Notes from an Incomplete Revolution: Real Life since Feminism

Notes from an Incomplete Revolution: Real Life since Feminism

by Meredith Maran


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Notes from an Incomplete Revolution: Real Life since Feminism by Meredith Maran

Notes From an Incomplete Revolution defies political correctness and anti-feminist pieties to reveal just how far we have come—and how far we have to go—since "women's lib" upended our culture a quarter-century ago.

"I'd marched for reproductive rights, but I still mourned the baby I aborted when I was twenty. I'd been in a lesbian relationship for eleven years, but when my car broke down I still longed for a husband. I'd picketed beauty pageants, but I'd been secretly dieting for fifteen years...."

Through the intimate eye of her own experience, Maran speaks to the passionate concerns of women today: from breast cancer and sexual abuse to the challenge of raising children in a violent world. But she also finds much reason for rejoicing. And whether she's reminiscing about "free love" in the '60's, talking shoe styles with a transvestite, or learning how not to play racquetball "like a girl," this is writing to celebrate: alive with feeling and deeply engaged with the life of our times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553374896
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/04/1998
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.27(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.76(d)

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I remember exactly when I stopped eating breakfast. It was the summer of 1982, when I decided to change my life. I was thirty-one. I hadn't had a baby for two years, but I still weighed 135, twenty pounds more than my pre-pregnancy weight. Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw myself as I'd been when I was nine months pregnant with Peter: one hundred and eighty-five pounds. I saw my eyes, chin, cheekbones sunken into the bloated balloon of my face. The dimpled, loose flesh hanging from my thighs and upper arms. The rolling mountain range of my post-partum stomach. The unforgiving face of the scale, which reported dispassionately upon my return from the hospital that even after delivering a seven-pound baby and consuming nothing more caloric than ice chips, Jell-O, and bouillon all that postsurgical week, I still had fifty-three pounds to lose. Fifty-three pounds!

"Eating for two" (or in my case, for twenty-two) had given me the excuse I needed to relax my vigilance, indulge my long-suppressed hunger, surrender at last to my demon lover: food. And what a price I'd paid. My mother's warning had finally come true. "Your father was skinny, like you, when he was a kid," my mother used to tell me. "Then when he was twenty, he got fat, practically overnight. And you have your father's body." Now that haunting image--my once-trim self trapped forever in my father's fat body--was staring back at me. See what happens when you let yourself have what you want?

It wasn't just the twenty pounds (and gaining) that made me decide to change my life. I hated living in San Jose, hated my Silicon Valley job, my marriage, my size-fourteen jeans,my inertia. Every morning I tried to come up with one thing I could look forward to that day; food was almost always it. A corporate lunch with co-workers at that all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. The butter cream-frosted birthday cake we'd ordered for a secretary's birthday. The coffee ice cream in the freezer; the jar of hot fudge sauce in the fridge.

After four years of marriage counseling, our therapist prescribed a weekend apart. I spent it at my friend Leslie's apartment in San Francisco. Leslie gave me the secret recipe for her newly svelte body: three or four cups of fresh-ground decaf for "breakfast." A cup of low-fat cottage cheese with unsweetened applesauce to make it through to dinner. And dinner--I was tired of cooking those meat/starch/iceberg lettuce meals that Rich loved, the meals his mother (and mine) had served every night of our childhoods at precisely six o'clock. This, at least, I could do something about. I stopped buying roasts and chops, started buying fish and pasta. Stopped slathering butter on everything; stopped dragging Rich out for overpriced, overcooked restaurant meals every Saturday night; stopped settling down with Rich when the kids were finally asleep with a half-gallon of ice cream and two spoons.

Stopped settling down with Rich altogether. It was as if by setting my own food on the table, I had set my own discontent, newly determined self there, too. Without the consuming daily distraction of food to soften my jagged edges, without the smooth gloss of fat to coat my tongue, I could no longer deny that what I wanted more of was neither steak nor hot fudge. In November 1982 I quit my job and started writing for magazines. In March 1983 Rich and I separated. I fell in love with Ann, moved to Oakland; made a life I loved in Oakland--a life with plenty to look forward to besides food. Reached all those goals, and this one too: I was down to a hundred fifteen pounds. And one meal a day. People said I looked great, asked what my secret was. A few friends--all of them women, obviously just jealous--asked worriedly if I was eating enough. "Are you sure you're not getting too thin?" Too thin! "You're so skinny, your ribs are showing." Skinny! I ate it up.

And now, after ten years of watching my baseline weight creep up to 118, then 122, then 125--fighting every pound, depriving myself of more and more, longing to recapture "the old me" I continue to think of as "the real me," the 115-pound me--something is eating me up.

"I needed to lose a lot of weight after I had my kids," I tell Dr. Wylie. "I guess I got into some bad habits I haven't quite broken."

He nods. "This diet you've been on could certainly explain your symptoms," he says. Diet? I don't go on diets--I'm a feminist! I know better! I just eat...lightly.

"Having little or no food in your system for most of the day, then eating one big meal," he continues, "can really foul up the digestive process. I think if you start eating three healthy meals a day"--he peers at me intently--"three full meals a day--you'll feel better."

Three meals a day? I can barely stay at 125 on one meal a day!

For the past ten years, I have unthinkingly, unhesitatingly chosen being thin over being healthy. Now this doctor and my own body are telling me I need to make the opposite choice. To end this punishing relationship with food, this denial of my own hearty appetites. To actually live what my feminist principles and common sense dictate: to eat when I'm hungry, stop when I'm full, indulge the occasional craving, give my body and mind the fuel and the faith they need to do what they were designed to do. I contemplate this possibility now with longing, and terror. Three meals a day. Not walking around hungry. Watching the numbers on the scale go up, and up, and up...

"Are you worried about gaining weight?" Dr. Wylie asks. Busted! This is my double shame: not only am I in daily violation of feminism, obsessed with my weight, hatefully critical of my body, in slavish submission to the beauty myth--but I'm not even overweight enough to justify it. If I weighed 185 now, as I did fifteen years ago, Dr. Wylie would understand my fixation. He'd sympathize, suggest a weight loss program. He'd help me. But Dr. Wylie looks at me and sees an average woman, a fit woman, maybe even a thin woman. How can Dr. Wylie, how can anyone look at my five-foot-six, 125-pound body and understand the sinking of my heart, the roar of recrimination that fills my head on those dark mornings when the scale reads 126? Only I know how much better I'd look, how much better I'd feel, how much better I'd be if I just weighed ten pounds less. How can I explain that my need to keep my hard-won title--Size Eight--is every bit as powerful as my craving was to earn it?

"Meredith?" he prods me. Then, gently, "I'm sure you know how dangerous it is to starve yourself. And how prevalent eating disorders are among women in this country..."

"Of course I do!" I snap.

Of course I do.

I am a student of eating disorders, an eager reader of every magazine article on the subject, every news story, research study, and novel. I watch all those made-for-TV movies, every documentary and talk show, even the occasional after-school teenage special--publicly writhing with feminist outrage; privately hoping to pick up a useful weight-loss pointer or two.

I have two friends who tell me horror stories about their battles with bulimia as teenagers. Liza, who's thirty-five now, eats as heartily as any woman I know; if she's still worrying about her weight, she keeps it to herself. Stephanie, who's my age, still panics every time she gains half a pound.

But it's the stories my niece Josie tells me that chill me to the bone. Josie describes what goes on every day in the lunchroom of her expensive, exclusive girls' prep school: the girls who never eat, the girls who drink half a diet Coke for lunch every day, then run to the bathroom to vomit. Josie says that she and her friends, "the ones who don't have eating disorders," as they distinguish themselves, keep looking for ways to help their classmates "without ratting on them."

"Sometimes we try showing them we care," Josie says. "We ask them if that's all they're having and offer them some of our food. Some days we try ignoring them, 'cause you never know--they might just be doing it to get attention. But nothing helps. They won't eat no matter what we do." Josie's friends, the girls who eat, constitute a minority group at their school. Last year more than half of her classmates were diagnosed with eating disorders. Nine out of thirty of them were hospitalized.

I've worried, too, about whether Josie truly has been spared--if she really is a "girl who eats," if she really is as different from her anorexic and bulimic classmates as those of us who love her might hope. Rail-thin, an exotic beauty, Josie worked as a model when she was twelve: posing in bikinis and jeans for Macy's newspaper ads; smiling and biting into chocolate bars on Hershey's commercials. Josie's dream of becoming an actress seemed to be coming true: she went out on local casting calls, performed on an educational cable TV show. Then Josie hit fifteen and the phone stopped ringing. Her agent told her that it happened to everyone, that she'd reached "the awkward age," that she could start modeling again as an adult when she was seventeen or eighteen.

Now, while she waits for "adulthood," while she tries to keep her classmates from starving themselves to death, Josie bends herself double to check for "flab" around her twenty-two-inch waist, and twists her head around to peer disapprovingly at the backs of her lean, sinewy thighs. We go to a restaurant for lunch; I order only a small salad myself because I know I can count on her leftovers--because, like my teenage niece, I wouldn't consider eating a whole sandwich for lunch. Not unless I'm not having dinner.

Even the politically active, politically correct young feminists Peter hangs out with--the Berkeley High public school girls whose mothers threw away their bras and whose fathers fought the pigs at People's Park; the girls who shun fashion, gender roles, and all things traditional--are not immune. Lazing at the swimming hole near our cabin with Peter and his friends one August afternoon, I wondered aloud, in a rare moment of sleepy, sun-baked candor, what it would be like to eat, just eat, and not worry about my weight for once.

"God, that sounds good," said Alexis, who is fifteen, lovely, curvy, and far from fat. "I'm totally stressed out about my body. So are all my friends. So's my mom, and she's skinny. I don't know a single girl or woman who isn't obsessed with losing weight. It's the media's fault. All those skinny models. I mean, just think about what the word model means! We're all supposed to model ourselves on that image. And we do! It pisses me off, the power they have to make us hate ourselves 'cause we don't look like Cindy Crawford."

"But people like you and your friends, and your mom--and me--we don't usually swallow media bullshit," I said. "Why do you think we accept it when it comes to our bodies?"

"Because it's such a big secret," Alexis answered. "I only admit how hung up I am about my weight to my best friends. My mom only admits it to me. It's easy to keep it secret--everyone's so into health foods and exercise these days, how do you know who's trying to be healthy for real, and who's just trying to get skinny? It's hard to fight back against something you're too embarrassed to talk about."

"Don't you think it's partly male attitudes?" Peter asked. "How can women stop trying to look like Cindy Crawford as long as guys are still trained to want them to look like that?"

"Partly," Alexis said. "But it's up to females to change it. We have to start loving our bodies and rejecting the brainwashing. But I don't know how we'll ever get strong enough to do that."

Am I strong enough to do that?

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