A new member of the big, comfy underpants set ponders why women are ostracized for 'letting themselves go.

Published March 4, 1999 5:59PM (EST)

I used to go to parties quite often, for the company and maybe a few
free shots of the fermented mare's milk. When my father was still alive, I
used to go with him to parties peopled by writers and musicians, and I'd feel
honored to be there since I was underage and unpublished. And besides, when I
was with my dad, it was like being the daughter of the king. But after he
died, I mostly stopped going to parties at all. I would rather be home, all
alone and feeling sorry for myself. (Alcoholics are the only people who want
to be held and comforted when they're isolating.)

But I have gone to three parties recently. (I felt I had to go to all
three, for reasons I won't go into here.) At two of these parties, I spent the
entire time thinking about how much I hated everyone on earth and wondering
what kind of nightmarish roommates one gets in heaven if one thinks such ugly
thoughts: survivalists, jazzercise instructors, the GOP House managers and
their ilky ilk. But at the third of these parties, with a good friend on
either side, I realized once again that there is only one person any of us
really hates. It's the gift our parents gave us that just keeps on giving.
It's the potted plant of self-loathing they asked us to hold for a moment
-- like one of those old "Candid Camera" setups where the innocent bystander is
asked to hold a plant, or a cat, for a troubled but friendly stranger who
then never shows up again. And so the nice person like me stands there
holding the damn cat, wanting to do the right thing.

So, it was a birthday party that moved outdoors when the winter sun
surprised us all one afternoon, and I plopped down on a rough wooden bench
between these two old friends. Both are women in their 50s who had come
alone. Both are brilliant, and a little fat.

One of them has always been zaftig from the waist down: Her
granddaughter says to her with enthusiasm and admiration, "You have a great
big butt!" But the second woman has always been thin and beautiful and
ambitious, in a distinctly soft and soulful way. She has been considered a
player in Hollywood, an actress turned director of art-house movies. Then she
got cancer. She had surgery and chemo; then she went to convalesce at a
nearby Zen center.

I had not seen her since then, but when I walked into this party, I
saw that she had gained a lot of weight. Some of us old bulimics are
like people at carnivals who can guess weights within two pounds. So I'm
guessing 25 or 26 new pounds. I kept noticing her hands resting on the swell
of her belly under a simple stylish black linen dress and I was secretly
shocked. I know this does not make me look very spiritually evolved, but here
goes anyway: It was like seeing Kate Moss with fat arms.

"You look so wonderful," I said. And that is true -- she looked
stunning -- but what I wanted to say was, "Oh my God! You got fat!"

She has the most exquisite eyes: soft heathery green, stormy sea green.

"I'm used to you being so skinny," I said. "You look so much better."
She really did; she looked softer, rounder, this big soft sweet pillow of
tummy rising out of her dress. But I wanted to ask, "Would you mind coming
into the bathroom with me and hopping up on the scales?"

It's a very complicated dynamic for me. In the last year, I have joined
the big comfy underpants set,
and it has taken me a year to stop thinking of myself as morbidly obese. People tell me I look normal now, but what I hear is that they think I look like Marlon Brando.

It's so automatic in me: I recently saw a beautiful woman I knew when I
was still drinking, who betrayed one of my best friends. She used to be one
of those shapely sylph types, and now -- this may sound harsh -- she looked
like a really pretty manatee. And I thought, Hah hah!

So there I was at the party, with all my usual feelings of shyness and
dread and social retardation, talking to these two women I've known forever
and adore. And for a while I comforted myself by thinking, Well, at least my
butt is not half as fat as HERS, and my stomach is not as fat as HERS. But
then I'd feel misery, hold my little potted plant of shame.

- - - - - - - - - -

After lunch we were informed that there was a dessert in the kitchen, one
requiring some assembly. First you put a slice of yellow cake on your plate,
and then hot chocolate sauce. Then you covered that with three kinds of
berries and crème fraîche. I watched my two friends make up plates for
themselves, and I felt fear and craziness build up inside me. At first I
claimed to have a stomach ache and just took a pile of berries.

The three of us sat outside in the sun eating. Susan said that as part of
her healing at the Zen center, she decided to let herself have the comfort of
cookies with her afternoon lattes. I thought how great that was; I mean, if
you had cancer. I sucked on a blueberry. I don't even like blueberries.

Many of the women at this party work in film, or their partners do, in
Hollywood, and they are mostly quite trim and well-appointed. My friend Susan
sat on the wooden bench looking like a cross between Meher Baba and Linda
Evans, with her hands on her belly, beneath her black linen shift. A number
of women were wearing the same sort of tastefully simple linen that Susan had on,
but they were poised and mingling and busy, darting around as if
trying to catch something they could use, and she was just sitting there,
listening, smiling.

I've known many of the people there for years, and I like them. They're
smart and kind and cool: For the most part, they've been assigned vacation
lives, like I have -- creative lives in beautiful surroundings. But this
day I watched them work the party, because it's hard not to. They commanded
time, compared notes on how well things were going, all but handed out
business cards. I felt a certain tenderness toward everyone, and tried not
to check out their butts and tummies. The three of us sat with our hands
cupped like visors over our eyes, like squinty see-no-evil monkeys.

People came over to talk to us but no one sat down. Everyone stopped by
to find out how Susan was doing and to catch her up on their lives, which are
seriously happening lives. I tried to listen with Susan's compassionate Zen
ears, and so it was all quite touching, to hear them lay their lives out like
smorgasbords -- "Oh, this is so tasty" and "I think you'll like that" and
an interesting morsel"; and Susan would taste, and say by her kind face,
made such a good banquet, oh, these are all such delicious dishes. Thank you."
But then people would bustle off to other vertical, thin, happening people
-- the head of a major studio, a well-known actress, the director of a
major film

There was a woman there who is my age and we're the same height. But she
is still quite thin, and now I'm part of the comfy underwear set. She has the
body of a 20-year-old, toned and buff, and she drank mineral water and ate
celery sticks, like the eat-no-evil monkey. And I decided then and there
that I must become thin again. I would wake up the next day, go for a run,
and then get into The Zone. Eat more meat, fish, eggs, bacon. Maybe I would
get a housekeeper to get my son ready for school, while I was at the new
Pilates studio in Mill Valley. And she would have bacon waiting for me when
I returned.

Susan got up and went inside for a moment and I said, smiling to my
other friend, "God, she has always been so skinny."

Now, through the window I could see that Susan still looked
extraordinarily beautiful, radiant, attentive, gentle. But I kept thinking of
all the women in my childhood who let themselves go, and how my father watched
them and let me know that it was disgusting to him. The softness of women's
bodies, the thighs that are not like a man's, the joy and abandon in all kinds
of food, the lack of self-control.

My friend smiled and finished up her first serving of dessert. I sucked
on another blueberry. I actually dislike blueberries. I picked one up and
tossed it into the bushes. "I hate blueberries," I told my friend.

"Then why don't you go get some cake?"

I didn't answer for a moment. "Because Susan's stomach is fat," I said.

"No, it's not. She's just not skinny anymore."

I thought about this for a minute and went back to savoring the image of
how lean I would be after all that bacon. I sucked on this hope like a
Lifesaver. But when I turned to listen to something my friend was saying, I
realized I was looking at her through my father's eyes, seeing what he would
have seen, which was someone he didn't want to sleep with. This is where I
got my sense of beauty: women my father wanted to fuck. My friend looked so
beautiful, rosy, basking in the sun, while I sat eating food I didn't like.
And then in my mind there was a fluid, undulant movement, like the shiftings
inside a lava lamp, and after a minute I said, "I think when I need a daddy,
I start to become him. I channel this ancient disgust, so I can be with him
again. It's like ... Norman Bates."

My friend looked at me gently. "Could you channel someone nicer?"

So I did. First I channeled Grace Paley, and then Whoopi Goldberg, and
then my friend Susan, who was still in the house. And all of them thought I
should have some dessert. I got up and went inside. I got some cake, with a
ladle of hot chocolate sauce, crème fraîche, raspberries on the side.

"Don't you want some blueberries?" the dessert caseworker asked.

"No, thank you," I said. "I hate blueberries."

I walked back outside with my dessert and sat on the long wooden bench.
My friend with the big butt tried to get me to give her a bite, as a finder's
fee, but I held up my fork in a threatening way. It was so delicious. I ate
while we watched a long-haired man with a didgeridoo set up in the garden. A
didgeridoo is one of those long, tubular Australian instruments that Aborigines
play; they are termite-hollowed logs. The man blew into his didgeridoo, and
out came a low windy moan, dirgelike, eerie. I finished my cake, put the
plate down on the ground, then closed my eyes to the party, to the sky, so I
could hear better. I felt someone sit down on the bench beside me, and I knew
that it was Susan. I reached for her hand without opening my eyes. The
voice of a didgeridoo is a call from far away, centuries old. If you
pressed your ear to the earth, it's the sound the earth would make. Some of
the notes are like an enormous animal panting at the end of its life. I
opened my eyes and smiled at my two friends, who looked ripe and yielding and
soft, like things that were rising and ready to bake. The three of us shook
our heads in wonder at the man and the music he was making. It sounded like
an ancient God, or the way desert winds must have sounded to the first ears on
earth. If it were a color, it would be rich and planty purple, like eggplant,
earthy with light behind it.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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