Friday, August 12, 2011

On Appetite

On Fat and Appetite

I was at my local public library branch of a Thursday evening, which is part of my general routine. The (long suffering) Husband goes out to DnD, and we walk out together and I go to the library. I was making my way toward the folklore section and encountered a patron from my own library. For the purposes of this blog post, I feel that she should remain anonymous, so the only identifying characteristics I will give her are the ones most important to this story. She is, frankly, one of my favorite patrons. She is old enough to be my mother. She is very intelligent, a wide reader, and one of the most elegant women I’ve ever met.
And this is what she said to me. (I paraphrase) “Now that we find ourselves outside your library, we meet as friends not just patron and library clerk. So let me ask you something….why don’t you think about losing some weight?”

I feel that I must interject at this point. I am, what is known as “A Big Girl”. I have always been a Big Girl. I’m not ready for my own special on Discovery Health or anything, but it is very rare for me that I am not the Fattest Girl in the Room.

She continued, “It’s just that you’re so intelligent…so well-read ….”

I interrupted her. “Thank you so much, Patron X. I appreciate the concern. I know it is kindly meant.”

And it was. Really, it was. This woman was definitely not trying to make me feel small. (Funny, that. Being told I am Too Big actually made me feel Small.)
But she went on. To tell me about the dieticians at the hospital, and things you could do to lose weight. I repeated my line. “Thank you so much, Patron X. I know it’s kindly meant.”

And still she did not stop. Finally, without meaning to, tears sprang to my eyes and I held up my hand. “Thank you, Patron X. But people have been talking to me about this since I was eleven years old –“

And I didn’t have to finish. She backed off. Immediately. And probably went away concerned that she had upset me.

She did.

But it was kindly meant. It is always, always kindly meant.

But you see it is exactly what is meant that concerns me. Maybe she meant that since I am so intelligent and well-read, that it is somehow distasteful that I not also be beautiful. Perhaps as such an elegant woman herself, she in fact found it illogical or perhaps even immoral that I am not beautiful.

I am not, as it happens, beautiful. But neither was Scarlet O’Hara, according to Margaret Mitchell. (Vivien Leigh is another story.)  But, much like Scarlet, I do have sometimes at my command a force of charisma that can make you think that I am. But still, I felt somehow offensive to her, something broken, something to be fixed with a couple hours on the treadmill and some low-fat salad dressing.

And when I told her I’d been talking about this since I was eleven years old, I was telling the truth. Some of my earliest memories are of adults in my life (well-meaning, kindly adults) talking to me with concern about my weight. Every bite of food that went into my mouth was scrutinized, every packet of sugar in my tea, every drop of salad dressing. “Do you really need that?” was the constant refrain.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about all the weight gained and lost, about all the grapefruits consumed and the years spent swimming in shame.

And then several years ago I made a very serious decision. I would no longer have such a strained relationship with my food. I would just eat it. And I could continue to love it if I wanted to.

I’m not talking about eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream watching reruns of House. That’s actually the opposite of what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Appetite.

I’m talking about loving real food. Sauces enriched with egg yolk, biscuits hand made with real butter, pasta with olive oil and cheese. Crisp brown roast chicken, with little potatoes cooked in the rendered off fat in the pan. Fish crusted with nuts and seared smoky in the pan. Homemade macaroni and cheese. I put half and half in my coffee. I enjoy a little chocolate or a little pastry almost every day.

Is it because I hate myself? Because I had a troubled childhood? Or because it fills some kind of a void inside me?

No. It is because I have appetite. Not just have an appetite for food. I have an appetite for paintings and performances. For the fur on a cat’s belly. The shape of a dog’s snoot. For books and movies and bright colored frocks and gloves and hats on a regular day. I have an appetite for sex and conversation and color and languages. For Stephen Sondheim and Shakespeare and old black and white movies where everyone smokes. I have an appetite for success and meaningful work and making things grow.

I will not be ashamed of my appetite. In any form it may take.

I think there are many people with weight problems that stem from psychological problems. Many people use food as a crutch, as an addiction, as a way to fill a void. But I reject the widely held idea that every overweight person is somehow damaged, and if they could get over their trauma, they would be able to stick to their diet. Sorry. I mean, their “lifestyle change”.  This lifestyle is one without any of the great things I mentioned above. Or if they are not completely absent, they are so changed (fat-free cheese, biscuits made of whole wheat flour and yogurt, etc) they are unrecognizable. Or else they are so rarified, because they are “bad” they become fetishized. I reject this. I reject this completely.

I refuse to reject my own appetite.

Perhaps I would feel differently if I had ever truly inhabited a thin body. If I had a memory of being gamine and rangy, a memory of being truly beautiful, then maybe I would feel like there was something lost to be found regained. But that is not my story. In many ways, I am grateful.

I have, what I like to call, a kind of reverse body-dysmorphic disorder. These poor women (usually women, anyway) with eating disorders,  look at their frail 70 pound bodies in the mirror and see only a fat person. I, however, walk around in the world…well, like I’m cute. Like I’m normal. Like I may not be really beautiful, but that’s not really that important.
Until, that is, someone approaches me with a suggestion on how I might be happier, if only I would lose some weight. However kindly meant it was, I only hear one thing.  “You are not enough. Make you like me. How dare you be that way? What is wrong with you?”
And I did feel small, but for only a little while. When I remembered my appetite.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Amy,
    You must not tell me who the patron was, because while I may continue to treat them with as much politeness as you did, I would develop a very serious secret hate for them and that's probably not very productive. But it infuriates me so much that someone, with a moment alone with you, decided that your weight was the thing they really wanted to ask you about. I'm not trying to make myself sound like a saint or anything, but I just want you to know, that in a list of words associated with you, I hold "fat" pretty much down near "requires oxygen" and "bipedal". It is a completely neutral quality that doesn't enter my mind most days, and is CERTAINLY way, WAY below "beautiful". ("Lovely", "clever", "full of life", "adult person I'd like to be like" are also way up there.)
    Assuming people who take up more space are unhealthy and need help is prejudiced, at worst, and dodgy on the science, at best. I'll stop myself before I launch into a whole long rant about the nature of weight, health, dieting and personal freedom. But I'm happy that you know the joys of normal eating, that you enjoy life (which will always piss of somebody), and I hope you know that I think you're beautiful.