Diet Culture Edition Part 1: Five Writers Reflect on Struggling with Old Stories

An old mirror on a cracked wall representing the weight of old stories
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

[Note: This piece, along with the others in this series, refers to diet culture, weight stigma, fat phobia, intentional weight loss and disordered eating]

This is part one of our special After Party reflecting on diet culture. The Dismantle After Party is a long-running series where past contributors come together to share short stories that reflect on a common theme. Be sure to check out the whole Diet Culture Edition, including the introduction and parts two and three.

Jennifer Saxton-Rodríguez: “She got fat!”  It’s true—I did.

Despite my best efforts, the topic of weight exists outside of my (rather ardent and long-standing) feminism. I’m overweight and I don’t have a great relationship with my body. 

When I was young, I was tiny. I ate a normal amount, didn’t really think about what I ate, and had a normal amount of physical activity—just had a very active metabolism. I was the kid in the college costume shop who got dressed in antique clothing due to being the one tiny enough to wear it. I was valued, praised–by family, friends, professors, and random acquaintances–for being tiny. One of my college friends marveled that he could put his hands around my waist and his fingers would meet. I remember meeting the same classmate twenty odd years later and seeing him turn to his wife and say gleefully, excitedly even, “She got fat!”  It’s true–I did. 

Over the years, I gained weight. Some of it was stress-related. Some was from eating as a strategy to stave off exhaustion over years of my “three job shuffle” as a single mother, working artist, and an academic. I still find myself, during a twelve- or fourteen-hour workday, eating junk food to keep going. Yeah, I know better, I really do—but work’s got to get done and sleep isn’t an option. 

As a costume designer and technician who works primarily with students, I would never, ever judge anyone the way I judge myself for my weight. It is counter to every belief I have as a costume designer and as a feminist. Yet… here I am, happy and grateful about my life as it is currently, but also feeling like a failure as a human being. I counsel my daughter to think about bodies in healthy ways and advocate for body positivity, but I can’t quite grant myself that grace. In other words, I’ve absorbed a lot of the unhealthy, contradictory, and malignant societal messages about acceptable sizes of women. 

As a counterargument to all this, it’s worth pondering the evolutionary advantages of middle-aged women possessing enough adipose tissue to survive a famine. That makes me also think about studies that show grandmothers’ survival in primates is the best sign of survival of the offspring. We have a lot to teach and wisdom to impart! Perhaps my true wisdom will eventually come in and I will be able to cut myself some slack, get over it, and enjoy my golden years.

Giovanna Errore: Food in Italy is both a pleasure and a curse

Being Italian is great for so many reasons—especially for the food. However, having a passion for carbs, wine and a variety of delicacies is both a pleasure and a curse in a place where food and culture are inextricably intertwined. I love eating, but I’m very bad at cooking, and I rely heavily on my cooking-king husband for survival. When he is not home, my meals mostly consist of white rice and vegetables. 

Being an Italian woman (born in Sicily, no less!) and having a feminist attitude toward food can be especially messy. Italian culture says the perfect housewife should be able to prepare a three-course meal at lunch and dinner, even if she has a job and is also studying for a Master’s Degree. The dominant way of thinking says women should love food (Italian men are saying they love curves more and more, thinking this somehow qualifies as feminist and progressive); but also, they should be careful with all that pasta: you wouldn’t want your thigh-hugging jeans to be too tight, would you? They should be able to enjoy a full pizza and a mannish quantity of beer without getting a belly in the process—which I am bad at doing (the second part, I mean; the first I do brilliantly). 

As an Italian woman, I must also prepare myself to be constantly looked-upon when eating outside with friends or family. A salad is too feminine, a steak too masculine. Again, why am I not the perfect Mediterranean woman, all curves and appetites and thin at the same time? Eat too much? She must be pregnant! (I’m not). Eat a little less than usual? She’s on a diet! (I’m also not). Has the thought that everyone should eat exactly how much they want ever occurred to Italians? Not that I know of.

Sue Brower: I lost weight, without admitting I was happy about it

In first grade I went for a routine measurement of height and weight in the school nurse’s office. As I stepped on the scale I remember telling her, “I’m afraid I weigh an awful lot.” 

Throughout grade school I was both tall and–as the girls’ clothing size suggested–Chubby. My condition increased as puberty approached and my mother focused on keeping my overweight, cardiac patient father alive and my adolescent brother out of trouble. In school I was good at academics, but not the kid you’d choose to have on any team. By sixth grade, at about 5’3”, I wore a misses’ size 16, and once an 18; there were no designer “plus” sizes back then.

Junior high was a fresh start: new kids, a little redistribution of weight, the discovery of Junior sizes, and access to more youthful styles. My big break came in 8th grade when I got strep throat and couldn’t swallow solid food. Within 10 days I lost at least 10 pounds and went down to a size 13. At the next school dance, I was asked to dance. By a boy. 

The relationship between weight and acceptance seemed clear to me. For the rest of junior high I kept the weight off by eating only ice cream bars for lunch and pocketing the change. By high school, my height leveled off at 5’4”, I got contact lenses, and weighed 135. Size 11! Kids I’d known since grade school didn’t recognize me. 

In college and grad school, time management became a factor, but also a means for calorie-cutting. By my 20s I didn’t look bad in size 8 jeans, though a female coworker expressed her pity for my wide hips. It was too bad, she said. At some point I actually added a workout to the mix. 

In grad school my husband and I decided it was the perfect time to adopt a baby. Between an infant feeding schedule and a nagging dissertation I lost 10 pounds without giving birth. 

Decades later, attracted to the ease, speed, and cosmetic appeal of “invisible” braces, I went all in. But you were supposed to wear them 22 hours a day. I budgeted 15 minutes each for light breakfast and lunch of a protein bar and coffee, saving an hour and a half for a more luxurious dinner. 

Of course I lost weight, without admitting to myself I was happy about it. This was just a side effect. Temporary. It was the era of skinny jeans, though, and for the first time in my life I was rocking them–more or less. I was making up for those size 16 years. And it’s hard to look back.

Eventually I realized the protein bars are not a meal. With thinning, dull hair, I learned about fruit and vegetables, and complete proteins, which don’t include the soy in most bars. OK…I’ve continued with The Bars for occasional rushed lunches, but now add fruit, nuts, spinach salad to most mid-day meals. The convenience of protein bars was my means of having cookies for lunch and keeping my weight down.

Why not dump them altogether? Because they are my luxury and my dietary crutch. I enjoy finding clothes I love that fit and even draw compliments. And we can talk about where those compliments are coming from—what set of body-type and age-related expectations they relate to, which no doubt affect my choices. 

But I don’t want to grow out of the wardrobe I’ve invested in. I don’t want to change my look. And I sense your disapproval, Dear Reader, how I’ve given in to body-shaming and perhaps compromised health for the sake of fashion. But it’s hard to change habits, and even harder to choose not to inhabit the lighter body I’m accustomed to. I remain unrepentant, unredeemed, willing to accept my physical, political, philosophical shortcomings. It’s the weight of being thin.

Iris Leona Marie Cross: No Trini would lose weight just because.

One of my galpals hosted a get-together Christmas gone. She invited former colleagues I hadn’t seen in a long time. They probably thought I was ill or seeing hard times because no Trini in her right mind would choose to lose weight just because.

Known for her outspokenness, the party host started the ball rolling by asking how I looked so ”magga, magga” (Trini slang for extremely thin; skinny). Others chimed in saying I needed to eat, how I looked like the figure one, and where was the rest of me? I thought I looked svelte and fit, even if nobody else shared my opinion. But I understood where they were coming from. In Trinidad and Tobago, people have long since equated fatness with wealth, good health, and beauty, and thinness with poverty, ill health and unattractiveness.

Those beliefs rang true in my childhood household as well, where to be fat was exalted.

“Let the child eat. You want her to look like a stick?” Those are the words my great-aunts would tell my mother when she tried to stop me, her overweight daughter, from eating too many sweets and cakes. “Don’t you see she’s healthy?”  Throughout my childhood, I suffered from asthma which my great-aunts blamed on the neighbor’s flowering tree. Years later, I learned of a correlation between obesity and asthma. 

If you’re fat and female, you get the thumbs up from Trinbagonian males who salivate at the sight of a meaty woman. “Thick thick” and plus size women are catcalled and sexually harassed as they walk the streets. Someone I know fled to America in her twenties to avoid the legion of admirers who followed her whenever she stepped out of her car. 

Local male entertainers even talk and sing about wanting a fat woman. In 2014, the most popular song at Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival was “I want a fat girl, I want a rolly polly.” This year another very popular song is “I want to marry but I want a fat woman.”  In a culture that’s so supportive of fat women, it’s not surprising they display their plus size bodies in full glory, especially at Carnival when they parade the streets with gay abandon in skimpy costumes. For sure, what’s not at risk is their healthy view of self.

Like people in other countries, we Trinbagonians also say, “When America sneezes, we catch a cold.” Copycats, we are. We adopt American fads wholesale, though not this time. “Heroin chic” may be making a comeback in America but it has no chance of catching on here. That’s one virus we’re immune to. We are a likerish bunch who say ”Better yuh belly buss than let good food waste.” In this fatty, foodie nation, fat is where it’s at. I am a deviant.

What’s important to me is maintaining good health whatever the size. I choose to be svelte in defiance of Trinbagonian cultural norms because it’s the size at which I feel fit, healthy, and beautiful.

Elise Chatelain: It’s like growing old: it’s better to do it than not.

My mom died last year of gastric cancer. It was horrible and tragic, and the thing I keep thinking over and over again is: how can I take the idea of a diet seriously after watching my mom suffering, shrinking, unable to eat?

Growing up, there was lots of talk about weight and weight loss in my household. My mom’s stories about being pregnant involved her gaining 50 pounds each time, but proudly declaring that she was able to “get back to 118” within months of birthing three children.

Funny, my mom was really the only skinny person in our family, but that’s probably because she lost a large stretch of her small intestines to emergency surgery when she was two.

The rest of us, however, aren’t naturally skinny people. We certainly do not have small butts. I also had a particularly bookish childhood, and decided at a pretty young age that organized sports weren’t my thing. So I was always a bit plump.

However, we ate hearty, homemade food. I liked to fill my plate–often more than once– but I couldn’t help it. Everything was so delicious!

I realize now that we were just eating what we enjoyed, and it was pretty good for us. But a body that is naturally a bit thick won’t really budge. So the summer before 6th grade, I went on a diet. I imposed a schedule inspired by the Slim Fast regime that relied only on consuming very little for the first two meals of my day, plus a snack. 

In my late teenage years, a similar approach worked, but I was more strict about it, and relied on cigarettes to fill in those hunger pangs.

As an adult, I was lucky to have close friends and a partner who weren’t scared of regular mealtimes, and who encouraged snacking when hungry. In my late 20s, I went on a trip with my parents and when I requested that we stop to get a quick snack at the store, my Dad responded with, “You’re hungry? But we just ate!” I started crying in an overly dramatic emotional response, thinking about hunger denial as part of my family culture.

Now, just like when I was a teenager, my body isn’t that easy to control. But that’s okay. It’s like growing old: it’s better to do it than not. And after watching my mom wither away, I realize that I love my body when it’s thicker and stronger. I never know when I might need a hearty foundation to fight a devastating illness.

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Giovanna Errore
Giovanna Errore is an Italian writer. Born in Sicily, living in Northern Italy with her husband. With a bachelor degree in Foreign Languages and a Master Degree in Fashion Communication and Journalism, she loves literature, cinema, fashion and pop culture. She works as a copywriter in the all-female Italian SEO agency Quindo. She also writes on her own blog
Iris Leona Marie Cross, from Trinidad and Tobago, writes short nonfiction essays, creative nonfiction, reportage, and opinion pieces. She has written about true crime, music, health, education, and life experiences. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the T&T Express and Newsday, The Best New True Crimes, Resistance and Resilience, HELD Magazine, Querencia Press Autumn 2022 Anthology, LIGHT Public Health Journal, Parenthood Uncensored, We’ll Never Have Paris Zine, Storyhouse Weekly Reader. Iris graduated from the University of Winnipeg, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Hartford. She was also a doctoral research student at Brunel University. Her writing journey began in 2019, and writing is her happy place.
Elise is a writer, editor and educator with 20+ years in academia and communications. When she isn’t writing web copy, editing a manuscript or putting together the next issue of Dismantle Magazine, she’s teaching. She works part time as a university instructor and recently became a certified yoga teacher. A Louisiana native, Elise enjoys spending time in Mexico with her partner and their dog, “Peligrosa.”
Jenny Saxton-Rodríguez is an Associate Professor in the Theatre department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in southmost Texas, where she teaches costume design and construction and other courses. She has worked as a freelance costume designer and/or costume shop manager from the Midwest to the Northeast and Texas. She enjoys reading (N K Jemisin, Erika Johansen, Ben Aaronovitch) and knitting (badly), as well as playing nerd games with her husband Omar and their two children.