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Friday, January 30, 2009
Guest Blogger Susan O'Doherty on Writing Large
At a reading I did in November at Queens College, one other writer impressed me because of her quiet, haunting delivery of a short story and seemed like someone I'd like to get to know. We were seated in the same row, but since my husband and I had to make the trek from Queens back to the hinterlands of New Jersey, this interesting woman and I didn't have a chance to get acquainted. A few weeks later, I got the list of other contributors to Feed Me! Writers Dish About Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image and there was Susan O’Doherty's name. We had something in common and were going to get acquainted after all.
Susan, a writer and clinical psychologist, is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued (Seal, 2007). She's written for journals (Eureka Literary Magazine, Northwest Review, Apalachee Review) and anthologies (Mama Ph.D, Sex for America, The New Writer’s Handbook, and About What Was Lost). Her advice column for writers, "The Doctor Is In," is featured every Friday on the publishing blog Buzz, Balls & Hype (the following is a cross-post from there today).
Please welcome Susan O'Doherty.
All of my female psychotherapy clients think they are too fat. This has been true for at least the past five years; probably longer.
This is not exactly headline news, of course. The cultural pressure on women to be thin is well known. However, since most of my clients are writers, I think this phenomenon warrants further exploration.
I have worked with a few male clients who were concerned about their weight, too. Usually, their concerns centered on health issues thought to be associated with overweight: cardiac problems, diabetes, or lower back pain. The topics of attractiveness and social acceptance seldom came up.
Some of my women clients might be healthier and more comfortable physically if they were ten or twenty pounds lighter. But that isn’t the primary concern they express. Heterosexual women worry that their husbands and boyfriends no longer find them attractive. Several women have reported humiliation by strangers who complain that their “thunder thighs” take up too much space on the subway, or by physicians who refuse to believe that their symptoms could be caused by factors other than gluttony and sloth—even though recent medical research suggests that weight is determined more by genetic factors than by personal effort and willpower, and that for people in otherwise good health, being a few pounds overweight is preferable to being underweight.
My own weight was in the average range for most of my adult life, until a brush with serious illness (detailed in Feed Me) caused me to lose over 20 pounds, along with a great deal of hair, stamina, and resistance to disease. Despite eating normally, I have never regained my weight or much of my health. But I very seldom have to endure disparaging remarks about my size or admonitions that my medical issues would disappear if I would only exercise some discipline and drink more milkshakes. On the contrary, I find myself the object of friends’ and acquaintances’ expressed envy, and of sudden sexual attention from men who previously related to me only as my son’s mother, their wife’s friend, or that woman who always asks for Tahitian Blue fountain pen ink in the large bottle.
Healthy, beautiful bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and I certainly don’t claim that large, curvaceous bodies are more “adult” or “legitimate” than those that are smaller or more angular. However, it’s hard not to see the increasing fetishization of slenderness as a collective wish that uppity women would return to a state of preadolescent innocence, dependency, and powerlessness.
What does all of this have to do with writing?
No matter what we know intellectually, these attitudes tend to penetrate. And internalizing the message that in order to be acceptable, we must make ourselves smaller, weaker and more childlike can affect creativity in profound ways.
It is hard for my overweight clients to shrug off the message that they are not acceptable as they are; it is hard for me to ignore the signals that I am more attractive and desirable now than when I was robust and athletic, when my hair shone and my skin glowed.
It’s hard to take in the message that we are too large, too much, and take up too much space—and then to raise our voices and boldly express potentially incendiary ideas in our writing. It’s hard to be told that we must ignore the signals of our own bodies, but must instead starve and malnourish ourselves so that we won’t be hideous in others’ eyes—and then to find the physical and emotional strength to attend to and record our authentic feelings and beliefs.
Life is too fragile, beautiful, and important for this nonsense. If we are to write authentically and live fully, we need to be too big, too much; to take up space; to listen to and express our inner truths even—or especially—when they conflict with accepted standards. We need to convert the energy we spend planning and executing diet regimes, plodding away on the treadmill, and flagellating ourselves for perceived lapses into the creation of ambitious, audacious novels, earth-shaking lovemaking, fierce love for our children and our friends, and pursuing a richer, deeper, happier existence. We need to give ourselves this permission, because clearly, it will never be handed to us.