Whether portly or pleasantly plump, the girth of a human is a source of much discussion, distraction, and disbelief.
We can never quite agree on what would be the optimal way to inhabit the skin we’re in, probably humans come in all shapes and sizes. And if yours is a culture that places a premium on appearances at the expense of absolutely everything else, you may have been socialized into conforming to standards or ideals that don’t align with the size you’re most comfortable with.
Sizes are a strange obsession, all the more as they aren’t uniform but vary from one manufacturer, one brand, one country to the next because humans aren’t Lego figures.
When size matters most, chances are your clothes don’t fit quite right. Someone who isn’t comfortable with their body might buy a larger size than they need to hide their shape. Someone who is comfortable with their body might buy a smaller size than they need to show off their shape.
The end result is always a little odd, adding to our confusion about how to put our best self forward so others will accept us as we are.
And yet, we often skip the most important step: self-acceptance.
When I went to the DMV to get a Washington State ID in 2016, the counter clerk asked me for my weight and I was stumped.
Truth is, I have no idea. Also, I’m European-born and spent most of my adult life in the UK so I understand stones and I understand kilograms but I never got on with pounds (or Fahrenheit). Without the internet, my calculations are always tentative.
But I remember one thing from my late teens, a letter I wasn’t supposed to read from a cardiologist to my then GP, chiding me for being overweight at 64 kg, i.e. 141 pounds. I’m 5 ft 7 in, with wide shoulders and a (now softening) athletic built — I gave up yoga when my life went sideways in September 2018 and haven’t picked it up since. My state ID says 142 lbs, my medical records are similar, give or take a couple of pounds.
That cardiologist taught me a valuable lesson, albeit in a roundabout way: Control your weight to keep your heart healthy. I was 16 or so at the time, it stuck.
I’m a fan of bluntness but would have preferred the cardiologist to be direct.
My DMV lucky guess seems to have held true for the longest time but the way I measure and control my weight hasn’t changed.
I don’t. If a doctor wants me to step on the scale, I’m happy to comply because this isn’t something I do at home. I did have an electronic scale at one point but it proved to be hugely unreliable, depending on what surface I placed it on (carpet, wood floor, tiles) and then the battery died and I couldn’t be bothered to get a new one.
When lockdown happened, my household developed new food quirks. One of mine involved some cookies and chocolate beyond my usual 99% (or 100%) cocoa pick-me-up. But as a vegan with a pathologic dislike of heavily processed foods, those were the healthy, hippie foods that are fine every now and then but far too eye-wateringly expensive to become habits.
As a freelancer whose financial situation is best described as precarious, self-discipline is everything and I’ve been living on one meal a day for years. Hipsters call it intermittent fasting, I call it optimized nutrition within my means: I could eat more and more often but it wouldn’t be healthful. I prefer to focus on quality; to me, good nutrition is an investment in my health.
Every single meal I eat is special and a celebration of life.
It’s not difficult to eat well as long as you understand there’s only one ingredient that keeps you full: fiber.
The foods I favor fall into two main categories: bulk fiber (veggies, pulses, some fruit) and fat (nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, avocados, and unsweetened coconut yoghurt on occasion) plus the occasional treat thrown in (flavored tofu from Germany or Dutch tempeh). Save for tiny rainbow candy I initially mainlined when lockdown happened because they’re so cheerful and I could sort them by color before eating them, I’m not big on sugar.
My meal is generally homemade soup with many ingredients thrown in, a large salad obeying to the same principle, or a plateful of steamed or stir-fried veg with olive oil. Sometimes, it’s a boxed salad from the supermarket that makes me ridiculously happy because it’s chock-full of good stuff and lovely memories, so much so that I once dedicated an entire essay to it.
The one processed food I consume in large quantities is ‘magic yum powder’ aka nutritional yeast or ‘nooch’. Don’t let the bizarre name put you off, it’s a miracle ingredient that can liven up anything it touches; it can bind soups and sauces and make a tasty coating for oven-baked popcorn tofu.
It’s a nutritional powerhouse but try not to sneeze as you sprinkle it on stuff.
I am French-born and my culture explains my relationship with food: My parents never fed me ready-made baby food, they cooked it from scratch.
Generally, it was a blended version of whatever they were having.
This isn’t to say body image was always self-evident though. I was raised by a single mom who has always struggled with her weight although she has never been anywhere near obese. For a while, those insecurities rubbed off on me, too. French beauty standards can be a tyranny but it’s not like we don’t have plus-size fashion either. We do and — based on my stepmom’s dress sense — it’s pretty fabulous. It’s the same here in the Netherlands and in neighboring Germany.
Being cuddlier isn’t antithetical to style in Europe and needn’t break the bank either.
For my part, new clothes remain a luxury on par with three meals a day so if I ever get to the point when something doesn’t fit anymore, I have to adjust my body shape and make it fit again.
It’s a very simple equation.
You get to decide what you put in your mouth. Most of the time, no one is making you eat what you eat but you.
To avoid temptation, don’t buy — or order — junk and save treats for special occasions, which can be as made-up as you like (no one has cake only once a year on their birthday, that’d be a miserable way to live). For example, if you want a cookie that only one place sells and it is on the other side of town, going to get it is an outing that’ll likely cancel out the calories and you’ll enjoy every bite. Of course you’re either biking or walking to the store.
No need to get hung up on numbers and sizes as long as clothes fit. I haven’t put on a pair of trousers since lockdown began, preferring to live in dungarees so I’m not quite sure where I stand. My PJ pants give me pause for thought, I recall them being roomier but also longer and I doubt I’ve grown taller lately. Then again, washing machines can mess things up. If your favorite sweater comes out chihuahua-sized, that’s probably not weight gain.
Once you begin to see food as an integral part of life rather than the enemy, it opens up a whole new world. Weaning your taste buds off processed stuff may take a while, especially if it’s at odds with your personal — or family — food culture.
What if honoring yourself through food were the new standard?
Alas, geographical coordinates are the great differentiator and the pandemic has placed inordinate amounts of pressure on food banks.
America has many food deserts and those of lesser means cannot afford to buy in bulk and much less take a trek to the better grocery store that has everything but requires changing buses twice. Lest we forget, not everyone has a car and much less a driver’s license (I don’t, that’s why I have a state ID).
In contrast, I now live in the Netherlands, one of the biggest agricultural exporters in the world with a robust farmers’ market culture. If you have a small budget, turn up when stall holders are packing up and you can grab bargains. There’s also smaller versions of big name grocery stores dotted around neighborhoods, the produce section is excellent, and there’s always some offer going. As far as I can tell, the prices are the same regardless of the size of the store.
To us Europeans, food is so much more than fuel, it’s life and a love language — we don’t weaponize it the way Americans do and we celebrate it regardless of means. There’s no better example of this ethos than British political activist, media commentator, and formidable cook Jack Monroe who can create feasts out of simple staples — canned or otherwise — and whose recipes are all available online for free.
It’s never too late to eat better and feel good but it takes a little curiosity, a little experimentation, and the willingness to figure out what works for you.
Meanwhile, wear your food choices well and with pride.
Or blame the washing machine.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.