The Politics of Thinness

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Some people have a love affair with food, while others choose a more business-like arrangement.

                                                                                                                                               
Five us are seated around a dinner table. They are two couples, so I’m placed at the head for symmetry. After a preface with several variations of, “I don’t know how to say this to you because I don’t want to be harsh, but I have to because I love you,” our hostess blurts it out while her husband drops his head into his palm.

“We’re all worried about your health. You look like shit.”

I stare at her and blink. I know saying anything to defend the degree of my health would only confirm a problem in their minds: See how she protests? She is in trouble / denial / need of help.

“You look malnourished, old,” my friend says and takes a sip of the wine I brought over for dinner, the wine for which the store clerk carded me half an hour ago.

I finish chewing and say, “I am a health freak, I’m far from malnourished.”

“I knew you were going to argue!”

I blink twice, then start on another forkful.

“And your skin’s a weird color,” she goes on. Years ago, before anyone accused me of being old or malnourished, in the glam tram (make-up trailer) for a movie I was in, the make-up artist scrunched up her face while looking at mine and barked at her assistant to do something about “all the green” that was presumably my face.

To my friend I say, “It’s been said I tend towards a tinge of green in a certain light.” It’s called “olive.” It’s my Middle Eastern ethnicity and it’s always been there. What’s weird is you noticing it only now.

“Don’t you want to book your auditions? You need to eat. You’re gaunt…” I am gaunt-ish. And I’ve had darkish circles under my eyes since I was a toddler. It’s my look. Plus I haven’t been sleeping. But you’re yelling at me because you think I don’t eat.

She stares at me pityingly and continues: “You look so unhealthy; your hair is thinning…” My hair is definitely not thinning. I know this because I’ve had a hypochondriac obsession with losing my hair since childhood. No hair in the hairbrush or shower ever escapes my notice, nor has any hairdresser been spared my interrogational, “Look carefully and tell the truth – do I have any bald spots?”

“Oh nooo,” I say with mock gravity, “what if I’m going through early menopause!?” In which case you should be extra nice to me, because everyone knows the Big Change sucks big time for a woman, especially if it’s a little early.

She doesn’t know I’m having a second, more entertaining inner dialogue with her. But she jolts me back from it by yelping, “No woman turns into an old hag overnight!”

Gulp. I stop chewing. Alright, now you’re just drunk and you’ve lost all credibility.

It’s one kind of absurd to be accused of not eating while eating right in front of your accuser, but being called names on top of it — and I brought wine and everything! — is at least two kinds of absurd.

I’m pretty sure all the fuss is over a three-pound weight loss. And if it’s just my age showing, why can’t I be allowed to look old?

The next day, a neighbor stops me in the lobby for chitchat and at the end of the conversation says, “You have such great skin! What kind of moisturizer do you use?”

And the day after that, I book a show. During rehearsal, I bond with a 23-year-old actress, so I tell her my real age. The darling’s eyes widen and she accuses me of drinking baby’s blood. I want to kiss her on the mouth.

It’s no big wonder I don’t put – em – weight on anyone’s opinion about how I “look,” when everyone’s opinion is so varied.

I’m not and I’ve never been eat-a-hamburger thin, or waif thin, or junky thin. I’m just normal thin, maybe yoga thin when I’m at my thinnest. I’ve maintained the same weight within a seven-pound range since I was a teenager and to myself, I’ve always been acceptable. As a tortured perfectionist, settling for “acceptable” is a win.

“This,” I say to my friends at the dinner table, “is just what my face does.” And it’s not the first time I’ve had to use that phrase, either.

The first time was a couple of years ago (when according to my friends around the dinner table, I was supposedly young and vibrant). My ex-boyfriend had come from New York to visit Los Angeles. We had remained close friends and he introduced me to his current girlfriend. He used to say she reminded him of me, which probably faded once he got to know her for herself and stopped projecting (me) onto her (and pissing her off). Either way, she was a truly beautiful twenty-year-old and looked not too much like me other than in coloring. I had taken them on a hike in Malibu when he asked me with concern, “Sweetie, should I be worried about your health? You look gaunt.” Not according to my Los Angeles friends. Not then, anyway.

I put effort into not rolling my eyes and said to my ex-boyfriend, “No, this is just what my face does.” Of course I’m going to look gaunt if you’re comparing me to your memory of me from fifteen-years ago, and while I’m standing next to your lovely girlfriend’s plump, barely-out-of-teens face! And because of whom, I have to finish the hike on my own since she’s now tired and you’re both going down to wait by the beach!

As far as the “unhealthy” bit, I listen to my body. If I don’t experience undue fatigue (I don’t), if my immune system is strong (it is), if I’m sturdy and active (I am), yeah, I’m not going to worry about “looking” unhealthy to anyone. Besides, my body is not one to allow itself deprivation of ample nutrients. If I don’t eat properly, I can’t think straight or run up a hill or keep myself from falling apart emotionally. It’s true. The amount of irritability and fragility hunger brings me is insufferable to anyone unfortunate enough to be around. (“I can’t wait for dinner, I need a banana, get me a banana, I’m going to faint, shhhh, don’t talk, I can’t concentrate, I’m blacking out…”)

I’m a vegetarian and I avoid processed foods. I eat fruits, raw vegetables, legumes and nuts, all of which in fact, is the very definition of healthful eating. I am also liberal with chocolate, butter and cheese because I like the taste of fat. Done. Do I eat a ton of food? No. And it takes effort. Not to mention a distressing amount of kale to get enough iron.

Most of us eat too much because delicious food is, duh, hard to resist. I mean, sustenance aside, nothing is both so comforting and pleasurable as food. Food offers a temporary (and false) sense of fulfillment, and who doesn’t seek fulfillment? It’s not complicated. So if I exert a degree of self-control over the non-sustenance factors of food, shouldn’t I be commended instead of made to feel like I’m guilty of some sort of taboo?

If someone wants to be fat, let them be fat! And if they want to be thin, let them be thin. As with anything, people make choices and know how healthy or unhealthy they are. Unless they’re actually unhealthy because they sneak into your bathroom after dinner to puke, telling a 5’5 woman who weighs 106 pounds, that she “looks” malnourished, only means that you’re uncomfortable with her not having the same relationship with food as you do. You get to have a love affair with food, while she and food choose a more business-like arrangement.

Other people’s perception of our appearance is relative to their personal context: The cashiers where I buy wine, card me because they have no preconceived idea of an actual younger me and are instructed to proof “whoever appears under thirty-five.” My Los Angeles foodie friends view non-foodie me as abstemious and have a strong reaction to my three-pound weight-loss. But my neighbor who wants the name of my moisturizer, sees the same loss of weight as no drastic change because her personal feelings, habits and beliefs aren’t tied into how I look.

I want my face to do its thing in peace, be it green, gaunt or old, without me worrying about becoming visually disappointing to those who care about me. There’s a natural progression to what faces do. If mine loses roundness due to minor weight-loss, which wears differently on an older face, I can live with it. And my friends ought to live with it too, because it’s not like my supposed skull-face is going to leap forth and “eat” them.

Face

EDIT:  I wrote this post with a facetious tone and didn’t expect such response and thoughtful, fascinating comments. Here’s also an email excerpt, which I reproduce with the sender’s permission:

“Thank you for illustrating how damaging it can be when we police others’ bodies. I remember being really thin as a kid and having my Dad basically force-feed me until I’d get sick. At that time, I knew I didn’t need much food to feel good, but I let those messages interrupt my intuition. I’m still dealing with some of the repercussions. I tend to overeat because I feel like I’ll get punished for not cleaning my plate.”
                                   

Cathartic Monkeyism

  • Unsolicited food-policing is more often about those who attempt to police.  It rarely makes others rethink how they eat and when it does, it can be damaging.
  • Telling a vegetarian they need to eat meat, when you’re not a nutritionist, is not only uninformed but offensive.

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32 comments

  1. Very well said.

    And I love your description of viewing food as a business relationship. That’s smart thinking 🙂

  2. “Telling a vegetarian they need to eat meat, when you’re not a nutritionist, is not only uninformed but offensive.” Anyone can be a nutritionist. It’s like being a toothologist. The protected professional term is Dietician (or Dentist in the case of toothologist)

    1. Thanks for illustrating that my point remains valid especially because of the leniency in my willingness to accept the opinion of an “expert” (nutritionist), rather an outright “professional” (doctor).

      And of course, “anyone can be” a dietician, dentist, or lawyer and earn the credentials, just as “anyone can be” a nutritionist – with proper study. But it doesn’t mean they are.

      nu·tri·tion·ist
      noun
      1.
      a person who studies or is an expert in nutrition.

  3. I love the “because it’s not like my scary skull-face is going to leap out and eat them” line. They sounded like you were the red skull from Captain America or something. I am glad to see you’re comfortable with yourself.

    1. Life would be intolerable if I weren’t.

  4. theanticougar · · Reply

    Dearest Gunmetal, as a new friend, and one guilty of asking, “have you lost weight?” I sincerely apologize. I love said “skull-face”, not that I agree with the terminology, and you are aging gorgeously, if only we could all be carded when buying booze from the turbaned man at the liquor store. Los Angeles is an age-o-phobic town, and sadly, women over a certain age tend to judge. We study, we stare, we obsess… eh gad, a reaction to what we face each morning in our own mirrors. To age gracefully and peacefully is a gift–certainly in this town– and although ahead of you already, I intend to get pointers, to remain graceful, from you, along the way. Old, gaunt (neither of which you are) or whatever, you are amazing and I’ll personally punch anyone who tells you differently. (And, in case anyone is questioning the validity of her eating: The girl eats, we’ve shared butter, cream and cheese on more than a few occasions.)

    1. No apology needed – in fact, I remember when you and I discussed the subject, I felt a distinct kinship with you, because one, you understood, and two, you were not questioning my “health.” Instead you made a friendly, sensible, general comment about how women have to constantly balance between the thinness of their body and the volume of their of face. It’s fact and it’s good advice, and I thought at the time, finally, a reasonable approach to this subject.

      I wonder if the tone of the post is failing to come across as facetious. I wanted to write about the situation because I thought it had entertainment value. In no way did I / do I feel bad over the events I described, nor am I (consciously) seeking validation.

      Oh and it’s never the small-mart guys who card – they sell liquor even to sixteen-years-olds… It’s mainly the staff at Trader Joe’s and Vons – and I love ’em!

  5. Quite the read here. I think you handled it well. For me, when people say I look like I am losing weight, I take it as a compliment because I am losing it and it’s meant probably different than when somebody says it to somebody who is already quite thin. Still, I wonder if it’s nice that they are at least saying it to you and not trying to do some sort of an intervention!

    I like how you wrote this post, too. You really do have a way with telling stories.

    Finally, as for you looking old … I wouldn’t have guessed more than late 20s. So if you are in your 30s, more power to you and keep “looking old.” 🙂

    1. I love that you get this is more about the story-telling than anything else.

      I have no problem with being told I’m losing or gaining weight. I have a problem with the usage of words like “unhealthy” and “malnourished” when I’m clearly not those things.

      Yes, my friends definitely meant to be nice and caring. I’m just examining it deeper and saying, their strong reaction wasn’t so much about me, but about my relationship to food vs. theirs. Quite often, it’s the fact that I don’t eat meat. It makes some meat-eaters uncomfortable – I say this because I have no other explanation for why so often people criticize my vegetarianism and tell me I need to eat meat.

      And your “keep looking old” made my night!

  6. I definitely see the difference between the comments, compared to losing or gaining weight. And I’ve always found those who don’t eat meat interesting. I say that meaning some get irritated when others eat meat around them. The way I look at it is this — if you don’t eat meat, that’s fully fine. As long as I’m not judged for eating meat! As much as I love meat, I would eat a more vegetarian menu if I liked veggies. I just hate the taste of many veggies, so it’s kind of hard to eat that way!

    Your age comments in your post took me off guard. Never would have guessed!

    1. I’m not affected by what other people eat, and though I choose not to eat it, meat doesn’t bother me.

  7. Interesting read for a self-professed “fatty.” I know many people in my town who have a business relationship with food, but I prefer food to be my wife, mistress, best friend, and family. I’m not really too overweight, but I like to play it up, because it’s my only vice, and people tend to laugh more with/at fat people.

    Still, commenting on anyone’s weight when it isn’t a compliment is dangerous ground. I’m surprised how often people feel ballsy enough to offend others.

    1. Haha, your relationship with food is definitely more fun that mine.

  8. Every time I read what your friend said, I gasped and said, “Oh no she di-unt!” Each time an octave higher than the one before.
    Just…wow.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks!

      She’s quite a funny, feisty girl, and in fairness, she got carried away with her ‘performance,’ if that makes sense. She was by no means trying to be unkind, in her mind, she was trying to get through to me. It was just misguided.

  9. I like your story, as it points out something I wish more people understood — that is, the personal relationship each of us has with our own decisions, whether those decisions revolve around religion, food, parenting, etc. I just read an article yesterday wherein the author voiced her irritation toward others who force their “shoulds” on everyone around them, and it strikes me that’s exactly what you’re getting at here. Being happy with yourself, accepting your flaws and your strengths — gosh! — we should all be so adept! You seem to have a great amount of tolerance and humor toward your peers. I like that about you.

    1. You are right of course, imposing “shoulds” on others is prevalent in every context. The tolerance and humor you speak of, in this case, wasn’t difficult. It was clear that she had no malice and it was out of caring. Thanks for reading and for your thoughts!

  10. I loved how you transformed a real-life incident, and clearly one with much feeling threaded through all those involved, into such a sharp and engaging narrative.

    It sounded like one of those times where “I care about you” got fried in the Universal Translator of friendship and came out as, “I know best” … if only all misunderstandings could be borne out of such goodwill 🙂

    And the ‘scary skull-face’ line (the only point at which the tale ascended into unbelievable fantasy btw 🙂 ) was really funny! Great post, thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for reading, it means quite a lot to me that you appreciate the narrative aspect. You also have an accurate understanding of the friendship and the good intentions under which the scenario took place.

      Yours,
      Scary Skull-Face 😉

  11. bgbowers · · Reply

    Although we have never met, I can tell that you are a perceptive, highly self-aware woman – just a couple of things that I like about you.

    What interests me most about this piece is your recognition of the fact that your friend is not acting out of malice, but rather from her own insecurities and/or belief system.

    I experienced similar ‘good-intentioned’ comments from friends, family, and complete strangers during my decade of strict vegetarianism. At first, it was strangely annoying that the mere mention of vegetarianism was all it took to initiate the meat-eaters defenses. I even spent a few wasted years fiercely defending my position…until I realised that my choice to be a vegetarian confronted meat-eaters because it challenged the status quo. Meat-eaters are simply ingrained in the belief (and have not questioned the meat myths) that meat is ‘good’ for you, that it is the best source of protein and the most healthy source of iron. Once I processed this nugget of information, I was (like you) able to view it objectively and even find humor in its predictability.

    This story gives me great insight into your level of tolerance, emotional maturity and self-awareness – three traits that are rare commodities and much admired.

    I know that you dismissed any malice from your friends words, but in the even that a droplet of insecurity penetrated your skin then it’s important for me to reassure you – your face is as beautiful, as it is alluringly unique and full of character. (I don’t say this to be maudlin…I say it because friends and family very often criticize more than complement, and too much criticism, regardless of intention, can overload the system.)

    p.s: “relationship to food” – absolutely true. More people, myself included, could benefit from turning that food relationship into a business transaction.

    p.p.s: I questioned my own beliefs and superiority about vegetarianism during my second pregnancy when I developed debilitating cravings for seafood and fish. Oh, the angst! Eventually, I decided to listen to my body, because if vegetarianism taught me anything, it was being conscious about what I put into my body and how my body was feeling as a result.

    1. I am blushing at your words, you give me more praise than I deserve. I have to say, coming across you, and others here who thoughtfully engage and interact within this blogging world, is an unexpected reward. I did expect to grow and examine myself through this medium, I did not expect that it’s possible to take the journey with a group of people.

      Self-examination in regard to this post: Every time a reader was compelled to reassure me about my appearance, I cringed at coming across as having fished for it. Now I recognize that of course on some level, I was affected by the situation, or why in the world would it stay in my mind long enough to write about? So I will tell you truthfully, I did have a thousandth of a nano-second of doubt that night: “Could my face have really aged drastically overnight?!” I hate that it would matter to me if that were the case, but there’s just no denying that it would.

  12. I so enjoy reading your posts… thoughtful, funny, and very well written.

    Though once I have a chance to think about it, I’ll likely start to sulk at the thought that you write so well, and yet are talented in so many other arenas as well.

    Looking forward to the next one,

    Cori

    1. You flatter me – thank you! I so much appreciate you and everyone here reading. It truly makes the entire process a joy.

  13. Geisha,

    I’m five feet tall and relatively ‘skinny’ and I’ve had people come up to me and tell me I’m anorexic. They actually think that only words like ‘fat’ and ‘obese’ are offensive. Anorexic?! Really?! Illiterates, I tell you. Pissed me off completely. But you can’t take offence because they ‘didn’t mean to offend’ and ‘It’s a compliment really…’ Codswallop, I say. My divine friend Dee, the eternal loyalist, is of the opinion that people get jealous. But I do feel that sometimes people lack the basic social conditioning to judge that fine line between concern and comment. People should realise that it’s not the shape or size of the person but the Objectifying that they’re put through that causes Body Dysmorphic Disorder in some people.

    I realise I’ve rattled off into a rant but the title ‘The Politics of Thinness’ best describes seventy five per cent of my social interaction.

    Great post!

    Twist

    1. Great point: “It’s not the shape or size of the person but the Objectifying that they’re put through that causes Body Dysmorphic Disorder in some people.”

  14. magicjetgroup · · Reply

    This is so wonderful!!! I could totally relate! I LOVE your writing and am so happy you are a full fledged blogger! Going to finish reading the rest but just had to comment!

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you’re reading, and that you could relate. It’s always nice to know we’re not the “only one,” right?

  15. I have struggled with an eating disorder for 20 years. I am a ‘normal’ size now, but am technically overweight according to that BMI thing. I am extremely uncomfortable with someone commenting on my size. Compliments too. If someone says I look like I’ve gained weight it launches me into a insecurity driven fat finding mission. If someone says I look like I have lost weight I start over analyzing my recent behavior to make sure I haven’t unwittingly slipped back into my disordered behavior. In short, well meaning comments have unintended consequences and I try to never comment on someone’s size. Ever.

    1. This is valuable for many to know, thanks very much for sharing.

  16. Wow. I agree with so many of the points that you made here. I am fairly thin, too, and many times, people say to me, “You’re just so lucky that you’re naturally thin,” which sets off so many of my anger triggers because to me, that’s not a compliment. I am not naturally thin. I eat well and exercise and take excellent care of myself. I take pride in my body, bordering obsession. My muscles are always sore, my will power strong. So when I read something like this, I just shake my head. What if the tables were turned? Could you look at your friend and say, “You’re too fat. You really should eat less ding dongs.” No, because it’s unkind.

    And then to flip flop, I think your friends probably meant well with their attempt at intervention. I just think they could have gone about it in a much more positive way. Never ever tell a woman, “your face looks old.” No. Never. Ever.

    1. They could tell me my face looks old — my face looks however it looks, and people can perceive it how they want. I can handle it — I think, anyway. Or maybe I can handle it so far because I disagree with the assessment? I assume if I start to look old to myself, as much as it’ll suck, I couldn’t possibly hold it against others for noticing it.

      I wholeheartedly agree that my friends had the best of intentions — they are loving, supportive people. And I appreciate directness and blunt-speaking. But that doesn’t mean I’ll always agree.

      I love that you take such great care of yourself! I always admire that sort of will-power and discipline.

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