Leave me alone!

Just because I bounced between anorexia and bulimia people think they can comment on what I'm eating.

Published June 15, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Why won't people stop watching what I eat? I used to bounce back and forth between anorexia and bulimia in high school. Eight years later, I can finally sit down and eat a steak, have a glass of red wine, even have dessert, and savor every bite without thinking that it's going to make me balloon into that blueberry girl from Willy Wonka.

I still have some minor food issues. I'm not overweight; I'm a completely normal size. I exercise a normal amount. But I get very irritated when people comment on what I'm eating. My husband went on Atkins a year ago and turned into a total nut case. He started looking at carbs on everything. He'd pick up my soda can and make a face of absolute horror, like he'd just been flashed by Rush Limbaugh. After I told him to shut the hell up a few times, he got the picture and stopped doing it.

But what to do when it's not someone bound to you by law? What about when it's someone who holds your livelihood in her calorie-counting little hands? My boss has commented on food I'm eating several times. Once before a meeting, when my entire department was waiting around for someone, I opened a granola bar (other people were eating too) and she said, "Oh, those things are packed with calories. They're all sugar. I never eat those." I didn't really know what to say.

A group of women from my office go to yoga together once a week. I had a bottle of Gatorade, and my boss again said, "Oh, that is so fattening. I never drink that. All those empty calories." This kind of thing happens a lot, and it really makes me want to force-feed her cheesecake. This woman is a normal size. She's actually pretty small, and she exercises enough that I wouldn't think calories should be a problem. But why are my calories a problem? And what do I say to make it clear that I really don't appreciate it? I'm going to get fired for throwing a Snickers bar at her, right?

Richard Simmons, Leave Me Alone!

Dear Leave Me Alone,

There are several things you could plausibly say to someone who makes comments about your drinking Gatorade. You could say, "Well, you're very thin and lovely, and that must be how you do it."

You could say, "There's vodka in it."

You could say, "Have you read 'The Obesity Myth,' by Paul Campos?"

Empty flattery, humor and direct engagement are just three of the many ways one can respond to such a statement. But it does depend on what the relationship is like. If it's your boss, after conjecturing that her refusal to drink Gatorade might account for her preternatural beauty and poise, you might ask her, as a follow-up, if she has recently grown taller -- an avenue of discussion to profitably pursue in greater detail when you sit down for your twice-yearly employee evaluation. If she hasn't gotten taller, you might conjecture, it's perhaps because she's just gotten thinner. I, for one, might wonder why she showed such intense interest in my beverage, hypothesize that she had recently had a traumatic experience with Gatorade, and tactfully let the moment pass. Her remark would not, in any case, elevate her in my estimation; it certainly doesn't make you think, "One day, that woman is going to be a senator!"

While it is always nice to have a smart reply, it's hard to think on your feet when you feel you've been insulted. Why do you feel insulted? You probably feel that your boss is, by indirection, speaking disparagingly about your weight, your food choices and your willpower, as if each of us bears a patriotic duty to fight our appetites, to struggle mightily against our eating even as we slather our very souls in the rich nectar of slaughter and science.

I have felt for some time that the obsession with fat is a peculiar cultural sickness that has to do with feminist struggles, social class, professional anxiety, war, privilege, envy, Protestantism, virtue and capitalism. Fortunately -- for those are vague notions at best -- FM radio came to the rescue on Sunday in a bit of serendipitous synchronicity that might drive more superstitiously minded thinkers to believe in a higher power. OK, so maybe it was a higher power. Authors Paul Campos and Wendy Shanker, interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio's "To the Best of Our Knowledge," said everything I might have said only better.

Shanker, who wrote "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life," spoke eloquently about getting over the whole thing about being fat. She told how one day she got into an elevator and a lady said, in obvious reference to Shanker's weight, that she herself would have taken the stairs. Rather than absorb the cutting remark in silent shame, she turned to the lady and said, "I wish you had." That was pretty good. The overall point being, we don't need to walk around being afraid of being fat. If you're fat, OK. If you're thin, OK. Don't you have some work to do?

And Campos in "The Obesity Myth" says what I had been thinking better than I could: "Thinness has a metaphorical significance in America today," he writes. "Americans -- and especially American elites -- value thinness for precisely the same reason someone suffering from anorexia nervosa does: because not eating means not giving in to desire. Strangely, what the American elites consider most desirable is a body whose appearance signals a triumph of the will over desire itself. Thus, bodily virtue is not so much indicated by thinness per se, but rather by an achieved thinness. Ultimately the war on fat is both a cause and a consequence of the transformation of the Protestant work ethic into the American diet ethic.

"The obesity myth thrives in contemporary America because America is an eating-disordered culture. Moreover, the prime symptoms of this situation -- our increasing rates of 'overweight,' bulimia and anorexia -- are also symptoms of, and have become metaphors for, a broader set of cultural anxieties ... For upper-class Americans in particular, it's easier to deal with anxiety about excessive consumption by obsessing about weight, rather than by actually confronting far more serious threats to our social and political health. We may drive environmentally insane SUVs that dump untold tons of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere; we may consume a vastly disproportionate share of the world's diminishing natural resources; we may support a foreign policy that consists of throwing America's military weight around without regard to objections from our allies -- but at least we don't eat that extra cookie when it's offered to us."

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