Tuesday, January 5, 2010
You've heard of dysmorphic individuals. People who pursue an impossible body aesthetic which they can never attain. I have a dysmorphic family. But their dysmorphia is not self-directed. It manifests itself in deconstructing the appearance, and more importantly the weight of everyone they encounter.
I am French, Jewish and Armenian. As far as the Jews and Armenians are concerned, a cushy little reserve of body fat might be a good thing. When a raping, pillaging hoard of saber-wielding Cossacks or pitch-fork bearing Turks descends upon your village, there's only one thing to do. Disappear. Hole up in a cave. Head for the hills. Melt into the woods. Be thankful for that bit of extra padding - it's survival of the fattest.
The French have less tolerance for body fat, although that is changing with the influence of immigrant populations and the spread of fast food. My Parisian grandmother, who passed away in March of 2009, was a lithe little thing and my grandfather liked his women slim. Occasionally, he would comment humorously on some chubby lady's girth, a part of their marital ritual that my chic grandmother visibly enjoyed. The fact that she was a size two and therefore superior to those weak-willed, corpulent Amazons, was a given.
My mother, like her mother, is a petite, fine-boned woman. She monitored our eating habits with laboratory precision. When I was five, I was invited for a play date that included lunch. Upon returning home, I made the mistake of telling my mother we'd had PB&J and ice cream. She called the other mom and lectured her on what a fatty dessert ice cream was, and how an apple would better balance out the meal. Never mind that my mother was right: that little girl never invited me over again. After that, when asked what I'd been fed at another child's house, I edited out the taboo foods and substituted apples.
I had a tendency to overeat and my mother was on me all the time. One summer when I was 12, we were in Paris visiting family. My great aunt had a tea for the children of some of her friends. While the adults were chatting, the kids sat around the dining room table enjoying soda, juice and pastries. I quickly gulped down four mini fruit tarts while my mother's back was turned. Unfortunately, the tarts came nestled in cute little paper linings. I steeled myself when my mother saw – and counted – the telltale evidence on my plate. She let loose and shamed me in front of the other children, pointing out that the other girl my age had eaten only one fruit tart. That girl grew up to be a model - no joke.
My childhood summers alternated between going to France with my mother and my grandparents visiting us in the states. Over the years, we made several family road trips in a rented van, criss-crossing America at various latitudes and looping into Mexico and Canada. Inevitably, we would encounter obese people. Sometimes morbidly obese people. This would fire up my family like a smoldering cigarette in the tall, parched weeds. "Oh my God, it's not possible. Look at that fat thing." "Monstrous. Monstrous." "No, I think we've seen worse." "Are you kidding? She's by far the fattest yet." If I my adolescent attitude was up, I'd occasionally point out that they had seen overweight people before and should know by now that the hinterlands are full of corn-fed folk. Invariably, I was told that the current discussion was justified due to the exceptional heft of the chunky person in question. As long as some imaginary fatness record was being broken,commenting was perfectly kosher.
There was much motivational weight talk as I progressed into adolescence. I remember we were on a family vacation in Rome, dining at the terrace of some Trattoria. Standing in the front of the cafe across the street were two stunning young Italian women, in tight white pants and pastel summer tops, waiting for their beaus. As I stared at them in awe, my mother murmured conspiratorially "If you lost ten pounds, you'd look just as good." Now that was a high order compliment. My father, who is not French at all, also liked to hit me with the occasional inspirational spiel. When some comely but zaftig girl would walk by, he'd point her out and murmur "Too bad. If she lost...(hesitation as mental calculation is made) ...twelve, maybe fifteen pounds, she'd be quite good looking."
The message was clear. No one will call you baby 'til you shed your baby fat. I worked at it, briefly flirting with bulimia until I found out all that puking could rot your teeth. Even without kneeling before the porcelain throne, I got pretty small for a while. 5'5, 120 pounds – 114 at my teeniest. I took up aerobics and found a man who loved me despite my fleshy thighs. Eventually, I had two kids, which, as my parents still like to remind me, is no excuse for weight gain. I moved to Cleveland, stopped working out and put on about twenty pounds. In the Summer, I would take my kids to see my family at my parents' Cape Cod cottage. The first family beach outing was always mildly traumatic - I wasn't trim enough, I could never be trim enough. And I knew the scrutiny would never cease. I remember passing on blueberry pie at dinner, telling my beloved grandfather I was watching my figure. He shook his head sadly and replied "It's a little late for that." It was kind of late: I was forty years old.
My children had their own pre-pubertal weight issues, especially my son, who was exceptionally unathletic with couch potato tendencies. His sweet tooth was insatiable. At 13, he was thirty pounds overweight and wearing extra-large men's T shirts. I regularly searched his room for contraband candy and once chased him halfway around the block to retrieve a movie theater-sized package of skittles. 780 calories according to the nutritional label, not that there's anything nutritional about skittles. I purged the house of all sweets. I asked restaurants for calorie counts on their menu items just so I could prove to junior that he was about to devour an entire day's calorie allotment in one sitting. I had sworn not to micromanage my children's eating habits but I found myself getting increasingly frustrated, angry and bitchy as the kid kept shoving sugar into his face. Eventually, puberty hit, vanity kicked in and the boy started working out. Of course now he delights in reminding me how evil I was to him and claims to be scarred for life. As he says to his sister, "It's mom's fault I go to the gym all the time." Let me hasten to say that he has never taken my advice on any other subject.
As for my daughter, she outgrew her baby fat. She is healthy and lean and doing yoga. She lives in the same city as my parents and has dinner with them at least once a week. Her grandparents' preoccupation with her weight is a source of great amusement to her. One week they tell the girl she's underweight and her thinness emphasizes her wide hips. The next week they protest that she's eating too much. She reports back to me with the latest fat forecast. It is but a section of a more detailed critique involving my daughter's hair, eyebrows, lipstick application technique, clothing, speech patterns, excessive avocado consumption and hobby of going out at night with her girlfriends.
Once the checklist has been covered, they converse.