Sunday, July 26, 2015


In Dietland, Sarai Walkers debut novel, Plum Kettle is a three-hundred-pound woman with a Dickensian name who believes having gastric bypass surgery is going to change her life. Once she loses the weight, her real life will start. She will be Alicia, her given name. She will go out more. She will date. And, most important of all, she will no longer be the subject of stares or snickers, or the butt of someones joke. She will be free.

Only what if there were another way for her to be free? What if the cultish weight-loss programs, like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, were exposed for what they really are: companies that contribute to and profit off of the global objectification of women, who in our culture are continually baited into measuring their self-worth with bathroom scales. What if women just stopped dieting? What if the tables were turned and every bus that passed by or magazine cover or television show displayed sexualized male images? What if it were the men having the faux orgasms in the shampoo commercials?

These are the questions Plum is exploring in this coming-of-age story. She meets Verena, the daughter of the most successful weight-loss program, who, after her parents death, shuts down the organization because of the harm it was doing to millions of American women and exposes her mother, its founder, as a charlatan. Verena challenges Plum to identify where the real problems lie, to accept herself for who she is and start living her life today, and to stand up for herself. And Verenas friend Marlowe, whos written a book called Fuckability Theory, exposes the true motivation behind all female dieting: we do it because we want men to want to fuck us and women to want to be us. As Plum meets these new people, the reader also learns of a radical womens group, calling itself Jennifer, that is terrorizing the country by taking revenge on the media and violent men.

Denialists will find this theory hard to stomach, but for me, it rings true. Every woman I know (myself included) is dieting. All of them are either suffering from a full-blown eating disorder or are at least suffering from some of the same misguided motivations. Some forego meals to take in their nutrition exclusively from shakes or smoothies. Some overexercise. Some indulge one night only to punish themselves with severe calorie restriction for the next day or even the rest of the week. Some load up their plates when around others and then only eat a third of it. Some commit to a very restrictive dietlike raw veganismnot because they cant bear to participate in the slaughter of animals or because they believe that its truly a healthier way to eat, but because what they truly want is to be thin. As Plum points out, women would rather be dead than be fat. To be fat is to be completely isolated and horribly judged every day of your life, and yet its just the other side of the same ugly two-headed coin: disordered eating. And to me, the fuckability theory explains the motivation behind all that self-abuse.

I know that some people will say, Well, I am just trying to be healthy, or, Being thin and fit makes me feel good about myself. What would really be healthy is to love yourself no matter what size you are, ditch the scale, set legitimate (not veiled) fitness goals, listen to your body, and eat real food when you are hungry, including bread. Then you would just land where you land, which I doubt, for most of us, would be a size zero.

Following Plums journey toward self-acceptance coalesced some of my thoughts about my own struggles, and I see now that I have no choice but to reconcile with them. Once you admit that you have a problem, there is nowhere to hide. Even if we cant be courageous enough to decide that we will not be held hostage by the fuckability theory, maybe we can at least be a little more compassionate toward one another, seeing that, whether obese or skinny, we all live in Dietland.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Gathering

Made-from-scratch chicken caesar sandwiches with garlic dressing

Fish sticks again. Cold in the middle, soft not crispy like the box promises. They are from the freezer, and so are the peas, our side dish. The fish sticks make me gag, so I am determined to not eat them, even if I have to stay at the table all night. I never do, though, not all night, despite the threat. The night before was Steak-umms, which I like a whole lot better. The night before that it was mac-and-cheese from a box. All of our dinners come from a box or the freezer. They are all prepared in under ten minutes. My mom has already eaten or she is skipping dinner. She straightens up or does a load of laundry while my brother and I eat alone at the table. It's the early days in the aftermath of my parents' divorce. She is now a single mom and is trying to adjust.

Once, when I was eight, I tried to cook for myself. I took things from the refrigerator that I liked: grapes, pudding, ketchup, a slice of American cheese. I mixed them all together in a bowl, dipped a spoon in, and took a tentative lick. It was horrible. Excruciatingly horrible.

"What do you eat?" I am twenty-two. I'm finishing up my senior year at the University of South Florida. Ryan and I have just started dating. He's looking into my bare refrigerator. I shrug my shoulders.

"It's cereal, isn't it?" He grins. "You just eat cereal." I give him a guilty smile back. It's not until this moment that I realize that just eating cereal might be a bad thing. I never really thought about it at all. I love cereal. Grape Nuts, Cheerios, Life. I am full after I eat a bowl, I don't crave dessert, and I am comfortable with my weight.

Before children, when Ryan and I were high school English teachers, Outback Steakhouse was a nice dinner out. I still ate a lot of cereal, and poor Ryan, who knows what he ate. Once, I remember, I tried to follow a recipe for a lamb dish with a wine sauce. But I got distracted by the television and it burnt to a crisp, setting off the fire alarm and sticking so firmly to the pan that I finally had to toss the whole thing out.

We never hosted Thanksgiving dinner, but were always asked to bring a side dish or dessert. Pumpkin pie was my favorite, so one year I made that. Trying to avoid clean-up, I put a sheet of non-stick aluminum foil down on the bottom of the pan. Unbeknownst to me, the pie, with that extra layer on the bottom, didn't cook through. When I proudly cut into it to serve the first slice to my mother-in-law, it dripped into a puddle on the plate. She ate it anyway, too polite to decline.

Another year, Ryan was violently ill, and we were responsible for bringing appetizers: crab dip, spinach dip, bruschetta. I could handle some of it, but since I had never even tried crab, I left it to him. Sick as he was, he had to force himself to pry the crab meat out because I had no idea what to do. My recipe didn't cover that part.

Cooking then was a chore. I took no pleasure in it. It was just me and Ryan, and cooking for two wasn't appealing. Though a spark of interest in cooking was there, it lay mostly dormant. My tastes were limited, so I was satisfied with picking up a premade meal from the store. I was focused on graduate school and my job. Looking back, it would've been the perfect time to learn to cook because even with my commitments there were long stretches of unclaimed time. No crying babies. No dirty diapers. No cluttered house.

Now, two kids later, Ryan and I get out just the two of us once a month. We want to make the most of it, so we choose restaurants carefully. We want really good wine that complements our meal. We want to try new foods. We want atmosphere. We want our time out to be an experience, something to hold onto all the other days of the month when we are not out, when we are not alone.

In fact, we have come to appreciate our dining adventures so much that I want to keep having those experiences even when we can't go out, so I've taken to cooking at home. I peruse Food & Wine and cookbooks by James Beard Award winners. I research wine pairings and make trips to gourmet markets to find ingredients that my regular supermarket doesn't carry. I invite family and friends over to share in the meal.

Without Ryan to help with the girls, I'm not sure I'd be able to do it. I'm not sure I'd even be interested in doing it. But I do have him. I am lucky to not be alone.

My dinners aren't perfect. I admit there are sometimes substitutions. I am aware of the fact that they are not executed with anything resembling the skill of the chef whose recipe I've followed. And I am too new at this to go rogue or to wing it, even after I've made a dish a few times. And of course my girls don't eat it. I've taken to serving dinner for them family-style, so I set out little bowls with food that I think is mostly healthy and that I know they like, and in one bowl I include a small portion of the meal I've painstakingly made. It breaks my heart, but every night the contents of that bowl goes into the trash. Every single night.

kale salad with fried egg

Even so, I'm confident that they will eventually come around and try something I've made, and from there, maybe they'll find something they like. I've come to learn that, although the taste of food may have been my initial motivation, the unexpected benefit of my newfound hobby is that it functions as an excuse to get together with friends and family, to have more playdates for my daughters at our house, and to get my husband, my two girls, and myself to gather around the table at the end of the day. Being able to literally and figuratively nourish my family with something that I've worked hard to prepare myself is something that I take pride in, and I imagine I'll be even more proud when I hear that first "yum" from one of my girls.