Sometimes Louise got through the cafeteria with only a salad. That is how Joan and Marjorie remembered Louise: a girl whose hapless body was destined to be fat. No one saw the sandwiches she made and took to her room when she came home from school. No one saw the store of Milky Ways, butterfingers, Almond Joys, and Hersheys far back on her closet shelf, behind the stuffed animals of her childhood.
Sound familiar, ladies? I guess I could ask the guys but women are more likely to harbor this predilection for hiding what we eat so our consumption won’t be judged by others in our thin-conscious culture. Indeed, I just came across a story published this year about a British study claiming that women tell about 500 lies about their dietary habits a year, mostly about their consumption of chocolate and other sweets. Forty percent of the women said they lied to give the impression they are into healthy eating.
“This study proves we live in a nation of denial where image takes a higher priority than honesty and no one wants to be seen eating food they shouldn’t, or even in larger quantities than is socially acceptable,” Cassandra Maximenko, a member of the research team, told MSN Her.
The opening paragraph of this post comes from a short story called The Fat Girl by the late writer Andre Dubus II. Dubus, who died in 1999, first published this particular story in 1980 in a collection “Finding a Girl in America.”
I came across the story sometime in the 1990s, and thought, “wow.” I had come across a story that zeroes in on an activity — eating in secret — that I myself have indulged in. As a middle schooler, getting up in the middle of the night to eat M&Ms and watch old movies by myself was a favorite ritual. And, I confess, I’m back at it, notably with treats that I like to tell myself are healthy — “organic” cherry-pomegranate pop tarts from Whole Foods, trail mix. They contain calories that I enjoy but don’t necessarily need.
Dubus’ story proposes some complex psychological, emotional and even spiritual reasons that compel people to eat in secret. I sneak out of habit, and out of anxiety. I eat for emotionally reasons. And, as researcher Maximenko said, I hide what I eat because I don’t want to look to others like such a life-style slacker.
The other thing that amazed me about “The Fat Girl” — which I’ve read and re-read over the years — is that it was a male writer who captured this typically female obsession—and pleasure—that comes from eating alone.
The heroine of “The Fat Girl” is Louise, who is growing up in Louisiana with a successful lawyer father and slim and pretty mother who fusses about her own weight. When Louise is nine, her mother starts restricting Louise to “bare lunches” and warns her that boys don’t like fat girls. So Louise begins a ritual: she waits until her mother is occupied elsewhere in the house, creeps into the kitchen, quickly makes a peanut butter sandwich and sneaks it upstairs under her sweater.
Louise’s identity forms around being “fat,” though as grows up, she presents herself to the world as someone who eats sparingly. She has her secret which she guards with a smile that is “elusive and mysterious.” Out with her friends, she always yearns “to be home in bed, eating chocolate in the dark.” She liked her body best, when she was alone and “unaware of it: in bed at night, as sleep gently took her out of her day, out of herself.”
In a surface way, the story follows Louise’s battle with her weight and how her gains and losses in poundage change how others perceive her. I suppose the story could be on the reading list for a course on eating disorders, but it also offers a portrait of any compulsive or addictive behavior.
It also asks some of those bigger philosophical questions. Louise’s physical shape is her identity. She’s “the fat girl,” and she’s in a constant mental battle between how others perceive her and how she identifies herself. The story is about a search for self, and it asks: when and how do we most feel like our authentic selves?
In her senior year at a Massachusetts women’s college, Louise, with the help of a supportive roommate, goes on a strict diet, loses 70 pounds and returns home to the approving gaze of her mother and an eventual marriage to a young man working in her father’s law firm. By slimming her body, Louise “had bought into the pleasures of a nation.”
Five years of slenderness and upward mobility follow, and Louise enjoys a sense of certainty about herself that came with “not thinking.” However, there are times, when she’s alone in her house, away from other people, that she is assaulted by the feeling that she has taken the wrong train to a place where she “ought not to be.”
Louise and her husband, according to plan, conceive a child while on vacation in Paris.
Pregnancy and motherhood shake up Louise’s concept of herself – as well as her devotion to self-denial. She starts eating what she wants and returns to her world of self-gratification: hiding candy in her underwear drawer.
Predictably perhaps, she doesn’t lose her baby weight after her son is born. She most definitely would not rate a “Body After Baby” feature in People magazine.
Her marriage starts to fall apart, with her husband pleading with her to diet, sometimes “raging” at her.
And, Louise comes to a point where she really doesn’t care, knowing that his anger isn’t really about her size but about him, or about his disappointment that she didn’t live up to his expectations of her. The story ends with her musing on when he’ll leave, when all the rooms in the house, and the lawn, will be hers, and she’ll be able “to do whatever she wants.” That is, she won’t have to sneak food anymore. She’ll be alone, which means she’ll be able to eat what she wants.
For Louise that means freedom. So, in the words of researcher Maximenko, Louise could be looking forward to leading a more “honest,” authentic life. Without the disapproving gaze of her husband, she’ll be able to start to feel more comfortable with eating and with her body.
I’m not sure things will go so happily for Louise. I mean, it’s really hard to exorcise that inner critic of parent, lover or society — telling you you’re worthless because you weigh too much or you lack self-discipline over that area of your self. I also wonder if Louise will miss keeping secrets. There’s the saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” But I wonder, as with Louise, whether having a few things we keep to ourselves is a way of maintaining a sense of autonomy and individual identity.