the body politicNovember 28, 2016
Content warning: discussion of calorie counting and weight loss
The last time I downloaded MyFitnessPal—the “Free Calorie Counter, Diet & Exercise Journal”—I was studying abroad in England for the year and going to formal dinners with three to five courses every week.
I was wearing mini skirts that I pretended worked as both dinner and club attire, I was six months less wise, and 15 pounds too heavy. (Or rather, I thought I was.) After one Wednesday night formal—before the club but about six drinks in—my friend leaned over and whispered: “I don’t feel good about the way I look.” So, I looked. She was beautiful, flushed from wine, a ruddy pink on her lips, wearing a little black romper that accentuated her petite figure. I remember saying, as I gently grabbed her forearm, “Me neither,” but what I meant was, of course. Of course. Who—especially two 21-year-old girls surrounded by a bunch of dashing British men in tuxedos—feels good about the way they look?
And this question—which was actually a realization and not a quandary—was haunting me, days later. I was supposed to be writing a paper on Woolf, but instead I was trying to think about a time I ever felt good about the way I looked.
I wracked my brain, starting in high school. I did not look good at prom (I had two chances and blew both of them). At a friend’s wedding last summer, I had recently gained weight and hadn’t worn enough makeup, making my forehead shinier than the lights on the dance floor. I knew such an event required my body to be a spectacle, but I was simply ill-equipped to make it spectacular. The pictures remain a brutal reminder of what I considered a failure.
My audience kept getting distracted by prettier women—or the bride!—and who could blame them? I imagine their gaze creating a hierarchy of women with me as “lesser than” and can’t pretend I’m above assigning blame for this. Because I do blame them. They’re not looking close enough.
Sometimes, I confess, I can be lovely. But my beauty is a secret I keep right before going to bed or stepping into the shower (it’s only my face I’m pleased with, I can assure you nothing else holds appeal). And then, in my audacity, in the face of my loneliness, I openly pity all the males in the near vicinity—and maybe the world!—that they’ll never know.
They’ve no idea how lovely I can be.
These trips down memory lane are doomed because of the damning scale I carried in my peripheral vision. I had borrowed the scale from a friend. (I’m nuts about weight, yes, but she brought the scale with her to England—just saying.) I had recently downloaded MyFitnessPal again because (as always happens six weeks before summer, when I’m near vomiting from hunger as I pass bathing suits in store windows) I was starting to count calories.
I was starting to say no to dinner with friends because I knew I’d order the burger. I was starting to eat yogurt (190 calories) for dinner after three mile runs (-331 calories). Runs in which I somehow always managed to see my tutor riding his bike home and we’d made eye contact—he, suspended and peddling in a nice breeze—me, sweaty and wheezing. I added him to the list of men who would never find me beautiful and maybe I pitied him too.
After my run I add a Chobani Nutty for Nana Flip (200 calories), a Grande Skinny Caramel Latte (120 calories) and—just to ruin the whole day—three Somersby’s Apple Ciders (570 calories, the 78 calories of carbs is nearly unspeakable) to the MyFitnessPal diary log. It had been a gloomy Friday. I had wanted to go to a pub with friends. I had wanted to be drunk and fun, but I also wanted to be thin and confident.
The two seemed inextricably linked. I can remember plopping in my bed around midnight, still buzzed and feeling alive, before grabbing my phone to update my diary. Instead of confessing my caloric atrocities, I was assaulted by my sister’s latest post. (MyFitnessPal is like Facebook on a diet—but the newsfeed, likes, and competing personas are chillingly all the same.) She had burned 628 calories running 8.5 minute-miles for God knows how long and I resented her—deeply. I wondered whether I should go for another run, vomit, or start believing in God and praying the fat away. I felt a combination of the three would be most effective.
Instead I used the app for three weeks, lost six pounds, and became a walking nutrition label. Did you know that a full English breakfast of fried eggs, beans, sausages, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and toast is 700ish calories and a horrifying amount of fat? That a can of coke (my favorite) is 39 carbs? That a shot of vodka (my actual favorite) is 72 calories? Imagine being part of a conversation that solely revolved around calorie counting and then imagine being the head speaker of that conversation and all the respondents.
I’ve grown sick of this conversation. Lately, I’m so sick of thinking about calories. When I show up to Dunkin Donuts, hungover and a corpse and craving a double chocolate donut, I’m desperate to order it without remorse. I’m so sick of eating a delicious meal only to ruin it by bunching up my stomach fat and pretending I’m four months overdue (I think it’s the right thing to do, because they must notice, the people around me must notice, whisper, laugh about it, this chubby girl in a short dress).
I’m so sick of vomiting up self-loathing and ice cream because maybe I deserved that hot fudge, cookie dough, that extra-large sundae—of course I want whipped cream on top (the amount of calories, infinite). I’m so sick of coming home from clubs, alone and a little bit drunk, and looking in the mirror at my sweaty, matted hair and smudged face and thinking, “Of course, of course no one wants you,” while pointing at my own reflection that I sometimes adore, but more often hate, mock, and bully.
I often make myself cry repeating, I will never be good enough for you—whoever you are. I’m so sick of this fucking Snapchat filter that airbrushes and narrows my face—especially my clunky nose—and thinking if only, if only. Sometimes, I literally delude myself into thinking I could take over the world if only I were a bit prettier and slimmer.
I’m so sick of letting appearances affect how I feel about myself, how I communicate with others, how I judge my entire position in this world. If I’m placed in front of a beautiful person, I cut my own word count in half and estimate how many words I’d need to apologize for my entire existence. If I don’t put on makeup, I barely leave my room. My physical being is literally restricting my mobility and I have no one to blame but myself.
Well, I could blame my parents. I really hate my oily, blotchy, acne-prone skin and the fault lies with one of them (and that’s okay because you can blame your parents and their parents and it will all become a beautiful cycle of no conclusion that I’m also calling life for now).
I could also blame the media which has created so many hyper-photoshopped images, impossibly cruel headlines—”Is she pregnant or just fat now?”—and shame-riddled articles alternatively denigrating and celebrating “the sexiest celebrities alive” (they’re all impossibly sexy, like, what is this twisted and arbitrary list), that my mind is literally glutted. But it’s me who hangs them on my fridge in an arrangement that spells out—don’t be better, look better.
Look, I’m always going to have a big belly and slim limbs (thank you, mom). I’m always going to be addicted to caffeine, sugar, and vodka. I might as well just list my “dietary restrictions” as empty calories. I’m always going to hate how large my forehead is, how yellow my teeth are, how I can’t always wear v-neck shirts like a neon flashing sign showcasing “sole asset here!,” how a slight lisp creeps into my voice if I feel anyone is looking too closely at me, how I’m afraid of sex because being naked in front of someone is equivalent, in my mind, to sporting a “Hit me” post it note on my back.
I know why I let appearance play the tyrant, but I’m done being a victim. Yes, almost any media I’ve ever consumed has equated beauty with divinity or the driving force behind anyone deserving celebration and love. Yes, I grew up believing beauty was self-worth. But that has to be my fault. That has to be my fault because I’m smarter than that; I have to change my self-perception before society tells me how to do it. Society writ large is too slow and too shitty and too plagued with other problems to tell me who I am and what I’m worth right now.
I’m not going to start loving the way I look, I’m going to start forgetting about it. I’m going to start surrounding myself with people who don’t care about any of that. Who compliment my shirt—maybe—but then look me in the eye and ask how I am. I’m going to start taking care of my body because I want to be able to run late to class and not arrive at the top of the stairs, gasping. (For now, I call this Monday.)
I’m going to start getting dressed in the dark and stop dropping paychecks at Sephora. I’m going to approach every person, every interaction—faceless—and demand they laugh at my jokes and notice how warm, how intelligent, and how kind I can be. I’m going to start being better and it’s okay if I don’t look good while doing it. Also, I’m going to eat the melted chocolate bar I just found in my backpack and I’m not going to feel bad about it or chew like a lady.
I’m giving up this civil war raging inside my body.