What do Julia Roberts, Jamie Oliver, Full Figure Fashion Week, and my grandmother have in common? Dinner.
In a recent post I described the death of the supermodel. It seems that her death was followed almost immediately by the deaths of the middle class and the middle bodied–tied together by the purse strings. Last week confirmed my suspicions.
Late one night Pretty Woman caught my eye, and a moment in the film struck me. When no one on Rodeo Drive will help Roberts’ character, the hotel manager sends her to a personal shopper at a department store. As soon as she sees Julia, she comments, “So you are about a size 6.” Roberts is amazed at her eye, saying “How’d you know?” and they go on to laugh about the specialized knowledge of certain professions. The exchange seemed so notable because, at this moment in our culture, it’s unimaginable that a young, beautiful, popular starlet would identify her body, in character or out, as a size 6. It’s practically an elephantine number in Hollywood, for some a dirty little secret.
Recently I’d also been caught up in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, in which he takes on our school lunches. Factory farming, high fructose corn syrup, chemical preservatives/additives, and diabetes are dire factors that need to be addressed immediately. But I was saddened by the fact that most of the families and schools cited finances or budgets as the primary reason for feeding food to their children that they knew was bad for them. Industry spends billions of dollars inventing new flavors of chips and soft drinks, but in the aisle these empty calories are cheaper than basic produce.
In this economy cable television, gym memberships, and dining out are the first cuts. We all know that eating in saves money. Yet the grocery bill itself comes under intense scrutiny. As someone who remembers the exact taste and texture of commodity foods, especially the cheese, I’m intimately familiar with the pains my mother took to feed our family in the mid-eighties. My parents are avid gardeners and we ate loads of fresh, free produce in the summer. But there were also hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, lots of pb&j sandwiches, and the look on her face as she balanced that checkbook each month. Children record all these moments in HD.
Two young girls I met on location last weekend (shooting at a lake in New Jersey) noted that our snacks were from the expensive grocery store in town, and one stated “No one does a Roll Back like Wal-Mart, you can get an eight-pack of Reese’s peanut butter cups for one dollar!” My inner child got excited about that. But my inner child used to be overweight. So when pundits note that one out of three children are severely overweight or obese, my heartstrings go taut.
Moving to NYC and walking everywhere, followed rapidly by yoga, farmers’ markets, a modeling contract and a nutritionist all reformed my relationship to my body and my health. When the New York Times covered Full Figured Fashion Week recently, they focused predominately on obesity and the resulting business opportunities in the enlargement of America. Money spent in the grocery store, money spent on larger wardrobes–they seemed to be drawing a direct line.
Clearly there is a relationship between what we eat, how active we are, and our health. But I bristle at the notion that a woman who doesn’t fit a size 6 or even 12 means that she is essentially unhealthy. The irony is not lost on me when, at many photo shoots, I am making the same lunch choices and swapping nutritional advice with the size 2 model. Plus modeling has become a safety net for many of the taller, larger-framed models who cannot maintain the razor-edge silhouette required, even with an eating disorder. (We cannot ignore the health risks also suffered by those chronically underweight, as opposed to obese.) After transitioning to “plus” they generally settle at a healthy 10-14, presumably their natural size, but still read “thin” on camera.
One of Michael Pollan’s guidelines in Food Rules is to eat food that your grandmother would recognize. My grandmother grew up in the ‘twenties on a farm in northern Wisconsin. In many pictures she is on her way to feed the livestock, milk the cows, and work in the garden or the house. This is not a sedentary woman. By all accounts she ate plenty of eggs and potatoes, fruit and vegetables both fresh and preserved, meat more rarely. All organic we can assume. But her frame was not exactly slender. Seeing these pictures revolutionized my idea of myself. They reconciled my ideal of beauty with my gene pool. I finally understood that being healthy is not a result of my jean size, but of my habits and my personal care–whatever the number on my clothes, my cholesterol and blood sugar are in good shape.
Food has become the enemy because we cannot make peace with our bodies, small or large. There is an egregious assumption that if we adhere to a balanced diet of healthy foods and get regular exercise, we will have the perfect movie star body. Most of us won’t. This is the propaganda of diet gurus, personal trainers, and a media industry of extreme fads, quick fixes, and unsustainable programs for sale. The problem is that “healthy diet” and “weight-loss diet” are not the same; neither are “active lifestyle” and “athletic conditioning.” Healthy moderation may not get the airbrushed cover of a magazine to show up in the mirror, but we’ll be far from obese.
Two tummies: the six-pack of cultural media or the flab of the food industry. Choosing becomes a constant struggle. Do we live in a state of rigid deprivation or let ourselves go entirely? Do we count calories or dollars? All because we’ve made it too expensive to be healthy and at the same time believe that being healthy means being impossibly thin and forever young. This dead-end struggle is what our children absorb.
Our bodies are extraordinary, built to carry us through life on waves of sensory perception and emotion. If we put power into taking care of them instead of altering or ignoring them, we could settle into a healthy range of sizes and shapes. Freed from being terrorized by media fantasies. Divorcing our idea of health from our size, but instead to the quality of life: how much energy we have, how our food was grown, and how we feel after eating it.
We want children to have a positive body image and real, affordable, and nutritious food on their plates. Which means we cannot remain obsessed with attaining the perfect body or ignore the situation in American grocery stores, because doing so is becoming lethal to the most innocent among us.