Writing by Anne Lamott
A new member of the big, comfy underpants set ponders why women are ostracized for “letting themselves go.”
I used to go to parties quite often, for the company and maybe a few free shots of the fermented mare’s milk.
When my father was still alive, I used to go with him to parties peopled by writers and musicians, and I’d feel honored to be there since I was underage and unpublished. And besides, when I was with my dad, it was like being the daughter of the king. But after he died, I mostly stopped going to parties at all. I would rather be home, all alone and feeling sorry for myself. (Alcoholics are the only people who want to be held and comforted when they’re isolating.)
But I have gone to three parties recently. (I felt I had to go to all three, for reasons I won’t go into here.) At two of these parties, I spent the entire time thinking about how much I hated everyone on earth and wondering what kind of nightmarish roommates one gets in heaven if one thinks such ugly thoughts: survivalists, jazzercise instructors, the GOP House managers and their ilky ilk. But at the third of these parties, with a good friend on either side, I realized once again that there is only one person any of us really hates. It’s the gift our parents gave us that just keeps on giving. It’s the potted plant of self-loathing they asked us to hold for a moment—like one of those old Candid Camera setups where the innocent bystander is asked to hold a plant, or a cat, for a troubled but friendly stranger who then never shows up again. And so the nice person like me stands there holding the damn cat, wanting to do the right thing.
So, it was a birthday party that moved outdoors when the winter sun surprised us all one afternoon, and I plopped down on a rough wooden bench between these two old friends. Both are women in their 50s who had come alone. Both are brilliant, and a little fat.
One of them has always been zaftig from the waist down: Her granddaughter says to her with enthusiasm and admiration, “You have a great big butt!” But the second woman has always been thin and beautiful and ambitious, in a distinctly soft and soulful way. She has been considered a player in Hollywood, an actress turned director of art-house movies. Then she got cancer. She had surgery and chemo; then she went to convalesce at a nearby Zen center.
I had not seen her since then, but when I walked into this party, I saw that she had gained a lot of weight. Some of us old bulimics are like people at carnivals who can guess weights within two pounds. So I’m guessing 25 or 26 new pounds. I kept noticing her hands resting on the swell of her belly under a simple stylish black linen dress and I was secretly shocked. I know this does not make me look very spiritually evolved, but here goes anyway: It was like seeing Kate Moss with fat arms.
“You look so wonderful,” I said. And that is true—she looked stunning—but what I wanted to say was, “Oh my God! You got fat!”
She has the most exquisite eyes: soft heathery green, stormy sea green.
“I’m used to you being so skinny,” I said. “You look so much better.” She really did; she looked softer, rounder, this big soft sweet pillow of tummy rising out of her dress. But I wanted to ask, “Would you mind coming into the bathroom with me and hopping up on the scales?”
It’s a very complicated dynamic for me. In the last year, I have joined the big comfy underpants set, and it has taken me a year to stop thinking of myself as morbidly obese. People tell me I look normal now, but what I hear is that they think I look like Marlon Brando.
It’s so automatic in me: I recently saw a beautiful woman I knew when I was still drinking, who betrayed one of my best friends. She used to be one of those shapely sylph types, and now—this may sound harsh—she looked like a really pretty manatee. And I thought, Hah hah!
So there I was at the party, with all my usual feelings of shyness and dread and social retardation, talking to these two women I’ve known forever and adore. And for a while I comforted myself by thinking, Well, at least my butt is not half as fat as HERS, and my stomach is not as fat as HERS. But then I’d feel misery, hold my little potted plant of shame.
After lunch we were informed that there was a dessert in the kitchen, one requiring some assembly. First you put a slice of yellow cake on your plate, and then hot chocolate sauce. Then you covered that with three kinds of berries and crème fraîche. I watched my two friends make up plates for themselves, and I felt fear and craziness build up inside me. At first I claimed to have a stomach ache and just took a pile of berries.
The three of us sat outside in the sun eating. Susan said that as part of her healing at the Zen center, she decided to let herself have the comfort of cookies with her afternoon lattes. I thought how great that was; I mean, if you had cancer. I sucked on a blueberry. I don’t even like blueberries.
Many of the women at this party work in film, or their partners do, in Hollywood, and they are mostly quite trim and well-appointed. My friend Susan sat on the wooden bench looking like a cross between Meher Baba and Linda Evans, with her hands on her belly, beneath her black linen shift. A number of women were wearing the same sort of tastefully simple linen that Susan had on, but they were poised and mingling and busy, darting around as if trying to catch something they could use, and she was just sitting there, listening, smiling.
I’ve known many of the people there for years, and I like them. They’re smart and kind and cool: For the most part, they’ve been assigned vacation lives, like I have—creative lives in beautiful surroundings. But this day I watched them work the party, because it’s hard not to. They commanded time, compared notes on how well things were going, all but handed out business cards. I felt a certain tenderness toward everyone, and tried not to check out their butts and tummies. The three of us sat with our hands cupped like visors over our eyes, like squinty see-no-evil monkeys.
People came over to talk to us but no one sat down. Everyone stopped by to find out how Susan was doing and to catch her up on their lives, which are seriously happening lives. I tried to listen with Susan’s compassionate Zen ears, and so it was all quite touching, to hear them lay their lives out like smorgasbords—”Oh, this is so tasty” and “I think you’ll like that” and “Here’s an interesting morsel”; and Susan would taste, and say by her kind face, “You’ve made such a good banquet, oh, these are all such delicious dishes. Thank you.” But then people would bustle off to other vertical, thin, happening people—the head of a major studio, a well-known actress, the director of a major film festival.
There was a woman there who is my age and we’re the same height. But she is still quite thin, and now I’m part of the comfy underwear set. She has the body of a 20-year-old, toned and buff, and she drank mineral water and ate celery sticks, like the eat-no-evil monkey. And I decided then and there that I must become thin again. I would wake up the next day, go for a run, and then get into The Zone. Eat more meat, fish, eggs, bacon. Maybe I would get a housekeeper to get my son ready for school, while I was at the new Pilates studio in Mill Valley. And she would have bacon waiting for me when I returned.
Susan got up and went inside for a moment and I said, smiling to my other friend, “God, she has always been so skinny.”
Now, through the window I could see that Susan still looked extraordinarily beautiful, radiant, attentive, gentle. But I kept thinking of all the women in my childhood who let themselves go, and how my father watched them and let me know that it was disgusting to him. The softness of women’s bodies, the thighs that are not like a man’s, the joy and abandon in all kinds of food, the lack of self-control.
My friend smiled and finished up her first serving of dessert. I sucked on another blueberry. I actually dislike blueberries. I picked one up and tossed it into the bushes. “I hate blueberries,” I told my friend.
“Then why don’t you go get some cake?”
I didn’t answer for a moment. “Because Susan’s stomach is fat,” I said.
“No, it’s not. She’s just not skinny anymore.”
I thought about this for a minute and went back to savoring the image of how lean I would be after all that bacon. I sucked on this hope like a Lifesaver. But when I turned to listen to something my friend was saying, I realized I was looking at her through my father’s eyes, seeing what he would have seen, which was someone he didn’t want to sleep with. This is where I got my sense of beauty: women my father wanted to —-. My friend looked so beautiful, rosy, basking in the sun, while I sat eating food I didn’t like. And then in my mind there was a fluid, undulant movement, like the shiftings inside a lava lamp, and after a minute I said, “I think when I need a daddy, I start to become him. I channel this ancient disgust, so I can be with him again. It’s like . . . Norman Bates.”
My friend looked at me gently. “Could you channel someone nicer?”
So I did. First I channeled Grace Paley, and then Whoopi Goldberg, and then my friend Susan, who was still in the house. And all of them thought I should have some dessert. I got up and went inside. I got some cake, with a ladle of hot chocolate sauce, crème fraîche, raspberries on the side.
“Don’t you want some blueberries?” the dessert caseworker asked.
“No, thank you,” I said. “I hate blueberries.”
I walked back outside with my dessert and sat on the long wooden bench. My friend with the big butt tried to get me to give her a bite, as a finder’s fee, but I held up my fork in a threatening way. It was so delicious. I ate while we watched a long-haired man with a didgeridoo set up in the garden. A didgeridoo is one of those long, tubular Australian instruments that Aborigines play; they are termite-hollowed logs. The man blew into his didgeridoo, and out came a low windy moan, dirgelike, eerie. I finished my cake, put the plate down on the ground, then closed my eyes to the party, to the sky, so I could hear better. I felt someone sit down on the bench beside me, and I knew that it was Susan. I reached for her hand without opening my eyes. The voice of a didgeridoo is a call from far away, centuries old. If you pressed your ear to the earth, it’s the sound the earth would make. Some of the notes are like an enormous animal panting at the end of its life. I opened my eyes and smiled at my two friends, who looked ripe and yielding and soft, like things that were rising and ready to bake. The three of us shook our heads in wonder at the man and the music he was making. It sounded like an ancient God, or the way desert winds must have sounded to the first ears on earth. If it were a color, it would be rich and planty purple, like eggplant, earthy with light behind it.