August 24, 2005

Look at my face when you talk to me.

I've recently found myself the subject of the strangest and most complicated kind of insult I've ever come across: ordinary words, laden with favorable cultural connotations and terrible personal connotations, delivered with profound contempt in the expectation that the recipient will smile and say thank you.

I was standing in line yesterday in Berkeley Bowl buying two pints of excitingly-flavored soy ice cream (which were for bringing in to work because I'm still desperately trying to impress a group of people who couldn't care less). In front of me was a wiry, active-looking woman probably in her forties, and behind me another fit woman of maybe sixty. They were both buying sensible groceries and looking at my ice cream with amused interest. The woman in front wondered about its taste. The one behind asked about calories, to which I grinned and told her, "I don't even look."

She paused and looked me up and down. "Yes, well," she said dismissively, "you don't have to." While I stammered feebly about how I don't look because dessert isn't supposed to be good for you, she leaned down to look at the labels and started discussing her findings with the woman in front. They were in complete agreement that my ice cream was far too fatty for them to eat. "But," added the one in front, gesturing to me but speaking to the woman behind me, "Think about what she's having for dinner. Rutabagas [editor's note: rutabagas?!], no bread, low-fat salad dressing. So she can eat this stuff." The sensation of having been turned into an inanimate conversation piece was so unnerving that I didn't even bother to stammer this time. I just let them talk about dieting and weight loss across me for a few minutes.

Eventually the woman behind me noticed how I was trying desperately to ignore their conversation, and gave me what I think was probably a friendly smile. "You don't know anything about this stuff, of course," she told me. I didn't bring up the six months I spent in college starving myself from 150 pounds to 120 because I thought it would make me prettier, more popular, better, something. [Editor's note: for posterity and calculation, I'm five foot eight and now weigh 140.] I failed to mention that in the five years since then I've never quite managed to disabuse myself of that idea and still step on the bathroom scale, wishing I weren't doing it, every day. I didn't discuss the willowy, graceful architect at my work who complimented me on a homemade skirt but then frowned and said, "But you're thin, so everything looks good on you," and dropped the subject. The topic of my aunt, who years ago used to give me that same up-and-down look at family gatherings and tell me with a clear look of displeasure on her face how skinny I was, was not raised. And so on, and so on, and so on.

No, of course, I don't know anything about that. Naturally I'm thrilled by both your scornful pseudo-compliments and my own frustrating need to seek them. Few things delight me so much as to be looked over from head to toe while you decide whether I'm a woman or a statue. Please, take your time. I'll just be standing here with my eyes closed trying to teleport you to Siberia.

Posted by dianna at August 24, 2005 10:51 AM

urp. sorry for all those times i called you a skinny vegan, in my head when not out loud.

i think you are pretty, and also interesting-looking in the good sense. the skinny thing too but the other things are not dependent on it. and after eating enough of your (and other's) veganalia i do not think it is a dull or unpleasant diet to have.

brr. it is chilly here in siberia. can i please come home?

Posted by: didofoot at August 24, 2005 11:51 AM

You could get your revenge by freaking them out entirely.
"No, I don't have to worrry about it. I lock myself in the closet with nothing but distilled water for four days after I eat snice cream. So I stay nice and thin."
"I used to worry about my weight, just like you. But recently I found that human flesh can be part of an amazing weight loss plan."

Posted by: Jacob at August 24, 2005 12:37 PM

I've gone through practically the same thing. I went from 215 to 145 in college (roughly the same height as you, though) and I still check the stupid scale every morning. And no matter how good I'm feeling, I get depressed if I weigh more than I expect, and similarly I become happy and excited if I weigh less.

I've never had strangers comment on my weight, but my family does. I go home and everyone comments on how skinny I am, and then the whole family goes on a diet because I make them feel fat. Then inevitably my sister at some points gets upset at me and declares that "Everyone loves Zach because he's skinny and everyone hates me because I'm fat!" or words to that effect.

I want to tell them that being skinny doesn't make you happy, it doesn't make people like you, and, if you develope a complex about it in the course of getting skinny, you're not ever really satisfied with it. But then I put myself in their place, where I was 5 years ago, and I know exactly what I'd say: "Easy for you to say, you're skinny. You have no business telling me about my problems."

Posted by: Zach S. at August 24, 2005 12:42 PM

Yes. Yes exactly, particularly the last paragraph. The weird part about that part is that it always seems to be people of my size or thinner who are saying and thinking this stuff at me, which makes it incredibly difficult to come up with any response that doesn't just parrot the same crap back at them. And then I'd really like to tell myself that they need to hear about how skinny they are so that they don't go and diet more and make themselves crazy, which of course makes it Totally Different from what they just said to me, which is of course not exactly true.

Family, I imagine, only makes the whole thing worse because it's harder to correct people's misconceptions and more unpleasant to resent them for having them when they're your family instead of strangers. Bleah.

Kristen, you may come home. Despite the inevitable thought of your last "skinny vegans" post while writing this, it wasn't a major prompting force in the writing. Muffins are very good for warming back up, you know.

Lastly, Jacob, isn't it about time you made a comment on my blog that's not brilliant?

Posted by: Dianna at August 24, 2005 02:03 PM

if it helps, i also consistently harp on christine's blondness, jack's hirsuteness, michele's boobness, and jason's skinniness and general adorableness. i am just a harper all round.

Posted by: didofoot at August 24, 2005 02:07 PM

That wasn't lastly. Lastly was, Zach, your blog entry about peanut brittle cracked me the hell up. I seem to recall my family making one of those mistakes at some point in my childhood and winding up with a ruined, congealed pile that looked exactly like one of those novelty fake barf puddles that you can buy from joke shops and catalogs.

My mother was not amused to find it on the floor. She was not amused to find it on her bed. She was not amused to find it anywhere, but it wasn't for our lack of trying.

Posted by: Dianna at August 24, 2005 02:15 PM

Thank you. I'm definitely moving to a bloghost that allows non-members to comment and doesn't have obnoxious pop-ups and video game ads, so that'll obviate the need to talk about it in your comment section.

The only other thing I have to say about peanut brittle is that Mark Bittman, the author of the book from which I got my recipe, has this to say in the recipe introduction, where he generally either talks up the recipe or gives general hints about making it that might not fit in the explicit directions: "If you've never made peanut brittle, you will not believe how simple it is." I can't help but take this as an insult.

Posted by: Zach S. at August 24, 2005 04:22 PM

I love Mark Bittman's comments about pancake mix: "Americans must be deeply alienated from their kitchens to buy pancake mix as the batter is incredibly quick and easy to prepare."

Also, I'm intrigued that discussions about people gaining, losing, or having a particular weight usually gravitate to the idea of a diet, which in my mind means depriving yourself of something pleasurable--not eating delicious ice cream, for example.

The alternative would be to talk about weight management from a constructive perspective, e.g. "I eat this or that, which has this type of nutrient that my body needs and I eat a reasonable proportion relative to my total caloric intake--and sometimes I treat myself to ice cream, as a supplement to reduce my apetite."

But I think we enjoy denying ourselves the yummy stuff in some twisted way, like I didn't eat Mexican food today and that somehow makes me a better, skinnier person than if I did. But wouldn't it have been great to have some guacamole?

in a nutshell, food's endemic.

Posted by: Cody at August 24, 2005 06:14 PM