Food + Beauty + Pleasure + Health

My grandfather infested our house while I was at school one day. I was in, what, seventh grade? Eighth? Many years before “meme” was in widespread non-academic use.

I came home, the dented blue Bronco was parked outside, and Grandpa sat enthroned in the front room. Over the sound of Western No. 1 (of the 5,987,345 that would echo, deafeningly, through our house while he lived there) he rasped, “Well, Melissa, you’re getting fat.” Before saying hello or anything.

I’ve thought I was fat most of my life. Not because of him, just in general. It’s a sort of guiding obsession among the women in my family … and at the schools I attended … and everywhere I’ve worked.

Or talked with anyone.

Or been.

A bearded stranger at a coffeeshop today, an older man, garrulous (to the point of obnoxiousness), told me without provocation that coffee would stunt my growth and ruin my basketball career. He then — because I apparently hadn’t yet been sufficiently reminded that my body is available for comment and censure by virtue of its recognizable femaleness —  assured me that there were absolutely no calories in the pastries on display. Because all women are on diets. Or perhaps all who look like me ought to be.

You know — well, you probably don’t, so I’ll tell you — I’ve actually been fat a couple of times. After each of my two children were born. Not health-threateningly obese, but, you know, quite fat enough to be invisible. If you’ve been there, you know; there’s a fat invisibility threshold, and once you pass it you become The Invisible Woman. No one makes small talk with you while you check out at the grocery store. People avert their eyes, hoping if they ignore you, you’ll go away. I can say from personal experience that this is a very unwelcoming world to be fat in. But I am not, in fact, fat at the moment.

Talking about dieting, or counting calories, or working out is almost always … fraught. And doubly so if someone in the conversation blithely assumes (protip: NEVER ASSUME) that the other(s) are dissatisfied with their own health or appearance, or are primarily concerned about their food from a health or weight-management stance.

But even if you’re not assuming that — even if, in fact, you’re just talking about your own weight, your own food, your own metabolism or exercise regimen, the discussion’s almost always antagonistic anyway. Like you’re always outside of your body, hollering at it, drill-sergeant-style, to be better already. And if you don’t have that tone, others will helpfully provide it.

So the fact that one of my Next Big Things — my endeavors, my projects, call them what you will — is, in fact, losing weight, seems kind of disingenuous. Because I’m so stridently opposed to the body policing, particularly of female bodies, that pervades our culture. And it’s so pervasive that even talking solely about my own body and choices somehow gets added to that pile.

See, I’m working to go from the higher side of pleasantly average, weight- and size-wise, to the lower side. And I have found that any time I talk about that pursuit outside my inner circle, the response is almost always, “You don’t want to …” or “But you’re not fat” or the ubiquitous, defensive “I just love food too much.”

So I don’t talk about it, because who has time for that? and I’ve decided … that’s not really okay. That’s not helpful, not for me or anyone else. Sure, not talking about it with particular people, yeah. But in general? As a rule? No.

I hate that our culture makes us into the custodians of our insecurities and dissatisfactions, and then demonizes us not only for addressing them, and also for talking about them. Even for having them. It’s ridiculous. But I don’t feel that, for myself, the appropriate or healthy response to my society’s machinations is not to care. Because I do care — I care about how I look, I care about how I feel, I care about how people treat and see me. (I care, indeed, about a truly staggering number of things, both internal and external. This will likely become a theme.)

I suggest a new strategy.* I suggest that we all have the right to our own relationship with our bodies, and the right to choose how we care for and adorn them. We do not have the right to define that relationship, or make those choices, for anyone else. We also have the right to discuss our physical choices, and ideas, and desires — but not the right to use those discussions to hurt or use others.

So I’m going to talk about it. Here, with you.

*Let the Wookie win. What? Someone had to say it.

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