At the lovely small Chanukah party I attended earlier this month, I did not taste the latkes, those delicious potato pancakes fried in oil and typically served with sour cream and applesauce. My hostess offered them to me repeatedly, proudly noting that she’d used her Polish grandmother’s recipe. But I politely said “no thank you,” I’d just started a diet. “Who starts a diet in December?” someone asked. Someone else pointedly wondered “How can you not eat latkes at Chanukah?” but I quietly insisted that I needed to refrain. I promised, though, that I’d have some next year, once I’d shed the extra pounds that were making me uneasy in my own body.
In my Middle Eastern Jewish home it was the height of rudeness not to partake of what someone offered you to eat. So my refusal was difficult on many levels. But in fact, we never ate latkes at Chanukah. Instead we had deep-fried beignets, little balls of dough, sticky-sweet and drenched in rosewater-scented sugar syrup. I wouldn’t be having any of those this year either. And though another friend at the party assured me I didn’t need to lose weight— “You’re zaftig and beautiful just as you are,” she said—I’d decided a few weeks earlier that, Chanukah or no Chanukah, Christmas or no Christmas, this December was exactly when I wanted to begin my journey to what I believe is, for me, a healthier body weight.
I’m well aware of—and entirely support—the “fat is beautiful” movement, and I recognize the importance of resisting and not engaging in “fat shaming.” Yet I’m choosing now to shed these pounds. It’s a deep choice, a genuine resolution that emerged spontaneously after a long gestation.
I’ve been subject to fat shaming—both external and internal—for most of my life: when I was less than ten years old, one of our closest relatives regularly reminded me to hold my stomach in, to “watch” what I ate. “A minute on the lips, forever on the hips,” she’d warn. Later, I vainly tried to ignore my mother’s coolly calculating assessment whenever she saw me after an absence. She’d look me up and down, sometimes pinching the flesh around my waist, then issue either an approving “You’ve lost weight,” or a disappointed “You’ve gained.” This from a woman who prided herself on her cooking, who served homemade baklava and rice pudding at the conclusion of her elaborate traditional meals, and who was herself more rounded than angular. I took comfort in the Venus of Willendorf, favored baggy pants and tops, and avoided looking at myself in mirrors. I was, in fact, always ashamed: of my body, my appetite, my apparent failure to “control” myself.
And of course, too, I tried many, many diets: Weight Watchers, Atkins, Dr. Fuhrman’s, and others. In my mid-twenties, feeling entirely out of control during a period of deep depression, I joined Overeaters Anonymous and found relief from the compulsive eating that had made me swell to over 160 pounds. (I’m just five foot three inches tall.) While in OA, I religiously practiced abstinence—from all grains and refined sugars—but once I left the rigorous program, the weight crept back. During the more than fifty years since my first crash diet in high school (lots of grapefruit and cottage cheese), I’ve gone up and down again and again, occasionally finding a moment of comfortable stasis, but more often feeling awkward and ungainly in my own skin.
This time, I’ve chosen to work with a nonjudgmental, experienced nutritionist who has prepared a balanced program that honors my own preferences and habits, and with whom I meet once a week to discuss how it’s going. So far, this “diet” feels different from those I’ve attempted in the past, largely because part of what I’m shedding is not just pounds or inches, but attitudes and judgments. Mostly what I’m shedding is an old image of myself, as the girl who was never quite right no matter what she did, the girl who always wanted to hide. Or rather, I’m learning to embrace and love that girl, to hold her gently within me. She is me. I’m no longer ashamed of her, ashamed of myself.
And so, for the first time ever, it’s easy to say “no thank you” because I’m more fully myself, more fully in my body, able to acknowledge my own needs and limits
And, also for the first time, I’m willing to speak out loud about those needs and limits—as well as about the dark places that led me to so much self-abuse and shame. Hence this post.
I’ve written several times here recently about the desirability of undoing boundaries—between genders, races, nationalities and religions. And I still hold to what I wrote. But what I’m discovering now is the value of a different kind of boundary, the one only I can draw around my self for my Self, the one that involves simply staying present and not succumbing to outside pressures. Choosing to say “no” or “yes” to food is like choosing to say “no” or “yes” to sex: what Carol Christ has been writing lately about “rape culture” is profoundly relevant to what I’m learning about my relationship to food and my body. In letting others be the judges of what I should or shouldn’t eat, how much I should or shouldn’t weigh, what was good or bad for me, I was ignoring the evidence of my own body, not listening to my own feelings of rightness or wrongness.
(I remember an older man I looked up to once, my professor, telling me I “should” want him, I “should” relax and let him penetrate me against my will . . . I remember thinking he knew better than me . . . Some of why I grew fat back then was to keep men like him away; the fat also blunted the sensation of my own desires, protected me from my own impulses.)
As I follow my program these days, I grow clearer and stronger. I know exactly what I want and I take it. When I sit down to eat, I feel my appetite, healthy and strong. I feed that appetite, choosing just what I need and what will truly nurture me. When I get up from the table, I am complete and whole within myself. Whether I reach my “goal weight” or not, I’ve already succeeded.
And so, this New Year, I won’t be making any new resolutions. I’m already on my path, shedding shame.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from the French of Egyptian-Jewish writer Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [This Land That Is Like You], a novel celebrating Arab-Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has also translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming from New York Review Books.