Friday, January 26, 2018

Would you believe me if I said I was starving?

  Two weeks ago, I was reading a food blog with instructions on how to throw better dinner parties. In the grand tradition of lifestyle bloggers, the author promised me that everything would be much better if I just stopped trying so hard. He included a recipe for baked ham and suggested that hosts everywhere should just chill out and let guests slice their own sandwiches. Play it right, and everyone would be so happy and full that Ina Garten and her sweet husband Jeffrey would moan with a mix of pleasure and jealousy.

  I sent the post to my little brother, a well-coiffed yuppie who organizes most of his social life around food, and asked what he thought about the recipe. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Ham’s still hard for me.”

  With consistent refrigeration, a baked spiral ham will stay fresh for three to five days. That’s when its color shifts from a cheerful pink to a dull grayish-green, as the preservatives begin to buckle under the pressure of prolonged oxygen exposure. After a few more days, it starts to develop a thick, snot-like slime. That’s the bacteria breaking down sugars in the meat, as the decay sets in for real.

  Most people throw their food out well before they have to confront this arc in the circle of life. But most people aren’t starving. If you are, you learn to wash the slime off—under hot running water, with soap if you need it—and hope for the best.

  There was a point before the weeks of rotting ham, or months of tortillas and processed cheese, when I could have asked for help. I didn’t.

  I had already been fat for my entire life. When I was born, my baby cheeks were so big that they squeezed my eyes shut for the first three months of my infancy. As a kid, I was the worst-case scenario in every game of “would you rather.” I was also stable, smart, and well-adjusted—except that I was miserable. That’s what being fat does: It swallows up everything you do right and hides it in the giant failure that is your body. For women in particular, being fat is such a colossal fuck-up that it squeezes out the room to be anything else: Being fat and isn’t an option. (The only exception is being fat and funny... if you manage to be in on the joke of your own fatness.)

  By the time I was a teenager, I had learned how to avoid anything that would draw attention to my body: to wear clothes that hid my size, to avoid activities where people looked at me, and above all to hide the fact that I ever ate.

  Hiding your eating is tricky in the best of circumstances—there are only so many times that you can just “not be hungry” during lunch, and there’s a thin line between tapping your pen just loud enough to cover the sound of your stomach growling and actually doing desktop drumrolls during Math class. But hiding your eating and asking for help getting enough food is actually impossible: You have to admit that you eat to tell someone you don’t eat enough. And I couldn’t do it.

  Instead, my little brothers and I made it five years without setting eyes on a vegetable, eating stale scraps and spoiled meat. It sounds almost foolish now—like we were undone by our own vanity. But the truth is, society uses appearance as a shortcut to determining value. Thin is good; fat is bad. Fat people know that. We are acutely aware that we are considered lazy, weak-willed, and even incompetent—doubly so if we’re also poor.  But humans simply can’t endure being told we’re terrible all of the time. So we avoid situations where that’s likely to happen.

  It turns out the stigma against being fat is so intense that it stops people from getting health care, exercising in public, or interacting with other people. For me, that also included finding someone who could help me get food. I knew what I would be up against—what it would take to convince someone I was telling the truth—and I didn’t have the energy. I had homework to do, power to get turned back on, and college essays to write.

  Eventually, through no work of my own—I’ll cut off my own feet before anyone ever turns me into a “pulled herself up by the bootstraps” folk hero—the food available to me got better. It got more plentiful. It got healthier. I stayed fat. And now that I’m okay—now that I have water, and heat, and trash pickup—that’s fine. I have the luxury of rejecting the idea that the things that society says give me value—like thinness and prettiness and obedience—mean anything. Because right now, my survival isn’t tied quite so closely to whether or not other people think I deserve to be alive.

  About the author: Mara Pellittieri is the managing editor at

  This article was published by

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