‘Pretty face – have you thought about losing weight?’

It is too late for me. I’m 50 and I am way too scared of the world to stop dieting

‘There is no happy ending to this part of my story. They got me, and they will never let me go.’ Illustration: iStock

‘There is no happy ending to this part of my story. They got me, and they will never let me go.’ Illustration: iStock

 

I was a chubby little kid. I loved toast, butter, cookies, orange juice, ice cream and hamburgers, and I didn’t like moving around that much.

I wasn’t a snacker, or a grazer. I just ate as much as an adult and then sat around reading books, and eventually I was 30lb-40lb (14kg-18kg) overweight. Most of my memories of eating as a young child are of my mother asking: “Do you really want that?”

One day I saw myself in a mirror and cried and threw things and decided I wasn’t going to be fat any more. I wrote it down on a piece of paper: I WILL NEVER BE FAT AGAIN. I chose a two-week diet from Mademoiselle or Glamour, which each seemed to print one every month. Reading them I got the same feeling you might get reading the real estate section, dreaming of what you could own and be. The diets were basically all the same.

Breakfast: one piece toast, cottage cheese
Snack: one orange
Lunch: two hard-boiled eggs and an apple
Dinner: hamburger patty, salad, cottage cheese, water, the odd Jell-O.

Lucky for me, I love cottage cheese.

Every morning I got up and rode my three-speed bike around a mile-long loop with a huge hill at the end of it three times. If I ate a cookie the day before, I went back down the hill and back up it, once for every cookie, but I barely ever cheated on the diet, because I was truly committed.

I was hungry all the time, but I felt happy because I was losing weight. My parents had an old-school scale with an analogue meter in their closet, and I got on it every morning and was rarely anything less than excited about my progress. I got thin in about four months.

I couldn’t believe this magical life I was suddenly living where I could put pants on without having to lie down and use all my strength to button and zip them.

My mother brought me clothes she thought would “work”, and I cried as I tried them on, discarding all but one or two items

In my old life, shopping was hell. There was one sales lady at a nearby clothing store. She had piles of dry blond hair, and wore pink lipstick – Revlon Silverspun Rose, I am almost positive. My mother called her “that awful lady”, but we kept going there because it was kind of the only game in town.

The awful lady used to look at me with so much pity, like I was dying instead of just overweight. “Maybe something a little more flattering,” she used to say. My mother brought me clothes she thought would “work”, and I cried as I tried them on, discarding all but one or two items. Meanwhile the awful lady shoved hangers back on to the racks and told thin girls they looked “just darling”.

After I was thin, I could just take things I liked and go into the dressingroom and put stuff on and it would fit me. Sometimes things were even too big. And if something didn’t look good on me, I was like, “Whatever, this piece of clothing sucks”.

One day I was trying stuff on and I heard the awful lady murmur something to my mother, and then I heard my mother say: “We think so.”

In the car afterwards, my mother told me she said I was “growing up nicely”. I felt pride, rage and physical disgust.

People’s reactions

People went crazy about my transformation. That summer when we saw family friends we hadn’t seen in a while, all the adults said, “Sarah, you look really terrific, just terrific”, and as I left the room they would still be saying “terrific” to each other, even the men.

Just the summer before, a friend of my parents had made fun of me to my face when I had complained one night that the adults got lobsters while the kids had to eat chicken. “You don’t look like you’ve missed too many good meals in your life,” he had said, and another friend of my parents who was passing by as he spoke to me smirked at this hilarious joke. Now the joker said, “You look good, kid”. I pretended I didn’t hear him. What could I possibly say to this? “Thanks?” “I hate you?” He was just one person on a long list of people who had been nasty to me who were now much nicer: most of my brother’s friends; my brother himself; my one living grandparent, my mother’s mother, who strung together three whole seconds of sobriety to observe, “You’re actually almost pretty now that you’re not fat any more”.

Every person I talked to was now two people, the one who was nice to me because I was thin, and the person who had been mean to me when I was fat. I was also two people: the fat person who felt like everyone was better than me, and who was so scared to walk across a room, or even stand up; and now, the thin person, who did not know how to manage the exhilaration of suddenly not feeling that way, and of sometimes even feeling superior to people.

Alas, I only felt thin for a little while, because at least one person every three months, through school and college would say to me: “You’d be really pretty if you lost 10lb.” Sometimes they suggested I lose more.

I, who can count the number of calories on a table in less time that it takes most people to tie a pair of shoes, did not see the body positivity movement coming

One weekend in college I went with a friend to his family’s apartment, and I was sitting in his living room waiting for him to change when his mother, a former model, appeared. She was a stunning woman, what Karl Lagerfeld (a fellow dieter) would approvingly call a human hanger. She was the sort of gap-toothed, curly haired 1970s goddess whose tan clavicle area and small, high, far-apart breasts perhaps manifested the plunging Halston neckline.

I was about to say, “I love your shoes” or “beautiful view”, when she said, as if talking to herself: “Pretty face . . . have you ever thought about trying to lose weight?”

My friend burst into the room, shouting, “Ma, shut your mouth!”

“You shut your mouth,” she shouted back. “She knows I’m just trying to help.”

Indeed, I was mad at myself. I admired her.

Body positivity

I, who can count the number of calories on a table laden with 10 dishes in less time that it takes most people to tie a pair of shoes, did not see the body positivity movement coming, not at all.

Suddenly, about a decade ago, when I started to notice that fat women were (a) calling themselves fat, with pride, and (b) walking down streets nonchalantly wearing tight or revealing clothing with a general air of, “Yeah I will wear this and I will wear whatever I want, and I am hot, too, I will be hot for ever, long after you have all died,” I thought to myself, Oh my God what? The solution is not ... the diet?

I started seeing fat, beautiful models and actors in catalogues and on television shows. I would like to have seen more, but I was pleased to see them at all. I was and remain in awe of their confident beauty. I feel tenderness for them as well, for what they endured, and still endure, to achieve it. I sometimes choke up with love for them, and for the idea of how I could have lived if I had allowed myself to just weigh what I weighed.

I don’t actually think beauty is restricted to certain types of women at all. I don’t think you need to be thin to have sex or find love. I know all this but am sorry to report that I only like myself thin. My weight has probably occupied 50 per cent of my thinking for my entire life. I am on a diet now. I just lost 8lb. I want to lose 15 more.

Poor innocent J-Lo’s body – here it thought its whole purpose was just to move J-Lo’s consciousness through space

I go to Weight Watchers every Saturday. I didn’t lose any weight last week after a week of being “perfect” – which meant having a small breakfast and two reasonably large salads with no cheese or nuts (and therefore sad) for lunch and dinner – and I sobbed furiously, 12 years old all over again. Yes, I have been to therapy, so much of it, and no, I do not think this mental state is “fine” or even “okay”.

What it is, is intractable.

It’s bizarre the way women’s feelings about their bodies, good and bad, are tied to other women, like, if a woman has a great body, this can feel like a rebuke to everyone who has a regular body. As I watched J-Lo’s Super Bowl halftime show, I thought, this is going to turn into a thing where middle-aged women get upset because they don’t look like that, and they will express this anger in racist and sexist comments about her clothing choices and the precise shape of her body. Poor innocent J-Lo’s body – here it thought its whole purpose was just to move J-Lo’s consciousness through space.

‘Healthy’ lens

I wonder how many women don’t feel so much that they’ve accepted their bodies as much as they need to present as someone who has. Younger women tell me that the way that they hear weight anxiety being expressed is more through the buzzword of “health”, so women say they’re not eating dairy, or bread, or sugar so they won’t be seen as judging themselves or others.

I no longer complain to women who are fat that I’m overweight, except now of course. (Really thin women still tell me they’re fat all the time – maybe I deserve it.) But even if I don’t fat-shame others I cannot stop fat-shaming myself, and yes, I know this means that I am sort of also fat-shaming others by doing so, but, as you may have gathered, I can’t stop.

I am not saying that no one has accepted her body, that it’s all a lie. I am just saying that I’m pretty sure we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. And why would we have? The material conditions of being a woman have not been altered in any dramatic way, and seem to be getting worse, for everyone. And while there is certainly more of what is called a “celebration” of different shapes, it is rare that those shapes are not proportioned in a fairly universally attractive way.

Even if by some miracle I were to accept being not thin, as I have many times – for five or 10 minutes or three whole days like when I finished Lindy West’s excellent memoir, Shrill, and naively thought I had finally been cured of my sickness – I would remain the sort of person destined for reinfection.

That person is always prepared for contempt from men who don’t find her physically attractive, and has been on high alert to general woman hatred since she was four. (Honestly, I pity the women who are not.) At any rate I’m 50 and I am way too scared of the world to stop dieting.

I will die with my fat-free Cool Whip in one hand and my gym pass in the other and a drawer jeans that I will never fit into again

Last year I ran into that friend of my parents who, many years ago, told me, a child, that he didn’t like how I looked. I gave him a big fake smile that lasted about half a second, and then collapsed it abruptly into a cold stare. He looked terrified. It was the kind of moment often described as “making it all worth it”.

It is too late for me, and it’s too late for pretty much everyone my age. We are so brainwashed. And as imperfect as the body positivity movement may be, just remember: we didn’t even have one.

There is no happy ending to this part of my story. They got me, and they will never let me go. I will die with my fat-free Cool Whip in one hand and my gym pass in the other and a drawer jeans that I will never fit into again.

It is fine. Just let me lie here. I beg you, if you can, to go on ahead without me. And if you see them coming, keep running, don’t stop, and don’t turn around. There is no joy life can bring that depends on them catching you. – The New York Times

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