultimate goal of 'effortless perfection.'"  Well, I was old enough in 2007 to have been Martin's mother (just--if I had had a baby at age 17), and let me tell you, I somehow missed that luxury.  The goal of perfection was our goal, too, back in the 1970s.  It is hardly as "new" as the young women of today seem to feel.

Nor was it new for my generation to be body-obsessed, at least to judge from my mother's obsession with diet and food.  To the best of my knowledge, my mother has never actually dieted, but at 4' 11'', she has always "had to" (as she puts it) "watch her weight."  As if it would run away from her if she relaxed her vigilance even for a second.  Nor is it something that she feels entirely comfortable about, even now at age 72.  "I can't eat all of that," she'll apologize as you serve her the dinner you've cooked.  "That's fine, Mom, just eat what you want."  "No, no," the fight begins, "here," she'll say, putting the food on somebody else's plate, "you eat it, I just couldn't."  As if it were necessary to apologize for every bite she does or doesn't put in her mouth.

As she eats, she talks constantly about how much she has eaten and how she has to stop.  "Oh, I shouldn't have.  Oh, that was too much."  And don't even get her started on desserts.  Desserts are the pinnacle of pleasure, the thing that you have been watching what you've been eating all day in order to have, the reward for being "good" (okay, so maybe Martin was right, but she's missed the valence of what being "good" actually meant--a perfection you could never possibly attain).  Desserts are better than food, they are the whole point of eating (or not eating) in the first place.  Cake, doughnuts, chocolate: these are treasures to be guarded and shared, the markers of love and caring, the reasons for getting up in the morning and for being "good" all day, so that maybe, just maybe, you can allow yourself a treat at the end.

I don't blame my mom; it's not her fault she thinks this way.  She learned it from her mother, who, if anything, was even more obsessed than she.  The 25-year-olds of 2007 had nothing on my grandmother for obsessing about their weight.  Again, I don't remember my grandmother ever actually dieting, but then, she never needed to: she was on a perpetual diet.  And, yes, she was thin.  Thinner than any of the other women in her town, thinner than the thinnest celebrity, thin as a flapper must have been back in the 1920s when she was a girl.  And, oh, it was a torment to be around her if you were anything other than perfectly thin.  There she would be, with her bird-sized portions, 4 oz. of orange juice, a spoonful of peas, the tiniest piece of meat, complaining about how full she was after she'd eaten.

It was not easy being a growing young girl in her house, let me tell you.  She'd hide candies from herself, which only made them all the more tempting to discover when you were ten.  But then, when you ate them, you knew you had been bad on so many levels: for stealing, for sneaking, for eating, for wanting more than the mouse nibbles you had felt allowed to have at dinner.  And, oh, had she trained everyone else well!  My grandfather would shake his head at me (gasp!) eating, just watching me blow up into a (gasp!) woman.  My uncles would tease me about how much I had eaten, comment on my weight if I had gained or lost, question (this happened only a few years ago, in 2005) how I could allow myself to eat (in this instance, a doughnut) and still expect not to get fat.

Food for my grandmother was never (never, never, never) something you simply enjoyed.  It was always a test.  A test of your virtue.  A test of your willpower.  A test of your ability to say no.  And yet, it was also a way for her to exert power over others, by making them eat even when they didn't want to.  Because heaven forbid if you did not clean your plate (thus, I suspect, my mother's inability to leave food on hers): then you wouldn't get a gold star--literally.  My grandmother (much to her credit and nothing to do with the food rant here) founded a daycare center in her town (now "Rachel's Little House") and one of the things that I remember most vividly from our days spent "helping" her with the littler kids was the "Clean Plate Club."  There was a chart on the wall with all of the kids' names and, yes, you guessed it, you would get a star if you cleaned your plate at lunch.

Damned if you eat, damned if you don't.  My mother would say (and has) that this obsession with cleaning plates was simply a consequence of my grandmother's having lived through the Depression, when food was scarce and every mouthful counted.  Perhaps.  But I don't think that that was all it was about.  Grandmother loved being thin.*  She loved wearing elegant clothes and high heels.  She loved wearing her hair like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), although I rather suspect Grandmother adopted the style first.  Being thin was her way of being more, much more, than simply the wife of the town doctor; it set her apart, made her magical and different.  And it promised her perpetual youth: "I'm 39 and a few months," she would say.  My grandmother didn't just hate being fat; she hated being anything other than the woman she had been when she was young.  Whom, of course, I never knew, because I was born the year she turned 53.

I will spare you the details (for now) of what it was like going clothes shopping with her.  Suffice it to say that my diaries from those years (she died when I was 16**) are filled with screeds about how fat I was, the very letters themselves getting fatter and fatter as I tried to shame myself into losing weight.  Nor did it stop there.  Just a few weeks ago in the midst of the decluttering, I found a contract that my mother made with me around that same time, colluding with me in the exercise of shame: "Rachel, now it's my turn to write a note--the enormity of your weight problem has reached the end pt.--there seems to be no alternative but to deny you certain privileges--unless you adhere to the following and lose weight according to this schedule you will forfeit your visit to Wyoming [to see my father] this summer as well as postpone obtaining your driver's license [which I got, it being Texas, at age 15, long story, but this dates this "contract" to the summer after my sophomore year in high school]--I simply cannot let you visit as fat as you are--you have not established proper eating habits that will keep you from gaining another 6-10 pounds on a visit--Here is your schedule--you must keep your calories down to 1200/day until this has been accomplished."

I know why my mother wrote me this "contract": I had written to her out of self-hatred and misery begging her to enforce some limits on me so that I could stick to my diet.  I don't know which is sadder: the fact that she, too, believed that I needed to be shamed in some way, or the fact that I thought I was fat when I weighed (gasp!) all of 125 pounds (as per the starting weight on the schedule).  At the height I am now--5' 5".  Let me be very clear about insane this was: my periods stop now if I am that thin.  (Just FYI, my goal weight that summer was 110, the weight I had been the year before when I was 14.  I've seen girls at 14 who weigh that much.  They aren't women, they're stick figures.  I was supposed to gain all that weight!  And, guess what, I've seen pictures of myself from that summer.  I still wasn't fat.  Except compared to my grandmother.)

And so it began.  (Actually, it began when I was seven, and my mother told me off for eating my ice cream too fast, but let's stick to this narrative.)  Year after year of beating myself up because I was growing breasts and hips.  Year after year of sneaking and bingeing, being caught in the kitchen getting that third bowl of ice cream (with whipped cream, natch), taking the car (I got my driver's license, even though I hadn't lost the weight--my mom is actually a real softy) to buy fruit pies and chocolate and more chocolate and eating myself into sugar-fat stupors, promising over and over again that this binge would be the last, only to find myself sneaking out yet again for another package (or three) of Pepperidge Farm Chessmen.  I am much more compassionate towards my teen-age self now than I was even up to age 40 (not perhaps coincidentally the year I passed 39).  I see now that I was unhappy, scared, anxious about all of the things that one is at that age, especially after having just moved to a new town, and that eating was a way of comforting myself.  But for decades, all that there was was hate.

I do feel lucky now.  I am not my grandmother.  I do not have my hair combed and put up with hairspray once a week.  I do not wear tailored ultrasuede suits in delicate pastels.  I do not wear size AAA shoes (or maybe she was a AA, I don't quite remember).  I am not 5' 2".  I am certainly at a weight that would horrify her.  But I eat.  And more often than not I now eat not only with pleasure, but for pleasure.  Thanks be to God and to all of the not-diet books I have been working with over the past five or six years (i.e. since I turned 40--hear that, Grandmother?), I have learned to eat when I am hungry, indeed, to allow myself to be hungry and to recognize hunger as a signal that I should eat.  I eat what I want, which more often than not of late means real food, not desserts.  I acknowledge the need to binge, which, yes, still hits, as a signal that I am under stress (as, for example, I was on Wednesday, coming down from being on radio--breathe!), not that I am a bad person or somehow a failure.  But.

But, it being August, it still took me a whole day yesterday of reading Geneen Roth's Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything (2010) and When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair: 50 Ways to Feel Thin, Gorgeous, and Happy (When You Feel Anything But) (1998) to overcome the desire to start yet another food diary so as to, yes, at long last solve the last real problem that I have.  Or think I have.  Before, you know, I can be happy.  Because you can only really be happy if you're thin.

Did I tell you that my grandmother's maiden name was Rachel Brown?

*Not that my grandmother ever actually did anything so coarse as exercise.  It amused us even as kids that she would dress up, get in her white Ford Thunderbird convertible (with red upholstery), and drive more or less literally around the block to get to her daycare center (about .2 mile).  Mind you, she was often bringing the food that she'd cooked for that day's lunch, but she certainly never walked there even when she was going simply to check in.  But she was thin.
**The terrible irony here being that my grandmother got her wish: she never did get old, but died (of a rare form of lung cancer, never having been a smoker) at the age of 69, the youngest of four sisters, all of whom other than she lived into their late 80s.


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