Détente. That’s the best I can do. I will never say that I am “at peace” with my body. But after decades of different kinds of war—cold, guerilla, civil—there’s an easing of strained relations, a relaxation in the level of tension.
There are no visible battlegrounds, no fields of carnage, no memorials, even to the furious combat I have done with myself for all these years. Looking at photos of me, you would not know how consuming this fight has been: I have weighed pretty much the same, give or take ten pounds, for the past thirty years, since the shock, having been a skinny teenager, of earning the freshman twenty. I’m an overachiever and couldn’t stop at the typical ten.
When I came home that first collegiate summer, after a year of unlimited cafeteria Jell-O parfait and late-night pizza at Naples and trips to Ashley’s Ice Cream and pitchers of beer (that I still haven’t learned to enjoy), my father pointed out my excess flab. It bothered him. He told me to lose weight. Actually, he told my mother to tell me to lose weight, and like a good little over-achiever, that is what I did. I turned losing weight into an art form.
Before anoxeria was a term as common in the popular culture as Prozac is now, I found ways to starve myself into waifdom. Stimulants decrease appetite, liquids give the sense of satiation, increased protein intake leads to a loss of retained water. The scale became the barometer of my happiness, a more powerful measure than good grades or rising popularity. My weight captured my attention in a way that 19th century novels or French Impressionism didn’t—I drew into myself, studied my body, assessed its changes, appraised its progress. In this way my self-image and identity became wrapped around a number on the scale.
People, especially boys, thought I looked athletic. The most exercise I got was climbing three flights of stairs to my dorm room, and given the scant amount of calories I was consuming, that feat nearly exhausted me. The connection between exercise and weight loss was wasted on someone too lazy, too inert, too bookish to bother going to the gym.
Finally becoming an athlete transformed my relationship with my body. Even though my weight didn’t change much, when I started running the distribution and substance of it did. When muscles started announcing themselves, I greeted them with glee. I stopped paying as much attention to the numbers and started spending more time thinking about what was jiggly and what was firm. Firm felt better.
Here’s a confession that will make you think I’m a bad and shallow person: I’m not all that interested in health. I tend to care more about how I look and feel than whether I’m getting the right nutrients or if I’m eating enough orange and green foods or if my grains are free-range and my meat has had a good life. While I’ve never been a fast-foodie or chip-eater, it’s not out of any sense of moral superiority Fortune has given me an aversion to fried food, no passion for salty snacks, and a disgust with anything too slimy—butter, sour cream, coconut, okra, and especially, I’m sorry Californians for I know you take this personally, avocado.
But put a package of Oreo’s or Chips Ahoy in front of me—or a vat of mint chocolate chip ice cream or a Halloween bowl of candy or a bag of Tootsie Rolls—and you will be surprised at how much a person can consume before complaining about a stomachache and professing a need to lie down. So I try not to keep those things around. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything but temptation.
If I know that I will be tortured by a bucket of Trader Joe’s tiny crispy chocolate chip cookies (which I suspect are laced with crack) calling to me from the cupboard, I don’t put them in my shopping basket. Well, sometimes I do. When I do, I eat a handful (hey—a serving size is twelve cookies!), then another, bigger handful, then I get a kind of icky feeling, and then I eat another handful. Finally I realize that I don’t want to be this way and I stop. And then I go back and eat one more handful.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. If that’s true, every time I reach for a cookie I am exhibiting my own brilliance, because I think: I really want this. And I think: I really don’t want this.
Of course, it’s not about thinking at all. It is about the emotional tug of food, about the will to power, about keeping your eyes on the prize, about a “minute on the lips is forever on the hips,” about every single cliché you’ve ever heard about self-restraint. The writer Barry Lopez said something about writing that applies to just about everything: Discipline, he said, is the highest form of self-respect. Because I’m not as confident and as evolved as he I tend to think of the inverse: lack of discipline is a form of self-loathing. Sometimes remembering that is enough to keep my weak little paws out of the cookie jar. But only sometimes.
Look, I would love to be able say that I love myself, and that I love my body, and that it’s beautiful and perfect and my life is filled with lollipops (calorie-free) and puppies (who never chew shoes or poop on the carpet) and rainbows (beyond my neighbor’s proudly waving flag). But what I’ve come to understand is that while maybe your life is like that, and if so, I’m happy for you, really, I am, mine is never going to be. I will notice the jiggly bits and I will eat too many cookies and will feel sick and keep eating them and I won’t get enough vegetables and I will yell at the dog when she chews on the carpet and I won’t run enough miles or I will run too many miles and well, right, that’s my life. And so, to me, at this point, détente seems like a success.