I had to go to the mall yesterday to pick up a prescription. I loathe the mall, and yet, I find myself there fairly frequently. It's not the closest place to find necessities, but it's the only place to find certain necessities--last night, it was plastic insulation for the windows.
As usual, I was people watching. The mall seemed full of locals, and I started noticing something. Virtually everyone was carrying around extra weight. Lots of belly fat. Some of them were so slowed up by the extra weight that they lumbered. I started looking for lean people. There were a few, but as a percentage, it was less than 20 percent.
I know that we’re engaged in a national crisis over American obsesity. We blame television, and our sedentary lifestyles, and the availability of cheap, high-fat food. We drink too much soda. We eat too much candy and potato chips and fast food. We don’t exercise. It’s all our fault. We’re the richest nation on earth and we’re a bunch of slobs. Blah Blah Blah.
I’d like to offer some thoughts.
I am teaching it next semester, so I have been re-reading Caroline Knapp’s brilliant book: Appetites: Why Women Want. In it, Knapp (who died way too young at 42 of cancer) wrote of women’s appetites: for food, for sex, for material goods. She did not condemn desire. Rather, in a complex argument that I’m treating schematically here, she looked at how desire is twisted in our culture. For white, middle-class women especially, (and Knapp admits that her observations/experiences are based on her own position as white and middle class) thwarted desire lies at the heart of many of our cultural maladies.
It is the illusion of choice that thwarts the desire. It is the illusion that a well-educated, intelligent white woman is going to have access to real power in this culture that ultimately turns desire in on itself, twists it, cripples it, so that the thwarted desire becomes the source of suffering. In a way, it’s the Noble Truths of Buddhism. In another way, it’s what it’s like to be told you have power in America when you do not.
And Knapp argues that for women, who despite the seeming accommodations made for women’s liberation by the powers that be, are especially affected by this thwarted desire. As I said, she’s writing as a white, middle-class woman, and how this thwarted desire manifests itself in other groups of people is not in her expertise. But her argument spoke to me.
Knapp was an anorexic. In a way, this provokes a “ho hum” reaction in me. After all, just how many more books do we need to read about white anorexia? But this book spoke to me because I also have an eating disorder. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve dealt with bulimia for the last several years. I thought it was a thing of the past. Occasionally, (but not for a long time now, thank god) bulimia called to me. And sometimes, I answered that call.
It’s embarrassing to admit. What sane, dignified, intelligent person wants to admit that sometimes, after eating a meal, or a bar of chocolate, or an ice cream sundae, she would stick her finger down the back of her throat and vomit? Especially one who is the mother of two daughters and who is desperate for them to not emulate that kind of behaviour? I found ways of being secretive about it, including going outside and vomiting in the backyard, away from the house. In the dark. Alone. So no one could see. It wasn’t a full-scale relapse. But it happened often enough that I could smell relapse in the miasma of my own vomitus.
My bulimia is fueled by a few things. Basic brain chemistry, for one. My genetic line on both sides of my family condemn me to craziness of various stripes. I am beyond grateful that my brain chemistry can be treated with drugs, and I no longer worry about the fact that I have to take antidepressants. Illness is illness. Despite the fact that I am in the happiest relationship of my life, that I am in love, that I am loved, that my children are doing well, and that nothing, at this moment, seeks to harm me, I feel powerlessness and a need to run. It’s a potent combination, and there have been days in the past where that combination has knocked me on my ass. Or, knocked me to my knees, bending over a toilet.
I will tell you one more thing before I get back to those folks at the mall. Every time I threw up in the past, I was entirely conscious of what I was doing. The conversation went something like this: “Throwing up is not going to solve your problems.” And the response in my head was always something like, “Fuck you. It’s going to make me feel better.” In a situation where I cannot seem to move myself out of the position I’m currently in, the fact that I could manipulate my body endorphins, exercise control over my food intake, hurt myself, was moving myself. It was power. False power. But power nonetheless.
I am starting to take my power back. I am working my ass off on some writing projects that I hope will get me somewhere I want to be. I am reaching out to people who I love. I am running, or biking, or hiking, and loving the world in which I long for spring to claim the frozen earth.
But, I look around and I see a lot of folks who are obese. And I found myself wondering why there has been such a growth of obesity in the past couple of decades. And all the reasons in the third paragraph still apply.
But I think obesity is a metaphor. I could just as easily be focusing on the need to shop. Or the need to drink. To take pills. To obsess. But, just for now, I want to talk about food, because food, for me, is an issue.
I think that my problem with food is reflective of a larger problem in our culture. We, as a nation, do not know how to make ourselves feel better. We do not know how to move ourselves out of the positions that the vast majority of us find ourselves in. We have been gradually stripped of our power. We cannot afford to buy the toys that we could that distracted us. When I was a kid, many, many people had RVs, and boats, and a new car every year. Middle class folks. But the middle class is drowning, and the poor, well, the poor are long underwater.
So, what do we have? We have food. Cheap, fattening, sweet food. And our televisions. The solace of food is what many of us give ourselves because we have nothing else. We can see what we want: it’s there on our television sets every night. Taunting us. But we cannot have it. We send our children off to fight in an unjust war. We work our barely-getting-by jobs. We struggle to make ends meet. And we eat. It doesn’t change anything. But for those moments when that sweetness is on our tongues, we feel better in our powerlessness.
I have written on this topic before. I've returned to it as the Christmas season has reminded me that we are not getting better. That, and my continuing rage over the ways that women are mistreated in this culture.
When will people stop trying to buy themselves out of unhappiness? When will women demand real power?