Laura Lippman | Longreads | July 2019 | 15 minutes (3,660 words)
When I was in high school, I would walk to the Waldenbooks in the mall near my home and read novels while standing up. This was the 1970s, long before bookstores became places that encouraged people to sit, hang, browse. There were no armchairs in that narrow store on the second floor of Columbia Mall in Howard County, Maryland.
Reading while standing up felt like stealing, a pathetic thrill for this straight-A goody-goody. I had money — I babysat, I eventually worked at the Swiss Colony in the same mall. I could buy any volume I truly desired. But my stand-up reads were books too embarrassing to bring home. I remember only two.
One was The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, a British novelist perhaps best known today for inspiring the name of Bruce Willis’s and Demi Moore’s oldest daughter. It now strikes me as a perfectly respectable book; I could have forked over $1.25 for it.
The other one was — I couldn’t begin to tell you the title. It was a slick psycho serial killer tale that began with a young couple parked on Lovers Lane, where they were attacked by a man with, if I recall correctly, a metal hook for one of his hands. He used his hook to slash the roof of the convertible, or maybe it was a knife, and as the metal blade (or the hook) pierced through the canvas, the beautiful, vain sorority girl — it was implicit that she deserved to die if only for her smugness — thought: “I should have had that slice of cheesecake at dinner.”
It has taken me more than 40 years, but the singular achievement of my life may be that if I am attacked by a serial killer on a deserted Lovers Lane, I almost certainly will have had dessert. Not cheesecake, because I don’t like cheesecake. Possibly some dark chocolate, preferably with nuts or caramel, or a scoop of Taharka ice cream, an outstanding Baltimore brand, or one of my own homemade blondies, from the Smitten Kitchen recipe.
Maybe a shot of tequila, an excellent digestif. Maybe tequila and a blondie.
But only if I want those things. Many nights, I’m not in the mood for anything sweet after dinner. Every day, one day at a time, one meal at a time, one hunger pang at a time, I ask myself what I really want. I then eat whatever it is.
It is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.
Every girl remembers her first diet. Usually, it’s her mother’s.
My mother was (and continues to be, at the age of 88) slender and fit. As a child, she was part of a group of underweight campers “ordered” to drink daily milk shakes. On her wedding day, she weighed 102 pounds. Why do I know these facts? I know only that I know them. Her wedding dress hung in the hall closet outside my bedroom, sealed in a plastic bag, but I was never going to wear it. When I was little, that dress — a lovely knee-length shift — was too plain to fit into my future wedding fantasies. And by the time I was 10 or 11, it was clear that I was never going to fit into a dress made for someone who weighed 102 pounds.
Every day, one day at a time, one meal at a time, one hunger pang at a time, I ask myself what I really want. I then eat whatever it is.
In her mid-30s, my mother gained some weight and decided to go on a diet. This seemed like an adult rite of passage to me, a journey that I would inevitably undertake one day, heading out on the bounding billows of Tab. My mother’s diet was a topic of much discussion in our family — and much teasing by my father. My father also was rail thin; at the age of 12, I managed to shimmy into his old Navy uniform for the 4th of July parade. My older sister was thin as well. Many, many, many years later, a good friend saw me with my family at my stepson’s bar mitzvah and asked: “Did you get all the nutrients?” This was the first time that anyone had ever suggested there was anything attractive about my size relative to my family’s.
In case it’s not clear, I was never thin. I am tall, big-boned, with a belly that tends toward protrusion. I was maybe 10 or 11, close to the age my own daughter is now, when my mother cupped her hand over my convex midsection and said, “Look at your little pot belly.” Because I was a weird kid who sneaked into the adult side of the library to read adult books — you may sense a theme emerging — I had read Max Shulman’s Barefoot Boy with Cheek. In that comic college novel, a girl goes to a party where guests are instructed to dress as song titles. She chooses “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and wears a gown with a bare midriff, a smudge pot “cunningly hinged” to her navel. This is how I saw my pot belly — a literal pot, a growth, a foreign object hinged, not so cunningly, to my navel.
By the time I was 14 — 14! — I was plotting furiously in my diary: How To Get a Man. Step 1, of course, was to get a flat stomach. At the age of 15, about the same time I was reading books standing up at the mall, I signed up for a dance class, God knows why. The dance teacher, the mother of a close friend, screamed at me: “LAURA LIPPMAN YOU HAVE A POT BELLY YOU ARE TOO YOUNG TO HAVE A POT BELLY I AM ALLOWED TO HAVE A POT BELLY BUT YOU ARE NOT!”
My first summer home from college I worked as a lifeguard at a small apartment complex where no one knew me, which gave me license to wear a two-piece bathing suit. An older man kept asking me out. After my third or fourth turndown, he guessed my weight almost to the decimal point, then assured me: “If you lost 20 pounds, you would be a knock-out.”
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Then there was the man I loved so much and he loved me, too, until he fell in love with someone else. “It’s funny,” he mused. “You’re not really my type. I like petite women.” And off he went with a waif.
Every woman on the planet knows the rest of this story. Diet blah blah blah body dysmorphia yadda yadda yadda Atkins Scarsdale etc etc. We can all write list poems of the eating plans we have undertaken, the measurements on which we obsessed, the various low-carb sects to which we converted. I have nothing new to say about any of this.
What is new is that I have decided, at the age of 60, that I am a goddamn knockout. Like Dorothy at the end of the film version of The Wizard of Oz, I had the power I sought all along. I rub my thighs together — sorry, couldn’t resist — and tell myself over and over that I am beautiful and, what do you know, suddenly I am. Then I cup my hand over my 9-year-old daughter’s gorgeous, solid abdomen and tell her she is beautiful, too.
She’s not sure. She asks: “Is there a way to eat that makes a person lose weight?”
No, I tell her. Eat what you want when you want it and your body will figure out what it wants to be. Trust your body.
And then I leave the room and cry a little. I helped to do this. Although I never said the word “diet” in front of my daughter, never spoke about anyone’s weight, I did this to her. Kids don’t miss a trick and my daughter saw how I used to dress in the morning, how I turned to examine my profile, standing tall, sucking in my gut, smoothing the front of my pants or skirt. She noticed when I stopped eating bread the year she was 3. Yes, I tried Whole30 six years ago and yes it worked for a while, how could it not? You try not to lose weight while abstaining from alcohol, grains, dairy and legumes.
Now try deciding what you actually want and tell me which is harder.
Thanks to our modern world, I can pinpoint almost to the minute when I decided to give up dieting. As a former Weight Watchers customer — of course I am a former Weight Watchers customer — I received an email when the company announced it was rebranding itself as WW — “wellness that works.” Suddenly, the whole con was clear to me. On Sept. 24, 2018, at 11:42 a.m. I DM’ed a screenshot of the email to a friend and added: “fuck it NO MORE DIETING. EVER.”
“I have been worried about my weight for 45 years, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this to my kid. I’m almost 60 years old and some part of me is still worried that not enough men find me fuckable. People talk about the White House distracting us, nothing has distracted me as much as this stupid battle with my weight and my looks, both which are fine, almost everybody’s weight and face is [sic] fine, and way too many benefit from getting us to think otherwise.
What would happen to the global economy if all the women on the planet suddenly decided: I don’t care if you think I’m fuckable.”
I don’t know how the global economy is doing, but this one consumer is trying hard to keep her dollars, her clicks, and vast swaths of brain real estate from worrying about whether men desire her.
I appear on a radio show several times a year and sometimes I say things that men don’t like. For example, I once opined that homophobia isn’t the only thing wrong with “jokes” about men raping other men. They’re rape jokes and rape jokes aren’t funny.
Every girl remembers her first diet. Usually, it’s her mother’s.
When I say things like that, there are men who want to set me straight. “You rape my eyes, you rape my ears, you rape food,” one wrote, beneath a copy of my perfectly lovely author photo. That’s the running theme: These men do not want to have sex with me. I joke about this with the radio show’s producer, tell him I have found common ground with my Internet trolls: They don’t want to have sex with me and I don’t want to have sex with them. But who am I kidding?
They totally want to have sex with me.
There was another book I used to read in Waldenbooks while standing up, but I finally gave in and bought it. It was called The Rape of the A*P*E* (American Puritan Ethic). A nonfiction cultural survey of American attitudes toward sex, it was written by Allan Sherman, of “Hello, Mother, Hello, Fadda” fame. It was an odd book and my sister rightfully mocked my compulsive reading of it, but one passage remains lodged in my brain.
Every man knows, deep down, that a woman who wants to have sex can find someone to have sex with her. Men have no such confidence. Women can get laid anytime they want to. Men cannot.
This is a) paraphrased, b) terribly heteronormative, and c) almost certainly not true. But my hunch is that it feels true to many men, especially men who can’t get laid.
I don’t know how many men subscribe to this idea, and correlation isn’t causation, but the incel coping handbook probably includes these tips.
Make women feel bad about themselves all the time.
Have impossible standards for female beauty.
Seize control of women’s bodies however possible and, yes, that includes anti-abortion laws.
Invent high-def television and social media so women will be constantly bombarded with unflattering images of themselves.
A few weeks ago, Christie Brinkley, the unattainable standard of beauty in my 20s, posed in a bathing suit to show how great a 60-something woman can look in a bathing suit. You should read the comments. Men complained that she was showing off, that she was needy, that she should get over herself. (Obviously, you shouldn’t read the comments.)
We literally cannot win with these guys and by “we” I mean anyone who wants an authentically feminist candidate in 2020. So I’m denying them the privilege to judge me; only I can judge me. I’m beautiful and I like my body. Perhaps that is not a popular opinion. I’m OK with that. I have lots of unpopular opinions. I adore chardonnay. I collect visionary art. I am not fond of the novels of Ian McEwan. Anthony Hopkins was the worst Hannibal Lecter.
I have decided I like the way I look and I’m the expert. Who has spent more time looking at me than I have?
I no longer own my copy of Rape of the A*P*E, but another mass market paperback has traveled with me from Evanston, Illinois, to Waco, Texas, to San Antonio, Texas, to Baltimore and remains in my office to this day. In the book’s most indelible scene, a woman stands in a neighbor’s freezing apartment, compulsively wolfing down cookies. She cannot eat just one cookie because she can never eat just one cookie. She eats all the cookies, rationalizing that her neighbor, who has left his keys in her care while he is away, might not remember he had any cookies if there are no cookies at all.
This is not a novel. It is Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, published in 1978. As Orbach wrote in The Guardian last year, on the occasion of the book’s 40th anniversary, she is dismayed that it’s still in print, still relevant. Having identified the problem — women use compulsive overeating to soothe themselves in a world where too many demands are placed on them — she hoped the problem would be solved. It wasn’t. The fact that her book is still in print is a kind of failure, a rare thing for an author to say.
My plan — eat what I want, when I want — is cribbed from Orbach’s advice and the work of eating disorders expert Geneen Roth. It should be simple.
But Orbach, in her Guardian essay, zoomed in on an important development in the processed food industry: The makers of junk food are creating snacks that disrupt our natural sense of satiety. These Frankenfoods are designed to make us want more even when we’re full.
So if you like the occasional bag of Utz Cheese curls — and, boy, do I — you have to accept that it is the food equivalent of being diddled by an incel. To paraphrase a favorite Steve Earle song, you won’t ever be satisfied. Recognize that there are billion-dollar industries that cannot be billion-dollar industries if they can’t create this dissonance, if they can’t persuade people to want what they don’t want.
Eat what you want when you want. It sounds simple. But many of the women I know seldom ask themselves what they really want. Women of my generation, in particular, still grapple with all their appetites. As I write this, I am sitting at my dining room table, feeling the day’s first flicker of hunger. What do I want? There are doughnuts on the kitchen counter, fancy ones. Do I want those? No, I’ll crash and burn in a few hours. Do I want another cup of coffee? I don’t know. What about the leftover frittata from last night’s dinner? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
Eventually I eat a fried egg sandwich. It is exactly what I want.
As it turns out, The Greengage Summer, the book that held me in its thrall in a corner of Waldenbooks begins with compulsive overeating: “On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from the greengages.”
“Greengages” are plums. “We” are five English siblings, living in a hotel in Marnes while their mother recuperates from a horsefly bite. The story is told by Cecil, 13 during the greengage summer. By Chapter 5, the kitchen boy, Paul, has “casually and calmly” put his hands under Cecil’s dress, felt her breasts, then said with a dismissive laugh: “Deux petit citrons.” Cecil is insulted.
“He laughed again at the outraged look on my face and, with his finger, tapped my nose as one would a little animal if it were too eager.”
I think when life gives you petit lemons, you should make lemonade — and refuse to share it with people who treat you rudely. I think Cecil should have reached into the kitchen boy’s pants, casually and calmly, given his testicles a nice tug and offered her own fruit comparison. Deux petit pommes. Wormy, mealy apples at that.
Ah well, the kitchen boy comes to a bad end. And the novel is really about Cecil’s older sister, 16-year-old Joss, whose nubile beauty brings out the worst in their reluctant hostess, Mademoiselle Zizi, who sees the girl as a rival. Because, obviously, older women are driven mad by beautiful young women. Everyone knows old women are disgusting. I recently listened to an NPR show — NPR! — with a series of punchlines about granny panties, Angela Lansbury, and what was intended to be a gross-out image of an old woman in a crotchless thong. Every day, everywhere I go, the culture is keen to remind me how repulsive I am.
I thump the culture on the chest, push back and say one of the most infuriating things a woman can ever say: Actually, I like the way I look.
I am gorgeous, but I am not perfect. Since September 24, 2018, 11:42 a.m., I have slipped a few times from the path of my non-journey. I bought a book with a title so stupid I can’t bear to tell you its name. And I signed up for Cooking Light’s “diet,” but only for the healthy recipes. I pick and choose from the weekly eating plans, selecting dinner recipes, ignoring the breakfast and lunch suggestions. I Googled “best swimsuits for women over 50.” I bought three. None of them has a skirt and one is a two-piece.
I have decided I like the way I look and I’m the expert. Who has spent more time looking at me than I have?
Memorial Day came, the pool opened and I showed up in one of my new suits, a flattering cut, but not one of those “slimming” brands that make you feel as if you’re wearing a whalebone corset. I looked great. Then I noticed — everyone looked great.
That’s the final step in accepting one’s gorgeousness. You then have to concede everyone is gorgeous. You have to turn off that judge-y voice in your head, stop making comparisons, stop congratulating yourself on whatever tickets you won in the genetic lottery, while bemoaning the gifts that weren’t bestowed. Let your eyes drink everyone in. Don’t be Mademoiselle Zizi, unnerved by anyone younger, prettier, skinnier. Eat all the greengages you want.
Remember the dance teacher who told me I had a pot belly? In my senior year of high school, I was in the chorus for Carousel. The choreographer did not choose me to be part of the dance troupe, which was fair, because I sucked. Weeks passed and she never got around to making up any dance steps. The director sacked her and hired my old dance teacher to whip the show into shape. She immediately asked me to join the dance troupe.
“But I’m not that good,” I said.
“No, you’re not,” she agreed. “But you work hard and you do whatever I tell you to do. I’ll get what I need out of you.”
I still remember the boy who was tasked with the job of lifting me during “June is Bustin’ Out all Over.” David Boyd — I’m pretty sure that was his name, his face is more vivid to me — was a quiet blond, lithe and athletic, and every girl in Wilde Lake High School should have been in love with him. One long Sunday, the dance teacher made me run at him again and again and again until, finally, we found the equilibrium that made it possible for him to lift me.
Our dance teacher shouted: “YOU CAN THANK ME FOR THOSE BICEPS, DAVID BOYD.” Surely, I was the one to be thanked?
A lift requires both dancers to do their parts correctly. In the end, it won’t matter how light the female partner is if she can’t muster the confidence to run, hit her mark, and leap. (You’ve seen Dirty Dancing, I presume.) I was 5-foot-9 and solid as a linebacker. And, it should be noted, beautiful. Prom photos, graduation night photos all show a lovely young woman.
That’s the cliché, right? Nora Ephron advised young women to put on bikinis and keep them on until they turn 34, a rather arbitrary cut-off, but it’s Ephron, I suppose the arbitrariness is part of the “joke.” All the women I know look at old photos and say, “Da-yum” or words to that effect. We are Mademoiselle Zizi and Joss both, forever competing with our younger selves.
But if you believe you looked good when you were younger, then simply imagine your future self in a parallel universe, studying 2019 photos and saying, “Da-yum” at how you look now. Stop waiting. Stop entrusting praise to others, especially to sad deluded men who think our bodies are theirs to judge. It is not the trolls or the blunt dance teachers or even our partners who get to tell us we are beautiful. No one can lift us up until we choose to leap.
Back up. Take a running start, launch yourself not at another person, but a soft bed or sofa or even a swimming pool. Consider, as you leave terra firma, saying those dangerous, forbidden words out loud. Pick any of the sentences I have peppered throughout this piece, knowing how subversive they are for someone who is 60: I am a knockout. They totally want to have sex with me. I’m gorgeous. I looked great. Do you know how hard those words were to type, how often I flinched? But I wrote them, I say them without a flicker of irony and, go figure, I’m finally beginning to believe them.
* * *
Laura Lippman is an award-winning crime novelist and New York Times bestseller. She has published more than 20 novels, a novella, a short story anthology and a book for children. This summer, she will publish Lady in the Lake, a crime novel set in 1960s Baltimore.
Editor: Sari Botton
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‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
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Every Day I Write the Book
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