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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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You’re Right, I Didn’t Eat That

“The second best thing about fifth grade,” writes Alana Massey, “is that nearly without exception, everyone in it is a hybrid monster sitting precariously on the border between childhood and adolescence which results in them doing uncomfortable things like still playing with Barbie but making her have multiple abortions.” You see why I’m eager to share her work here, oui? Funny as her blog, Oh It’s Just Awful, may be, it’s her keen, pensive eye on human behavior that draws readers in. A graduate of New York University and Yale Divinity School, Alana has seen her work published at The Baffler, Religion Dispatches, Nerve, Jezebel, xoJane, Forbes, and more. Follow her on Twitter here.

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I’d only dropped a couple of sizes but I was in an entirely new country.

 

There are a number of euphemisms for female thinness that do not require a man to make the impolite admission of his exclusive attraction to women with very little body fat. Though “active” and “full of energy” make respectable showings, they are a distance second and third from “a woman who takes care of herself.” It seems a benign enough request, but one quickly learns that this man is not especially concerned that she has regularly scheduled self-care sessions like time with friends or spa days with a good book. He isn’t asking that her household finances be in order and that she be self-actualized. He is asking her to be thin. When he says “herself,” he means “her body.”

I am not especially bothered by men who desire thin women. They are just as susceptible to messages that these are the women that they should find most attractive as women are to messages that they should look like them. The more troubling kind of man has a caveat about a woman’s thinness. She must not be “obsessed” or “overly concerned” with it. Or at least not visibly so. She mustn’t always order salads or freak out when she doesn’t make it to the gym. Watching her eat a cheeseburger—or better yet, a steak—even oddly enthralls him. (I’m sure there’s a Freudian explanation about the appeal of watching big things go into small ones for that but I haven’t found it yet.) An Instagram trend of thin women posing with calorie-dense foods that functions partly to appeal to this desire has even made headlines recently as the “You Did Not Eat That” account has gained popularity. But the impulse to pretend is understandable. For a thin woman to betray the reality of her diet and regimen for staying that way would spoil the fantasy of a woman who is preternaturally inclined to her size rather than personally preoccupied by it.

Men seeking this woman are not seeking a carefree attitude as much as they are seeking a biological anomaly. For the majority of women, being thin is something with which she must be overly concerned in order to achieve and maintain it. Being effortlessly thin is no more achievable through a charmingly carefree attitude than becoming green-eyed or double-jointed. And while naturally thin women exist, of course, their numbers cannot keep pace with the number of men that desire them. And so we must be overly concerned as quietly as possible.

At a size 0 and a low BMI, I am frequently told by men, “I can tell you take good care of yourself.” This was not something I heard much for most of my adult-sized life when I was a few sizes larger. I was average and proportional. I worked out regularly and ate reasonably well. But I was never thin. And then in my mid-20s I had the good fortune to react to a breakup not with overeating or bad rebound sex but with exercise. Lots of it. And homemade juice. Lots of that too. Mostly that, really. Bones and sinew emerged. I got a thigh gap, that bizarre and coveted beauty feature defined by absence. The number on the scale dropped, then dropped more.

And though I never had trouble getting a respectable amount of romantic attention, at a size 0 it rushed in at such a volume and with such enthusiasm that it was difficult not to be taken aback. I always thought it was a melodramatic cliché when thin women said that the more they disappeared, the more visible they became, but it was now undeniable. Male acquaintances suddenly wanted to spend more alone time together. Compliments during sexual encounters that were once full of the word “beautiful” became dominated by mesmerized declarations about me being so “little” and “tiny.” Men suddenly felt comfortable telling mean-spirited jokes about overweight women and lamenting how poorly other women took care of themselves. I’d only dropped a couple of sizes but I was in an entirely new country.

Covert concern about my body is easy to maintain in the dating phase of relationships. Men will touch a particularly small or toned part of me and remark, “Wow, you must work out.” Upon confirmation that I do, the most frequent reply is, “So what do you do, yoga?” It is generally safe to assume that such men have never practiced yoga. Yoga, in the minds of many straight men, is a placeholder for light but effective exercise done primarily by women. It is a sanitary practice, a form of exercise uncontaminated by sweat or gender-neutral footwear. Something that pretty girls do three times a week in flattering pants. But while the benefits of yoga are tremendous, it cannot turn overweight or average bodies into tiny ones. Real yoga—as opposed to cardio routines that borrow heavily from it—cannot create the calorie deficits required to be thin thin. Real thinness requires something much more brutal. 

For naturally average or heavy women, maintaining a thin physique means making a constant and careful calibration of physical activity and consumption. Too much caloric intake that isn’t rigorously accounted for with exercise produces undesirable weight gain. Too large a calorie deficit backfires with a slowed metabolism. Strength training causes more calories to burn while at rest but too much produces a muscled look, literally hard evidence that this is not the thinness of a carefree woman. It is not just a matter of what you eat and burn but also of making sure you’ve planned sufficient time for both, carefully anticipating social engagements, unforeseen late nights at the office, and illness. It is deeply disordered but not quite diseased and because the aesthetic is desirable when it only borders on worrying, it is presumed the result of good care.

“What do you do?” women will often ask, perhaps in the hope that initiation into the secret society is by invitation from existing members. I have found that three syllables followed by an exclamation point is the most optimal response to deflect attention from the reality of your regimen. Lean protein! Barre method! Kale salads! Neurosis! Even if I were to neutrally report what I must really do, the overt concern would be evident by the sheer number of precautions and actions that must be taken on a daily basis. “Diet and exercise” can be used as deceptive shorthand because it doesn’t actually mean anything at all.

“Can’t you just skip the gym this once?” a man asked as he tugged at my forearm from the bed on a Saturday morning and remarked on the merits of brunch. The night before, he had remarked on the merits of the prominent female clavicle. I smiled and pulled away, saying I signed up for a class that required 90 minutes advanced notice for cancellation. Maybe next weekend? I did not say that I could not because I skipped the gym Thursday to console a friend. I did not say that I had already splurged on grapefruit juice instead of my usual seltzer the night before. I did not say that I would double my cardio all week in anticipation of not being able to ask what my food was cooked in or to have egg whites in front of him at brunch the following week. I wouldn’t want to bore him with the details of scheduled spontaneity.

“Come on, you don’t need to get any skinnier!” another man declared after I declined food during a camping trip where everything seemed to come either on a potato bun or drenched in mayonnaise. I didn’t mention that four days away from the gym was already dangerously close to compromising my progress. I didn’t scream, “Vacation is where skinny goes to die!” or any other troubling quote I had read on the many Tumblr accounts blurring the line between motivation and beratement. He knew that I had not always been this thin yet treated my getting that way as a single event that could not be undone, like getting past the age of 25 or earning a Bachelor’s degree. I wanted to tell him that getting thin was not terribly difficult, but that staying that way is another thing entirely. I wanted to say that as a complex living organism, the human body is on for twenty-four hours a day, ready to betray you at an astonishing speed for minor transgressions if you do not respect its hypersensitivity to what goes in and out of it. But that would sound so obsessed.

As relationships advance, romantic partners become visibly disappointed and even annoyed that maintaining thinness is not a matter of a quick jog and 100 crunches. When he goes to find a refrigerator staple like butter, I can claim I simply ran out the first time but I must eventually admit that I don’t keep it in my home. My getting up to run eight miles the morning after sleeping together is admirable in the beginning but becomes frustrating when it means he almost always wakes up alone. I fool no one when I claim that really, this salad made of translucent iceberg lettuce is my favorite menu option at the diner. Meals are never skipped but they are rarely thoroughly enjoyed either. Despite taking care never to mention the cycle of calculating, scheduling, and calibrating, there is a mountain of damning physical evidence.

The revelations are slow but they come. A calorie tracking mobile app has better real estate on my smartphone than my calendar. The sudden realization that I’ve never been “that hungry” when we go out. The suspicious number of claims I make about simply not liking universally popular foods. I’ll let the cable bill wait but my gym membership is on time, every time. But these symptoms do not aggregate into the appearance of a disease but rather, into a certain temperament. It makes them exclaim, “Relax!” rather than, “Get help.” The level of control the symptoms reveal hovers close to illness but doesn’t cross far enough over the line so as to become sad, merely unattractive. And it is easier to walk away from someone who is unattractive than someone who is sad.

Once on a first date, a man remarked on the dishonesty of online dating profile pictures and said, “You know this girl showed up and I thought, ‘What did you do, eat the girl in the pictures?’” He was not the first to make such a remark but I was so ambivalent on the possibility of seeing him again and it wasn’t even a good fat joke that I said, “I don’t like that joke. I used to be fat.” “Fat” was an exaggeration but “fatter” wouldn’t have put me in evident solidarity with this duplicitous overweight woman. Eyes that had been looking at me affectionately all evening became fearful and he asked, “Do you think you’ll ever gain it back?” Flattering as it can be to know that a man has already considered our long future together all the way into “ever,” I was mostly appalled at the transparency of the question. I considered the life expectancy of healthy women and the statistical probability of me having children and nodded my head. “Yeah,” I said, refusing to add, “But not anytime soon, I’m totally and completely obsessed with staying thin now that I know that the world is handed to me on a silver platter.”

It is the moments when they realize that thinness is so impermanent, a constant struggle against a metabolism and genetic composition that you’ve breathed sinister life into that they are disappointed. Realizing that thinness could easily be sabotaged by illness, injury, or age seems a strange revelation to have for people who also occupy human bodies but it seems a revelation nonetheless. So what I’ve been more disturbed to realize is that it is not the habits themselves that are unattractive, but their clear necessity. Watching me order kale all the time isn’t the hard part, it is realizing every time I do that the alternative could be disastrous. And so they seek a more carefree woman who possesses either enviable genetics or professional expertise at disguising her weight-related diligence. Someone who does not force them to confront the reality that her body can and will change.

And so I have become increasingly up-front that for me, it takes an enormous effort to stay small. That it takes up my time and energy and by extension, might end up taking some of theirs as well if we are together. I assure them that I want to stay that way more than I want anything else so not to worry too much about me “letting myself go.” Romantic relationships are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rewards of thinness. But I let them know that when it comes to me being thin and carefree about it, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. But that they’re more than welcome to mine.

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Edit: This is the first in a series on bodies and relationships. For more entries, click here.

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