Unbearable Bodies

The BMI is meant to guide. All it does it push me away.

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I bought groceries three times a day, an ectoplasmic effluvium three times a day. I did not sleep or work. Food detritus bloomed in lavender plastic bags around the room, cautioning against visitors. The day and night were textured with throwing up in bags or toilet or shower — water running, viscous puke swirling and clotting the drain — and then lying migrainous on the cold white tile. I learned the tedious pain of filling up and emptying out. With bulimia, your behavior doesn’t necessarily manifest your appearance the way anorexia does. A sufferer is often very sick and technically normal weight or overweight. Upon learning of my eating disorder, a psychology professor trilled, “What was your lowest weight?” assuming that I was in recovery, gaining, clearly not that sick in the present. Out of humiliation, competition, shame, I of course manufactured a shocking small number.

Upon homecoming, learning to drive an automobile (a nasty habit — don’t do it) and learning to temp: stealing an unwatched tray of cookies from a smoking cessation class and eating them all in the garden behind an enclosure of trees and then searching for a single capacity bathroom. “Where were you?” “Lunch…I got lost.”

It was unsustainable. I must be a little fat to be happy, to be unrelenting and whole, to do the work I want to do.

When I try to figure out how I stopped, I have to wait, think, count, tease out memories. Recovering is mysterious. Addiction is lonely and obsessive; getting well and free feels brand new. I felt like the first person ever to stop throwing up my food. Learning to cook for myself and for others helped. Getting away from women who loathed food, their bodies, all bodies. People who admired my anthropological style and determination and didn’t judge every damn thing that I ate. Wanting to be something other than lovely and pocket sized.

But what do I get for healing my rot? So many years later, now that I’m healthy (that imprecise watchword) I fear the Doctor instructing me to reduce because I am delicately on the darker cusp of the almighty BMI. Does he see my shape of suffering, healing, recovery, or just the shape of ungainly fat on so few inches? Does he see my long-lived genes or my love of a good apple? I warn him that he triggers me; he smirks and asks how long my daily bike commute takes. Some, many will say that the Doctor is just doing his job, that he is assessing my risk, that I should be sangfroid and detached as my body, my self is diagnosed and dissected. As if overweight (and god forbid, obese) didn’t haul along with itself a million ugly connotations.

But year after year as I range within the same five pounds, I hear the admonishment with no real reasons (no utterance of diabetes or heart disease) besides an implied aesthetic judgment, a vague gesture to a wall chart, and a lecture about exercise and nutrition when he has no idea about mine, besides his assumptions. Sir, my weight hasn’t been a health problem but this self-loathing, obsession, and anxiety about it has. And my furor isn’t just toward one person. My experience as a teen was particularly interesting: one doctor tried to talk me out of vegetarianism, assuming I was doing it wrong — eating too much peanut butter, he asked? — because I wasn’t skinny. Another coaxed me to diet, “you want to wear a bikini, don’t you?”

The Doctor fears that my slight fat indicates a future ballooning. He does not know my set point. He is the enforcer and manager of society’s prejudice against fat. He cannot see anything beyond the curve over normal. The language of weight control and body management may have changed recently to focus on “health,” but the aesthetic intentions are the same as when my teen magazine advertized diet pills and fat camp.

Sure I’m strong, tough, and girded by experience. Yet, we are constantly infantilized, patronized, abused — at work, home, restaurants, in relationships. The Doctor is yet another encounter with our weakness and fallibility, our inability to control ourselves. With my history, getting weighed is a slight trauma that ruins my day, maybe my week. Being told I’m overweight (hideous, disgusting, undesirable, slovenly, greedy, poor, stupid) according to a chart, and instructed to alter and improve my self feels like abuse. Isn’t this what I fought to get away from, all the money spent on professional help, all the missteps in figuring out a recovery from an eating disorder, only to feel directed back to disordered eating? We are in the position of defending our behaviors and bodies, of proving that we know ourselves best. The body is on trial; refuse to get on the scale.

I sometimes think it would be better to return to that wraith. When the day was simple: I bought, I ate, I threw it up. The painful awaitingness of walking from the store and walking up stairs with hands curled tightly, all fist and knuckles. So like an addict or carpenter, I’d spread the tools out on the bed, methodically eat everything, too much, pause with a full stomach like pregnancy, a drum. And when it was all done, I didn’t feel bad. It was necessary management of trauma, necessary until I could remove the scaffolding, heal and build my armature. And it became so normal. Addiction to substances and behaviors becomes horrifyingly routine. When it’s done, I’d brush and floss my teeth, wash my face, brush my hair, take a bath, drink some tea. Why did I fill myself with poison and clean it out perfectly only to nurture and protect? The way self- injury worked for me: I have to destroy myself to take care of myself. Make yourself needy and bleeding, make the need imminent, coil your pain like a pet.

Those days are over. And it is completely absurd that my doctor would approve of me better when I weighed less but was so sick. The BMI is a flawed tool. The fearmongering, moral panicking, and priggish public health crisis haranguing must stop. All bodies do not need to exist in a narrow range. If adherence to a diet requires you to quit your job, drop out of school, live with your parents, it’s not working. It won’t work and I won’t waste any more time trying. Every time environmental and food activists demonize fat bodies, I get angry. These struggles should be linked: food production and access, environmental damage, and body liberation. It has stopped shocking me when otherwise progressive or radical people make anti-fat and usually classist comments (but never using the descriptive word “fat;” always the clinical “overweight” or “obese”.)  The word “overweight” is used as a noun; it’s a disease now. And the infuriating thing about body policing is that it’s done by sensible people for your own good. A local bike association touts biking as a healthy activity because “it keeps your weight down.”

Gaining is a tragedy and losing is a great accomplishment. Once you recover from the most pernicious habits of an eating disorder (a confusing and shadowy process; there is not a clear demarcation between well and sick in this business of eating) you imagine that you will be able to maintain your thinness through “healthy diet and exercise.” I have always been sickly fascinated that so many celebrities who have recovered from eating disorders are still very thin, perhaps a result of ’round the clock trainers and chefs. But healthy diet and exercise are not so healthy. Obsession (because this stuff is insidious and ubiquitous) with getting the required minutes of aerobic activity and eating the correct portions and foods was the problem to begin with. And as Marion Nestle and Susie Orbach say, a lot of eating and exercise science is fashion; it shifts all the time. Keeping up with the current recommendations can make you crazy. Instead of always relying on experts, people need to trust their native wisdom. All people should have the right, the access to a variety of tasty food and be trusted to eat what is right for them. And all people should have safe neighborhoods to walk, bike, play, and run in; the gym membership is no solution to neighborhoods fraught with traffic and violence.

We are infected, we think horrible things about ourselves and other people. Liberation is in refusing to demonize bodies. In 10 years I do not want to worry about what I’m eating and how fat I feel and I do not want to be disgusted by any other bodies. Because we live in an aspirational society in which it is challenging to own one’s oppressed identity, fatness — like poverty — is a state of transformation, temporariness, hope. Fat is subjective; most fat is unsure of itself and in proportion to others. Internalized hate reigns as so many bodies are considered fat and thinness is a status enjoyed by few. How many have lost weight only to be called fat the next time they eat publicly? How many people say they won’t starve (you know, because of the massive stores of fat) if they miss a meal, apologizing, sacrificing?. Large or curvy bodies are difficult, unwieldy. They appear more naked and more sensual than thin bodies, too revealing and too evocative of our desires. They are both vulnerable and armored.

We the fat are generative, loving, violent, morbid, invisible and quiet, vehicles for sex and death, big and frightening. It is success that we now strive for, harmony between mind and physical form, no longer thinking of the body as essentially disgusting, something to self-flagellate in religious service, to shed in revelation of a heaven-bound soul. Unfortunately the mind-body connection is deigned appropriate only for certain bodies. Why try to connect the mind with a body that isn’t in tip-top shape? What do we really hate when we hate fat? Is it aesthetic design or metaphor for abundance or sickness? Don’t you just know when to stop? What are the limits of the self and please stop it from taking up two seats.

Anti-fat is not a moral cause. A cause worth fighting for — clean air and water, free child care, and on and on — would actually provide people with what they need instead of what they don’t, which are 100-calorie snack packets and diet pills. • 9 April 2010

Kati Nolfi is a librarian and writer in Washington, D.C.
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