Last weekend, my good friend’s father was hit by a car. He was on his bike; he’s a serious rider, serious about fitness. He works at a gym for a living.
The car was going about 50 miles per hour. My friend’s father was thrown from his bike, and suffered life-threatening injuries. As of this writing, he’s still unconscious, and his survival is touch and go.
Yesterday, this same friend brought her younger son over to my parents’ house, to swim with my children. We discussed her fear; her sorrow; her frustration. Her father’s neurosurgeon is brilliant, but non-committal and quirky in his speech. He will, she said, touch her father’s head, gently—half of his skull has been deliberately removed, and placed in a special freezer, so that his brain may swell: a hemi-craniotomy. The surgeon, who is from Spain and has a thick accent, gently massages her father’s head and says “Is soft, is soft, that’s good, you know? Right?” My friend is a therapist—she’s trained in how to walk others calmly through difficult emotions. Is that good?! Is it?! she wants to yell, since, as a therapist, and not a neurosurgeon, she hasn’t the faintest idea what is “good” in these situations—certainly, nothing seems “good” at the moment: her beloved father facing her, unconscious, with thick stitching literally holding his head together.
But, she doesn’t. She nods, and asks thoughtful questions in a meditative voice.
And so, we talked about doctors, about medicine, about prognoses: the surgeon will not offer any hint as to what he thinks may happen to her father, because, he tells her again and again, Every brain injury is different. He could wake up tomorrow and walk around the room and know everyone, or he could be unconscious indefinitely. My friend says she thought this would frustrate her, but as more time passes, it makes sense: Never underestimate the power of the individual, she said, hugging her long legs to her chest, her eyes red-rimmed and wearier than I have ever seen them—and we have been friends for two and a half decades. Before us, the kids: four, small, unique bodies splashing and squealing in the pool.
My friend’s comment about individuals and power reminded me of Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger. I finished it Wednesday night, and I believe it is the definitive book about the condition of being an American woman.
This is an extreme statement. I imagine Gay herself might think it absurd, given that she spends many elegant pages describing a world not designed to fit her body, in prose that gives the reader the harrowed sense of living in a body the size of Gay’s. There are sentences describing the way chair arms bruise human arms when one cannot quite fit inside the chair; sentences about having to be pushed and pulled up onto a low stage without stairs, in front of an audience of swank writers. Shrink! the constructed world yells at the narrator, on every page. Gay is clear throughout that while some people who are heavy make a point to be body positive, to love themselves and their size, and that she very much admires these people, she is not one of them. She does not love her body. Her body is an anomaly.
But no body is anomalous—or, at least, no body should be. While at the same time, all bodies are anomalous, since no one body can truly be compared to another. This is part of the paradox of the book, and part, I would argue, of the condition of American womanhood. I use the word condition deliberately: as Gay’s book and my reaction to it make clear, American women at every size are a problem to be solved.
I should state two pertinent facts up front. I am a white, able-bodied woman and I am not morbidly obese. I added the “morbidly” after some consideration for several reasons—one, while most people in my life would roll their eyes if I even described myself as simply “obese,” the BMI chart (which Gay brilliantly takes to task in Hunger) tells a different story. I am five feet tall, and in the past three years, since gaining a stepdaughter and entree into the tenure-track, I have gained approximately 20 pounds. I almost wrote, “Who knows why this happened,” except that I know exactly why—my time became crunched and more crunched. Academia depended on me for more labor and before long, my once-relatively disciplined eating and exercise schedule which kept me svelte and in good physical shape collapsed and I did what a lot of people in my position do: I ate Dunkin’ Donuts bagel sandwiches for breakfast almost every day and drank beer with dinner every night. I munched on salty carbs when I was grading, and I am always grading. I exercised less and less because the time I was once able to devote to exercise is now devoted to working on the three manuscripts rapidly making their way to completion and publication, and I need those book contracts if I want to keep the job that keeps our family in our house.
So, I know why I got fatter. And I know how to get thinner. And if the best indication of future performance is past performance, I probably will get thinner, again. My weight has gone up and down and around the same crap fifteen pounds for most of my adult life. Writing that sentence, I imagine those pounds as something external from my body, alive, but not quite living, a wobbly, passive-aggressive ghost with my mother’s voice: We’d like to go, Emily, they say as they hover on my ass, my belly, my arms—we never wanted to come back in the first place, we wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for YOU.
I understand that this is not a crisis. I don’t binge eat. I don’t starve myself. I don’t purge. I like to move around and I live three blocks from the beach, where I spend many days in the summer walking and jogging and swimming. In other words, the external realities of my woman’s body—what I put into it, how it moves through the world—are relatively normal and healthy. They are not raising alarm bells for anyone in my life, or on the street. Strangers do not stare at me or mock me. Sometimes men still check me out.
Instead, though, there is this. My emotional and psychological relationship with my adult body looks quite a lot like Roxane Gay’s. No, fuck it—exactly like hers.
I want to be clear, again—I am not claiming Roxane Gay’s experience, or claiming to understand what it is to walk through the world like she does. But reading Gay’s words has been revelatory because, as Gay points out on page 37 of Hunger “the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood” in American culture. And I am an American woman.
I am an American woman who was once an American child, and a skinny one, at that. In fact, most of my early memories ring with nicknames derived from the word “skinny:” Skinny Minny, Skinny Bones. My mother and father wore my thinness like a badge of honor. I was fast and wily and agile and I loved to climb… everything. There is a moment in Hunger when Gay describes seeing photographs of herself before she was gang-raped at age 12; she says it destroys her to see images of herself so young and carefree and strong. I have a memory, from the fifth grade: we were doing the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge. At the time, I did gymnastics at the local Jewish Community Center three days a week. I was getting good– I could tumble, and was learning to tumble on the beam. Our gym teacher asked if I wanted to demonstrate the rope climb, and before I knew it, I had jumped on and scurried to the top in barely a minute. I remember looking down at the students, sitting cross-legged below me, and feeling excited and happy. That only increased when I told my father the story, over dinner, and his eyes glowed with a unique pride that only accompanied our (I have two younger sisters) physical accomplishments.
And it wouldn’t be that much longer before our physical accomplishments would be forever after associated with weight loss. By the time I reached high school, I wanted to row crew, but the only way that was going to happen, at five feet tall, was if I was a “lightweight.” Thus began three years of devoting half the school year to a particularly noxious brand of athletics that combined rigorous training and discipline (people have compared crew to the army; you’re laughing, but now you’re listening to me describe the times– yes, times– that we almost capsized in a February gale, or ran aground and had to bail the shell out by pushing it from the marsh in the north Atlantic in March, or carry it a quarter mile each way from the boathouse to the dock) with a food and exercise obsession that produced more than its fair share of life-threatening eating disorders. I’d like to say our coaches discouraged this, but, mostly male, they egged us on, in both explicit and nefarious ways. My coach, a local firefighter, was fond of calling the tallest girl in our boat, who cut literally every ounce of fat out of her diet so she could squeak below the weight limit of 120 pounds “Big Dog.” When, that same season, my grandfather died and I smothered my unbearable grief with the hoards of food on our dining room table, the scale– which we stepped on in front of hundreds of rowers and coaches and administrators at the famed Schuylkill River’s Boathouse Row– revealed a five pound weight gain, our coach announced “Looks like we got ourselves a new Big Dog.” The vendors at the races hawked a t-shirt with a rotund, pink pig on a sagging scale, blushing with shame, which read “Please Don’t Feed the Lightweights;” we all begged our parents for it, and wore it with some weird version of pride. Our former coxswain, who had gone onto college to study art, showed up at the prestigious Stotesbury Regatta and drew said pig on each of our back right shoulders—matching tattoos. One girl, who rowed in a different boat, a lightweight four, was so ill from bulimia she could no longer “pull her weight.” Rather than getting her help, her coach, (different from Mr. “Big Dog”) forced her to sit in the launch with him while another shell raced her boat—in her place, he threw a sack of tools: wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers. The boat, he wanted to prove, went faster without her in it, and prove it he did. “See,” he said to her, as she shivered next to him in her gray, polycotton hoodie, “you’re nothing. You’re dead weight.”
I began lightweights my sophomore year, after spending my freshman season “bulking up.” There are no weight classes for novice and freshman rowing, so, to make the cut, I lifted tons of heavy weights and ate whatever I wanted. Since I have always had a healthy relationship with food, this didn’t include anything out of the ordinary—my mother cooked wholesome dinners for my family every night of my life. I rowed in the bow pair with my friend, Brigit, who was also on the smaller side, but ran like a deer and was freakishly strong. We were freakishly strong by the end of that season, actually, along with every other girl in the boat. Our coaches were two young women in their late twenties—the only women coaches in the roster—who had both rowed at division one schools, and had originated the sport for women at our high school. They told us wild tales of carrying logs on their shoulders as they ran stadiums in the rain, training toward what ended up as a championship season, winning the Nationals and taking a bronze medal in the Canadian Schoolboy Nationals—everything they described sounded like a scene from Visionquest. We were enchanted, and totally devoted, and I felt like every girl in the boat was my best friend. I could run six miles without getting winded, and leg press 500 pounds. When I got on the scale, and it crept up another pound, I wasn’t happy, I was thrilled. I equated my weight with strength and camaraderie. My best friend from grammar school, who had gone to a different high school, saw me one day and said “Jesus, your calves got so thick,” with horror, and I said “Thank you!” and grinned at her. By the end of the spring, I weighed about 140 pounds, and we had won a silver medal in the Nationals. There is a picture of us from that day, hot and sweating in the May sun, each holding an oar upright. I look—we look—beatific. It was one of the best days of my life.
But there’s another picture, albeit in my head, from the same day, since we weren’t the only boat from our school that medaled in the Nationals that year. During the medal ceremony, I also watched as our reigning lightweight 8 walked up the stairs to the podium with nonchalance that bordered on disdain. These bitches had better things to do, but they’d grace us with their presence for this last. Tall, skinny, and tanned within an inch of their lives, they had a reputation for disordered eating and cruelty. We heard weird rumors about them that sounded like my own personal version of hell: I heard she only ate one piece of steamed broccoli a night for the entire season of medal races; I heard she throws up after every meal; I heard she takes water pills and pees out everything in her body on race day; I heard she fucked the stroke’s boyfriend. None of these young women ever spoke a word to me, even though some of them were the older sisters of my good friends. They passed through practices in a quiet, disciplined swish of spandex and perfectly blown-out hair. They weren’t “natural” lightweights—the prevailing myth is that the category was created for smaller girls to be able to compete on an elite level—they were, instead, tall and strong, and forced to essentially be exercise bulimics who never ate in order to “make weight,” an exotic-sounding phrase involving crowds and scales and a high-stakes moment where you either did or did not weigh 120 pounds or less, which determined whether you could or could not row in the race that day. At the time, there was the further caveat of the “boat average.” Each girl in the boat had to weigh less than 120 pounds, but the average weight of the eight young women couldn’t be more than 115 pounds, or they could not row in the race that day. We heard horror stories about running in trash bags and spitting in cups. We watched the leggy beauties cart their sleek racing shell to the dock and slip it into the water with nary a splash. When I think of them, they are silent, they are beautiful, and they are angry with the anger of the righteous. They outclass me, in my oversized t-shirt and red bandana, my unwaxed eyebrows and messy brown ponytail. I am not in their league. I want nothing to do with them, with any of what being them entails. They terrify me.
But by the time I made it to my sophomore year, I had to join them. The junior varsity competition was fierce, a group of girls who towered over me and came from families with a rich history of rowing. I was not going to make the cut. There was a new lightweight coach, that year that everyone raved about. He saw me working out in the gym one day, and said “You gonna row in the lightweight 8?”
“No, I want to make the JV 8,” I said, huffing and puffing in between upright rows, giving him the side eye. I wanted none of that cut-weight fuckery in my life. I liked food, and I liked keeping it in my stomach after I ate it. I liked not being a heinous meangirl to everyone who possessed a vagina and weighed more than 115 pounds. I was more Angela Chase than Kelly Taylor.
“Yeah, you think so?” he said, and he walked away.
And that was really all it took.
Crew is such a strange, insular sport, possessing its own vocabulary, its own sub-cultures. You think this is bad, please, my senior year we DFL’d in the petite finals, I remember my assistant coach telling me, our freshman year, rolling her eyes, when I cried about coming in fifth at the Stotesbury Regatta. There were only six boats in the finals, but there were hundreds that had rowed in heats to get there. “Petite finals” were row offs for the losers who didn’t make the real finals, which we had.
What’s DFL? I said, wiping my running eyes with the heel of my 15-year old hand beneath the shade of a leafy maple on the banks of Philly’s Schuylkill River, watching packs of beautiful youth move boats on and off of stretchers and trailers, smelling grilled meat in the distance.
Dead Fucking Last, she said, grinning and hugging me.
Petite finals, DFL, ergs, mid-weights, lightweights, riggers, coxswains, stern pair, bow pair; the first 500 meters; the last 500 meters; Nationals, “Stotes.” Ergs don’t float. No technique. My non-crew friends, listening to us at the lunch table, were mystified and would jokingly try to use the language, causing us to erupt into peals of laughter. By sophomore year, my lunches had gone from turkey with mayo to turkey with mustard. I ate fruit instead of chips and drank water by the gallon. I ate Powerbars for breakfast, worrying them down miserably on the bus. I ate dry bagels because cream cheese was an unpardonable sin.
But I did all of this with a purpose—cut weight. Row. Make the lightweight eight. And I did, in fact, do that, for my remaining three years of high school. During that first season, I stuck to a strict diet (or what I thought was a strict diet) only because I understood that the season had a fixed ending, at which point I could return to eating normally, which for me meant occasionally indulging, and not obsessively watching everything that went into my mouth for the taint of fat—it was 1996, and we had not yet, as a culture, moved into the “no carb” zone. We ate “fat-free” desserts from Entenmann’s, dunked our fruit in “fat-free” Cool Whip. I remember our “spaghetti dinners” (the crew tradition of having a high-carb, healthy meal the night before a race so as to have lots of energy for said race) as distinctly hellish experiences. One senior, the only one who had been the boat the previous year with the skinny girl glam squad, regaled us with stories of the preceding year’s dinners where no one ate a bite and everyone watched everyone else like a hawk to make sure no one ate a bite. She infused these tales with nostalgia, a bony Babe Ruth looking back on his salad days. She was not as beautiful or rich or popular as those other girls, and they had gone out of their way to make her know that—more than once, my freshman year, I caught her silently weeping as a result of their meanness. But now that they were gone and she remained, stuck with a boat full of sophomores, some of whom (like me) were distinctly uncool, and uninterested in being freakishly thin, she behaved like Patty Hearst with the SLA, describing their hunger-induced cruelties in loving, privileged tones, reveling in a bygone era.
I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Freshman year, I came for the friendship and stayed for the friendship. The workouts were just a bonus, another way for me to laugh and cry and push and be pushed by eight other girls like me—driven and smart and funny and devoted. Loyal. Some of them are still my friends; I remained close to many of them through college and beyond.
But this lightweight shit was a different story.
Crew became, at that point—and in many ways remained until I graduated—joyless. Hunger will make you miserable, and the point of lightweight rowing seemed to be exactly that—hunger. Starve. Avoid the food you want, or avoid it altogether, but whatever you do, do not indulge your desires, or you will gain, and when you gain, you lose. We lose, really, since if one of us didn’t make weight and couldn’t row, the careful balance struck by endless hours of practice in the freezing fucking cold was thrown and you didn’t stand a chance of winning with some random skinny bitch, probably a freshman, filling the seat. You let down the team. We’d be faster if I wasn’t towing your fat ass around! I heard a stroke yell back to some poor teammate as they rowed back after losing a heat at the Stotes, red-faced and sobbing in the early morning heat, the only other sound the slip and dip of the oars slicing the water. We laughed and laughed. When I think of that, now, the juxtaposition startles me most—rowing is a beautiful activity, literally: a boat that swings together is a marvel of physics and engineering, the culmination of so much unbelievable hard work. I remember passing under the Strawberry Mansion bridge—the dark water, the echoes—hearing laughter in the distance. I remember staring at the mist rising from the marsh at a 5 am practice, imagining those same marshes millions of years ago, a pterodactyl taking flight, writing poems in my head to the rhythm of the oars clicking in the oarlocks, the girl swinging in front of me, back and forth, back and forth. And I remember being miserable. I remember feeling that every minute I spent with these girls was a lie, because whatever strange thing drove them to have this hunger, to want this hunger, did not possess me. I could perform it up to a point, but at the end of the day, I just wanted a fucking chicken cheesesteak and fries, and I wanted to not feel weird about that. In fact, I didn’t want to talk about it at all. I just wanted to eat it, and move the hell along.
I thought I could do exactly that, when the season ended. I thought I had escaped lightweights unscathed. But when, a week after Nationals, I went with a group of girlfriends to get a chicken cheesesteak, I ordered it with low-fat cheese and low-fat mayo. My friend, who was also in the boat, and, I thought, naturally skinny, said, “I thought the whole point of this was to get a freaking chicken cheesesteak!” and I turned to her, meanly, acidly replied, “Well, some of us aren’t as lucky as you.”
And just like that, I was one of them.