I read Jennifer Weiner’s memoir, “Hungry Heart” this week. It is a collection of essays, not an autobiography but more a series of autobiographical pieces. And there are two key concepts I took out of the book:
- OMG SOMEONE ELSE FEELS THE SAME WAY I DO ABOUT JUDITH KRANTZ’S “SCRUPLES”. I read the entire Judith Krantz oeuvre as a teenager, and strongly identified with her heroine from Scruples, Billy Winthrop Ikehorn Orsini. For those of you whose mothers did not leave copies of Scruples lying around, we meet Billy Ikehorn as a rich beautiful widow, but she begins her life as a self described “fat freak”. By the time she turns eighteen, she’s a five-ten, two hundred pound social outcast. After a year in Paris, Billy loses the weight in an early version of the French Women Don’t Get Fat diet, and develops a stunning sense of chic through her boarding hostess, an impoverished French countess. She then goes on to live in New York, where she has a lot of unapologetic sex in the Helen Gurley Brown model (social commentary!), and then marries an extremely wealthy man, who conveniently dies seven years later. From there on, the book goes through her challenges running her own Beverly Hills fashion emporium, and her marriage to a movie producer…but that wasn’t a future I was interested in. All I cared about was that there was a heroine in literature who looked like I did at sixteen, and who made herself into a beautiful, sophisticated woman of the world despite that.
Jennifer Weiner also got this – she says that, to her, “Billy felt personal.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone recount their teenage appreciation for this 1973 work of fiction for this reason. For Ms. Weiner, as for me, the appeal wasn’t just Billy’s social or financial outcast status, it was the height and her weight she entered adulthood with and the beauty and sophistication she achieved despite it. I was also five ten by my twentieth birthday, and while I wasn’t two hundred pounds, I wasn’t far below it. It was surprising to me that someone else who physically resembles me read this book and felt the same way at the same phase of life about this particular character and what she represented: the hope of becoming a beautiful, sophisticated woman despite teen years spent as a too-tall overweight freak.
- In more seriousness, the bigger concept I got is that women expend too much energy worrying and obsessing about their weight. And when I read that, it became like a truth I couldn’t unsee. How much time do we waste trying to be thinner and prettier that we could be putting into better uses? Would Hillary have won if we’d all stopped fretting over calories and spin classes and really stared down the political situation? Has our obsession with our weight distracted us so much that we cannot focus on things that are truly important?
It’s this second point that really frightens me. I think about the amount of time I’ve spent dieting and obsessing about my weight and it makes me dizzy. There was the constant calorie burning and calorie tracking. There is the space in my head dedicated to an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of food macronutrients, which has led to an ability to play a version of The Price Is Right in guessing the caloric cost of everything I eat. Most of all, there has been the insane amount of energy I have spent either anxious that I wasn’t doing enough, or berating myself because I wasn’t doing enough, and usually both at once.
We have also, by giving our weight such importance, made it a defining feature of success in a woman. We have acknowledged that it is representative of the ability to achieve a goal to be able to meet a set of arbitrary physical standards. If we do not meet that goal, we believe ourselves to be weak, undisciplined, unworthy of any sort of social rewards. We either accept a lesser lot in life, or push ourselves through tremendous amounts of thought, energy and strength into losing weight. And ultimately, we may choose to accept the worst of both options, expending time and energy and mental strength into a weight loss goal, and when it can’t be reached, accepting an inferior social status as the result. When you believe you are too weak to lose ten pounds, how can you believe that you are strong enough to lean in?
So now we have created barriers of our own making. We can’t level up our lives in other regards when are too afraid of being judged for our appearance. We can’t put the time and energy into the things that should truly matter to us when we are pouring all this work into obsessing over food and exercise. I’m not saying it’s a trap by THE MAN to keep us down, but it is a trap perpetuated by every man who judges us and deems us worthy of conversation based on our appearance, whether he says so or not. And it’s one we perpetuate to each other, as we judge other women based on how hard we think they’re trying, how much work they’re doing: the last frontier of the America Puritan work ethic funhouse mirrored into judgement.
This is a scary thought, to realize how distracted we all are on this topic. In “Lady Oracle”, Margaret Atwood’s character, Joan, realizes that there has been wars going on that she was barely aware of and wonders, “what else had been happening in the world while I was busy worrying about my weight?” What if all women everywhere stopped worrying about our weight for a week and thought about the next thing down on the list: the fact that we have allowed our entire country to be hijacked by a man who continually reduces women only to the value of their looks.
What if we all put the kind of effort into reading the news that we do into trying to calculate a serving size?
What if we all stopped letting ourselves be distracted by our weight, and turned all that energy into asserting our equal status in Western society?
That is what I got out of reading Jennifer Weiner’s memoir: that physical size, both height and weight, color the entire life of a woman who falls outside of the socially accepted range for both. And that’s kind of ridiculous. And also that if Ms. Weiner has not read Lady Oracle she probably should. As books in the subgenre of Fictional Women who Lose 100+lbs At Age 18 go, it’s a much better tome on the subject than Scruples.