I recently finished Landwhale by Jes Baker, one in a string of several body positivity memoirs I’ve read partly as research… and, if I’m being honest, partly as my own therapy. The first part is working great, thanks for asking: lots of excellent research for my book, Me and the Mirror Girl, the story of seventeen year old Lily wrestling with body issues of her own that lead her down a path into anorexia. Well, that’s part of the story, anyway. But truth be told, I don’t have to dig very deep to understand Lily; that is to say, to access the part of myself that hates her body. I don’t remember ever feeling otherwise. I do have to dig deep to write her, though, because it requires an honesty that I’d prefer, most days, to keep buried under those layers of blubber I’m so fond of.
But that’s me. Let’s talk about Jes. In her memoir I recognize the same process, the ripping through the tough stuff to determine where it comes from and how to excise it. Jes is a great deal further on her journey than I am– than I will ever be, honestly. While I applaud her honesty and her wit, her sheer intelligence about the way we are controlled by diet culture, I honestly can’t fathom a day when I can just let all of that go. Jes Baker and some other writers I’ve read, Lindy West, for example, or the incredible Roxane Gay), do a wonderful and wonderfully entertaining job of celebrating their bodies and just basically not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks about how they look, what they choose to wear, and what goes into their bodies. As Jes has tattooed on her ample thighs, “MY BODY, MY RULES.”
Well. Amazing. I’m not being sarcastic; it’s truly amazing to me. Powerful, raw, and inspiring. She’s also funny as hell, and it’s clear that there are plenty of days when she doesn’t feel so great about herself and she has to work at it. But I had the same reaction to her book as I did to Lindy West’s Shrill, that is to say OKAY, GREAT… BUT HOW THE HELL DID YOU GET THERE? Did these women just wake up one morning and decide that enough is enough? Then they went out and bought tight fitting clothes, exposing their bodies in all their glory, and proudly walked through the street not caring anymore what people thought? Just repeating, “Fuck them, I’m awesome,” until they believed it? How did they get from Point A to Point B?
Because Point B sounds pretty great. There are doughnuts at Point B, I hear, and I haven’t had a doughnut in years. If memory serves, they are freaking delicious. I don’t anticipate ever eating a doughnut again, because the guilt I’d feel at having let such a thing pass my lips would never be worth the fleeting bites of joy. My mother used to have this little figurine near the kitchen sink. Ziggy, I think. Remember Ziggy? (Whatever happened to that charming little sad sack of wisdom, by the way? Does Ziggy still appear in newprint?) Alas, I digress. Well, this little white plastic Ziggy held up a truly giant slice of cake– that thing had to have been three, four layers thick– and looked at it longingly with oversized puppy eyes. In capital letters — capital letters, mind you, printed below Ziggy’s chubby feet, it read:
A MOMENT ON THE LIPS, A LIFETIME ON THE HIPS.
I can see old Ziggy and his slice of forbidden cake perfectly. I saw it every time I washed my hands in the kitchen after coming in from outside, whenever I helped with the making of a meal, and whenever I loaded the dishwasher (every other night, alternating with my sister, if you’re wondering. A simple enough system, yet I also recall fighting about whose turn it was nightly.) How does one shake off eighteen years of ZIGGY?
The irony is not lost on me that I grew up in a house that was filled with junk food. The pantry was routinely stocked with giant “family sized” bags of Cheetos, Doritos, and everyone’s favorite, hands down: Fritos. Cookies, crackers, creamy casseroles for dinner (it was the Midwest, so such culinary delights were the norm). Betty Crocker was our friend, and her cakes were divine. But you couldn’t eat a bite, or I couldn’t, without thinking “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” thus ruining the fun anyway.
How do you just shed that?
Jes never said.
Well, that’s not quite fair to Jes, who I think is rather empowering and awesome. I just don’t see how her own journey pertains to ME or my character Lily, if that makes sense. Neither one of us can imagine it. Isn’t it like shedding some other integral part of yourself, like the religion you were raised with, or the effects of growing up with an abusive or alcoholic parent? Things, I know from books, that leave an indelible mark.
Perhaps I’ll reread. Jes grew up poor, so there’s that– there were genuine fears about not having enough food. She grew up with a perpetually dieting father whose euphamisms about Jes’s weight were deeply hurtful even as she watched his weight balloon and shrink in an endless cycle. She is regularly bullied by assholes online who say such uplifting and banal things like “why don’t you kill yourself already” for being fat. She deletes and blocks, deletes and blocks, continuing to blog and tell her stories and ignore, even as she acknowledges that yes, that shit hurts, even when the grammar is poor and the insults are less than creative. See, I could ignore the insults of someone with bad grammar; I’ll admit freely that I am a total snob that way. It’s not my best quality but hey, it’s really not the worst, either.
The worst would be giving in to that doughnut. Obviously.
So Jes Baker, tell me: how long did it take to get from Point A to Point B? And could you provide a detailed roadmap with very explicit directions for those of us who read and research diligently but JUST DON’T SEEM TO GET IT? If I keep reading, keep listening to body positivity podcasts, keep applauding the slow inclusion of “real women” in media campaigns, keep reading satiric novels skewering diet culture (Dietland by Sarai Walker, for example), will I wake up one day ready to don any bathing suit I feel like wearing– even ones I keep and try on periodically just to feel shitty and yet never throw out– and head out to the beach, lipsticked and smiling, to declare myself proudly a landwhale?
Will my first thought on the beach be “good for them,” rather than “I would never wear that bathing suit if I looked like that”? And this is hard to admit, because I’m a good feminist and true believer that people should wear whatever the fuck they want to wear and be who they want to be… but seriously. If you grew up in the 1970s and 80’s, repressed, backwards years, it’s now clear, how do you turn yourself into a woman who can walk freely in her own body and not keep thinking of the twisted wisdom of Ziggy, even as I know– I KNOW, of course, that it’s ridiculous.
Body image is complicated. It’s truly a mental health issue, as serious as the others I read and write about, as insidious and resistent to change. There’s a billion dollar industry that proves it, keeps us buying products we know won’t really work because maybe, just maybe, this one will. It’s a sad, twisted merry go round, and I’d really like to get the fuck off.
Jes? Lindy? Roxane? Are you out there? Should I get a tattoo on my thighs? But then I’d have to show someone my thighs…
And well, that’s out of the question.