This week, the latest issue of Gulf Coast has a new Carmen Maria Machado short story about body acceptance—or, rather, the opposite. In “Eight Bites,” a woman decides to undergo gastric bypass surgery after her three formerly fat sisters have it done, drop the pounds, and claim ultimate happiness and freedom as a result. Using her signature eerie fabulism, Machado (our Rumpus Book Club author for September!) tells a story of what happens when we force our bodies into a preconceived notion of physical perfection, when we try to bury our former, flawed selves and discover that they’re not yet ready to die.
I was not the first in my family to go through with it. My three sisters had gotten the procedure over the years, though they didn’t say anything before showing up for a visit. Seeing them suddenly svelte after years of watching them grow organically, as I have, was like a palm to the nose; more painful than you’d expect.
One of the many remarkable aspects of this story is the way that Machado renders the influence family can have on self-perception. The relationships between the four sisters who fall one by one to bariatric surgery’s promise of happiness (“when it’s over, you’re going to be the happiest woman alive,” the doctor says), their mother who famously only ate eight bites of any meal and stayed thin her whole life, the narrator’s grown daughter who heartbreakingly asks her mother, “Do you hate my body, Mom?” All these and more combine to reveal the toxic cycle of unhealthy body image among the women of one family, as each woman watches the others hate, denigrate, and harm their bodies that look so much like her own.
“I feel so good,” they all said. Whenever I talk to them, that was what always came out of their mouths, or really, it was a mouth, a single mouth that once ate and now just says, “I feel really, really good.”
As “Eight Bites” builds, past the daughter’s heated protests, through the surgery and recovery, forward into the narrator’s new life of happiness and good feels and wearing sundresses bought off of mannequins, the story itself begins to feel empty and hard, mirroring the changes in the narrator’s body. She cooks chicken breast, cuts it into cubes, eats eight bites, and tosses the rest in the trash, followed by a spritz of window cleaner to prevent herself from trying to retrieve it. She hangs up on her daughter and unplugs the phone. She accepts compliments on her appearance and smiles with all her teeth. She is finally a new woman. Or is she?
I am transformed but not yet, exactly. The transformation has begun—this pain, this excruciating pain, it is part of the process—and will not end until—well, I suppose I don’t know when. Will I ever be done, transformed in the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?
Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, comes out from Graywolf Press this fall and is the Rumpus Book Club selection for September. Join the Rumpus Book Club before August 20 to receive an advance copy of Her Body and Other Parties and to participate in an exclusive online discussion with Machado at the end of the month.
Logo art by Max Winter.