Maybe it was during my first-ever sleepover, on a farm, that my little hostess, innocently sharing a family ritual, led me up for a good-night hug and kiss from her father. I couldn’t take my eyes off the hook where his hand should have been, and I probably grimaced or cowered. At any rate, my hostess’s mother (standing by for her turn) swooped in, catching me up in her own impressive bosom and exclaiming sympathetically.
Her great size was self-explanatory to me at the age of six or seven: She was comfort. After Sunday worship, phalanxes of her type delivered baked beans, ham with pineapple, scalloped potatoes, and bar cookies onto long tables. The teachers of her shape were the veterans who demanded your best but accepted whatever that was.Wives of that shape were immovable; there were no farms that I knew of in fertile northwest Ohio without them. The rare single rural man lived in a downsized dump, overgrown bushes blocking his front door, a dog chained in the back next to a mossy water bowl. In the sixties and seventies, when I was growing up, farm wives were the women of highest status in this region, working, laughing, eating cookout burgers, working, yelling at children, working, eating homemade pie, square-dancing, working, eating curious marshmallow or pickle dishes from the spiral-bound anthologies of recipes they sold to each other for church fundraising, working. It was mostly muscle on them—not that they protested in those terms, or at all; they had no explaining to do.
Weight loss would have been a bizarre preoccupation on either their part or their husbands’. Divorce was almost unheard of out here off the highway, between the tiny burghs like Portage and Rudolph. A woman didn’t have to stay slender, clear through her childbearing years and into middle age, in order to secure her home. Were she to undertake this hard fight against the physical demands of adult life and the ordinary winding down of the human metabolism, her husband would have been alarmed, supposing she was doing it for reasons much more pertinent to urban women: She didn’t trust his commitment, thought him restless, shallow, keen on a do-over of his life, so addled that he was looking for the retouched face on the magazine cover glimpsed in the supermarket. For his part, he would have figured that his dieting wife was fed up enough to stake everything on reentering the marketplace of relationships and competing against actual youth.
ut such logic needed no expression; tastes and emotions followed practicalities. My father, a professor who’d been a farm boy and wouldn’t have lived in town, exclaimed without condescension to my mother, “Ruth, you have a magnificent figure for a woman your age!” My mother’s family farm had been lost during the Great Depression, so she was even more passionate about the countryside, and with that went an earthiness not compatible with anything like early versions of yoga and bio-cleanses.
My exposure to popular media was restricted, but I went to junior high and high school in town, where I had a full dose of the iconography of thinness, and of the more artificial standards of romantic exchange in more built-up places. I never weighed more than 120 pounds back then and was a compactly built long-distance biker and runner, but I am only 5’2” and have always been inclined toward stubbiness, so to some people I already seemed to weigh too much. A teenage girl is a seismograph that can detect a tremor of disapproval through a mile of solid granite, so I knew I was too bulky, and a very small number of remarks confirmed my just degradation. When a boy came up to me as I bought a cookie at the school cafeteria kiosk, and asked, “Is your mother fat?” I gave a propitiating answer—I forget exactly what, but some half-honest version of “No”—instead of asking, “Is your father a jerk?”
I was on the academic track, certainly not a cheerleader manqué, but without the competent assurance of the farm girls, either. They took advanced home-ec courses and at the end of the year walked the visiting teacher through their garden preserves, hand-sewn clothes and furnishings, and small livestock. My hostess of that early sleepover was in those courses, and I saw her—big and relaxed-looking; she married a farmer soon after—for the first time in years when my French teacher sent me to the home-ec classroom to borrow a serving implement for a traditional French treat.
So what was I to do with my body? I ended up placing, in my mind, a modified paradigm of the physical life cycle I trusted onto the modern social demands I was experiencing. I would be thin-thin, “Hey, you’re thin!”—though in truth I was reluctant to sacrifice enough energy for that—until I landed a smart, personable man, but after that I wouldn’t worry about my shape, because I would work so hard at a profession and bring such glory to our household that all would be well. Sound stupid and hopeless? It was.
I was so confident that, twice, I gained weight while engaged, having given up the running in order to study harder. One fiancé, after a five-day wilderness hike meant to be an emergency shape-up for me, lit into my size ten body in front of several fellow hikers in the van we boarded at the rendezvous point: “You’d be so upset yourself, you’d hate the way you look from behind. Go to a nutritionist—I’ll pay for it.”
This fiancé was a doctor, sometimes wielding the health argument when I lashed back at pleas to lose (or at least dissemble) weight for the sake of fashion and conformity. I turned down the gift of a shopping consultant’s services but did accept a trip to a bra studio that promised an important contribution to “breast health.” Let us pass over in silence the manner in which my relationship with that man wound down.
I do have to extend to him, though, sympathy for the deep confusion between marketing and medicine that I’ve sensed among doctors during most of my adult life. Some order weight loss on the basis of a body-mass index alone, with no reference to general health and fitness; or even make an instant, narrow-eyed assessment more suited to a modeling-agency recruiter—such is, of course, the assessment’s real cultural source. As in romance, the sensation was creepily different from my childhood’s, when everyone knew everyone else and no one was going anywhere. Roles could be rigid and judgments harsh, but you were always assured of being regarded as a person. You didn’t have to compete with an array of mere images, with whimsical false gods, in a marketplace so abstract that you felt almost infinitely interchangeable, as if you yourself were only a passing impulse, as if you were, in practical terms, nothing.
At the age of forty-seven and at size eighteen, I married a lawyer with a long career in criminal defense behind him. I attribute some of his excellence as a husband to his having heard everything. Hence, he applies his sardonic reasoning to popular culture: to work-out programs like Navy SEAL training; to diets aimed at erotic appeal that sap the body of sex hormones; and to the assertion of power and wealth through emaciation that transfers the wizened countenance of old age onto a woman in her early forties, prompting clinical intervention to create glassy, faintly blotchy, marble-like surfaces—not an ideal tribute to antiquity.
kay, yeah, I’m often still angry—or I am until I settle down with Tom and a bowl of popcorn (real butter infusing it) to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas again. But in my best moments, I’m the opposite of angry, realizing that if my body hadn’t taught me—well, more or less forced me—to be myself outwardly, I might not be myself inwardly. Saying and writing and thinking what you’re supposed to, especially in the elite secular academy, easily follows looking the way you’re supposed to, especially for women. I may well not have first become a Christian, or then gradually a translation reformer and literary and social critic, had I not been so long used to fashionable disapproval, yet had such a rational basis for considering it stupid.
Very cheerfully, then, I’ll go about my work, and, like the women in my childhood, I’ll care for my household, which better than anything else tells me how the world fits together. It tells me that I’m needed, but that all this isn’t about me, much less about my vanity. And I’ll have a good lunch, with coffee and fruit and nuts and pasta and an egg and a slice of squash, enough to satisfy my hunger and fuel my work, because God gave the food and the work both in answer to my prayers.
Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University.