Immediately after New Year's it begins, those ominous warnings about overindulging, about piling on the pounds during the "holiday season." It starts with little subliminal murmurings about tight waistbands on your favorite jeans. The magazines murmur. Television commercials murmur. The mirror murmurs.
Then the murmurings grow louder. You want to look good in those tiny halter tops, don't you? Ads start appearing offering discounts on Bikini Season spa packages designed to get you into shape in time for warm weather fashions. Suddenly, (usually around tax time, April 15 or so) the warnings harass our every waking moment. Oh my God! summer's almost here. Is your body ready for a bathing suit?
Even adult women who know better start feeling self-conscious about eating anything that has actual substance, e.g. bread. We feel guilt if we actually eat breakfast. The ice cream in the freezer is regarded with the same disgust and terror as a rogue strain of ebola.
This is the time of year when many of us start wondering whether we really want to go through the mental trauma and the psychological stress of 1) locating the bathing suit; 2) trying it on; and 3) buying a larger size, or simply 4) leaving the country and changing our names.
In our fat-phobic culture a sense of genuine horror greets the prospect of wearing a bikini in public -- mind-numbing, hyperventilating horror that cine-meisters like John Carpenter and Stephen King would covet. Why is this? Well, there are many reasons, but two biggies come to mind. There is a reality disconnect between what we see in magazines and on TV -- the perfect skin stretched tautly over fat-free bones and what actual living human females look like.
The image worshipped is rarely the image embodied. The other problemo involves the biological necessity of eating to stay alive. Food -- can't live with it, can't live without it. Yet food is the sworn enemy of the bikini. Food is the evil villain that fills out our curves and conceals our bones. Without Demon Calorie we could all make Calista look quite tubby, thank you. Without Demon Calorie we wouldn't need to agonize about our stomachs bulging and our thighs jiggling. Without Demon Calorie we'd be . . . dead.
Ah, there's the rub. Our eyes say "I'm too fat," our bodies say "feed me." At its worst during the traditional "beach season," this culturally induced contradiction between body image and body need exists all year long. How many Thanksgiving dinners have been ruined by the guest who says, "Oh, I really can't eat that," as you offer the heirloom dish you've slaved over for days.
I'm not encouraging pig-out behavior. I'm talking about the enjoyment of a home-cooked meal, having a good appetite. When I was a kid I remember reading about the secrets of Jackie Kennedy's svelte, designer body. It was simple, really. She chain-smoked (off-camera) and only lunched on champagne and chilled asparagus. Perhaps the strategy that kept the former First Lady an enviable size 6 needs no commentary, save for the old Gloria Vanderbilt mantra about how one can never be too thin, or too rich. (The truth is, as every welfare mother knows, that it helps to be rich in order to be thin unless you choose bulemia, which is not our topic today.)
There are billions of reasons why women hate their bodies. Almost all of them stupid. And billions more why they hate feeling the heaviness of their bodies, that downward drag of gravity that kills their sense of lightness and joy. But the issue here is the sort of maniacal crash diet consciousness that strikes right before the summer. That "I've got to lose those five pounds or die" mindset. Even if you're not actually cutting out the Sara Lee, there's a constant vigilance, sort of a self-induced internal surveillance toward food consumption that sets up shop in our psyches. The enslavement to regulating food intake takes over many, many females every May and June.
I'll confess I hit bottom in terms of this fun-killing attitude during a vacation in Mexico a few years ago when I refused a cold beer for fear that drinking it would destroy the flat lines of my stomach. If Christy Turlington had a flat stomach, then by God, so would I.
The silliness of it all is that many of us have absolutely no desire to wear a bikini. As a serious swimmer I scoff at bikinis, which tend to fall off if you're actually trying to swim, much less body surf some nice waves. So I do the one-piece thing. That cuts out some of the agony of the tummy. But there are still thighs and upper arms mocking us and crying out to be trimmed into what Linda Hamilton showed off in Terminator. Who among us, men and women alike, didn't lust for her buffed, cut and ripped biceps and triceps? After the movie came out, I was catching up on my movie gossip reading and found out that Hamilton got that way by giving up all plans for a real life and spending five hours a day, five days a week working with a trainer. For three months! You do the math.
Back to the rest of us. Since we don't have a premiere or a world tour coming up, just a day at the beach, we can calm down. Or can we? If you're over 40 you probably join me in chuckling at the very idea of worrying over whether you're thin enough. We're all adults, right? We know that our self-esteem isn't tied in to our dress size? Don't we?
Well, an informal poll of my adult women friends convinces me that no, we do not know that. So invasive is our thin-and-thinner conditioning that years after our alleged bikini prime we still agonize every summer over the sins of the flesh. God forgive us, we may actually have put on a few pounds since high school. Some women keep those 10 extra pounds after they have children. Many of us actually have the bodies of grown-up girls, rather than adolescent boys. Yet along with poor Lady MacBeth, we wail that no ocean can wash away our wickedness. Bless me father for I have sinned I ate lunch today.
Listen up. Even though you plan to go to the beach with your friends next week, you've still gotta eat. Food is one of the sensual enjoyments of being alive and surely one of the most pleasant, and often memorable rituals we share with our fellow humans. Besides, when was the last time a man told you, "Whoa babe, you're not really going out there with that tummy?" Exactly. So the whole propaganda machine, I've decided, is really run for women, by women. To which I say, girlfriend, get some new material.
Christina Waters is a contributing editor of Metro Santa Cruz.