I write the word in 12-inch letters on the dry erase
board in a class of 30 psychology majors at the local university. The silence
is complete. I am a guest speaker. I’ve been introduced to them as a cultural
anthropologist with a specialization in psycho-cultural studies, but nothing
“What is the first word that comes to mind when you
see that word spelled out here?” I ask, looking out at a seeming sea of
deliberately blank faces. They are male and female, mostly white and Latino,
with a tiny scattering of African-American and Filipino.
Some of them are F-A-T.
So am I.
And that is why they can’t respond. Some are caught
between the truth and what they dare not say in front of this
teacher-speaker-so-called-expert who is white, middle aged, and weighs 300
pounds. Some are locked into their own pillories of shame about their own
bodies and are feeling both vulnerable and targeted.
“I’ll start,” I say. I write the word P-I-G next to
the word fat. “If you live in this society, certain things come to mind when
you see the word ‘fat.’ Those associations are bred into you. So let’s hear
them. Anyone. You don’t have to raise your hand.”
“Obese,” someone says from the back of the room.
“Unhealthy,” someone else volunteers.
And that opens the floodgates. “Dumb.” “Ugly.” “Sad.”
“Unhappy.” “Depressed.” “Unemployable.” “Smelly.” “No Self-Esteem.” “Lazy.”
“Miserable.” “Suicidal.” And then, “Addicted.” And “Shame.”
I will talk to them, these youngsters, roughly 18 to
30 years of age, about evolving standards of beauty, and how the average size
of a Miss America contestant has consistently lengthened and slimmed while the
average size of the American woman has increased substantially over the same
period. I’ll talk about the history of eating disorders in this country and its
correlation with two major waves of the feminist movement in the 20th century.
I’ll talk to them about the rise of convenience foods and standardized clothing
sizes. I’ll talk to them about capitalism and a self-sustaining industry
devoted to diet, health and exercise that reaps a rich reward from women who,
twenty years ago, spent on average $16,000 a minute on supplements, diet
programs, classes, and equipment in hopes of attaining the unattainable. God
knows what the cost is today.
I’ll talk to them about my doctoral research,
undertaken when I myself was maybe 30 pounds overweight—about women I
interviewed and observed in a recovery facility who had never been more than 10
pounds overweight in their lives, but whose body obsession had compromised
their ability to maintain jobs, relationships, and even a modicum of sanity. We
will talk about the work of Foucault, and how you don’t have to imprison people
if you can chain their minds by framing their world view such that they are
convinced of their own inferiority. We will talk about the rich dividends
earned by those savvy enough to know how to take advantage of their pain.
We will not talk about the fact that I weigh 300
I stand in front of the mirror.
I didn’t know until recently—or didn’t remember—that
the formal word for the bone that runs on either side of my sternum, or breast
bone, is the clavicle. I’ve always just called it the collarbone. I didn’t realize
that the rib cage doesn’t start AT my breasts, but actually extends all the way
up to just below the clavicle. This, in part, is because I never studied
anatomy. It’s also because, until recently, I had never seen those bones on my
Now, standing in front of the mirror, they are the
first thing I see. They protrude from the smooth, pale flesh of my upper chest,
impossible to miss. There is no fat—not even the little underarm pockets that
women routinely work to hide. Thanks to my Le Mystere bra (molded cup, 34D) and
my concave belly, from the waist up I look taut, feminine, built. Without Le
Mystere, I am in the plight so graphically described by Maya Angelou as
watching my left breast engage in a race with my right to see which can reach my
waist first. And even the graceful lift and tilt of Le Mystere does not detract
from the slight pucker of flesh at my waist—no more of one, I imagine, than any
woman might experience who has borne one or more children.
I have borne no children.
Beneath my pantyhose, my thighs are smooth, my legs
shapely, my abdomen relatively taut. The thighs are a little large, the torso a
little low-slung; the legs could be an inch or two longer, but
Under the pantyhose, there’s a flap of skin that hangs
on my abdomen. It is hidden by the nylon, but I know it’s there, just as I know
that the flesh around my rounded thighs is loose and flabby when released from
Age is part of the equation, certainly. But so is the
loss of 165 pounds—the loss of far more pounds, in fact, than now comprise my
The mirror shows a face that lays full claim to its 63
years. Thanks to Le Mystere and Hanes, it shows a body I didn’t have at 18.
I like this body. It feels right. The appropriate
exterior vessel for the awakened interior self—the self that enjoys freedom of
movement, that engages in the world with a charming lack of self-consciousness.
Maybe, given time, I will recognize this body as
rightfully my own. Not borrowed. Not temporary.
Because, right now, when I look in the mirror, I still
see size 28. I don’t see size 6.