As a rule, I don’t diet
anymore. I don’t want
to be seen as “one of those girls”
who reads Cosmo mag and starves
herself thin, stuck on a treadmill
of approval through looks, even
though, somehow, (I don’t know
how it happened) I have a type:
petite, rail thin boys or girls. It always
happens, they’re always the ones
who get my attention. Maybe I’m in
denial about my body politics,
about the politics of body image,
of fat, of thin.
Recently I stumbled onto a Ted Talk that Cameron Russell gave, on body image and the power of the media. It was pointed out to me for its relevance to white privilege which she also discusses, but as one of the world’s top models (which I didn’t realize), she also surprisingly told us the truth, that she is insecure, that all models are insecure. “They have the thinnest thighs and the shiniest hair, but they are so insecure physically because they have to think about what they look like all day long.” It made me cry.
Last year I wrote a poetry show with six other queer writers in Seattle. We called ourselves the Muck Collective, writing out the Muck and grit of our lives. It was a beautiful and intense five-month experience culminating in the show we performed last June. Many interesting, beautiful, funny and heartbreaking pieces came out of that time together, one of which was a poem about pastries and my dad. It goes like this:
At the time I wrote Death by Pastry, I thought I was being funny, until I read it aloud to my Muck friends. Cecily and Mykol, both recent graduates from Bastyr school of naturopathy and practicing healers, said to me, That’s brave of you to talk about your issues with food.
Underlining this response was each of their unique and sordid relationships with food. They said it was a radical act to give up things like dairy and gluten for the sake of being well. I was a little taken aback. Yes, this was at least the 40th time I attempted to give up gluten and dairy for health. But this poem was my attempt at being humorous! Ok, I have a tendency to devolve (always) into the dark parts of life, but isn’t that just normal? I was being lighthearted you guys! But I started to realize how this must sound to people.
Health, nutrition, and of course, my weight are topics I think about all the time. But my weight is not something I try to fix regularly. I think about food all day, it’s true (I’ve been told by a close friend and my boyfriend that I might have a (mild?) eating disorder) but I strive to stay active. When I was a kid I used to read my parent’s health and nutrition books like Fit For Life by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond, or more obscure nutritional experts, and I tried to follow their strict proper food combining guidelines. I used to “fast” when I was a kid, just like any “normal” teenage girl in America, sometimes for “cleansing” purpose, sometimes for religious reasons (which could also garner scare quotes), usually for three days or a whole week. I tried the Master Herbal Cleanse on three separate occasions as a young teen, and later in my twenties. three days (once up to seven), mostly because there just wasn’t enough healthy food around. My parent’s tried to eat healthy, but most of the time we were too poor to afford consistent trips to the grocery store. More often than not, we ended up going to the food bank to supplement any extra cash my mother had from cleaning houses. Otherwise it was boxes of cereal, canned vegetables, and government cheese and peanut butter. Not the luxury food banks of the PNW with generous donations from concerned anarchist gardener citizens (you know who you are).
We would scrounge for change and go to the Party Store on the corner to buy milk even though the entire family is lactose intolerant, and we’d eat almost 3 out of the 4 boxes of cereal by the afternoon, wafting in a smell of rotten eggs from our sour stomachs. My mother would yell at us because it was so much sugar, but then she’d yell to save her some.
We also had a lot of eating contests, who could eat the most pancakes, the most pieces of pizza, the most potatoes, oatmeal, the most anything. It’s ironic to think we had these eating contests when we couldn’t even go to the grocery store all the time. There were times of plenty and times of famine. But this kind of behavior was encouraged. I affiliated myself with my brothers, being just two years older than the first-born son (who in this patriarchal tradition of the Old Testament was the most important child) in a string of three boys. His name was Jotham Othniel. Don’t ask me what it means, I forgot long ago. It probably means chosen by god, because that’s exactly what this kid was to my father, The chosen one.
But that’s another story. Jotham, Jeremiah, Jamin and I and sometimes my older sister Melanie would sit around, gorging ourselves in this fashion, for sport, to feed our competitive natures cultivated by our father. Sometimes he suggested it, Sometimes he joined. It was a matter of survival at moments, if you didn’t reach in immediately for the rare pot roast mom made then you weren’t getting any. At times, my father’s fickle religious or nutritious convictions would flare up in moments like these, and the patriarch would speak as of the mouth of god, proclaiming that his nutritionist friend said that children under 12 should not eat meat. Even though I had been eating meet for 11 years. Suddenly he found it fitting to lay down this decree. I was hurt. Angry. Called out once again for my youth. My mother petitioned the patriarch and eventually I received a morsel of meat, my mouth watering for the braised delicate beef that stuck in my teeth. I knew exactly what I was missing. Now I can only think he was simply preserving the very limited supply from the hungry mouths of his nine children for his own swollen stomach (ok, at the time there may have only been 6 or 7).
I’ve already mentioned his views on pork. And crab, lobster, caviar, squid, catfish, any bottom feeder. I’ve also mentioned in my poem, the cinnamon rolls he gorged on regularly. My father, a walking contradiction, spouting health advice, and killing himself with food. He’s still alive, although he’s almost died at least twice now. Most of his children have stopped crying, stopped holding our breath for when he kicks the can. Jotham says he’s going to have him cremated. My father has a religious conviction against this, of which Jotham is well aware.
The last time I see my father, over two and a half years ago now, he is sitting outside of the back steps where I grew up, catching some rays, something he never did purposely before. I gather my withering, shaking courage to talk to this man I haven’t seen for another two years previous. He smiles, his cirrhosis skin blending into orange with sun exposure. His hair almost pure white, a shock from the salt and pepper it was. We talk about my most recent bike trip down the coast, I can tell he’s impressed.
Then I tell him he’s dying. That he’s in denial.
He says something about slippery elm, how it will cure him, his condition, his heart that operates at 15% now, is reversible. I can’t bear to look at his legs, still purple from the edema and gangrene, bandaged almost to the knee. This is what happened to soldiers in WWII, not my father at fifty-seven years old in the 21st century. He refused medication for high blood pressure for years, as zealous as any Christian scientist, until an old friend dragged him against his will to the emergency room to drain the fluid from his lungs, another time to put his herniated stomach back together. This is the third time he’s been rushed to the ER. The debt is astronomical without insurance. It won’t be long now, he’ll be buried with it.
I’ve been going to the gym semi regularly now. Trying to get into a routine. I run on the treadmill for a half hour and do a few reps of sit-ups. I keep track of my food and fitness in Web MD, an online food journal. I weigh myself. I think about food and health and nutrition. I drink lots of water. I try to get enough sleep. Sometimes I think about my father and wonder if he’s dead yet. And when I really give it some thought, I cry and hope he’s not, so I have more time to say something, resolve something, say goodbye. For the first two decades I tried desperately to be like him as he spoke words like “rebellious!” and “disrespectful!” over my life, with moments of glorious, but suffocating, approval. The last decade I’ve tried to purge myself of him, similar to a bulimic, purging all the Christian dogma I could upchuck, and binging on all the lusts of my carnal nature, eventually finding recovery in a balancing act, able to hold beliefs and truths that nourish.