“You can’t be too thin or too smart”

This is a personal post, not the usual kind and it’s about diets: Israeli Army, High Fibre/Low Fat, Atkins Revolution, Total Wellbeing and more recently the 5:2. It’s also a post about thighs, waists, double chins, fadoubadahs (the fleshy bits under your arms), sagging breasts, side views and scales. It’s about those red dots. And the discomfort of the bits of skin that sit under pendulous breasts and get itchy when you sweat. It’s a post based on watching my mother tie herself up in a corset to go out most days and the fear and loathing associated with buying clothes that I’ve had for most of my life – especially clothes that fit. And it’s not about fashion (weeping). This post is also about car cultures, no time for exercise, a 38 hour work week and an unhealthy and developing appreciation of wine every night coupled with late night snacks. And the promise of medicines, the promise of antihypertensives, multivitamins, fish oil and aspirin. And the statins that are yet to come, but have been promised. I love science.

As I grow in years, I find that I’m shrinking in size. I’m not as tall as I was. But my shoes are a size or two larger than when I was a teenager. Does long term exposure to gravity flatten you out? Along with shrinking and having to look up to teens and pre-teens, the hair all over my body that I’ve spent a lifetime and a small fortune shaving, waxing, tweezing, SilkyMitting, Epiladying and more recently at great expense having lasered is now diminishing. I’m flat out finding a hairy bit to laser. And the young beautician says, “We’ll just get these ones, shall we?” as she moves to attack my pubis to increase the view of the ‘bikini line’. “You know why she said that, don’t you, why she wants to do them now?” says my workmate. “It’s because laser doesn’t work on grey hairs”. That’s TMI from a workmate! I’ve been hating my lush outgrowths of hairy bodily protection for years and attacking them with gusto and now I have trouble finding them.

Conversely I’ve discovered the pleasures of nail colour. Did I wake up one day as a young women and discard all prettiness as artifice when I decided to trade in lace for sensible underwear? I still remember that decision, that fateful day. Now I have daughters and they look at me and wonder about the implications of being female. Certainly there are mixed messages: be yourself (but not too fat) (and not too hairy). You don’t need all that stuff, you’re naturally beautiful (but eye-shadow, lipstick, lip liner, mascara, blemish coverup and perfume are OK). And there’s more of course. But that’s it for me. You get to an age and natural just doesn’t swing it anymore. I’ve appreciated the large row of crow’s feet under my eyes as a feature of my personality. My children, when they were younger just adored them, counting the rows as evidence of my smiling and laughing a lot. They call them my crinkly eyes. I hope my husband sees them that way too.

As a teenager I watched my younger sister control the family through what she refused to put in her mouth at the dinner table. I watched her discretely leave the table and head for the bathroom right in the middle of meals. One day I followed her in, caught her throwing up in the toilet bowl and said, “If I ever catch you doing that again I’m going to tell everyone”. I guess she had body issues too. And that was code for coping. But I have daughters, and daughters are like mirrors reflecting back not only your mirror image but your memory of everything that mirrors have ever reflected back at you. You catch a fleeting image of how you once were, at how you used to take a particular aspect of your image for granted – your hair, that flick, that sideways glance, the set of your shoulders, your smiling face looking out at the world, the way your tummy used to look, the ease of your body as it moved through life, how your jeans sat on your hip bones.

Sometimes you might be lucky enough to catch a video of yourself at a much, much younger age – a rarity for someone middle aged, you young folks do forget – and you catch the way you walked, the way you held yourself and the way you looked. This leads you to remembering how you thought back then, to what was normal and taken for granted in your thinking, your being, your relationships with people and the hope and promise that the world held for you. At a young enough age, early movies showed your natural, unadorned self before the western women’s universal worries set in about all your flesh being in the right proportion and in the right place. I’ve had whole relationships with other women that relied on our body shapes, size and what went into our mouths. It’s only when you get older that you start to focus on what comes out. I’ve wasted so much time worrying.

As a child, I was quiet, I had no voice and I was a great observer. I was seen but not heard. I used to sit and watch as much as listen to adults animatedly conversing at tables. I got used to the perception of the angle of their faces when they were excited in conversation, or angry. I watched their mannerisms and movements and learned what angry looked like, or upset, or deliriously happy and laughing so much that cake crumbs fell out of their mouths and they spat while they spoke. I had the artist’s eye as I saw their profiles and faces change as emotion lit their faces. It was an emotional state accompanied by a bodily state. They never seemed to carry on about their weight though, these women who were related or brought together by friendship. These women who boarded boats to come to this country on trips that lasted for months. These family and friends who suffered during the privations and hardships of war in Europe. If they spoke about their weight, it was a health concern more than a vanity. But that too was a bit of ruse as I later found out.

Obsessions with weight, diet, looks and how much space we take up in the world are a modern issue. Around the table over coffee and cake at someone’s home these women brought the village and all its concerns into the home. It was all about propriety. The intentions, appearance, behaviour and fall out of someone’s predicament was the issue, but it struck me even when I was young that it was something ‘out there’, somewhere in the social realm that this existed. As I grew up I realised that the predominant concerns of a generation were increasingly becoming internalised, with less that ‘could be done’ about them. What could be done involved self-loathing, denial, imbibing substances, expending energy on exercise or succumbing to surgery? Or perhaps it was just a matter of timing: what I was witnessing were the concerns of an older generation, not the predicaments of young girls growing into womanhood.

The attitudes of a generation are hard to shift. My mother had concerns about her body too, but dealt with them in her own way. She used to obsess about things, much in the way that I too obsessed. And sometimes about the very same issues. And when I was pregnant, I was eternally lectured about “not getting too fat”. My mother went on and on about this, even over the phone, telling me that it would lead to problems in childbirth if I got too big. It was not a concern about health, but a concern about appearance. She was of the generation that still believed that smoking cigarettes was good for your health because it stopped you eating. The health policy of dealing directly with your bodily issues clearly didn’t resonate here.

Scales are a great metaphor, as they provide never ending information of whether we’re under or over, or in reality, how much over we are compared to a norm that we’ve set ourselves. If you weigh yourself daily – and many of us do – it sets the stage for a whole set of internal rationalisations that go unsaid out loud. But we know what we mean. But we’re not machines and weight and body shape are not merely a matter of a formulaic energy in – energy out = current weight. I think the poets have a much better handle on expressing the truths of life, truths that we still attempt to shape and report on through measurements with scales when we should be using tropes, metaphors and similes to express ourselves. Wouldn’t talk around the water cooler be so much improved if we didn’t start with, “I put on 2kgs last week. I feel like shit now”, but instead resorted to the poetic world of expression instead: “As fruit ripens so too did my body fill with the sum total effects of the meals enjoyed this week with my beloved. As our favourite wine bar beckoned, we succumbed to the effects of burgundy, the scent of our late night intermingling love still on our fingers as we savoured the lusty chunks of golden dairy from the cheese platter”

And my obsession is now about what comes out of my body. This is the counterpoint that I missed in my youth. The other part of the formula.

But it’s not what you think, it’s not just the Metamucil, but that helps lots of things. It’s about my voice, my view, my opinion and my perspective. It’s about honouring and sharing the knowledge and expertise that I’ve developed through life, work, experience, study and research. Outputs matter. And while I sit writing on this blog, I’m not writing for the academy. And this will be my undoing. Outputs are all about exposure to the right kinds of audience and the audience participating and creating too in the making of you. And you need to be acknowledged in the right way for your efforts, because that’s part of our social contract.

I caught myself dieting once. I was a great dieter. I was in the car and I had the seatbelt on. I realised that I had a flat tummy and that I could grasp my hip bones. Not much of a revelation to anyone else but I didn’t feel all overly fleshy with the association of out of control that fleshiness in all its loveliness always brings. I worked with a woman once. She lost 30 kilograms and went down to a size 8. Then she took her time and put it all back on again. I can understand that because everyone focuses on how great you feel and how great you look when you lose weight. But no one tells you how much you miss it when it’s gone. That’s why she put it all back on. Because it was a part of her and she missed it, missed herself.

I’ve moved into a new period of bodily self-loathing now. It’s a generational illness I’m sure. I hope my kids don’t comment on my ‘fast days’ when I sneak in wine (and count the calories). Or on my total lack of exercise for lack of time. My obsession revolves around not looking aged in the workplace, because that brings with it a new set of discriminations and I’m not ready for that yet. I’m not the respected elder stateswoman and I fear that my ‘out there’ attitude may eventually work against me as I increasingly become a caricature of all the things I feared. “You can’t be too thin or too rich” was the cry of an earlier generation, but for me it may well be, “You can’t be too thin or too smart”.

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