The Bastardization of Beauty: Sick or Sexy?

Several years ago, my sister-in-law died of a rare form of cancer.  She was strangled from the inside out by something called pseudo-myxoma peritonei, or jellybelly.  A gelatinous cancer grows and cuts off inner organs, in her case, her digestive system.  Every few years, over a decade, she would have surgery to scrape out the substance, until there was just too much to remove.  Then, she quite literally starved to death.  Horrifying and sad. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, ever.

However, being a woman who could go up and down in her weight range, especially as she aged,  Lori could enjoy at least one thing during the final years when she was sickly thin: the compliments, the size zero bragging rights.  “You look so Fabulous!”. And she almost seemed to forget that this had nothing to do with her choice. She was proud.  But then the end came near, and she was thinner, then even thinner, too tired to enjoy her model-like figure.

Yet the compliments continued.  She could only eat certain foods pureed, which would then mostly be emptied through a thick tube surgically attached to her belly.  Chew, swallow, remove. Not everyone knew that.  So you’d think that the people who asked, “What’s your secret?” could be forgiven.  However, our attachment to the svelte image is so powerful, that no, even those who knew Lori was dying, were an eesny bit envious of the fact that she was wearing  a teenager’s leggings.

This five foot seven woman who wasted away in front of our eyes was America’s standard of beauty. The constant imagery of The Thin has really screwed up our value system.

A year after she died, her sister, another of my dear SILs,  (which we affectionately address one another as Sissel) began having health problems of a different sort.  She has always had food issues, one week allergic to something, the next not.  Can’t eat chicken, can eat chicken.  Avoided sugar, yet jammed anything sweet into her mouth before she could stop herself. She, like the majority of women, began to battle her growing weight as she moved closer to middle age.

About six years ago, she was diagnosed with IGG deficiency. an autoimmune disease.  This helps explain her fluctuating food reactions.  Then last year, her Celiac artery was semi-blocked. Surgery successfully opened it.  Though no tests can show that her system has shut down, no test can illustrate a blockage anywhere, she is certain that she has gastroparesis or an intestinal blockage; she is able to eat hardly anything.  Gastroparesis is when the duodenum, the sphincter at the bottom of the stomach is paralyzed.

Her doctor goes along with it and uses the term gastroparesis loosely, believing my Sissel when she says she is full, nauseated, unable to eat another bite. My  SIL will swing between a diet of certain extremely bland (and fat-free) foods, a total liquid diet and nothing, stating that she just cannot eat another bite. The other day, my mother-in-law threw her annual corned beef and cabbage party, complete with Shamrocks and Irish Ditties.  When the rest of us, who ate like kings complained about “tickin'”, my SIL chimed in about how huge and uncomfortable she was, complaining about how hard it is to eat and nourish herself.

She had indulged in a calorie free bottle of Sobe, a soft cooked baby carrot, and half a water cracker (and those last two only because she just couldn’t resist.).  Her brother, my husband, asked her why she was drinking calorie free drinks if even water fills her up?  Good point.  If one supposedly cannot get sufficient calories without pain and effort, shouldn’t every sip have a calorie if possible? Well, she answered, she just doesn’t want sugar to be her calorie load.  She reports that her body can only digest about 800 calories a day and then seems to shut down, get backed up, become painful, nauseated. She wants her drinks to be for hydration only.  Yet even the calorie free drinks fill and block her.

Confusing.

Though the only evidence of a medical issue at this point is anecdotal, though we get conflicting illogical info from her all the time, we are all expected to play along, and feel sympathetic to this gastroparesis.  And we do.  The woman weighs herself every morning and evening.  This supposedly tells her if she is facing a few days of severe indigestion as her food just sits in her bowels, unmoving.  This weight change of a pound or two upward, lets her know she is about to be backed up.  Who cares that. EVERYone weighs more at the end of the day; she sees this as a sign and stops eating anything but a low calorie liquid diet.

I know that she might be right. She might really have a true medical event going on; she and her sister have had the rarest of conditions.  But then again, she might have an eating disorder.  Or she very well might be reliving her sister’s experience, sort of like men who suffer phantom pregnancies.  The two were very close, and Lori’s loss was painful for everyone.

Sissel has dropped 45 lbs. She hovers just beneath 100 lbs. Five foot 5..  If she drops below that, she will be forced on a feeding tube. Her legs look like a child’s, her ribs pronounced.  I feel sympathetic pain believing they might break just looking at them. She sleeps too much now, struggles to work because she lacks energy, literally.  800 calories ain’t much.

But again, everyone thinks SIL looks great!  (And they aren’t being kind and mannerly. They mean it. They wish. They envy. . . They joke about how to catch her “disease.”) SIL has been happily posting fresh pictures of her newly slender frame on FB.  Before that, she never bothered with Selfies. She has taken to wearing clinging clothes.  Her husband says how bitter sweet it is to see her wear things she hasn’t been able to fit in for over twenty-five years. Her mother’s friends compliment her on looking like a teenager.  My SIL loves this attention.  So do they.

Another close friend of ours spent last summer with a fever,  vomiting everything. Doctors finally found a perforation in her bowels. A possibly deadly diagnosis. They saved her, but not before she lost fifty lbs. Again, the compliments rolled in. She felt like hell for months as she healed, but even her mother began sniping about how beautiful she was now; don’t regain the weight. (Her mother has actually been hospitalized for an eating disorder.)

My husband and I discussed how insidious this imagery-this thinking- is. When we reverse the gender, the underweight physique is so obvious, even deplorable.  If my husband weighed 120 lbs., or even 140 lbs, comparably adjusted for his height and gender to match my sisters’ puny sizes, would anyone ogle him with delight?  Would any woman admit that this man would then be her sexual ideal the way some men can only be sexually attracted to emaciated women?  Tony loses three pounds, and the whole family thinks he is sick or working too hard.  But folks everywhere find malnourishment in women intoxicating.

I can’t. Not anymore. Take the show Modern Family: I see voluptuous Sophia Vergaro as a beauty; I now watch Julie Bowen uncomfortably, who if you review her career, is a skeleton of her former self. She didn’t get that way as she aged, naturally.

I know there are certain people who are genetically thin-ectomorphs make up a small portion of the American population.  But my two sisters and my friend, even Julie Bowen, aren’t those people.   My Sissel says she is already looking at a menu that will help her keep her new figure should she ever eat normally again. . .How does she not see the flaw in her design? To remain that small demands she doesn’t eat normally.

I’m also aware now of how few calories someone must choose to eat if they are middle aged and want to be as thin as my sister. Way too few.  Undernourishingly few.  To do so, those dieters are denying themselves not only the pleasure of food, but health.

I know that culture often defines what we perceive.  But seriously, has culture gone so far down the skinny path that we no longer recognize illness, physical (or even mental).  We now think, oh, such beauty, when we are actually seeing self-denial, self-punishment, anorexia, even death?

I know this is not an original complaint.  But really, just like we had to push to change the habit of getting a dark tan to remembering to wear sun screen, can we change the image of sexy back to something safer in women?  Can we look at a woman who weighs 142 lbs. and think, lovely, healthy, centered, sexy, ever again? I’ll bet Sophia Vergaro isn’t 100 lbs.

I (don’t) Eat, Therefore I Am

God’s Guide to Food. God Sex Food. Women, Food, and God. All are titles of recent books. I figure most of them are about diets. I don’t really care. What I notice, though, is how many people seem to believe that if they can just get the right combo of foods. . .they will go to heaven. By people I typically mean my dinner guests. And by Heaven, I mean any wondrous place other than who they are right now.

And, as a person who likes to cook for others as a way of showering them with love, I am mighty weary of this crap.

My cook’s nightmare begins in grade school. Children younger than school-age dislike the typical gaseous cruciferous veggies because their tongues typically abhor the garbage after taste. This is true of all babies, pretty much. But visit any school and you will run into kids who dislike steak, or all things orange, or strawberries, or Cheetoes or anything that they can hold up and say, “I am the kid who Hates XYX; it is what makes me more special than you!” When you raise a family, you can watch your own kids try to board this trend when they ask, “Hey, Mom! Is there any food I get hives from?”. And they are disappointed when you answer, “No.” Worse, they start saying things like, “You know I can’t eat anything with leaves!” Uh, since when? Since you met that intriguing kid who can’t eat anything with eyes?

Since when did what we avoid on our dinner plates become the new vanity plate?

Now shift this to the college campuses, where students drink beer like water, cling to sushi stools like birds, and avoid animal proteins (other than raw fish), and any of its cosmetic byproducts like anthrax. Again, trendy identity qualifiers. Woah to the kids who actually eat burgers with their fries!

My own children have a mom who was rarely allowed to dislike any foods; I sneered at spinach for the bitter scummy feel it left on my teeth, and I had to eat it anyway; now I actually love it. I was reared by a Mom who almost always served a meat and three, along with a starch, while we travelled the world with an Air Force Dad; we children pretty much ate everything and liked it. But my own boys have a Dad whose pickiness was catered to: his mother served him “eggs and chips” whenever the rest of the family was enjoying a curried shrimp or a wine soaked rabbit. He wanted me to allow the same avoidance in our own children. When my oldest son squirmed at the veins of a chicken leg, his father defended him rather than point out how rude it was to reject the food we had paid for, and I had worked hard to serve.

Not that I condone guilting kids into eating. But what happened to acceptance and etiquette? Instead, their Dad (my ex) expected me to either cook several meals depending on the current wishes of each member of the household, or make eggs and chips every damned night. I fought this battle hard, and luckily my sons now have broader palettes than their father. But to give him some credit, though he still eats with a sniff and a sneer at many home meals, with his British roots showing, he learned to be politely accepting of whatever a hostess serves him when he leaves his own home.

Not so with, it seems to me, everyone else I know. . .

And like I said, I am certain that much of it is some sort of mass identity crisis. We have a friend who is a tier in the fruit-chewy, vitamin-pyramid trend out west. On a camping trip to Yosemite, while the rest of us enjoyed whatever the chow meister served, she was forcing greens on us through sweet green candies. All I saw her eat were these gummies. So just how does one gummy bear, provide all the nutrients, anti-oxidants, calories, and fiber of a nice, roasted crown of broccoli? And how are these different from store bought vitamins? Don’t ask her, or she’ll paper you in jumbled reports from labs (paid for by the company she represents. . .)

Most of all, she will come close to convincing you that she feels transcendent after a rainbow of chews. This diet defines her. I won’t even bother describing her negativity about our fireside S’mores, the anti-sugar personality is so recognizable and rampant amongst us.

As is the gluten free personality. It is so prevalent that even my bag of Almonds advertises itself as gluten free in order to make itself more marketable. (I love Seth Rogan’s interview with Terri Gross, where he pointedly makes her feel awkward about her avoidance of gluten. Track it down if you can) Yes, there are people who truly can’t handle gluten, just as some people can’t survive a bee sting. But for those of us who are not allergic, it has no ill effects. I know there are popular reports that defy my statement. Just as there are many that support it.

But just what makes so many people so willing to turn away from a grain that has carried humanity through millennia of its survival? Think Djokovic, the tennis phenom who, when he gave up gluten, was unstoppable on the majors track. Maybe if we give up gluten, we too will be and feel more god-like. (Never mind that he suffers Asthma, IBS, and a number of allergies, specifically to gluten, where many of us do not.).

Enter the Vegan. A choice that could be respectably a moral one, a physical one, or. . .as I am lamenting here, a personality. An identity. Sometimes it’s the victim voice, sometimes it’s the superior voice they use when the rest of us eat steak while they enjoy a grilled portabello, but either way, it is quite a vocal banner they wear. “Look at me, I’m a Vegan!”

Overall, I watch so many people I know (more often women than men) jump on these bandwagons for what they say is their health. But it feels very much as if they are seeking a new self, hoping for miraculous change. A friend of mine stuck to a gluten free, vegan month. She was hoping for something notable, some new vigor, dare I say, a whole new woman. She challenged herself and at the end of the month, she returned to lobster and filet and said: “Thank God, I am me. Take the last five years off my life. . .I’d rather have cheese.” She didn’t find a new her, but embraced herself.

Now my point isn’t that sugar, animal fats, salt, gluten, red dye number 666, are fine. Of course most of us will feel better if we enjoy moderation and daily exercise. Instead, I am arguing that abstinence is often trendy and over-controlling of others.

Bowl games 2014. I am often the cook for gatherings of friends, partly because I am good at it; mostly because few others cook (which is a topic for a later blog). I try very hard to create a menu that pleases people and meets their needs.

My sister-in-law has a shifting, never quite cemented, long list of foods she cannot (read:will not) eat. No meat (which may or may not include fish) No sugar. No soy. No Dairy. (unless she goes to Steak n Shake where she will completely ignore these rules, though she fully expects me to comply at all times. I love her, so I try.) My mother can no longer eat fish. My brother-in-law avoids red meat and sugar and cheese. A dear friend is sometimes Kosher. His wife is gluten free. My husband and I joke about another friend’s love life; our first question is always what is the latest woman in his life free of? Probably carbs, to round out our menagerie of “There’s nothing left to eat” fools.

One party where my fish-free Mom came, too. I wanted to make something warm and hearty ahead of time. We served chicken chili, gluten free corn muffins, a salad. I had already asked my SIL what I could make her, and she said not to worry. The people who were to bring a sugar free dessert “forgot”. The gluten free woman “really didn’t like chicken” so wouldn’t eat the chili The one for whom I made it in the first place because he loves chicken chili, enjoyed it, but also whined: “You know, if you had used soy crumbles then maybe______could eat it, too.” Whaaat, she CAN eat soy? I thought she couldn’t. I was offended.

Next party. Fish-free Mom wasn’t coming. I decided on shellfish stew, red based, since a few couldn’t/wouldn’t handle a cream base(though we all know a lobster bisque with sherry and cream is to die for). I chose this for my SIL, (no meat, no cream) who then wouldn’t eat it because the broth just wasn’t one of her faves (though she eats tomatoes, drinks tomato juice, and eats tomato sauce). I ended up grilling her fish and veggies (same ingredients from the stew).

At a gathering in the mountains, a guest didn’t eat asparagus because of the pee-changing effects. Another likes chicken, but not from the grill, could I pop theirs in the oven?

At a brunch last weekend held in honor of an out of town guest, addressing everyone’s issues, but also choosing something that didn’t require me to stand at the stove, I made a seafood quiche, using shrimp and crab,( SIL faves), and Eggs Beaters (to help the BIL’s cholesterol). I left off cheese on half of it since SIL can’t handle dairy, but a few of us embrace cheese. I also said-screw it-and made butter and sugar-laden cinnamon rolls from scratch. And I served fresh fruit, which was almost ignored.

Well. . .BIL sighs: quiche is not his favorite, but he’d eat it. Dairy-free SIL-happily and knowingly serves herself the side with cheese, which doesn’t leave enough for the cheese eaters. The cheese eaters had to take a cheese free slice.. But SIl also moans about eggs. . .another of her possible no-no’s.

And EVERYone devours the rolls, the anti-sugar, anti-gluten, anti-dairy alike.

The only thing consistent with our guests is their inconsistency.

I give up. I told my husband I am no longer cooking for friends and family. I cannot meet their needs obviously, and these typically sweet people allow their FOOD IDENTITIES to overrule etiquette and manners to the point of rudeness, and even confusion. And for what? To belong to some trend? To feel superior?

Just when I reached that boiling point, I saw an Easter Dinner commercial from Walmart. Two women are setting a table. One remarks about place cards. The hostess explains how she has to strategically place the vegan, the meat carver, the gluten free, and the sugar free away from or near certain foods.

If Walmart can mock this food identity issue, it must be so common place, that I am not the only cook suffering this silliness. The fact that guests now believe it is okay to treat hostesses like restaurants is a true problem. I am finished with asking people what they prefer to eat. I don’t care what your relationship to food and your God is. Take the initiative to tell me if there is a food that will cause you to swell and die in under 2 minutes, and I won’t kill you. Otherwise, bring your own dinner, host your own parties, or eat my food without a peep.