I listened to an Ira Glass podcast today ….

called Tell Me I’m Fat and although I usually like Ira Glass’ work (particularly the one about his dog), this episode left me feeling as if the emperor (actually, the empress) had no clothes. I was frustrated at what didn’t get said, but only, as Anne Lamott would say, “in the kindest possible way."

Three women were featured. One had accepted her fat (she said to call it fat. She said that calling it overweight implied that there was a weight you were supposed to be and therefore, that the weight you were was wrong) and realized, after seeing Leonard Nimoy’s photographs called The Full Body Project—gorgeous, sumptuous photographs--- that the rolls of fat on her body might indeed be beautiful. The second woman had lost a huge amount of weight by taking amphetamines. A decade or so later, she is now married, still taking amphetamines to dampen her appetite, and feels as if she left her old fat self behind—and that the leaving was a kind of betrayal or abandonment (my words, not hers). She recorded a heated argument with her new husband of ten days about the fact that he might not have loved or been attracted to her had she not lost weight. And she found this painful because, of course, at her core, she is still the same self she was before she lost weight. The third woman talked about being much fatter than the first aforementioned woman and that she didn’t want to accept her fat. She was suffering daily because of it. She said the fact that she was black only added to the amount of discrimination she received from other people.

As I listened, I kept wondering about the particulars of food itself and how each of the women used it. If it provided emotional comfort, if it was being used as a drug to change the channel in their minds, and what it might be like to turn towards the heart of discomfort—which is the point at which most of us use food. And, having just returned from our retreat, and having just heard from so many women—fat and thin and every weight between—I am once again reminded that it’s possible to lose a great deal of weight or to accept being fat, and still not address the core of the relationship with food. And until this part is addressed, she-who-is-living-your-life goes untended.

It feels to me that there are two issues here: one is the way the culture has hijacked women’s definitions of themselves vis-à-vis body weight and beauty. The podcast addressed this beautifully. We are bombarded by images of thin, thinner, thinnest women and in the sheer volume of the photographs and ongoing articles about losing weight, we are hypnotized into believing that the only acceptable body-weight is thin. That beauty is defined by the size of our thighs or a number on a scale. That we can only have big lives if we have small bodies. In this regard, fat really is a feminist issue. (The same is true with ageing and the fact that only young, smooth, jowl-less women are considered beautiful). Because the culture is us--an externalized projection of all of our minds—one way to change the culture is by changing our willingness to accept what is unacceptable. To stop buying those magazines. To do whatever it takes to stop shaming ourselves. It’s slow work, it’s one-by-one work, but it is effective and powerful, and as I sometimes say to my students, what better thing is there to do?

The second, unaddressed part of the podcast was the essential issue, the one that addresses what cannot be seen or felt or touched. It is expressed through this body but has nothing to do with it. It is what it feels like to be you in the middle of the night, when you open your eyes in the morning, when you pad to the bathroom. If you know yourself as something beyond the shape of your body, regardless of its size. This part is not about doing but about being-- and noticing what stands in the way. This part is about questioning your most painful thoughts, your entrenched positions, your cherished opinions about anything, everything. It’s about noticing that you are at war with yourself on a daily basis. At war with traffic, with waiting in lines at the bank and at the grocery store. It’s about realizing how much of the time you find yourself blaming and judging and shaming. About asking yourself if you believe that feelings can be felt (or not), that any situation, no matter how painful, can be a portal to what poet Jennifer Welwood calls ‘’the clear strand of light running through you.” Loving the rolls on our bellies is certainly better than shaming ourselves because of them, but it’s only a beginning.

In my own life, having spent years being fat and years being thin and still, throughout it all, being deeply unhappy, low-level depressed, and anxious in ways that were almost impossible to put into words, I no longer believe that being a particular body size (even without shame) is the answer to anything except being able to move with ease when you play with your kids or sit or stand up or walk to your bedroom.

I’m interested in what, where, and why you eat not because it’s better to eat protein or fat than carbohydrates, or because I think it’s better to be thin than fat, but because if you believe that you are secretly unworthy or unlovable, your relationship with food is a concrete, obvious, daily way--an outpicturing—to question that core unworthiness. What’s on your plate is a snapshot of your beliefs about deprivation, pleasure, control, sufficiency, joy, nourishment, living and dying.

I’m not interested in food because food is so compelling (although it is that as well), but because by going deeply into one thing—that relationship—we get to everything. We get to see what you believe and whether you are showing up for the ten minutes you are here on earth. Are you actually there when you take a sip of tea, eat a bite of chocolate, walk to your car (or are you thinking about the next thing and the next and how different it’s going to be when you finally have that job or house or relationship or pair of earrings?) Are you living in your body or are you looking at it from the outside in? Are you paying attention to the diamond-trill of birds, the black-purple smell of night, the passing glance of a stranger on the street? When you leave this earth, will you will feel as if you were actually here?

Leave a Reply