The other day, I found myself engaging in conversation with a stranger at the grocery store about weight.
“God,” the woman said, pausing near me in the aisle as I considered a package of cookies. “I wish.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I’m trying to decide if it’s worth it.”
“Go for it,” she said, grinning. “You can always hit the gym after.”
She went on her way. I put the cookies back. I thought about it. I picked them up again and put them in my basket. What the hell? I never go to the gym. I’m terrible at treadmills and I’m lazy. Or maybe I’m terrible at treadmills because I’m lazy. It’s a chicken/egg kinda thing.
After my exchange with Grocery Store Lady, I wondered — yet again — why it is that women are always talking about weight? Why do we bond over it, start casual conversations with strangers about it, exchange knowing, secret looks about it?
I am a body image blogger. When I catch myself making weight comments, I feel ashamed. I know weight talk is dangerous. It’s the kind of talk that makes girls and women feel bad about themselves. It keeps us focused on some number on a scale, makes eating a negative experience, and stigmatizes heaviness. It’s the kind of talk that gradually, persistently chips away at our self-esteem and convinces us that what matters most is how we look, and what matters most about how we look is that we are thin. It makes me tired. It annoys me. I’m so sick of it. Frankly, it makes me want to eat a cheeseburger, fries, and a vanilla milkshake.
I usually end up being the chick who’s going, “No, no, you look great!”, while other women complain about how huge and bulging and bovine they are. Sometimes I’m the one going, “I don’t think you look better when you’re thinner!”
No one believes me, but it’s true. I don’t think thinner means better. There are parts of myself I like thinner and parts of myself I like chubbier. I happen to like chubby thighs, for instance. So sue me.
But the thing that I feel most guilty about is that sometimes I just join in without even being aware of it. Sometimes I hear myself making some quick, derisive remark about my body, bitching about gaining the freshman 15, or just sympathizing without correcting. After all, this is the language of being a woman.
In line for the bathroom at a cool restaurant in Brooklyn, I compliment a woman on her cute dress.
“I can finally fit into it!” she said, laughing a little.
I reply, “I wish I could fit into something that cute.”
“You totally could!” she encourages.
And just like that, we’re instant buddies.
A woman I meet at a work event tells me about how much pizza she used to eat in college, back when “you barely even thought about that sort of thing. Those were the days…” I mention how much pizza I still eat — can you believe it? She wags a finger teasingly at me. “Uh oh!” Look at us goofing off!
At a party, a girl mowing at the buffet table sighs, “Everything I just ate is going straight to my thighs!”
I murmur my sympathy and condolences instead of telling her how much I like chubby thighs. I hate myself for neglecting to tell her.
And this is not just with strangers or friends. When I spend time with my aunts, my cousins, my mother-in-law, my mom, even my grandmother — I can rest assured in the knowledge that we will always have something to talk about. We can talk about weight. How we should be losing more of it. How we wish we didn’t have to worry about it. How great it’d be if we could fit into that cute little dress. How jealous we are of whichever of us is thinner.
The last time I saw her, I offered my 90-year-old grandmother a slice of pie.
“No, no,” she protested. “I’m on a diet!”
I stared at her. “You look great, Gram.”
She shook her head. “I need to lose a little weight.”
“Don’t you want to try the pie? It’s really good.”
“Kate! I can’t!”
I was suddenly afraid. I don’t want to be talking about weight when I’m 90. I don’t want to be worrying about what I eat. And maybe, after all of those years of talking about weight, it becomes almost impossible to stop.
But maybe that’s OK. It occurs to me that maybe, like me, other women and girls and Gram aren’t necessarily feelin’ talking about weight — they’re just looking for a way to connect. Maybe we’re like guys who don’t like sports but automatically start talking about “the game” to find common ground with other guys. Talking about weight doesn’t have to mean we’re that interested in the topic. It definitely doesn’t have to mean that we are constantly feeling bad about ourselves. Right?
Chances are, if I can talk smack about my weight without meaning it, other people can too.
This might sound like lame-ing out, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to change the way the world works. At least not right away. And I’m definitely not going to change my Gram. Getting upset and defensive doesn’t help. So rather than banning myself from weight talk, I’m giving myself permission to participate, when it makes sense to. And I’m also remaining committed to opening up conversation about why we talk this way in the first place and how we can feel better about our bodies. Because those are conversations that should be happening just as much as conversations that go “Ewww, look at my stupid pudgy belly!” “No, I can’t have that pie!”
Maybe, for my grandmother, thinking about weight, and having the goal of losing it, is an important part of life. Maybe, by continuing to diet, she is refusing to give up.
I decided to leave the pie on the counter when I left Gram’s, just in case. Because pie is delicious. And I didn’t want her to miss out on it. I don’t want any of us to miss out on it.