I am the average size for women in the United States, aside from my thighs which are the average size for steroid-using Eastern European weightlifters. Mostly, I am okay with me unless I’m invited to participate in a”Sports Illustrated” swimsuit issue or a game of strip poker with strangers.
But I digress. I have been bigger, and I have been smaller. I have been pregnant and had a baby. I get admiring looks from the occasional man, but I am largely invisible to the under-40 male population. I love food, I love to cook, I love to eat, and this affair with food is not limited to the upscale world of aged cheeses and truffles; I occasionally have a serious jones for that combination of mushy, salty, sweet and crunchy that I can only get from a McDonald’s cheeseburger (although I do try to mitigate the damage by ordering a Happy Meal with milk and apple slices).
As I age, and become less hysterical about the relationship between the size of my jeans and my value to society, I am increasingly fascinated by, and philosophical about the messages given to women about food and eating. Despite a well-meaning “be yourself” underground that raises its head to reprimand anorexic starlets or to lavish praise on the figure of a Queen Latifah or a Camryn Mannheim, the general message is: there is great food everywhere, have some, have lots, don’t worry, indulge yourself, just don’t get fat.
I readily admit that there are diet books, articles, etc. that speak of moderation and balance. The philosophy of most real live Registered Dieticians is “all foods fit;” have a slice of carrot cake, but maybe take a walk and don’t also have Fettucine Alfredo for dinner. This is also the basis of French Women Don’t Get Fat, which makes an interesting case for the ability of French women to eat cream sauces and cheese because they are also incredibly physically active and they take the time to savor their food rather than inhaling it mindlessly off of a TV tray along with “Jeopardy.” I strive for this middle ground, and some times I hit the mark, and sometimes I start fresh the next day.
If you read a mainstream woman’s magazine, you will see the following (unless its January when they are all running “light” recipes to serve the needs of the guilty parties overserved during the holidays): On page 34, a recipe for 4 layer Lemon Chiffon Cake. On page 40, an article presenting a new diet involving high protein, all carbs, no fat, healthy fats, high fiber or magical combinations of all of the above. On page 80, 6 recipes for fried chicken. On page 102 an article about a group of women in Iowa who banded together at church and lost a collective 250 pounds. Tell me I’m wrong.
This somewhat psychotic mixed message, aimed squarely at “middle America,” is basically that there is abundant and delicious food to be had, but that one’s choice is feast or famine. (More accurately, a woman’s choice is feast or famine). We are throwing caution to the wind and eating cake and fried chicken and buying elastic-waist pants, or we are guzzling Slimfast, attending meetings and keeping journals in which we record every bite we eat. There is really nothing morally wrong with doing either of these things, except that, realistically, indulging in a completely unhealthy diet is not particularly good for anyone. (Hence the use of the term “unhealthy.”) On the other hand, a life obsessed with calories and “bad” foods is often devoid of pleasure, and its difficult to revert to a casual relationship with food once the weight is lost and the obsession is over.
We are all free to choose what we read and, by extension, what we put into our heads. I stopped reading “womens'” magazines years ago, after I realized I was reading the same article about how to clean my vertical blinds that I had read two years ago. This was troubling because, among other things, there are no vertical blinds in my house. I do read “foodie” magazines, one of which is “Cooking Light” which does a fabulous job of providing recipes for food that is both nourishing and soul-satisfying, so that there is no feeling of being punished by one’s dinner. There is also, in the real “foodie” magazines a sense that the food is not merely highly processed, flavorful fuel but something elegant and rewarding. Since many recipes in those magazines are created by chefs or writers who are concerned about quality, even the most indulgent recipes are often reasonably healthy because they use fresh, unprocessed ingredients that take time, but yield wonderful results.
I say we make our own plan separate from and better than the one modeled by the magazines. Sometimes everybody needs cake and fried chicken, and sometimes everybody needs to take a hard look at the marks left when they take off their jeans, and focus on making food choices that lead to health and strength. No one needs to be bedeviled by a new diet every month, particularly when that diet is bookended by pictures of homemade whoopie pies and corn dogs. Un-mix the message and go forth, free to make your own decisions and live your life in a way that includes exercise, fettucine, Lean Cuisines, and layer cake, balance, independence and peace of mind.