Like many who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love, I’m excited to see the film, but wary, since my pleasure in reading it derived less from the plot and more from Gilbert’s prose and her skill in interweaving personal with factual. I particularly enjoyed the first section of her journey, which describes her travels in Italy and the intense pleasure of eating as Gilbert let go of the usual restrictions white middle class American women impose on themselves. I routinely teach the section of Eat, Pray, Love where Gilbert describes eating “the best pizza on the planet” with near religious imagery. Gaining weight is a presented as an important positive first step in Gilbert’s personal journey to fulfillment. A very radical idea, since most women I know are continually in the process of trying to shed 10 pounds.
This is an interesting contrast to a recent article in the New York Times about the difficulties of finding plus-sized clothing. Despite the fact that most American women wear a size 14, major clothing stores usually stock few size 12s or 14s and clothes larger must be purchased at specialty stores (or online). More revealing, however, are the readers’ comments about the article, many of which expressed an overwhelming hostility toward larger women. Clearly, the debate about weight is not just a health issue. After all, a skinny outward appearance is no guarantee of good health. Fat people, women in particular, symbolize many things: greed, a rejection of conventional beauty norms, and unregulated desire. Since lots of the negative comments came from people who were once overweight, I wonder if fat also represents the part of us we hate, or fear becoming?
When I was in college in the 1980s, anorexia and bulimia were hot topics. As a graduate student I lead discussion groups on the body image and eating disorders that flourished at the body conscious University of Florida. Since then, public attention has shifted from anorexia to obesity as cause of concern: according to government surveys, 64% of American women are overweight and 1/3 is obese. While these two health concerns seem like opposites, I think they address the same central problem: using food for something other than healthy self-nurturing. As body image guru Geneen Roth points out, overeating and restricting one’s eating are both eating disorders: one responds to anxiety by stuffing and the other by attempting to gain control -- and by focusing on the perfect future self.
But eating too many processed, high fat foods is also a class issue. My college students in Wisconsin (most of whom are less affluent than the students in Florida) are heavier and seem less self-conscious about their pudgy middles. In my culture of food class, most report eating fast food, convenience foods, and items purchased at gas stations; few cook routinely and the majority of students do not exercise regularly. Many of our students work full-time in addition to attending college, and their unhealthy habits are often a result of an untenably busy, hectic lifestyle. The healthier options at the university cafeteria cost more, they point out.
As a mother of a young daughter, I feed her nutritious food, encourage her to cook, and talk about the dangers of fast food and the importance of exercise. But at the same time I don’t want her to fall into the pernicious trap of constantly trying to improve her outward appearance. If you think this sounds like an extreme fear, consider how often women include wanting to lose 10 pounds or “get in shape” as their #1 goal. How many of your female friends are not trying to change their appearance? One of my friends in graduate school, a feminist scholar, admitted she spent two hours every day at the gym. As feminist scholar Susan Bordo argues, this emphasis on fitness with its false sense of empowerment, siphons off potential subversive energy that could be used to challenge norms of beauty or, change the world.
I suppose that so many things my daughter will learn what I model, not necessarily what I preach. Therefore renounce losing weight as a goal. I have a lot more important things to accomplish.