"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s funny what you notice when you lose 40 pounds. I have noticed, for instance, that it is much easier to get dressed when your clothes actually fit. I have noticed the way certain bones feel underneath my hands (my rib cage, my pelvis) or how I look in the mirrored glass of a store I am passing. I have also noticed how people react to me. Mostly, I have noticed what they say.
“You look healthy!” they exclaim, giving me a hug, or grabbing my shoulders like an aunt at a family reunion. They say it so often and with such enthusiasm that it can have the inverse effect of upsetting me. I can’t help wondering how unhealthy I used to look.
“People won’t stop telling me I look healthy,” I complained to my friend Mary.
She laughed. “Those assholes.”
Don’t get me wrong: I love compliments. But I feel a stab of mortification for the bloated, slightly sweaty woman who thought she had everyone fooled with Target hoodies and elastic waistbands. I have spent a lifetime hoping no one noticed my weight, and so it is a special terror that everyone now does. I tend to deflect in these moments. I say things like, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you stop burying your misery in Chipotle burritos.” Or I pass the weight loss off to quitting drinking, which is not a lie, since I was a beer-binger who could put away a six-pack on a Tuesday. (It’s hard to keep your girlish figure when even a casual night out includes 2,000 calories in sheer lager.)
It’s interesting, though, that so few people mention the word “weight.” It’s almost like they’re afraid of it. Like it would sound crass. Not putting a focus on weight happens to be what most reasonable diets do these days. The counselors will tell you about “healthy lifestyle choices” (not “calorie restriction”). They will explain concepts like “portion control” and talk about “a new way of eating.” (Classic motto: “It’s not a diet — it’s a live it.”) Restaurants rarely tout their “low-calorie” options but instead offer meals that are “heart-healthy,” as though when I lost 40 pounds, what I really had in mind was a stellar cardiogram.
We are a society badly messed up about body image. We mock celebrities for getting fat and then mock Keira Knightley for staying thin. We scream about the dangers of the obesity epidemic while half of us continue to text and drive. So I can’t blame anyone for being weird on the subject of weight. I am super weird on the subject of weight. In middle school, I ate iceberg lettuce for lunch and scissor-kicked my way through Kathy Smith’s aerobics video three to five times a week. By college, I had settled into serious “screw-it” mode: The worse any food was for me, the more I wanted it. I was all bacon and melted cheese and Camel Lights. Over the next 15 years, I gained 20 pounds, lost 15, gained 30, lost 10. My closet contained enough sizes for many sister wives. I agonized about my weight all the time. But I did very little about it. New Year’s resolutions dissolved mid-January. Broccoli and cucumbers bought with the best of intentions turned squishy with neglect. I relied on the optical illusions of the Dillard’s hosiery department: Spandex and control-top pantyhose and enough bizarre, constrictive doodads to outfit all of Madonna’s backup dancers.
When I quit drinking, I hoped the pounds would melt away. But I had swapped imported beer for peanut-butter-chocolate ice cream and pasta with cream sauce. Four months into sobriety, I was at the hairstylist in Brooklyn, seated in that hateful little chair where you are forced to look at yourself speak in a full-length mirror (I despise that chair!) when my self-loathing became radioactive. There I was, getting pampered in my fancy first-world way, but what I thought was: “I am going to have to lose weight, or I am going to rip off my own face.” Those were the words that formed in my brain. I knew drinking had kept me from losing weight. I did not realize, until that moment, how it had buffered me from the misery I felt about it.
So when I moved back to Dallas, I went on a diet. Not a clipped-from-the-magazines, let-me-try-this-for-a-week diet, but the kind where you step on a scale once a week and pay for the privilege. I didn’t tell anyone but my family and a few friends, which is a little off-script for a woman who has written publicly about making out while wearing Spanx. But on this matter, I felt deeply private. I have known people who trumpet weight-loss regimens like a sparkly new ring on the finger: Have I told you about my diet? Do you want to hear about these pills/this lap band/this juice fast/this amazing injectable hormone? Not me. In high school, I went on Jenny Craig, and I was so terrified people would find out that I refused to eat lunch until I came home at 4 p.m., because the food was branded with a logo. I had nightmares my classmates would look inside our kitchen cabinet and see a beef-and-bean chili.
When it comes to our bodies, we all have no-fly zones. I have a friend who has lost weight, and she couldn’t care less if you know she’s on a diet. But she refuses to say how much weight she’s lost. Recently a co-worker grilled her, and when she politely demurred, the woman kept pushing. No really, how much? Come on, you can tell me. “She definitely wasn’t nervous about touching the weight issue,” my friend said. She added that the woman was heavy, and the candor may have come from an assumed “we’re in this together” solidarity. Still, can’t people take a hint? This stuff cuts deep.
And because it cuts so deep, different rules apply to different people, which makes the conversation that much trickier. My friend doesn’t want to share that number with you because when she finally screwed up her courage enough to step on a scale, she was shocked by how big she had gotten, and the number plunges her back into that shame. I don’t want to admit that I’m on a diet because, on some basic level, I seem unable to forgive myself for needing it in the first place — for not being born tall and thin with the metabolism of a marathon runner. I never wanted to be a woman on a diet. (I also never wanted to be a woman who cried easily, or showed people pictures of her cat. This did not work out as planned.) The fact that everyone notices I lost weight reminds me that everyone noticed I had gained weight in the first place but they said nothing because, seriously now, what is there to say? They said, “Your hair looks great.” They said, “I like those shoes.”
There is the added conflict of being all too aware that most diets fail, that our culture is slavishly focused on appearance, much to the detriment of our souls, and that I’m supposed to love my body at any size, not “rip off my own face” if I can’t wear short-shorts in the summertime. But what do you do? Recently, I heard a story about a woman who had lost more than 100 pounds on a strict diet. With tears in her eyes, she admitted that she told everyone she was doing it to be healthier, but that was a lie. She didn’t give a damn about being healthy. She did it because she was sick of being fat.
Can you blame her? We’re a fat-phobic culture. That obsession drives toxic behavior. Another friend of mine tells a story of being at her thinnest in college. She tried crazy stuff to keep the weight down: Diet pills, Ipecac. People kept telling her, too, “You look so healthy!” And she would think, “Really? Because three hours ago I was crying over a toilet trying to make myself throw up.”
I don’t know what to say to someone losing weight, any more than I know how to respond when people remark on my own transformation. And so I reached out to Kate Harding, a friend and the founder of the blog Shapely Prose, who has written more on body image than anyone I know. When I was her editor at Salon, Kate challenged my thinking about the ways we conflate thinness with healthiness, how fat people (her term, which she uses with pride) get railroaded for so many societal ills. She was the kind of eloquent, compassionate feminist who would know exactly what to say in these situations. Except, she didn’t.
“I do struggle with what, if anything, to say to friends who have clearly lost weight,” she wrote by email. “I don’t want to be like, ‘Yippee! Weight loss rocks!,’ but I also don’t want them to think I’m being a jerk who doesn’t even notice, or worse yet that I’m judging them for losing weight and/or being proud of it. It’s a big effort, and lord knows I understand why people want to do it, so I want to be like, ‘Hey, I see you doing a tough thing that is making you happy. High five.’”
Actually, that’s as good a reaction as any. Kate also pointed out to me that it’s likely people keep telling me I look healthier because I am, in fact, healthier. After all, I quit drinking and, though I rarely talk about it, I quit smoking at the same time. (One never made sense without the other.) If you had taken a peek in my bathroom cabinet during my last years in New York, you would have seen the signals of a body in distress: Tagamet for an ulcer, melatonin to sleep through the night, antihistamine for a mysterious skin rash that erupted across my legs, antidepressants attempted and abandoned. At 36, I got an EKG because I was convinced I was having a heart attack. The stress and pain and discomfort were so unbearable that, while it is impressive that I lost 40 pounds, it is far more impressive to me that I kept on 40 pounds for as long as I did, knowing how unhappy it made me, what a drain it was on my system.
It’s funny what you notice when you lose 40 pounds. I notice that I no longer flinch when someone’s eyes linger on me. I notice that I rarely try to smother a bad day with a plate of cheese enchiladas. I notice that my body is a marvelous engine capable of feats I never knew possible.
I notice how friends’ eyes light up when they see me, and I worry that I need that too much — that part of what got me here was being too needy for the spark in other people’s eyes — but I also wonder if that has less to do with my weight and more to do with me. They often tell me I look happy. And that is an easy compliment to take.
I just say, “I am.”
Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon.More Sarah Hepola.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)