I’m terrible at eating. My childhood was shaped by creating abstract art with food, staring at my lunch while the other kids stood by the wall and waited for me to finish, and my mother’s never-ending patience in creating weird meals for my sister and me. After decades of teasing, I now understand that my pickiness arises from anxiety and sensory issues (thanks, autism), but that doesn’t often change the way people look at the way I eat.
Food is an enormous part of Jewish culture. Cooking is seen as love, “Have you eaten?” as a term of affection. Pushing food on someone, even if they decline, is love. Commenting on someone’s weight is love. A constant stream of jabs, condemning the ultimate crime of “getting fat,” offering unsolicited advice on how to avoid this evil. All of this is love.
“There is something wrong with you,” an extended family member said when I nibbled at a piece of chicken during a visit. “Why won’t you eat?”
I was rejecting their love and that necessitated verbal barbs. My body was desirable, but only because eating was sensory hell. If I ate like a “normal person,” perhaps I would no longer be as beautiful. Which was worse? It’s impossible to tell.
Recently, I’ve been reading Sarai Walker’s incredible, scathing debut novel “Dietland.” The book follows Plum Kettle, a perpetually overweight woman, whose life is drastically altered when she is recruited to a feminist collective by the heir to a weight loss empire. The book juxtaposes a stark examination of diet culture against incredible accounts of female-driven vengeance. As I read, I parsed my own relationship with food and the privileges afforded to me because of the space I cannot fill.
I have been thin my whole life. I was a thin newborn, a thin baby. As an adolescent, boys joked that they could snap my neck like a twig. They looped their fingers around my wrists, threw me over their shoulders like cavemen. This is not oppression.
When I grew up, I wanted to be fat. I looked at women with soft thighs and thick waists and thought, this is the pinnacle of humanity. This is beauty. I envied their presence, their Renaissance forms. I also realized that the world was not built for women who take up space.
My girlfriend enjoys eating. She bakes beautiful loaves of challah and elaborate pies, shakshuka dotted with caramelized red peppers. As we build our Jewish lives together, I watch her relationship with food as I’m sure she watches mine. The contrast in our bodies means that I cannot fully understand what it’s like to be her. She presses against the narrow mold we are supposed to fill. The perfect woman does not want.
In recent years, the body positivity movement is garnering attention to this insidious iron maiden of female perfection. Musicians like Lizzo and Mary Lambert and authors like Roxane Gay have spoken out about the perceived crime of fatness and its impact on America’s women. Weight loss has become a multi-billion-dollar industry and thin women, hiding under a thin veneer of “concern for health,” treat fat women like pariahs for merely existing.
Women cannot win. If we accept love in the form of food, we are undesirable. If we don’t, we are undesirable. The only solution is a complete societal overhaul, which sounds exhausting. Perhaps we can begin by examining our own prejudices and the hypocrisy with which we as a Jewish community treat women’s relationships with food. I am not an authority on the subject of weight. I can only offer my perceptions, my experience in a world where women must strive for an impossible ideal.
I can leave you with this: On my first night at college, a boy I had just met looked from me to a plus-sized friend and said: “Real men like meat. Only dogs like bones.”
I suppose he thought he was a feminist icon, reducing us to our gory components. I wish I could say I shot back with something clever, but I didn’t. In another world, at another time, maybe I leaned over and reduced him to the meat he claimed to love. Maybe I disintegrated into dust, a stack of calcium on the dirty dorm carpet. But this is our world, so I looked at my friend and said nothing.