Daughters of Eve

By now every woman in America will have seen Valerie Bertinelli's photo on the cover of this month's People magazine; I've seen it and I'm always the last one to pick up on such media events. What was your reaction to seeing a 48-year-old woman looking--let's face it--pretty amazing, even if she is wearing nothing but a bright green string bikini? Okay, so that was the point: here's an almost 49-year-old woman (her birthday is April 23) who, doubtless with the usual help of a bit of airbrushing (and hair dye), looks as good as a 20-year-old without her clothes on. But Bertinelli is not just your usual aging starlet: two years ago, she would never have been photographed in such a revealing costume because at that point she weighed some fifty pounds more than she did when the bikini photos were taken. In a little under two years, Bertinelli went from 172 lbs. to her original goal of 132 lbs. and then, with the help of a trainer and a 1,200 calorie a day diet, to 123 lbs. for the photo shoot. I'm jealous; aren't you?

It's been interesting reading the reactions that many women--and men--have posted already on the web. Some are inspired by Bertinelli's achievement; others are concerned about what it means. My first reaction, truth be told, was, "Thank goodness! If she can look that good now, surely I can, too, five years from now when I turn 49." But then I started wondering. And surfing. How had she done it? Was it really something that I could do? Did she have a secret that none of the rest of us has discovered? No, of course not, although her sponsors Jenny Craig would have us believe that their diet plan will work as well for us as for her. Which is not to say that their diet won't work; clearly it can. But then all diets work for a time if one is able to follow them correctly. It's the "correctly" part that's the problem.

I am not much of a dieter; the only one I ever seriously followed, my senior year in high school, was the Scarsdale. I could probably recite for you the entire menu even today, even without looking at the very helpful chart in the Wikipedia article. And it worked. I went from 137 lbs. (horribly fat for high school) to somewhere around 118 lbs. in a matter of several months, after which I vowed--much as Bertinelli has after her recent success--never, never to let myself get that heavy again. I, too, promised myself to "stay vigilant" lest the weight creep back on, memorizing calorie charts and portion sizes so as to be able to stay within bounds. It didn't work. Almost immediately, the weight started coming back on, not that it was really any mystery why. I ate too much; I got drunk on food. It was worst my first year in college: I would go to the campus bookstore and buy several packets of Pepperidge Farm cookies, hurry back to my dorm room and eat the whole lot, every time vowing that "this time" would be the last. By the end of that year, I was easily back to my pre-Scarsdale weight.

Why did I do it? I've had occasion to ask myself that over and over again, not because I've dieted and failed (I really don't diet, except not to eat meat), but because every so often in my life, for reasons that are at once mysterious and yet utterly clear, I've lost weight "just because": in the months after I first met my now-husband, in the year or so after I got tenure and started fencing. The weight simply vanished. Call it the Diet of Joy. When I'm deliriously happy, my appetite changes and I really don't want to eat as much as I do at other times, e.g. now. My colleagues remember how skinny I got several years ago; they would often remark on it, typically with concern. At my skinniest, I was thinner, yes, even than Ms. Bertinelli: 118 lbs. on a 5'5" frame.

And, boy, was I ripped! I was fencing two or three times a week, doing all the footwork exercises with the kids. My stomach was not only flat (it's fairly flat even now), but fat-less, nearly as lean as a guy's. You could see the veins in my arms and my face had that wonderful fleshless look so beloved of our A-list stars. People who hadn't seen me in a while literally could not recognize me, my body-type had changed so much. And, oh, how I counted the calories! 1,800 a day to maintain this weight: I knew every bite that I ate for the better part of two years. Like Bertinelli, I was determined never again to let myself get fat again. I was thin and I was going to stay that way. And then my father died. Grief does interesting things to one's view of the world, not all of which I have even come close to fully realizing, but one of the most immediate was its effect on my appetite: I was hungry again. More, I could tell that my body was hungry; starved, in fact. There was no way I was going to be able to sustain this level of skinniness for the rest of my life; my muscles were screaming for energy. And besides, my periods had stopped. I thought I was entering menopause--at 40. (Sorry, quite possibly TMI, but perhaps some of you actually need to hear this. Guys can stop reading if they haven't already.)

Inevitably (or so it seemed), the weight started coming back on. Remember, to lose it, I hadn't really dieted. I had just been happy: finally, after eight years as an assistant professor, I was no longer in fear of losing my job; my book had just been published; I had a new exercise which I was enjoying with my son. But after two years of fencing, my body had adjusted to the physical demands and it needed more fuel. I could no longer live on adrenaline and joy. And yet, I was exercising; I was counting calories. What else was I to do? You guessed it: read books. I have a stack of them here now: French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure (Mirelle Guiliano, 2005); Ultrametabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss (Mark Hyman, M.D., 2006); Skinny Bitch: A no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous! (Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, 2005); The Overfed Head: What if everything you know about weight loss is wrong? (Rod Stevens, founder of thintuition, 2004); The Ten Habits of Naturally Slim People And How to Make Them Part of Your Life (Jill H. Podjasek, M.S., R.N., with Jennifer Carney, 1997); The 7 Secrets of Slim People (Vikki Hansen, M.S.W., and Shawn Goodman, 1997)--all of them promising to let me in on the secret of how some people simply managed to stay the weight that was best for their bodies while the rest of us struggled to fit into our jeans. And guess what? There is no secret, other than eating only when you are hungry, only as much as you need. Your body, they all promised (with certain variations), would do the rest.

Oh, yeah? Actually, I do believe them, I'm just not always that good at listening. Or, rather, my body, that is, my physical self tells me conflicting things. Secret #1 (according to Hansen and Goodman): "Listen to your body, not your mind." Your body, they assure me, knows what it needs to stay healthy. Naturally slim people eat only when their bodies tell them they are hungry--really, physically hungry--not when their minds are telling them they want something. Most not-slim people simply aren't very good at hearing what their bodies are telling them. See that muffin? Your body says, "No, I don't really want that, it's too heavy and I always feel a bit sluggish after I eat that much sugar and fat," while your mind is saying, "Oh, but I deserve a treat, I'll count the calories and make up for it later." Which, of course, you don't, in large part because (and this I have learned over the past few years) eating such big lumps of flour, sugar and fat throws your body's insulin response off such that--at least for some of us fatties--you really can't stop eating, any more than an alcoholic can take only one drink. Remember what I said about the Pepperidge Farm cookies in college? I really was getting drunk on food, just as many of my friends were getting drunk on rum and Coke.

So, fine, I've learned when to listen to my body when I'm tempted with cake. Why then do I weigh some ten or fifteen or so pounds more than I know is the weight that my body feels best at? (And, no, it isn't 118 lbs., more like 135, about what I weighed before dieting my senior year in high school.) If I were really listening properly, wouldn't I be slim? Fine, so I must not be listening. The thing is, what if my body actually wants to be the weight that it is now? It's not like I kept getting fatter and fatter once I fell off the 1,800 calories/day wagon. I gained all of the weight back that I had lost in my euphoria--and then stopped. I can't seem to lose any weight now, but neither am I still gaining. In actual fact, my body does seem to know how much it needs to maintain its present weight because, on the rare occasion when I am able to count calories correctly and stay under what I know is its norm, I'm still hungry. And so, inevitably, I eat those 150 extra calories for the day (all, in actual fact, that it takes to stay 10 pounds "overweight") and then I'm satisfied.

Who here is kidding whom? I'm really not sure anymore. Yes, I know that for Bertinelli, 172 lbs. was probably somewhat heavier than was good for her body, but I doubt very much that she's going to be able to maintain herself at 123 lbs. without making it her career. Will power doesn't really enter into it. Or, rather, will power is one thing, but our bodies' signals about what size they want to be don't necessarily match what works on the cover of People magazine. Nor, truth be told (and I've written about this before), do women necessarily look better when they're bikini thin, particularly women our (Bertinelli's and my) age. Who was it who called them "social x-rays"? Those pinched, starved, cadaverous women of a certain age whose bodies clearly want to have a bit more fat but who will themselves--like medieval ascetics--never to eat. When I was their size, oh, yes, I felt powerful--I even had some guy on the street in NYC tell me what a cool outfit I was wearing one day on my way to yoga class--but I also felt, well, diminished, not really myself. And, of course, I was constantly scared of gaining the weight back.

I was awake last night with my throat on fire (this, in fact, is the only voice I have at the moment), feverishly playing with the BMI calculators trying to figure out whether or not I'm really as fat as I feel. By this one, I'm "marginally overweight" if you go by the halls.md v 2 standard, but "in normal range" according to the WHO-CDC, which is amusing given that the WHO-CDC standards are apparently more suited to young adults, while the halls.md classification is supposed to take into account the natural increase in BMI over the course of one's life. But whatever reassurance such calculators can give, the mirror always says something else: I'm fat. Translation: I would never allow myself to be photographed for a national magazine in a bikini; I wouldn't even wear a bikini--ever, not even in the privacy of my own bedroom. Question: does this mean I am actually fat?

I'm pretty sure Rubens would reject me out of hand as one of his models for being too shapeless and bony, but I don't think we need to go to the extremes of Baroque voluptuousness to see that something is sadly out of kilter with our estimations of female beauty these days. How many of you have the dress-up Venus magnet on your fridge? I do; and, truth be told, I'm about her size, almost exactly really. And she looks really good. Not too skinny, not too fat, but just right--for a woman. I am hardly the first to say this; I read books when I was younger, too: Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-diet Guide to Permanent Weight Loss (1978); Kim Chernin's Womansize: The Tyranny of Slenderness (1983), and I know deep down inside that what I am struggling with is not simply an issue of my own self-confidence (although it is that), but also a profoundly skewed understanding that our culture has engendered of what it means for a woman to be beautiful. Viz., that she must look like a pre-adolescent girl. Humbert Humbert (if he existed) would be in heaven.

Men have always enjoyed looking at naked women; I'm not worried about that. (So, it seems, do other women, otherwise they wouldn't buy all those fashion magazines, too.) But I worry about whether the women that we see on the covers of our national magazines, dressed in nothing but a few scraps of fabric, are actually that: women. As you recall (probably more vividly than you'd like), when I was that skinny I was, well, not fully a woman, if you get what I mean. To be myself--my fully adult, female self--I needed to put on a bit of, yes, fat. Because, it seems, our female bodies need fat in order to be female. Sure, I loved being able to see my veins--like a guy's--and having my muscles in my arms, chest and legs fully defined--like a guy's. But my body knew better. Nor, come to think of it, am I in fact sure whether I've ever seen a photograph of a real, honest-to-goodness woman naked (or nearly so) in a national magazine.* (There are a few in clothes, but those are only their "before" pictures.) Not like the Venus on my refridgerator; not like every image of Eve ever painted by one of the Renaissance masters. Because, of course, that would be to show the world what women actually are: goddesses and the mothers of humankind.

Perhaps, after all, our bodies do know what's best for us, not the editors of popular magazines.

*Nor, for that matter, are such emaciated pseudo-preteens actually "naked" despite the fact that they are wearing almost no clothing. To be naked, you need to have a body; what they have achieved is a sort of bodilessness, no wrinkles (airbrushed and surgically-removed), no cellulite, no flaws.**
**There is a whole other question, which this post is already too long to go into now, about the propensity for showing women (mostly) naked, at whatever age they are, which further homogenizes them.

[Picture credits: "Birth of Venus" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1879; Musee d'Orsay, Paris. "Adam and Eve" by Titian, c. 1550; Museo del Prado, Madrid.]


  1. A 1200 calorie a day diet is a good way to end up dead. Bertinelli's secret to weight loss almost certainly involves having the cash and leisure to devote several hours a day to a trainer. And finally, if I can be so bold, the fencing bear would've fit into a bikini pretty well when last I saw her, and from what I can tell, she's held up pretty well. Confidence is everything!

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post -- I bookmarked your site ages ago, for reasons I have since forgotten, and so came across it today, and have been thinking about what you wrote.

    It's a strange fact, indeed, about our lot as women: on one hand there is this artificial, I want to say unnecessary struggle with the body, its constant presence in consciousness, like a large angel who sits silently watching everything which one does, perhaps not exactly interfering, but not fading out of the picture, either. This is, obviously, distinct from the way a mystic might wrestle with the body as an enemy; even among women for whom the body is not, exactly, an antagonist, there is often a constant self-awareness, strange in its persistence. But on the other hand -- as many others have said, insofar as our body mediates our encounter with the world, this awareness, its constant friction, is also strangely useful for thought, as you show.

    A remark looking at the paintings you quote: notice the whiteness of the more recent painting: moving away from the sexuality of earth tones. I still remember seeing the statues of goddesses in the Acropolis museum in Athens as they used to be, in full color. What a strange, visceral experience, to have to confront these objects in reds and greens, without the shield of their familiar, ethereal whiteness.

    It's also interesting to look at early renaissance paintings of Mary, huge, maternal, all-encompassing -- coming on the heels of centuries of people who float and balance on geometrically impossible thrones -- witness to an entire generation of artists discovery of gravity.

    Anyway, thanks from this reader.

    (I don't have a blog myself, but have thought out loud a bit on Pandalous)

  3. Thank you, Solveig, for such a thoughtful response! Thanks to a book I've been reading this weekend (Charlene Spretnak's Missing Mary), I've been thinking a lot about embodiment and what it teaches us. I like very much your reflection on how our struggle is actually instructive: we need it to be fully ourselves, and yet, it challenges us constantly with both its potentialities and limitations.


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