This week, the Cut explores women’s complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.
There are women who can eat whatever they want. Well, technically all of us can eat whatever we want. But there are women who can eat whatever they want and not gain weight. I have seen one such lady in action. She has the metabolism of a racehorse on cocaine. It is glorious. Unfortunately for me, I am not like her. Despite regular and pretty intense exercise, in order to maintain my weight I have to eat really, really healthy. And in order to lose weight — I have about 15 pounds to shed and I’m not being dysmorphic here, this is doctor-advocated stuff — I have to cut out entire freakin’ food groups (carbs, dairy, along with my favorite: alcohol) for months-long stretches at a time. It is sad and terrible. I went to a nutritionist a while back to try to discover just what was wrong with me. After her initial “moderate” plan didn’t work, she said, “Sorry, this is your life,” and then told me to never touch bread. Which is something I’m not willing to do. For the obvious reason that bread is great. But also, and maybe more so, for a less obvious reason: It’s embarrassing. It would make me the girl who watches what she eats.
She’s a definite type. You know her. Or seven of her. She’s the woman who brings fruit and yogurt to the office pizza party. The one who orders her sandwich on lettuce because she’s “watching her carbs.” She’s the one you notice ordering, because she orders in such a way you can’t help but notice, and her set of restrictions makes her seem like not a very fun person. It’s not fair, but it’s true. Most people have the good sense not to comment on it. Though, I was once teased mercilessly when I went out to a burger place with a group of male co-workers and ordered a salad with the dressing on the side. (“Why would you order a salad? This place is known for the burgers!” times a thousand.)
It’s hard to grasp, on a psychological level, just what is so unappealing about someone monitoring her food intake. Maybe it has something to do with phrases like monitoring your food intake. Or maybe watching someone pick discriminately at lettuce leaves subconsciously upsets our paleolithic impulse to consume. (“CAVEMAN FIND FOOD CAVEMAN EAT ALL FOOD NOW SURVIVAL TASTE GOOD NOM NOM NOM.”) Whatever the reason, when it comes to thinness, “effort” is unbecoming. Just think of the gajillion articles and books about dieting every year that are marketed with the promise of being effortlessly thin. It’s basically the unspoken pledge of the insanely popular French Women Don’t Get Fat, the guide by Mireille Guiliano on how to be a cool, thin, casual croissant-eating Parisian. But the truth is French women do get fat, and they suffer from disordered eating as much as their American counterparts. No one actually wants to be seen as the lady on the diet, even though half of us are the lady on the diet at any given time. (Literally half: According to Judy Mahle Lutter, the author of The Bodywise Woman, 50 percent of American women diet on a regular basis.) Maybe it’s just that food is enjoyable. Thus, regularly abstaining from large categories of it makes one seem kinda joyless. Who wants to seem joyless? Or worse: the kind of person who pretends to find joy in a bowl of thrice-massaged kale.
I’ve known smart women who’ve gone to extremes to hide the fact that they have to work for their figure. I’ve been one of them. I once got out of sharing bread pudding on a date by saying that the sight of it made me sad because it was served at my grandpa’s shiva. (For that lie, I am sorry, Papa. RIP.) I have a friend who doesn’t put anything in her mouth on days when she has a date, so she can go out and eat with gusto in front of a new dude. Because members of the male species in particular seem to be put off and sometimes downright confused by dieting. In a very unscientific poll of a handful of male friends, three out of five shriveled their noses when I asked if they’d want to date someone on an ultrahealthy diet. “So, we’d have to eat at, like, special healthy places?” one of them asked derisively. Another replied, “I’m a foodie! I’d like it more if she just eats like a normal person and enjoys food as much as I do.”
Maybe mindful eating is complicated and “complicated” is a turnoff, an obstacle to casual “should we grab a slice of pizza?” courtship. Or maybe men just don’t get it because most of them don’t have to try that hard to lose weight. Scientifically, it’s much more difficult for women. Anecdotally, my ex-boyfriend could drop ten pounds in a month just by eating one less candy bar a day. Since, for them, maintaining a healthy weight doesn’t entail endless bowls of vegetables, they have this idea that a woman should be able to match them wing for wing on game night and still maintain the waistline of Taylor Swift. There is a wonderful Amy Schumer sketch about this insanity. It’s the reason Carl’s Jr. cast Kate Upton in its commercial: She’s a supermodel going to town on a cheeseburger. It’s hard to think of a unicorn more alluring than that one. But, of course, what does an overweight woman chowing down on a cheeseburger with relish (and also relish) get for that act of carefree eating? A creep video of herself uploaded to YouTube for the teenage boys of the world to mock. (Not gonna link, because duh.)
No one shoulders this burden more than Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s both People’s Most Beautiful Person Alive and basically the most mocked celebrity on the planet. What grates people about her? I mean, a lot of things. But part of it is that she’s a celebrity who openly talks about how intensely she works on maintaining her size-0 body. She doesn’t eat white bread. She does Pilates five times a week. She juices. She’s turned her trainer into a household name. She’s the polar opposite of a celebrity like Jennifer Lawrence, who bullied her Esquire interviewer back in 2010 with, “You’re not gonna order, like, fruit or something, are you? Because I’m gonna eat.” Sure, maybe a few actresses do eat “fattening” food on a daily basis, but it’s worth noting that Lawrence, who is nearly two decades younger than Paltrow, was only 20 at the time of the Esquire-funded feast. I’m willing to bet that she’s been on a diet, like half of the rest of us, since then. It’s a damn thin line from the tabloid headline “Celebrities! They’re Just Like Us! Jennifer Lawrence Chows Down on a Burger and Fries” to one that scolds “Spotted! Jennifer Lawrence’s Cellulite on Display at the Beach.”
So how do we win? We don’t. Rather, we choose. I just moved to a new city. I need to go out and make friends. Friends are made over wine. I’m not going to be the woman who suggests a CrossFit lunch date. Los Angeles has enough of those people. If dropping 15 pounds means canceling all future dinner dates, developing fake sudden-onset allergies to alcohol and gluten, and buying a food scale, I choose 15 pounds. And a new GP.