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-because-I-don’t-want-to-be-harsh-but-I-love-you-so-I-have-to, our hostess blurts it out while her husband drops his head into his palm. She says to me:
“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 (makeup trailer) of a movie I acted in, the makeup 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 toward 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, Friend Who’s Known Me For Years.
“Don’t you want to book your auditions? You need to eat. You’re gaunt…” I am gauntish. 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 a bald spot?”
“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!”
I stop chewing. Old hag? Alright drunk Friend, you just 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 two kinds of absurd, at least.
I’m pretty sure all the fuss is over a 3 lb. 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 in disbelief and she accuses me of drinking baby’s blood. I want to kiss her on the mouth for it.
With everyone’s perspective so all over the place, no wonder I don’t put, uh, weight on anyone’s opinion about how I look.
I’m not and have never been “eat-a-hamburger” thin, or waif thin, or junky thin. I’m just regular thin, maybe yoga thin at my slimmest. I’ve maintained the same weight within a 7 lb. 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 was visiting Los Angeles from New York with his current girlfriend. He and I had remained close and he introduced her to me during this trip. He used to say she reminded him of me, which probably wore off 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.”
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 compared to your memory of my face from fifteen years ago while I’m standing next to your barely-out-of-teens girlfriend! And because of whom, I now have to finish the hike on my own since she’s too winded and you’re taking her 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, run up a hill, or keep myself from emotionally falling apart. It’s true. Hunger-induced fragility makes me insufferable to anyone unfortunate enough to be around. “I can’t wait for dinner, I’m gonna faint, shh…don’t talk, get me a banana, I’m blacking out…”
I’m a vegetarian and I avoid processed foods. I eat fruits, raw vegetables, legumes and nuts, all of which equal the very definition of healthful eating. I am also liberal with chocolate, butter and cheese because I like the taste of fat. 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, delicious. I mean, sustenance aside, food is both comforting and pleasurable. It offers a temporary 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 aspects of food, I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty of some taboo, no more than anyone should who eats exactly how they please.
If someone wants to be fat, let them be fat! And if they want to be thin, let them. As with anything, people make choices and generally 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 3 lb. weight-loss. But my neighbor who wants the name of my moisturizer because she approves of my skin sees no drastic change at the same weight loss. Why? 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.
EDIT: I wrote this post in a playful tone and didn’t expect the kind of thoughtful and fascinating comments I’ve received below. 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.”
- 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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