There’s this disturbing report in my New York Times . Television comes to the Fiji islands and, within three years, the number who had induced vomiting to control their weight jumps 12 percentage points: from virtually nothing (3 percent) to a lot of something. We become numb to overused words, terms like eating disorder, substance abuse or hyperactivity are transformed by our constant prattle into mere cotton wool on the tongue. These common phrases have a medicalized bounce to them that prompts us to pick them up and toss them around casually like volleyballs on the beach. Worse still, these same professional coverup labels or euphemisms protect us from, disguise from us, the actual smell, feel or touch of profoundly disturbing, painful, infectious, repulsive illnesses.
“Starving yourself,” for example, is a little more direct, and that’s what happened when the girls on Fiji saw the girls on Melrose Place , or so the article said. This is the first shred of potentially hard evidence that television, skinny models, super-looking actresses make the run-of-the-mill, round-in-the-thigh, pinch-of-fat middle-size girl feel drastically ugly.
For a while there, people spoke of fat as a feminist issue. The rise in campus vomiting after the law schools and medical schools opened their doors to women has indeed been a slap in the face to those of us who thought the problem was that girls lacked an interesting, independent future.
Wrong we were. We might just as well have put our faith in leeches as in professional opportunities. The origins of female unhappiness seem to run deeper-so deep, in fact, we can’t see the root cause or the branch cause or any cause at all. This is a feminist issue because when the mirror mocks us, shame follows. The adolescent’s crazed response to this humiliation can ruin female lives, and turns women into inanimate objects more fearfully and more certainly than the worst centerfolds of Playboy or Hustler .
When we become our dimensions and not our brains, our hearts, our souls, our spirits, we have been had; and if we do it to ourselves, so much the more ghastly. To this day, 35 years into feminism, fat remains the bloat and blubber issue that never quite got off the ground. Indeed, we have brought to Fiji a terrible disease. Girls will turn against their own lives and limbs. They will repress their menstrual cycles. They will get yellow, waxy skin and become wan and listless, just as if they had been taken over by some evil primitive zombie who stole their joy away. They will focus on lard, calorie intake, bowels and scales. They will not have room in their food-obsessed brains to love their friends or their siblings or their parents. They will not notice the tropical storms that pound their island. They will miss the red hues of sunsets and stop hearing the rush of waves on sand. They will become bone-showing thin, bone-poking-out thin, graveyard bones clanking among the living.
It’s not just school violence we should be worried about. It’s school misery. It’s the rotten cruelty of kid to kid. It’s the rotten cruelty that can be self-inflicted, a kind of do-it-yourself torture kit that cannot be kept behind a locked cabinet and is easily available to any teen who reaches for it. When I was teaching 18-year-olds in a writing class, I had to tell them I wouldn’t read any more suicide stories. They were so frequent. They were so convincing. They were just stories. Or were they? We need a national discussion about our kids. It shouldn’t be so hard to grow up, should it?
I don’t believe that the Fiji islander girls were just affected by Heather Locklear. I think our entire culture that arrived along with the TV, but not exclusively delivered by it, has toxic elements, debilitating elements, some driven by the media, some not. Some poison within us threatens the stability and well-being of our teens, confusing them, offering too many choices, too much freedom; it unmoors, plays against the roiling hormones of youth and makes the road tough, tougher, toughest. Weight is just the way we talk about our discontent.
I’ve always wanted to be thinner than whatever weight I was. I always thought I looked like a jelly doughnut. Photographs now tell me I was mistaken. I looked like everyone else-just fine. My mother spent her life thinking she was 10 pounds too heavy. Only when she was dying of cancer did she hit the weight she wanted, but by then she couldn’t get out of bed, anyway. I have friends now spending weeks at spas, another five pounds gone temporarily. I look in the mirror now and I still think, “Oh no, oh God,” and close my eyes. I read the diet columns. I listen to advice. I take long walks. I’m too smart to let the media get me. I don’t think I should look like Calista Flockhart. I think Ally McBeal is ready for the mortician. But the ideal of thin, the platonic ideal of beauty, haunts me. Shall I become 80 years old and still resist dessert?
So the truth is that I, too, wise old writer, seasoned in the flames of time, think about beauty and thin and thinness and I hover always on the edge of worry. Is this because I’m a female, as stuck in my destructive culture as anyone else, as subject to the tyranny of fashion arbiters or other spooks, or is it because the flesh we carry from room to room reeks of our humanity and our humanity oozes out our impossible wish for perfection, for immortality? Who knows? Dieting is a gigantic business, Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers and gyms and nutritionists and gurus of don’t-eat-carbohydrates and do-eat-carrots-till-your-skin-turns-orange. How odd it is. How sad it is. A friend passed on to me a cabbage soup fat-burning diet. Repulsive broth, I may resort to it yet.
But what I really wish is that I could live on the Fiji islands before Melrose Place arrived and I could frolic about with my folds of stomach fat warming in the air and a bright red flower behind my ear. I wish the only shame anyone knew was in the harm one might do to another.
Did Eve like her body before she bit into the apple? If only she’d been watching her calories, or been on an all-rainwater diet, the world would have been spared so much unnecessary angst.