Ed. Note: Yesterday I wrote the better part of a blog about Robin Williams, genius and mental illness, but because it’s a more academic (that is, allusive and exegetical) blog than usual and my printer is disconnected from my MacBook, I will hold off a day or two on that. I wrote this blog about body image, sans pictures, a week ago.
I’m back in Santa Barbara after nearly three weeks in New York with the best weather I can recall in late July and early August. I wrote one blog in the city but never uploaded pictures–which I find the most tedious and irritating part of blogging–so technically this is my 300th Victorian Chick blog. 300 blogs in three years and four months: it’s hard to remember my life before Victorian Chick (and its FB and Twitter spin-offs, as it were).
After a wonderful reunion with my parents, I drove up to Santa Barbara on Friday and stopped for gas in the Palisades. The cheap boutique at 1021 Swarthmore with regular sidewalk sales will surely close when Rick Caruso gets his grubby billionaire paws on the eight or nine acres for which he paid between 40 and 50 million dollars, but occasionally you find something great.
When I arrived in SB and posted a picture of the only really cute thing on sale, I realized it evoked the dress on Madison Avenue that gave me heart palpitations a few weeks earlier.
I don’t know the name of the store. It’s not early Alzheimers– though the amount of literature and philosophy I’ve forgotten in the last 15 years sometimes makes me wonder if I should get tested for early onset. I simply forgot to take a picture of the whole display with the store’s name.
As I’ve blogged, both for myself and Bicoastal Brunette, I’m a designer resale and consignment girl who rarely buys new clothes and certainly not on Mad.
The dresses are of course not the same. One has a rich, two-toned fabric the iPhone can’t pick up through a glass window and probably costs a couple thousand dollars. The other is 100% polyester (both the shell and the exterior) and cost 44 dollars at a young person’s surf boutique with a few fun things and a lot of sartorial disasters. But both are sweet, pink dresses which appeal to my love of all things feminine.
When I posted this couture dress, I noted that I’m no longer skinny enough to wear such dresses. I was a true 2 until age 38 or 39, weighing 118 pounds at 5’8” at 36 and 124 pounds 39.
In April, 2011, I fell on an escalator at the American Philosophical Association conference in San Diego and gained about 15 pounds. Even when no longer on crutches or walking with a cane, I never got back down to 124. I went up to a 4/6, though today’s sizing is bizarre and meaningless. I own three used Nicole Miller dresses and all fit identically thought they’re different sizes: 4, 6, and 8.
Yesterday, I re-posted the two dresses in a diptych to underscore the difference between my lifelong skinny body and my current slender/curvy but toned figure. After my May trip to New York and two hours with a trainer (complimentary when you join the Equinox), I got serious about working out again. My ankle is still injured and unfit to dance, but for two months I swam, walked and lifted weights. My bone density increased and my body fat decreased, though the trainer was surprised the numbers weren’t more different because he saw such a radical change in my body.
But there’s no getting around it: I am no longer a stick. The upside? Tits. I love my tits. Every single day I see them in the mirror, they make me happy. I know some women on FB don’t like it when I wax poetic on the wonders of having tits (I’m a full-fledged C). But if you were tiny (a small B) all your life and then one day you woke up and without surgery, you were a glorious C, you wouldn’t stop looking at and talking about your tits either.
The perks (pun intended) of the Victorian Chick tit augmentation method are twofold. One, it’s free. I didn’t spend a penny on my tits. Two, brand new tits are as perky as a college girl’s tits, unless of course you’re the unfortunate tit-baring daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore who inherited neither parents’ good looks. The skin is identical and there’s no sagging. I didn’t plan to tumble down an escalator. And it at once shocked and horrified me when on a lark I stepped on the scale a month later. I weighed 139! 139 at 5’8” might as well have been 159!
The downside is having some unwanted weight down below: I have an ass and I have hips. When I was a 2, or small 4, I still had an ass and hips but they were smaller. I still have a flat stomach but my torso is not as bony as it was. And I was a dancer. A little bony is good as long as you’re not gaunt and anorexic and still have a glow in your cheeks and thick, lustrous hair. Anorexia kills hair and skin, but if you’re super thin and still have great skin and hair, it’s pretty fabulous.
After May, 2011, I vowed never to step on a scale again as I could wear 80% or 85% of my clothes. I had to say goodbye to a few spectacular dresses and slacks but otherwise, my clothes fit. When the trainer weighs me (or the doctor I saw to yank out my Fallopian tubes in April–which absolutely reduced the pain of my period though the gynecologist swore that it would not), I stand on the scale with my back to the display.
But this last trip, I decided to step on the scale at Equinox just for the hell of it. I cannot bring myself to reveal the number on the Internet but it was fucking terrifying. We all know that muscle weighs more than fat, so I just shrugged it off, knowing that I’m in better shape than I’ve been in years with the strongest, most defined arms of my life. Also, any new clothes I buy are geared to my larger body and looked good enough for me to take them home.
As my readers know, one of my blogging pastimes is bashing Jezebel-types. My first Huffington Post blog took aim at Erin Gloria Ryan, a consistently irritating woman and editor at a site whose work is capable of inspiring misogyny in even the staunchest supporter of the Planned Parenthood and NARAL. My piece on Gloria Steinem and takedown whiny feminist blogger Lauren Hermanson were my most liked and shared blogs. Google Analytics ranked only the Rick Caruso ahead of those rants about feminism.
And just when I didn’t think it was possible to hate Naomi “Speaks to Her Vagina for Hours” Wolf more than I already did, she began posting nonstop nonsense about Gaza, which ignorant and/or anti-Semitic people post as “the real truth.” For those who haven’t read the New York Times review in which Toni Bentley, former New York City Ballet dancer and author of five books, eviscerates Wolf’s vagina book, it’s a treat sure to buck up the spirits on the glummest of days.
Wolf’s least dreadful writing was The Beauty Myth, but even that was a hardly groundbreaking, to say nothing of dubious, work of scholarship. As someone who attended Yale (and like Wolf a decade earlier, majored in English at a time some 20% of freshman were pukers or starvers or both), I have always been critical of the view that Madison Ave. is even partly responsible for eating disorders in America, much less that the problem is all or mostly their doing.
As a member of Al-Anon from 1994 to 1997 who regularly attended Overeaters Anonymous meetings a few years before that, I heard the stories of thousands of women from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds with eating disorders. I attended OA during psychoanalysis because I was so isolated and starving for the community from which I was removed at Yale due to my Christmas, 1990 breakdown.
I never felt entirely at home in OA because I neither starved, puked, nor binged, but I didn’t know until 1994 that you don’t need a drunk parent to qualify for Al-Anon and that drinking relative or friend is sufficient. My maternal grandfather, not Jewish of course, died around 1966 in a county mental hospital of alcoholic insanity; my brother is clean and sober over 20 years; and my father’s first wife was an alcoholic who drank her way to pancreatic cancer. More than enough to qualify for Al-Anon as alcoholism is a family disease. Children of alcoholics exhibit behaviors which affect their offspring in devastating ways, even if they do not themselves drink to excess.
Without exception, all the women with eating disorders came from at least difficult families. Most came from much worse. Not every woman had been physically or sexually abused, but most had been emotionally and mentally abused. Occasionally you will find an anorexic or bulimic who comes from what British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who wrote about the “good enough mother,” might have called “the good enough home.” But a teen girl from a basically healthy and functional home doesn’t look at a mannequin or cover of Vogue and decide to stick a spoon down her throat five times a day. That’s just not how it works.
(A side note: non-bulimics don’t appreciate how much work–and planning–goes into bulimia. Finding a private bathroom in a dorm or workplace to puke is no mean feat. Yale bulimics I knew had scoped out the bathrooms likely to be empty at particular times so that they could puke in peace, or at least without fear of discovery.)
This is not to say that media influence is meaningless. But a girl with a strong and healthy sense of self who values her mind and talents does not pathologically control food or her body. Sexual abuse is common among girls and women with eating disorders. I can’t count the number of times I heard at a meeting, “After I was molested (or raped), I got fat. I thought if I was fat, no one would touch or hurt me again. I thought being fat would make me disappear.”
Anorexia is also common among high-achieving girls who might otherwise drink or drug to excess, but who cannot manage straight As and three extracurriculars high or drunk. When you feel unsafe in a chaotic home, you try to control whatever you can. Sometimes it’s your school life or hobbies (music, dance, sports) and sometimes it’s your body. What else can a girl of 15 really control?
Any reputable psychiatrist knows that anorexia is harder to treat than bulimia because severe and prolonged deprivation of food requires a fairly high level of dissociation. Bulimics stuff their feelings but then binge and purge the dangerous, unsafe emotions. The wall between thought and feeling (which includes desires and instinct) within anorexics who are not also bulimic is sometimes impossible to penetrate, which is why more anorexics than bulimics kill themselves.
I knew a woman who lived next to my college best friend, a woman 18 years older I met when teaching body sculpting (“stretch and tone”) at Main Street Dance and Exercise in Santa Monica. Her neighbor was an isolated 40-something secretary and bookkeeper from an extremely unhappy Armenian Seventh Day Adventist family. In 1999, three years after my seven-year best friendship had ended, I got a call in Santa Barbara from Dru. After stints in seven or eight EDUs and years of therapy (but not OA, to which she couldn’t commit), Sue leapt to her death from the top floor of a Santa Monica parking structure.
In my middle college years, I was just above runway weight (about 115). I was too thin, but I ate three square meals a day and worked out like a maniac. I didn’t drink a lot of alcohol (booze is fattening but that’s not why I drank so little) and I always got stuck in a dorm on the 4th floor. Yale’s residential colleges didn’t have elevators and the stairs were not what I jokingly refer to as California pussy stairs in a 1960s apartment building. I think the cold weather also stimulated my metabolism because as an LA girl, I’d never experienced real winters. By Thanksgiving, we were in overcoats and mufflers, and in the fall of 1992 after 18 months off for analysis, I went from 126 in late August to 115 by mid-November.
So I was really skinny. And frankly, I loved it. As I wrote on the post with the pink dresses, anyone who has never been a size 2 or 4 can’t fully appreciate the rush, the joy, and the pure sense of power that comes from looking like a model or actress on red carpet. If you’re starving or puking your way to a 2, you don’t get the same sense of power or well-being because you’re deeply unhappy and usually, physically unwell or weak. But if, without taking extraordinary or unhealthy measures (puking, starving, or cocaine, for instance), you’re ready to don a gown at the Oscarst, it’s intoxicating.
Kathleen Rooney’s Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object is a rigorous, witty memoir by a DePaul professor English professor, poet, and publisher about posing nude for art institutes to pay her way through grad school. The title fairly popped off the shelf at Chaucer’s Books, a thriving independent bookstore in Santa Barbara which stayed afloat long after Borders and Barnes and Noble went under. Like me, Rooney is a tall (5’8″), thin brunette. Unlike me, she’s the successful author of multiple books with a steady gig at a great school. Her memoir was published by a university press with endnotes at the tender age of 32 or 33, so I hold her in the highest regard.
Rooney captures the rush of being skinny in a paragraph early in the book:
My skinny is what I have always been. My skinny is
how I always want to be. My skinny is me. But some-
times I distrust it. My breasts are too small; my nipples
too pink. My butt is too big for my frame, curved and
By making “skinny” a noun, Rooney underscores the link between a super thin body and personal identity. Thinness isn’t just an adjective describing a person; it becomes a thing in itself. No writer I’ve read on the subject has ever nailed what it is, particularly for an intellectually powerful woman, to be skinny. I never worried about my breasts being too small but I was obsessive about size of my ass. Gaining even a few pounds (even if my Ann Taylor 2L jeans fit, except the ones my housekeeper shrunk) distressed me. But I was neck-deep in psychoanalysis, battling frequent nightmares and crying a lot, all the while getting all As and A-s in demanding and writing-intensive Yale courses.
Still, my concerns about weight or jeans size never prevented me from eating great food in New York, LA and New Haven (yes, New Haven had good food then and is now the sixth highest Zagat rated city in New England). In the 1992-3 academic year, I spent weekends on the Upper East Side with a family friend and Wall Street lawyer who put in 75 hour weeks. He took me to city’s best places and I took full advantage of the opportunity.
It was 22 years ago that I lived part-time on 88th and 2nd in a duplex at the luxurious Leighton House (one of the first in what is now Yorkville and before that Germantown). In December of 2010, I became a part-time New Yorker. With every passing year, the mannequins get smaller. Courtesy of Polar Vortex, I did vastly more walking this last trip than I normally do in summertime (I hate heat and humidity and would gladly take 30 over 90). And J and I have been eating at Paseo Nuevo, the outdoor mall in Santa Barbara, at Eureka! Burger and California Pizza Kitchen near Bebe and Lululemon. I’ve noticed how unnatural, even inhuman, those mannequins have become.
And while I’m generally unsympathetic to feminists who write about body image, I’ve come to feel that the fashion industry is partly to blame for the alarming number of girls who claim to have gone on a diet by fifth or sixth grade. I don’t know enough about the business to know precisely whom to blame (the marketers, the designers, the advertisers, or the shareholders). But mannequins even at cheap stores like Forever 21 and H and M are shrinking. A size 2 exists in human nature. I know because I was one. While tiny, I still had some natural curves unlike an Ellen Pompeo or a Sandra Oh. Today’s mannequins range from 0 to 00, sometimes a 000. They aren’t even approximations of women in the state of nature.
Much, probably more than I care to know, has been written about Barbie dolls. As girly as I was, I didn’t play with dolls. Because my parents aren’t animal people, I didn’t have pets and compensated with stuffed animals. And I hate feminist theory and criticism–Women’s Studies gives me hives–but surely whole forests have been felled so that feminists can rail against the evils of Barbie.
But here’s the difference between Barbie’s unrealistic and unattainable body and the mannequins all over Manhattan: Barbie is a doll wearing clothes no girl, teen, or woman can buy; these mannequins are wearing clothes actual women are intended to buy.
I work out at the flagship Equinox on the Manhattan’s East Side (63rd Street). It’s in one of the most expensive Manhattan zip codes (10065), and the women who work out there, even if 55 years old, are in better shape than 95% of American women. These ladies between 25 and 55 are fierce plankers, Soul Cyclers, weight lifters, Pilates students, swimmers, and runners. I’ve never seen anything like it in LA, though I no longer work out in an elite LA gym.
Rarely if ever do I see a woman at SBAC (or Santa Barbara generally) whose body comes close in size or muscle tone to the 1-2% ladies at 63rd Street. Then again, Santa Barbara is hardly known for drivenness. Part of Santa Barbara’s raison d’être is its laid-back lifestyle, even compared to LA, which is considerably sleepier than New York.
The only place in America I feel like I’m full-figured is on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan and perhaps SoHo. Of course, getting cheap Chinese massages and grabbing a bite at Aroma Espresso Bar on 72nd between Columbus and Amsterdam near Steps on Broadway, or spending time near Lincoln Center where bun-heads abound, is guaranteed to make any woman feel like a moo cow. I never feel curvy or zaftig in LA. And outside some yoga studios, which dot the landscape like nail salons, Santa Barbara really isn’t that skinny a city. It has a reputation for gorgeous women, or at least gorgeous college girls, but I taught at UCSB for three years in the late 1990s. Girls not in the dance program or on sports teams had not only retained the Freshman 15; most were working on the Sophomore or Junior 15. The slovenly attire merely magnified the inattentiveness to fitness among many UCSB students of that era.
The only exceptionally fit Santa Barbara women I know of are triathletes and marathoners, not my circle because I’m not a mountain woman. Camping is incomprehensible to me and roughing it is staying at a nice youth hostel in D.C. or an Econolodge in San Diego. The only climbing I care to do is up stairs in an Upper East Side walkup. I hate hiking (it’s dusty and dirty) and I don’t know how to ride a bike. I didn’t learn as a child and I see no point to learning now, when as my FB mom never fails to note, I might break a hip. I have enough problems with my gimp ankle.
I realize that I’m still slender. Here are two flattering pictures in the best pair of jeans ever made (J Brand). Even Mom said took they take ten pounds off and worth the full price (200 dollars), though I paid 69 on consignment at Lola Boutique in Santa Barbara. Coming from Miss CVS Bux, who cut her hair at Supercuts until 72, this is saying a lot. I am happy to report that Mom has gone to a real salon for the last two years. Baby steps. I’m still dreaming of her first spa day but not holding out too much hope given the fiasco with the massage certificate for Mother’s Day which my father eventually used because she wouldn’t go even when it was paid for in advance.
I love my body; it’s a source or pleasure and pride. Of course I’d love it more a size smaller, or if it looked like it does in my most slimming pictures in all clothes. But I’m happy with my life in general and my body in particular.
Between 9/11 and 2008, my hermit phase, I didn’t go to restaurants or bars, nor did I buy wine at the supermarket. I drank nothing for nearly seven years and ate only pre-made food and cold cuts from Gelson’s or Lazy Acres (our pre-Whole Foods alternative not nearly as good in those days as it is now and quite limited in its to-go selections). I drank a lot of vegetable juice, swam for an hour five or six nights a week, took two or three long twilight beach walks a day, and stretched in my apartment at least 30 minutes a day.
I will always care about fashion and want to be slender and fit. I will always care about my skin, do fillers, and use good skin care. I make no apologies for regarding my appearance as an integral part of my personal identity and feeling about myself as I make my way through life. I’m not delusional enough to think that my face at 55 can look like my face at 42, when aestheticians with high standards express shock that I’m not 33. But I will do what I can. If “aging gracefully” means aging naturally, I want no part of it, though I don’t intend to be a cautionary tale like Meg Ryan. You can stay ten years ahead of the game from the neck up, not twenty.
From the neck down, there is no reason a woman with with no health issues and good genes who danced, swam, walked and did yoga throughout her life can’t have the body she did at 30. From the waist down, my mother’s body at 74 is better than it was at 55. She takes three to four ballet classes a week and eats small portions.
But I don’t have to be skinny anymore. Slender is enough.
Life is too short post-40 for one who doesn’t make a living off her appearance in whole or in part to forego wine, specialty cocktails, fine whiskey and great restaurants. To stay skinny (assuming you have the right genes) you need to eat frequently (four times a day, ideally) and I won’t cook, at least not routinely, anything but eggs and frozen dinners. My life revolves around restaurants and it’s my second biggest expense in life after rent. I don’t and won’t for the foreseeable future learn to cook the sorts of things I eat out, though occasionally I will sauté an onion with some garlic, boil some pasta and sprinkle some freshly grated cheese atop some expensive jar sauce.
As a skinny chick all your life, it takes some time for your eye to adjust to curves or extra weight. But it can be done. I know. I did it.