The Saturday Rumpus Essay: The Fat Girl’s Benediction

By

On the morning I’d had enough of my body, my Twitter feed was quaking over writer Colleen McCullough’s obituary. The article led with the facts that although the wildly accomplished writer was “plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless a woman of wit and warmth.” Who knew someone could be full-figured and charismatically brilliant? A triumph for the ages! My friends were livid. I was disgusted. And I was panicked. What if I careened off the road, right then, in those revolting stretchy pants that weren’t fooling a goddamn soul? I thought, “Let me die painfully, shamefully, without kindness or honor. Don’t let me die fat.”

As I roller-coastered through the backroads, I tried to remember the last time I was in a house of God. Not since my last visit to the United Methodist Church of Wilsonville, a suburb on the cusp of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a border town that wedges the orchards, vineyards, and artisanal pig pastures of the Portland city chefs who make them famous. Naomi Pomeroy, Beast. Andy Ricker, Pok Pok. Vitay Paley, Paley’s Place. I know them all like better girls idolize shoe designers and punk rock goddesses. I have tasted the crispy pork noodle pasta of Ned Ludd, and the thick-cut honey pie at Sweedeedee. I’ve stood in line for an hour in front of Screen Door for their tower of chicken and waffles, a dish that proves that the stairway to heaven is paved with maple syrup and cayenne pepper.

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It has been 1,011 days since my last confession.

The guilt at destroying myself—the self I had counted myself down into, deprived bites and sips for, was so good for—burrowed into guilt at my shallowness. Why couldn’t I accept my body for what it wanted to be? It’s what I harped on the rest of the world to do.

It was January, a time I remember being especially self-righteous in the years before. The Methodist church parking lot would fill with bandwagons, all the people who’d been swearing up and down over their New Year champagne. This is the end, you guys! This is the year. No more cake, no more pizza, no more one-piece swimsuits with the mandatory slimming wrap. Resolutions to last until the chalky Valentine’s chocolate and talcum powder hearts made the rounds.

In the two years since my last visit, nothing about the United Methodist Church of Wilsonville’s Tuesday night Weight Watchers meeting had changed. The same woman who had taken my name and debit card number for the first time four years ago still stood behind the multi-purpose room’s kitchen counter, which served as the Sunday cantina between early and late church services. The devoted and their restless children were rewarded with orange juice whisked from dyed powder and brittle sugar cookies, immortal in their plastic clamshell sarcophagi.

On these Tuesday nights, us Eaters Anonymous members shuffled in with our weekly food trackers and weight cards in two rows behind scales. We made whatever sacrifices we could: unzipped boots and kicked off sneakers, shaking off the jacket, running to the bathroom to purge any stray ounces from our bladders. The truth flashed onto the digital display, the evidence of a “good” week or a “bad” week. We stood back for each other’s turns, with the line corralled next to a table selling dinner plates with patterns depicting proper meat-to-starch-to-vegetable ratios and serving spoons to ensure you only scoop half a cup of brown rice (white rice, of course, being evil). Miniature scales to make sure you did not accidentally grab four ounces of almonds instead of three. Keep on track. Stay focused. One day at a time.

When it was my turn, I faced the woman who administered my last journey through this program. Over a year of meetings and forty pounds lost, and I didn’t catch her name. She was a brisk, efficient creature hovering somewhere between age thirty and sixty, with a local morning news senior correspondent haircut and a finesse for the old school PTA cash box and check verification. She’s the one who knows how many points a bagel is with or without cream cheese, and what difference raisins make in the equation.

I prayed that she did not have a way with faces as I tried to zero-out my expression like all those almond-checking scales. Dead eyes, I commanded myself.

“Welcome back, Tabitha!”

The welcome is as even as she is, bleached of judgment. It’s the same welcome she says to every woman, every week, whether it’s their thirtieth time in a row weighing in or they’ve been MIA since before Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes broke up. Even though she remembers, though it’s her job to remember, her recollection socks me in the jaw. I can’t start over fresh. Though she says nor insinuates nothing more, I feel like I can step out of this strange, bloated body and see myself from her perch. The girl who Did It, the one who followed all the steps and tracked every bite, who sat in the second row of meetings and shared new discoveries with the group, like the fact that the Whole Foods deli will make you just half a turkey sandwich. What had happened to me? I was the star student, the sober cheerleader, the changed man, vanished for an age and now stumbling in reeking of schnapps and pussy, blood dried under my fingernails and vomit caked on my sleeves, begging for another chance.

At least he can take a bath. My sins were just as visible, but purged at the rate of rivers carving canyons. I wore the bottle of wine I drank with a friend the night I realized that I’d have to quit my job, the one that was supposed to be a dream but was a thinly veiled disaster. I carried the five-course birthday dinner that the chefs at The Ritz-Carlton designed for me and my husband, the first meal we shared after nearly four months of living apart. I slumped with the ice cream that capped off a walk from the room I rented while I waited for my husband to transfer back to our home state, a corner of someone else’s house where I felt chronically awkward. My body stretched with my last year’s story, of moving from Portland to the unfamiliar city of Tucson and never finding my footing and jumping at a shot to come home even if it meant coming alone, and that opportunity I banked my life on turning into a gift-wrapped catastrophe, all shrouded in the unyielding uncertainty of when my husband would get back to Oregon and we could live in our house again with lives that were not suspended all across the American West.

The Weight Watchers woman beckoned me onto the scale. I had a number in my head, high and far beyond my last check-in, back in Tucson where I was tipping the edge of my “I can live with this” range. You’ve gained weight, I reminded myself. You know that. You’re doing the right thing. It gets better.

She wrote three digits on the card. My molars chomped down on my inner cheek like it was peach flesh. I gained it back. Every last pound I spent a year exorcising from my body had found its way home. From Tucson to Portland, I gained forty pounds.

“Have a good week,” she wished me. Her benediction.

I sat in the back of the multi-purpose room, which reminded me of the adult Bible study class at my childhood Lutheran church. The accordion room divider was wedged into the wall, ready to snap back and conceal whatever grownups learned while we were off coloring pictures of Lazarus and reciting what we were thankful for. The area was still set up like a classroom, with tables facing the Weight Watchers corporate-issue easel board. DO YOUR PORTIONS SIZE UP?

Women in the first rows chattered about Greek yogurt and Fiber One bars. I leaned back in my chair, arms and legs crossed, a jaded caricature missing its cigarette. I wrapped my winter peacoat around myself. I felt strange from every angle, whether sitting or standing or lying on my back or curled up in the fetal position—whatever the moment I was a beat behind, removed. Wondering how awful I looked from this viewpoint, what disastrous angle I might not know about that someone else could see. I kept trying to put areas of my body in quarantine. My arms, most recently, were deemed a disaster zone. I couldn’t wear anything without a cardigan or wrap—fashion crime scene tape. They joined my stomach and boobs and thighs and calves, even my chin. Do not photograph, do not flaunt. Disappear.

And as much as I hated my body, I hated my perception of it almost as much. I was a body positive person. I checked the “feminist” box with a big Sharpie stroke. I cheered any tiny advancement in our culture that might lead to a more inclusive representation of women, whether it was Jordan Tesfay’s groundbreaking modeling contract or Melissa McCarthy’s role in the new Ghostbusters cast. These triumphs of representation aren’t small. It is overwhelming to think that only a decade ago, I couldn’t go to school dances because no one carried a dress in my size. When I see ModCloth and Target loudly launching stylish plus-size lines, it is not a small thing. I remember standing behind the racks at Mariposa, while my tiny best friend and her counterparts argued satin versus chiffon, wondering why they couldn’t make something beautiful just a tiny bit bigger. These girls all had a shot at becoming women; I was just a big Thing, watching.

No one should feel this way about who they are. It’s sick to feel this way about who you are. I imagined a daughter looking up to my heartbreak, the crumpled “unacceptable” clothes balled into the back of my closet, catching me mutter for the hundredth time, you are the most disgusting fat fuck. I am every bit the misogynistic Neanderthal I label “Enemy.”

It’s so much easier to cheer self-love when you have it.

The last version of me would have been up there in the front rows of this EatAnon class, beaming with the weigh-in afterglow, itching to share that week’s victory. “I swapped out pita chips for cucumber slices with hummus!” I know all the tricks, the asking-for-a-box-before-the-waiter-even-brings-your-plate-to-the-table, the dip-your-fork-in-salad-dressing-before-taking-a-bite. I’ve been here before.

And that’s what was killing me. The repeat. This was my third time embarking on a significant weight loss. The first was in high school, when I hit the same weight that the church kitchen woman just logged into my tracker. The pounds had crept on slowly through adolescence after I traded my rollerblades and bike for South Park marathons and mall crawls. I’d come home from school and mix up homemade ranch dip, then sit down with chips and the phone. In the program I learned how quickly cheese nibbles and chicken nuggets added up, and how dramatically I changed when I cut them out. I lost forty pounds before my second semester and got a senior portrait re-do. The second photo isn’t just of a slimmer girl. It’s of a girl who’s smiling without hesitation, whose eyes aren’t desperate to catch someone noticing her ugliness before she can fix it. She effuses a joy that the first girl did not know.

I kept that old self off for five years—all through college with the grilled cheese sandwiches and pizza so greasy that each pepperoni was a miniature Jacuzzi of fat, as much as I could eat just a meal card swipe away. I kept it off while I worked at the mall, when the only route to nourishment was through the food court. I maintained through every temptation until, a month before my wedding, I lost my job. I was 23 and it was 2008. I was young and inexperienced in a time when even the most seasoned and qualified people were hemorrhaging from payrolls to gnash it out, Hunger Games-style, for entry-level positions. In the nine months I spent in our apartment trolling Craigslist and babysitting my silent phone, my reflection shifted. Unable to afford trips to the salon, my hair splintered and faded. I went into a cheap stop-and-chop and asked for a bob, then drove straight to the drugstore and brought the blackest dye they dared to pack in a box, and glopped it all over my head like a day-glo bandaid. My smile dissolved into a frightened, half-toothed grimace, as if I was scared that the camera would punch me in the throat.

I absorbed. The kitchen was where I felt worthy, with my existence bringing nothing to the house but the dole. I was a lemon spouse. Yep, everything looked good on the test drive, right up until we signed the papers. Look, I can still help, I said with gouda, with scratch pie crust, with crispy chicken thighs, with enchilada bakes. By the time I found another job, nothing in my closet fit.

I vowed, after that year of cleaving away calories and inching myself back to the version I’d lost, never again. I would not be weak and forget how hard I worked to lose the same weight for the second time. I wasn’t small—I’m not a small girl, even at my lowest weight—but I had reached comfortable and proud and happy again. I wore dresses and mugged for pictures and didn’t force people to delete them. I wasn’t a beat behind my life, worried about the extent of how horrible I looked, questioning if I still represented a human woman. Shame was no longer a place I could drown in.

At the time, I thought that I had to be good instead of bad. Several complicated years later, I want to think that I grew into a version of myself that knows that my size is not a binary, that the relationship between my body and my food and my heart and my stress and my heartbreak and my intelligence and my sanity cannot be divided into sin and prudence. I want to evolve and I want to be kind and I want to forgive. But wanting is not having, and wanting is not being.

A week from now, I will return to the United Methodist Church of Wilsonville. The woman in the kitchen will take my book and I will stand on the scale.

“You’re down 3.6,” she will say. “Good job!”

It is better than sex.

Already I will feel superior to the week-before self, that pathetic cow who made chicken pot pie with parmesan biscuit topping, like she was above this. Like she could keep cheating and sinning and no one would ever know, as if comfort was an excuse for transgression. My triumphs will not come over adversity to my surplus of self. I’ll be seen correctly; I’ll die right.

“Have a good week.”

“You too,” I say. And also with you.

***

Image credits: featured image, images 3, 4, and 5Images 2 and 6 provided by author.


Tabitha Blankenbiller’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Electric Literature, Catapult, The Establishment, Hobart, Brevity, and other such places. Her essay collection Eats of Eden is upcoming from Alternating Current Press in March 2018. She Tweets about writing, gaudy patterned dresses and overdressed crepes @tabithablanken, and more of her work can be found at tabithablankenbiller.com. More from this author →