I’ve been catching up with old friends that I haven’t seen for a couple of years. I’m growing accustomed to the facial expression they will wear at some point during these get-togethers. The expression is characterised by a questioning flicker in the eyes and a pursing about the mouth, as if my friends are trying to place me. When they process what’s changed, there’s a barely suppressed shock that I’ve become, well, fat.
I don’t begrudge them their surprise. For most of my life I’ve been a sporty, health-conscious person with a muscular, slim body. Although I’m still sporty and health-conscious, there’s nearly 20 kilos more of me than there used to be. The surprise is almost invariably non-verbal. With the exception of my father (who is unashamedly fatist and sees no reason to hide it) no one says anything about the weight. They talk around it. ‘So, are you still work-out crazy?’ they’ll ask; or, ‘How are you finding the post-baby body?’[ ]
This reticence is in sharp contrast to the comments I received when I was slim. Back then my size was an acceptable topic of conversation, even amongst people I did not know well. I was often asked how I could eat so much, and so regularly, and ‘not be disgustingly fat?’ The answer, which I didn’t bother to give, was that I exercised like a woman possessed. Being thin and female is akin to being pregnant in that your body becomes, to some extent, ‘public property’. People feel they can freely critique your body and what you put into it. Because thinness is prized in our culture, it escapes awareness that comments on one’s calorie intake, food choices, size and shape can be invasive.
No one comments on my body now. They don’t need to.
Messages about thinness and fatness blare at me in every direction, all turning up their collective noses about fat. Fat is culturally packaged as foul and disgusting in the way of excrement or phlegm. The stench justifies the bullying of fat people on television and a multi-billion dollar industry peddling every conceivable fraud – from diets based on the colour of food to teas that ‘melt’ fat away. When I was slender I was ferociously good at critiquing the images of thinness in magazines and billboards, and dismissing them as part of an anti-feminist backlash. Not good enough, it turns out.
It’s a strange thing to be in a fat body having always lived in a slender one. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a sci-fi film and a body snatcher has absconded with my real self, leaving me only this bloated avatar. When I am reflected in shop windows I do a double-take. Can that be me, I think, that woman with the pudgy stomach, puffy cheeks and irrefutable evidence of a second chin? Sometimes I look away in disgust.
My responses to this new body are both profound and confronting. With shame I confess to thinking that fat people are stupid. Of course I don’t really believe this. I know too many blindingly gifted people of the plump persuasion to think this is so. But when I catch my reflection the thought that most often occurs is not that I look ugly or ungainly, but that I look stupid.
I wonder where it comes from, this correlation of adipose tissue with intellectual ability. When I was thin I never looked in the mirror and thought, ‘You look clever.’ (Ironically, I do remember thinking, ‘You look fat.’) Perhaps it is connected to the idea that fat people are slothful and must lack the zest for intellectual inquiry. Or perhaps it is the assumption that fat people lack discipline and what holds true for hot chips must hold true for scholarship also.
It’s an extraordinary feature of the human mind to simultaneously know and not know things. So whilst my intellect dismisses the extrapolation from body fat to intellectual capacity, I still feel a visceral disgust about looking ‘stupid’. Staring down my feelings about being fat has forced me to confront some weighty issues; like how foolish (even arrogant) it was to suppose that I could somehow be immune to the forces of popular culture. As if my steady diet of feminist theory and rainbow politics would arm me against our world’s obsession with the fat and the thin. Thinking about it now, if I had been immune to ‘fat prejudice’ it could only have been because I was pathologically solipsistic.
There’s something else about my new body. Something profound and wonderful that I’ve only recently become conscious of. I had always been slender, but about six years ago I became very thin. The weight loss was caused by suffocating, relentless anxiety that made it difficult for me to eat. Any food I managed to get into my body dissolved in the wash of my adrenal output. The whittling down of my body to near 55 kilos (I am five-foot-four) was correlated with a more and more acute silence.
Only in the last year have I been able to articulate some truths about my circumstances several years back. My very closest friend, who intuited that something was deeply wrong, expressed her surprise that I ‘never said anything. You just didn’t speak.’ She’s right. I didn’t. I was in a deeply unhappy marriage. What was wrong with the relationship was irreparable and disturbing. It was unspeakable. This was deeply unnerving. I had always been praised as a wordsmith and had dreams of being a writer. Words and expression were at the epicentre of who I thought I was, but I couldn’t open my mouth, to speak or to eat. I was voiceless, unable to frame words around what I was experiencing. The irony is that, even as I was living a waking nightmare, I received plentiful social approbation for the physical effects of it. ‘Oh you look so great’ people would say to me. ‘Damn you look fine, girl,’ a well-meaning work colleague was fond of telling me.
I managed to extricate myself, slowly and painfully, from the circumstances that pressed me into thinness. I have reconnected with food as I have reconnected with my voice. In the same week that I drafted my first story based on that singular experience I realised that the food and the words had been hand-in-glove. It’s no coincidence that the revelation bloomed in the company of friends assembled over dinner for writing group. Word makers. Word preservers. Word worshippers.
The relationship between my words and my body has played out in strange and wonderful ways in recent times. I’ve written elsewhere of my certainty that the launch of my first novel and falling pregnant were symbiotically linked. Releasing Red Dress Walking into the world was the first flexing of my vocal cords after their lengthy silence. My body responded to this creativity in kind with a baby. The new man I have been graced with is a veritable foodie. Like my mother, he reads recipes in the way that I read novels. He is the stay-at-home parent to our beautiful daughter and uses cooking as his major creative outlet. I have never been a more prolific writer than under the influence of the food, nurture and love he provides.
So even as I, and others, occasionally tut-tut about my weight gain, I exult in my triumph of expression over silence and nourishment over starvation. Only now do I begin to appreciate what my journey from thin to fat has gifted me. I’m not sorry to recognise some unpalatable truths about myself, like how much I’ve internalised cultural messages about what it means to be fat. I’m watching those spaces in myself carefully. If I keep poking and probing them I may even come at self-knowledge.