There was a time when I was very good at being small. I’d say it was probably my best thing.
People often asked me if I was ok. Are you okay? Are you shrinking?
Once a doctor weighed me and whispered, Good luck. Pity, irritation, distaste; I wasn’t sure.
But mostly people were smiling or laughing or doing something else with their eyes when they reached out for my waist, because it was taut and looked/was good enough to touch, skin stretched thin, sunken above the navel, hip bones sticking out like plucked finch wings—which is fitting because maybe that’s what I actually wanted.
When I wasn’t exercising I was preparing fiber-rich, carb-free, leafy, vegan meals, and experimenting with muffins made from nothing but oats and bananas. It was all about willpower and imagination. I was a very good bully: You are healthy and strong.
This was me: compulsively buying nuts and coconut flour and cacao nibs in bulk. Me, combing blogs written by other women who were concerned with portions and substitutes for guilt-free versions of comfort food and game-day snacks. They’d invented words like skinny-fy and detoxinista. They posted encouraging listicles, such as Five Things That Changed When I Stopped Snacking and Why Snacks Are Overrated and Six Sneaky Ways to Cut 300 Calories a Day (this did not involve snacks).
I learned a lot of stuff from blogs—hunched over a desk beneath fluorescent lights at a job I hated, nibbling cucumbers sprinkled with lemon juice—stuff I never forgot, stuff that still haunts me: Nut butters can be a tasty source of energy, but be careful. Licking the spoon can add hundreds of unwanted fat and calories to your daily intake. Do you know what it takes to burn off one spoonful of peanut butter?
A lot of experts nixed peanut butter altogether (…if you’re trying to lose weight, peanut butter is not your friend). But some seemed to dare their toughest readers to dabble (as long as it was raw and unsalted). It could be healthy, if you were strong enough.
This image of not licking the spoon was the ultimate gesture of defiance, of discipline. The temptress tamed. And I was strong. I had a plan and stuck to the plan until the plan became me. Until I was only my body and my body was very small. Which was good. I was good. You could have asked me anything—I knew exactly what not to do.
Peanut butter went on my list of bad foods, foods like cheese, or granola, or toast, or anything that came in a package, only allowed if I had run a certain amount of miles in a certain amount of days; the peanut butter-loaded apple slices my hippie mother fed me when I was cranky before dinner; what I ate at summer camp, barefoot on the wooden steps of my bunk, passing around a jar of Skippy someone had received in a care package, dipping a warped dining hall spoon into the salty cream again and again. Energy, comfort, love.
But I knew better now—it was wrong to associate emotions with snacks. Mixing emotions with food is a recipe for disaster, for bad habits. For extra weight. So I’d use a knife to dole out a thin layer of peanut butter onto a rice cake. I’d scrape the knife on the edge of the jar and throw it into the sink. I’d put the jar away. I’d eat that snack for dinner. Then I’d go to the gym. Then I’d go to sleep.
The bloggers had very helpful advice and no bad habits. In their pretty photos they wore delicate gold jewelry and colorful silk blouses and had perfectly groomed eyebrows and matching mixing bowls. They bragged that their fiancés couldn’t tell the difference in the lasagna even though it was made with zucchini noodles and cashew cheese. They never drank more than a 7-ounce glass of wine at a party. They indulged in coconut date smoothies. They lived in places like San Francisco. They had yards and puppies. Some had young children who also loved the guilt-free food they made.
And I loved them for everything they taught me. I was proud. Didn’t I have wings? Wasn’t I empty and light?
I was also angry. Angry at other women for telling me I was not good enough, angry at myself for believing the only way to be better, to be extraordinary, was to be small. Angry at myself for not being small enough.
What is it that’s so seductive about not taking up space? What are we taught? The woman with excess weight has lost control. She’s failed. The body betrays her mistakes, her weakness exposed. Truly I wanted to be someone else, someone already perfect, someone who did not worry. I wanted to smear messy, unmeasured dollops of peanut butter on burnt toast, lick the excess off a spoon and not feel as if I was unraveling my life, sliding down the side of a slick, hungry ravine.
And that meant I had to find other best things.
Inside I’m still a girl trapped by the thing she once believed would make her free, would make her extraordinary. I still envy the freedom of women who buy croissants with their coffee in the morning like it’s no big deal, who point casually to a slice of chocolate banana loaf before tucking the white wax bag into their beautiful purses. Who can eat a sandwich without compulsively calculating how to burn it off. I want to be one of them—someone not so deeply seduced by a false sense of control, the very opposite of wings.
But at least for now I lick the spoon.