“Drop the Damn Fork!”–Jean Nidetch (Weight Watchers Founder)
Can we fast forward here, to the part where I acknowledge that I gained ten pounds in the summer of 2010 as we closed shop on our lives in Minnesota and stuffed every last ceramic vase and fleece vest into the basement?
Continue now with the flowing frames of the Weight Gain Narrative, as we watch my sturdy frame pack on another twenty pounds during the year in Turkey, a time when socializing was often attended by letdown, when I lived in a region where families consume an average of four loaves of bread a night at dinner, when my family took trips to France and Italy and all their butters, when a beautiful communion took place every evening between my husband and myself in the tiles-laid-over-ornately-carved-stone kitchen, and that communion sounded like the thick whisper of beer cans opening and staccato echo of wine corks popping.
Ah, and here we are, having flitted through that nostalgic sepia-toned rewind, in the Now. Doing the math in an accurate fashion that is completely un-English-major-like, we can add up that I gained 30 pounds in the last year, and while some of you might have a soft internal self that feels compelled to emit a sympathetic (empathetic?) “Oooh, that’s rough,” or while you might have a harder-edged self that draws upon the power of an eternally slim waist, who thinks “Oooh, there’s this little thing I believe in called Eat Less and Move More, so stop nattering on in the hopes of eliciting my sympathetic (hardly empathetic) reaction,”
the truth is that it doesn’t matter either way, as this isn’t your story, nor can you hit the edit button and revise the text (unless you’re clever enough to hack my low-security password and bust into this post, owning it by typing, with a vaguely sociopathic vehemence, “NEENER-NEENER-NEENER”); it’s mine, and my earliest memories are tinged with feeling ugly and fat and possessed with a desire to be desired.
I get it from my mom, a woman who can’t, even at age 76, view a photo of herself without clutching into a physical flinch and emitting a vehement, “Yuck.”
You might connect the dots, then, that drawing a boundary around my story means drawing a thick, black, angry line around my weight gain, too. It’s mine alone.
Yea, Mom, you’re off the hook. Your damage is your own. I’m the one who drank the 500 beers and spread the butter on the baguette, not you. Sure, you might have filled my childhood fridge with Mountain Dew, the freezer with chocolate chip ice cream and frozen Thin Mints, and eaten six out of twelve donuts out of the box on the drive home from the bakery, later ascribing those binges to your unhappy marriage,
but since I don’t buy that the unhappiness in your marriage was thrust upon you or that my father was the sole architect of your misery,
I don’t think I can blame you for my weight gain.
We make our own choices, and it seems disingenuous to trace the psychology back to a place so distant that it diminishes personal responsibility.
Since returning home from the glorious, textured year in Turkey that saw me both running my hands along tufa stone walls and sucking down tall cans of beer named after an ancient Greek city, I have made a new choice, one that feels familiar.
I have headed back to Weight Watchers, that welcoming repository of my gut after each childbirth and eager recipient of my angst before class reunions.
And the Weight Watchers? It kind of cracks me up (picture, if you can bear it, my added girth shaking like a bowl full of jelly!). Certainly, WW has rightly earned credibility as one of the more realistic and successful weight loss gigs to tap into the searing pain felt by self-conscious Americans who feel their knees weaken at the sight of platters of pork loin and banana bread. However, the organization is not exactly honest about its interest in “seeing less of me,” as Mrs. Watchers doesn’t genuinely care about alleviating low-but-steady hum of self loathing that plagues every moment of every Pork Loin Banana Bread Lover’s every day, nor does she really care to start up a conversation that opens with, “So. Each time you take a bite of food, it’s simultaneously a fleeting affirmation of ‘I can too eat whatever I want because I am alive and joyous!’ and an act of disappointment wherein you set yourself up to feel awash with regret a month later when you wish for a bottle of lube as you try to tug in to your swimsuit. Let’s take a minute to decipher that complexity, shall we?”
Rather, Mrs. Watchers, in the name of cutting-edge nutritional science, mixes up her program every year or two, a revamping that–clever gel!–asks members not only to pay the standard joining fee and the weekly fee and the optional e-tools fee (why is the WW catch phrase not “Pay More to Eat Less“?); it also requires members to buy a special calculator that mathmetizes the confluence of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fiber in every food, thus allowing them to track their daily Points Plus intake. What’s more, Mrs. Watchers cannily sets the required calculator on top of “starter packs” of books that contain the Points Plus value for many common foods, food tracking journals, dining out guides, measuring cups, and food scales. To get to this treasure trove of potential purchases, however, the Feeling Hefties But Wanting to Be Slims must first work their way past several tables laden with boxes of low Points Plus processed foods: breakfast shakes; granola bars; night time treats. By the time the Hopeful Hefty has finished waiting in line for her weekly weigh-in, she’s spent upwards of ten minutes standing next to food and guide books,
and because those in the weigh-in line are as nervous as Marcus Bachmann in an interview with Dan Savage and as hungry as Kim Kardashian the week before her wedding (there’s no more restricted day of eating than weigh-in day!), Mrs. Watchers’ products virtually jump into the Hopeful Hefty’s arms. Thus, by the time she reaches the weigh-in table, HH at WW has her cheque book out, ready to purchase the promise of greater weight loss.
…speaking of a tangled bit of psychology, Mrs. Watchers, you expert marketer, you.
Of course, even when we’re hungry and hopeful and nervous all at once, we’re still in charge of our own choices, which is why I don’t purchase any of the pre-packaged goodies littering my path to the scale. Already fully aware of the irony inherent in paying money to eat less, I draw the line at the cost of membership, an outlay of money that redeems itself with the people watching it affords. Taking stock of the group leader’s carefully-crafted outfits each week is worth at least a dollar of my weekly fee. To find an outfit that packages White Middle American Mom Whose Fatal Weakness is Jelly Beans at Easter as Capable, Knowledgeable, Thin, and Approachable is a tricky wardrobe challenge, but Group Leader brings it home each week with her above-the-knee belted denim skirt, tucked-in white t-shirt, and casual strappy sandal. I do look forward to her winter look which–thinner-fingers crossed–will feature a holiday sweater bedecked with at least one carrot-nosed snowman holding a broom. [sidenote: carrots, and by extension carrot noses, are zero points under the new Points Plus program!]
Then there’s the chatty children’s librarian who brings me at least another dollar’s worth of enjoyment each week. A vocal member of the group, she weighs in enthusiastically and repeatedly after the initial weigh-in, avowing that if Mrs. Watchers got her to eat salad, anything is possible (*insert knowing group chortle here*). Recently, she proposed that the group start donating a dime for every pound lost and that the resultant money go to a food shelf so that our eating less means hungry people can eat more. Rather than veer off into a crotchety tangent here about do-gooderism that requires an audience as motivation, I will simply report Children’s Librarian has also proposed that, once the group has raised its monetary goal for the food shelf, Group Leader will be forced to do a hula dance for the entire group during a meeting. Because that’s just fun! And hilarious! And it makes everyone want to shed those pounds and cough up those dimes! I mean, really: A hula! Done by Group Leader! During a meeting! We’ll burn off 2 Points Plus through laughter alone! The whole thing makes me want to go looking for hungry people in downtown Duluth and tell them that a formerly-overweight mom of three is going to tie a grass skirt on top of her above-the-knee denim and wave her arms in the air in an act of jokey public humiliation on their behalf, and if this formerly-overweight mom of three had said, “No, I’m not game for this idea, as it embodies everything I hate about ‘Go, Team!’ thinking,” then they wouldn’t be eating corn chowder at the soup kitchen that night. I’ll round out my confab with The Hungries by suggesting that maybe they should begin their meal with a prayer of thanks to “all the world’s children’s librarians and awkwardly-costumed mothers of three who thrive off manufactured public embarrassment in the name of feeling like they are good people.” Sure, that’s a mouthful of a prayer salutation, yet it’s the least The Hungries can do to indicate their gratitude at having their mouths full.
All this, and I’ve only recounted two dollars of people-watching fun out of my ten-dollar weekly fee. Trust me, the married couple who are working together in bickering fashion to lose weight give me a good 50 cents worth of enjoyment, and I get a solid 72 cents of eyebrow raising from the young professional who keeps her smart phone out and active the entire meeting, just so she can look up the answer to every question (“Group Leader? Group Leader? I looked it up: the Skinny Cow Mint Truffle Bars have 3 Points Plus each”) and thereby prove that in every congregation of humanity, there’s an overachieving front-of-the-classroom type who feels validated by waving her hand wildly in the air.
The other $6.78 of my weekly fee is redeemed by cutting sideways glances at New Guy In Jeans who sits with his arms crossed, looking stunned; by Former Neighbor Who Used to Have a Boyfriend Named George and Whose Flower Boxes Are Painted Exactly The WRONG Shade of Pink for Her Brown House; by NASCAR Fan Lady Who Should Stop Wearing Those Shirts; by Gorgeous Grandma with a Gluten Allergy; by Tired Mom with Rammy Toddler; by The Coupon Maven; by Bewildered Menopausal Who Claws Through Her Purse Looking for Stuff—
and, of course, by the moment when Group Leader dons a multi-pocketed apron so that she can plunge her hand in and pull out the various weekly awards–stickers! keychains!–coming to those who have lost 5 pounds, 5% of their body weight, 10% of their body weight, or reached the elusive “goal weight.” I get at least 33 cents of pleasure from watching her struggle with the apron’s ties, often ultimately deciding it’s easier just to hold the apron rather than wear it. Shucks if the best laid plans of a good gimmick don’t too often go awry. The entire apron-sticker-aganza portion of the meeting makes me wish I’d tried harder the first time through in kindergarten so that I didn’t have to repeat it at this advanced age.
So there are stickers and applause, and then Group Leader stumbles verbally through the text she’s reading off the charts at the front of the room, finally managing to get out “Successful people do what unsuccessful people don’t dare” on the third try, and then we all mill our way out of the church basement where we’ve just worshiped at the scale as our personal Jesus and bought Toasted Coconut Dream Mini-Bars for our last suppers,
and we pray next week’s weigh-in will deliver Good News.
Each week, as all the NASCAR fans and bickering couples and bewildered menopausals strap on their seatbelts and drive away, I tuck my hair back in to my running hat, stuffing my weigh-in papers into its crown, and consider the bizarre process of group-supported weight loss. Mrs. Watchers is happy to take my money, and I’m happy to give Mrs. Watchers my money because some part of my psychology is willing to commit to self-improvement if it has a cost. I also respond to the aspect of public accountability; it’s one thing to weigh myself and groan, but it’s quite another to have someone else do the weighing and tell me “good job” on those weeks when I have eaten celery instead of biscotti.
The whole weight issue is a fragile one; it’s not something I can seem to put to rest for once and all, what with my dominant personality trait being a tendency towards excess. Even more, weight is fraught with insecurity and power and approval and disappointment and vulnerability and confidence. The point I’ve ultimately come to–aside from my willingness to pay Mrs. Watchers and be bemused by my cohort–is that there are multiple ways to be “fit” in life,
and because I run more than an hour every day
and because I laugh out loud when I read books
and because I want nothing more than to rub the back of my husband’s neck and ask him what he has seen in the world
and because I stood in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and stared at the work of Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, Pollock, Calder and gasped, “I love the part of life when I don’t have words”
and because my children hold my hand as we walk from the bus stop to the house
and because I bake cookies that make Mr. Tollhouse cry “uncle”
and because I don’t mind naming the elephant in the room when I see him lounging there in his smoking jacket
and because I do a quiet cheer when I take the compost out and see that the strawberries and asparagus are holding their own against the bindweed
and because my students write to me and say, “I love this class so much! Would you mind answering a few of my follow-up questions about this week’s story; I’ve reread it four times now, just for pleasure, and I don’t know how I should interpret the closing lines. What do you think? Do you think Panna is going to go back to India and stay with her husband? Or do you think her taste of the U.S. has changed her so much she can never go back?”
and because I occasionally “bingo” when playing Scrabble
and because I have a stable of neighbors I can rely on for a cup of sugar, amusement for my children, advice on moisturizers, new music, stimulating conversation, and cocktail hour
and because the whites of my fingernails are constantly stained with dirt thanks to my penchant for prettying up the earth with flowers
and because I like to lie on my back on the pebble beaches next to Lake Superior and feel the warmth from the rocks soak into my shoulder blades
I guess, at the end of the weigh-in, the number written on my weight tracker
doesn’t actually reflect much at all.