a jot about publicity and weight loss

This is, in part, a matter of privacy. What information do we have the right to keep to ourselves? What boundaries are we allowed to maintain in our personal lives? What do we have a right to know about the lives of others? When do we have a right to breach the boundaries others have set for themselves?

People with high public profiles are allowed very few boundaries. In exchange for the erosion of privacy, they receive fame and/or fortune and/or power. Is this a fair price? Are famous people aware of how they are sacrificing privacy when they ascend to a position of cultural prominence?

There are many ways we have surrendered privacy in the information age. We willingly disclose what we’ve eaten for breakfast, where we spent last night and with whom, and all manner of trivial information. We submit personal information when registering for social media accounts and when making purchases online. We often surrender this information without question or reflection. These disclosures come so freely because we’ve long been conditioned to share too much with too many.


– “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories,” Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay

Two essays in Bad Feminist struck me regarding their usage of ‘publicity’ as a concept: the one above, largely in conjunction with our expectation that celebrities come out, and that this affects positively the safety of non-celebrity closeted individuals; and one regarding the public debates regarding women’s bodies and the laws that cover them. Notably, Roxane Gay is also a big woman, as I am a big woman, but her discussion of weight largely dealt with the identity politics of that and how a drive for safety motivated her weight gain, that bad things do not happen to big bodies. Identity politics here means: when you pick up fiction that involves weight loss as a plot device, what size is the author? Does that matter? She’s as carefully evenhanded there as is she is throughout the rest of the work, but I thought it odd that despite her making public her experiences at fatcamp, despite the coverage of the publicity of embodiment for women and queer individuals, that weight and public perception wasn’t addressed.

Part of that is perhaps that talking about a fat body being a public matter seems mega-duh. If you’re big, ain’t no disguising that.

I have lost 95 pounds since 2012. 70 more to go if the body of my dreams could be a number; 50 and the doctor would never bring it up again. Lindy West described a ‘coming out’ moment for weight, which is powerful to hear, if you can get to that point in This American Life‘s podcast regarding it. When she says it, it comes off initially as if it should go with an angry gesture of the arm:”I’m fat“; before her voice wobbles and softens, “I’m fat.” West meant that there is a kind of virtue to being big but always trying to lose a bit more of yourself – you get praise for it, your corpulence is acceptable if temporary. So long as you can make it clear that you don’t mean to be this way, it, perhaps you, become something like an elephant in the room. And that creates an interesting paradox: at the same time that a fat person feels that fact about themselves to be so patently obvious as to be painful, they are always worried that it will somehow be brought up as a label for them. The way I felt is like it is something true about me that I cannot bear to have revealed. “I’m fat,” soft and wobbly.

That strikes me as an interesting conceptual issue regarding publicity.

There’s a snarl in me when it comes to weight loss. For so long, I resisted any serious effort, and I did so because of the public humiliation involved. Very little in the world encourages a person to be big. There are certainly reasons to gain weight, or reasons to have inappropriate relationships with food, but almost nothing paints the Rubenesque form as desirable besides Peter Paul Rubens.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

Here a very subtle sneer. “That’s nice. Have you published anything?”

“Yup.” I offer up my abridged CV.

Suddenly they stand up a little straighter. A light goes on in their eyes.

A moment earlier they were talking to nobody, a nothing, but now they’re speaking with somebody, a person who matters.

“Wow,” they say. “That’s amazing.” And sometimes: “I always wanted to write a book.” And sometimes: “I have a great idea for a book.” And sometimes: “Maybe you could help me write my book.”

This dynamic awakens a ferocious dormant animal, a snarling girl with a big mouth, too smart for her own good, nothing to lose, suffering privately. She’s me at fifteen, more or less. When she is ready to stop suffering privately, she’ll become a writer.

Oh really, she says. Now I matter? Wrong, motherfucker: I mattered before. (Also: Nope, can’t help you write a book, best of luck.)

She’s a little trigger-happy on the misanthropic rage, this snarling girl.

The Snarling Girl, Elisa Albert

Albert captured it so well. Snarls abound in me. I snarl in certain intellectual bravado contests, and I snarl at apparent instagram success, fuck you and your Hampton house, and I snarl whenever I plan out my meals, whenever I step on the scale, whenever I inch towards a dear goal I inch towards through small, consistent sacrifice. Like its mammalian upper-lip origin, it’s all about defense: I snarl when my value, my right to inhabit a certain territory, is questioned. The thing about losing weight is that what you want is public, you want a body that will at least not incur negative behaviors particular to weight, and ideally garner wanted attentions. But it ain’t a one-and-done affair. If you’re big enough that it matters, it’s going to take a while – everyone you know suddenly knows something about you. You want to be thin. You want to capitulate to a particular bullshit standard, my snarling girl says. Everyone I know would know that I want them to like me better than they do, for reasons that any Disney film will pantomime are foolish.

And to make matters worse, I want it, for reasons I think are foolish. I’m not unhealthy. I have impeccable blood pressure, have lifted weights, ran, stand for four hours a day, walk at least 5000 steps a day at work and above 15000 on the weekends. My body works. There are more delicate health issues that weight loss would prevent as a long-term practice, but in effect I am able.

Still, I measure out my meals into two-cup portions, vegan, chock full of those vegetables I never bothered with while I watched my indecently thin father eat chips and cookies all night long. I exercise. I feel guilt whenever my weight swings upwards, or I eat an unplanned cookie. I pat my collarbones all day at work. Is the bone more visible. Is there less than there was before. I’d love to be beautiful. Everyone wants that, and I do, too, and I know better. That, too, is about publicity, but it’s not about how my body is or is not public; it is about how a public value contrary to my big body somehow migrated inside it. The snarl in me is not always the right response, but it is a response that takes my worth as unquestionable. Lindy West’s coming out is a restatement of that. Fat, and not changing. Fat, and fine. Sometimes weight loss seems like a devil’s bargain between valuing what you want and valuing yourself. Get what you want – if you change yourself. Stay the way you are – and remain removed from what you’d like to be, perhaps the instrumental goals a different size could offer.

Body positivity has things to say about this. I’m not the only big woman in the world. Baby, it’s just a jot. So it is: no conclusions, but Gay’s book was deeply thoughtful, with one obvious gap to me, and that made me think. Now there’s another gap here. Isn’t that what it’s all about, collarbones?

a monty python reference

For what it’s worth: the blog and I are not dead yet [long live blog]. There’s been no particular reason for the inactivity, and now no particular reason for its resurrection. Probably how Frankenstein felt.

I picked up Hits1 in 2014 as I exited a graduate program in Philosophy, hoping for a real job. I took me the better part of 2015 to score one, and score is a funny verb when even saying “World, one jillion, Sophia, love,” is too poetic for the actual situation, you have to enunciate zero, “Sophia, zero.” I work as a facilities customer service representative for a large banking conglomerate: every little girl’s dream. Probably I won’t ever talk about that again, as it seems, well, professionally suicidal, but largely my life has been commuting to that gig, working that gig, then collapsing at home and watching something on Netflix I’ve already seen so that I can trust that something pleasant will happen that day. Somehow that has carried on into the end of 2016.

Though there are bright spots.

Meet Willa.

See this Instagram photo by @raygunsue * 7 likes

babies. #rabbitsofinstagram

See this Instagram photo by @raygunsue

I adopted Willa and Sherman from a rabbit rescue. They spend their days destroying furniture and looking at me suspiciously.

I hope you will be hearing from me soon. I aim to write a bit more. Surely that’s how one hopes, right? Just let me write a little bit more.2

Thank you, to the stranger who reached out.

halls of mirrors

As is the case everywhere else, we must, in the novel, distinguish between making tools and reflecting on the tools made.

– “Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov,” in Critical Essays (Situations I), Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Christopher Turner, 2010.

I had the pleasure of asking a teenager a difficult question. My former university hosted an Ethics Bowl, where high schoolers and college students compete by responding to contemporary ethical dilemmas using moral philosophy. They’d noted John Locke as defending the preservation of as many rights as is possible. I asked them if they could justify the preservation of rights secularly, as Locke had rooted his defense in the Garden of Eden. They looked at one another and repeated their point.

The pleasure of being a judge in these sorts of competitions is the opportunity to play mouthpiece to the doubtful part of yourself. I don’t know how to justify the preservation of rights as much as possible, but what I hoped to find, in the students’ answer, was a recognition of the applicability of a question like that. Regardless of the availability of an answer, the question makes sense to ask.

Much later, I came across Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel,” referencing books I haven’t read and terms for literary canon that I am not familiar with, but found a familiar refrain. The two paths seem to deal primarily with what a person can control, and what she can’t. The first path, presented by Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, seems to affirm that there is some hope, for control, or clear thinking, such that one can make choices in the world, such that it makes sense to go on being in the world. The second path, presented by Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, is either a cynicism about that interaction between you and what you can’t control, or a denial of that interaction being ‘settled’ in favor of either party. Both paths involve a self-consciousness of being novels, and accordingly take a stance on what novels can do.

The first path seems obvious to me. Looking back over what I’ve written, so often how I’ve defended (even only privately) a piece of art rests upon how it reinvigorates oneself. Notably, the kind of invigoration I’m talking about doesn’t involve selling everything you own and sailing around the world, but rather getting up, just as you did yesterday, and giving it one more day. And like my difficult question to that teenager, there is an obvious question with applicability here: why is it good to keep on giving it one more day? Surely it must be the case that, sometimes, it isn’t. Someone I met briefly in a sweaty Colorado hostel once told me it boiled down to food and sex and compliments.

At the very least, this sort of art makes sense to make. At the very least, it makes sense to write novels that are optimistic about the writing of novels, such that a good novel can keep you going. Work on the second path is less clear to me. Reviewing Nabokov, Sartre might have said it best:

Mr. Nabokov (whether out of timidity or scepticism is not clear) is at pains not to invent a new technique. He mocks the artifices of the classical novel, but ends up using them himself, even if it means suddenly foreshortening a description or a piece of dialogue by writing, more or less, ‘I’m stopping now, so as not to lapse into cliche.’ This is all well and good, but what is the outcome? First a sense of unease. Closing the book, one thinks what a lot of fuss over nothing. And then, if Mr. Nabokov is so superior to the novels he writes, why does he write them? You would swear it was out of masochism, so as to have the pleasure of catching himself redhanded in an act of fakery. And then, lastly, I’m willing to admit that Mr. Nabokov is right to skip the big novelistic set-pieces, but what does he give us in their place? Preparatory chatter (though when we are duly readied, nothing happens, excellent little scenes, charming portraits and literary essays. Where is the novel? It has dissolved into its own venom: this is what I call a literature of the learned.

– “Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov,” in Critical Essays (Situations I), Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Christopher Turner, 2010.

The marker of a philosophical education, like any education, seems to be well-surveyed nescience. You know that you do not know so very many things. The same seems to go for a certain kind of novel, amounting to a criticism of writing novels, and the way that novel-writing may represent a deep, generically human desire to make sense of our lives, and have that making-sense have value. You read novels and start to see the yawning gap of what novels cannot do. Accordingly, you may find a yawning gap between your life and your ability to make sense of it. You may press the snooze button repeatedly.

The tempting answer is that the optimistic path can at least account for its selection. It makes sense to write novels that defend why one ought to write novels, and less sense to write novels that do not. But the temptation of this answer is lessened if its defense requires a defense — perhaps that optimistic novels make sense of the enterprise of writing novels might lead to the question of, well, why fucking write novels?.

Worse, when artistic works seem to exclusively focus on artistic works, or what artistic works in general mean. They start to seem as meaningful as a hall of mirrors. My friend Cotton and I would bat that back and forth. He defended this by stating that art is about life, and isn’t art a part of life?

A diary entry about navel-gazing wouldn’t be complete with considering why I would even write such an entry. How clever of me to refrain.

coal-mining, a diary entry

… When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it…
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing…

– from “Courage,” by Anne Sexton

I’ve been wanting to write something about those last two lines, ‘courage as a coal you kept swallowing,’ for so long that I forget precisely what the content was meant to be. Now I find myself thinking about middleschool, and being told by others that I was a lesbian, and how I took it and said, “Yep.” Not because I really thought it was true, but because I thought if you owned what other people tried to shove on you, they’d never own you. I had a similarly wrong-headed approach to good intentions, where I would lie about what I did and why I did it, saying I did bad things, so that my good intentions remained good, instead of self-promotion, let me tell you just how good I am, ma’am. But it was a relief to be a lesbian. The reason they called me it was because I was deficient in some womanly sense — meaning that no boys thought I was hot — but calling myself a lesbian was a right-back-‘atcha, I-don’t-like-you-either-move. I wore anything that made me look unisex for the majority of school.1 Funnily, frivolously, a big part of growing-up in college involved me realizing that if I thought something was beautiful, that was enough of a reason to wear it. It would not somehow ‘clash’ with me. This is how I came out as a straight woman. For a few years, though, every time I put on a scarf or a cardigan or a skirt, I was waiting to be ripped to shreds.2

I decided not to go forward with philosophy, and when I recount that decision in the most authentic-feeling way, I say that it’s because I could not write the damn papers without clawing them out at the last minute.3 You feel nude when you say “Moran’s account of self-knowledge lacks the right kind of error,” and I felt nude when I bought my first big red scarf and wore it over my same-old grubby clothes. Now I wear big honking boots and primary colors and give no fucks, but I still feel that former nudity, when making claims, and I wonder about whether or not this is a womanly thing, too.

Most of the women in my graduate program apologize before they speak, on any very public occasion. Most of the young men do not.4 Usually the apologies take the form of good scholarship: “Apologies if I misunderstood, but…” acknowledges that you are responsible for understanding the material, even if you failed to live up to it. Sometimes I wonder how much the apology is a way to consolidate even insults, particularly if the same point is phrased like, “I’m sorry if this is stupid, or a waste of time, but…” The point being that if others say that it is stupid or that it is a waste of time, you knew it, you said it first, at the very least they’re confirming some part of what you said as true. It might even be courageous, to admit that you’re fallible openly … yet it seems more courageous to speak without qualification. And though so many young men do, sometimes you wonder if speech involves any courage, or is it just normal, does it take more out of some people to go without a word on the matter. Sometimes I wonder if difficulty is any sort of a guide for normativity: if it’s hard to speak, speak more; if it’s hard to sit quietly, count your pencils. Which is the coal to keep swallowing?

My idea of a writer: someone interested in everything.
Susan Sontag

Sometimes I wonder if choosing not to go forward with philosophy is a choice not to commit, on more than one level. I fantasized immediately after the decision about all the things I’ll read and see – and felt weightless, for the first time in years. At some point, I became afraid to read things. Not because of any difficulty in comprehension, rather the dangers of comprehension: I’d realize that some of the deepest beliefs I have, about goodness and how to conduct oneself, would turn out silly, misguided, unfounded. I did my work on practical reasoning, agency, and general methodological concerns. I’m a pretty good reader. And I always loved that philosophy, unlike everything else, seemed so demanding of every reader. Neutrality in the face of an argument was impossible. Either it followed, or it didn’t, and you ought to say something about why. When I decided not to continue with philosophy, I felt that some philosophical responsibilities, like eventually owning up to certain terrifying arguments in my field, had been lifted. I was just a conceited woman in a scarf again. That’s a kind of fear of commitment. But I was also afraid of only doing this work for a long time. Now that I am just a conceited woman in a scarf again, I wonder if I gave up the good work of a lifetime to half-ass it all. I suspect what Sexton meant by the coal is the temptation to buck duty. I can’t tell if it’s harder to keep going or stop going; I can’t tell if difficulty tells you anything about what you ought to do.

Charles Peirce wrote in “The Fixation of Belief” that doubt was difficult, whereas dogmatism was not. For a few years, now, I’ve been in that in between place, and I’ve wondered about how difficult doubt really is. (I wrote about it once.) The easy reply is that when doubt is easy you’re not actually doubting anything. This seems to be the difficulty in speaking and writing. If it’s too easy not to write something in the name of full consideration, maybe you’re not really considering it; if it’s too easy to commit yourself to something, maybe you’re simply avoiding real consideration. There’s a part of me that thinks that difficulty ought to be the guide here, but I’m not sure why, or how one can tell.

I’m still reading those big bad articles, by the by. I’m still scared. But now, it feels less like I’m letting the team down if, in the end, I agree that many moral claims aren’t true, don’t make sense, have no basis, or if I say that some piece of philosophy is not important, I cave to the skeptics. There were things that I thought someone ought to believe, and ain’t I someone? Now I feel like I owe only a different kind of ought. That’s difficult, too. I find myself more worried about living well than I was when I expected to go forward. I find myself thinking about how committed I am at every moment, what I eat, what I do, how I interact with entertainment, how I help others, what I say to my parents on the phone. I want to try to write about them. That’s difficult … and good. Wish there was a bigger bang here. Just wanted to write that I am thinking about writing.

shame

I bit into a pancake with chocolate and bananas while debating a friend-of-friend’s opinion about the harmfulness of Kim Kardashian’s ass, blushing, because I feel like when I talk about Kanye, or eat too much in public, I am catching all kinds of side-eyes for being double-chinned and frivolous. But many hours too late, I suddenly feel that much more frivolous, for talking big about how little I like Jay-Z, how Beyoncé is cleverly, conservatively catering to the 51% — over breakfast on the day after the Darren Wilson’s trial, about issues of race and public eye, my life going on as usual, a lot of terrible things going on as usual.