One Minute You’re Fine

Eleanor Birne

  • Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore
    Profile, 196 pp, £12.99, June 2005, ISBN 1 86197 980 0
  • The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict by William Leith
    Bloomsbury, 296 pp, £10.99, August 2005, ISBN 0 7475 7250 X

I don’t know whether I’m fat or thin. I suspect I might be ‘plump’. I do know that when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I was skinny. I also know that I am not skinny now. One reason I know this is that when I went back to my old university last summer, I had to be reintroduced to the college chaplain by my (still) skinny boyfriend who was in the same year at college but who the chaplain had no problem remembering. ‘Oh,’ the chaplain said, when he was reminded of my name and college year. ‘I am sorry. I didn’t recognise you. It’s just that your face has got so … round.’ I might have forgiven his extraordinary tactlessness if he hadn’t said exactly the same thing to me the summer before.

There are fat people in my family and so I know what being fat can do. I grew up with a mother who told me from the time I was old enough to understand her that she’d been thin up until the point she had me. I grew up with a father who often makes comments about my mother’s shape and says things behind her back that no daughter wants to hear. I remember him once telling me he’d been out shopping with my mother. They’d been trying to get her a new suit jacket. ‘She tried loads on,’ he said, ‘and you know how it is. She looked bloody awful in all of them.’ About three years ago my mother lost a lot of weight. Then she lost her job and got depressed and stopped going to the gym. She put all the weight back on, with some extra too, and has never really lost it. It has only just dawned on me that it might happen to me: indeed, may have happened already. I now go to the gym three times a week. I eat salad for lunch. People tell me how well I look. I suppose that means I must have been fat until recently and just didn’t realise it. Which makes me wonder: at what point are you thin and at what point do you become fat?

Judith Moore is fat and has almost always been that way. In her own words, Fat Girl is ‘a story about an unhappy fat girl who became a fat woman who was happy and unhappy’. She is candid about her fatness and the sweatiness and breathlessness that go with it. She even has a greedy dog; she recounts an episode in which her overweight dachshund steals a piece of KFC chicken from a skinny blonde woman, causing the woman to drop the entire bag of takeaway on the floor. Moore handed over twenty dollars in compensation. In places, her account is a sort of love story. She writes with longing about ‘long burpless English cucumbers’. Eating ice cream is an erotic experience:

I sat at the edge of the couch, legs slightly apart. My elbows were on my knees; I was hunched and full of sorrow. I wore a loose cotton nightgown. My breasts hung down inside the gown and swayed. I spooned into my mouth the first chilly strawberry dollop. Cream melted on my tongue, which didn’t take long, because the ice cream was soft. I spooned in another bite. I wanted to say to the ice cream, ‘I love you.’ I wanted to say, ‘You are my mother.’

Moore tells us that her attitude to food is bound up with her childhood. She was raised by a mother who was ‘dainty and petite’, who wore a ‘size five shoe and a size six dress and her bra was 34B’, and an overweight father, who wasn’t fat when he met her mother but became fat after they married. Her mother hated the fact her father was so overweight. ‘He crushed me,’ she tells her daughter with hot breath. ‘Buried me alive.’ While Judith’s mother was giving birth to her, her father was away with his mistress, food:

At the moment I entered the world my father was across the street from the delivery room at a delicatessen run by Germans. He was eating Muenster and headcheese and bratwurst and long pale strands of fresh kraut. When he leaned over to kiss my worn-out, weary mother, she tasted garlic and sour pickle and cabbage on his lips.

She would never forgive this, never forget it.

Judith’s mother puts her father on a series of diets, and finally throws him out following an amusing incident involving a lemon meringue pie. It was the middle of the night. Her father was sweating under the ceiling fan; he was thinking about food. He was also on Benzedrine. He climbed out of bed and went to the fridge and opened it. He found it full of the celery and carrot sticks he was eating on his diet, so he closed the fridge door and went outside to the garage. He took his double-barrelled shotgun down from the shelf, took four shells from a box and put them in his bath-robe pocket. Then he walked back into the house, entered the bedroom of his old nanny, Mary, still holding the shotgun, and ordered her to make one of the lemon meringue pies she used to bake him as a child. Moore imagines the scene, with Mary at the stove, her father at the kitchen table:

She would have pared lemon rind, juiced lemons, broken eggs – expertly separating whites into a big bowl, yolks into a smaller one. The curtains in that kitchen were made of bright yellow cotton painted with red chickens. These curtains would have framed the darkness where the backyard Victory Garden stood. The scent of lemon and baking crust would have drifted across the kitchen. Mary would have stirred with a long-handled wooden spoon the egg yolk, sugar, lemon juice and lemon rind, the dollop of butter for the lemon filling.

It’s mouthwatering stuff. The next morning, Judith’s father eats his pie, showers and leaves for work. Her mother, in a panic, telephones her own mother. Then she packs her husband’s clothes into suitcases and boxes and bags and leaves them on the back stoop, setting her diaphragm on top of one of the suitcases.

With her father gone, Judith is left in the care of her mother, who soon deposits her with her grandmother. There, she discovers the joys of comfort eating: ‘I ate Grammy’s fried chicken and Grammy’s cobbler because they tasted good and because I was trying to fill up the grave my father and my mother had dug for me.’ Her mother eventually returns for her, and the two move to an apartment in Manhattan. Judith finds the cramped, women-only space constricting. She is aware of her mother’s smells: her underarm smell, her between-the-legs smell, her ‘visitor’ smell. ‘I began to chew my fingernails,’ she says. ‘I turned into a voracious eater whose meal was herself. I ripped and I tore at the flesh around my child nails; I licked, delicately, and hungrily, at the blood that popped up in bright droplets at my chubby fingers’ ends. I ate myself raw.’ Food is good to her; parents aren’t.

Left to flat-sit for her upstairs neighbour, June, she eats her way through the contents of her cupboards. June returns home to find the larder bare and the apartment covered in crumbs and food stains. Later, after hearing a moving sermon, Judith starts breaking into the home of the Reverend Fisher and makes herself snacks in his family’s kitchen. For a whole ‘Indian summer month’ she haunts their empty house. The adult Moore says she doesn’t want to excuse her younger self: ‘I was hungry for love. I know that. But so are many sad hungry children and they don’t rummage people’s living quarters and eat their food.’ Her childhood was unhappy, but she suspects that even if it hadn’t been she still would have eaten too much: ‘Love, I think, would not have made me thin.’ Fat Girl is a documentary with very little sentiment. Reading it is a bit like watching someone expertly carve a chicken – everything gets taken apart and revealed. At the end of the book, after all the self-carving, she says: ‘Among the reasons people keep sad stories to themselves is that they do not want anyone to feel sorry for them. I don’t. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I do not feel sorry for myself. I am what I am.’

Moore says that the funny thing is that she doesn’t actually eat all that much, but for some reason she just can’t help but gain weight. William Leith, on the other hand, admits that he can’t stop eating. At the start of The Hungry Years he tries to describe his addiction. He says of a BLT sandwich: it ‘practically fell down my throat; it was like dropping a billiard ball down a well.’ He says of an egg mayonnaise sandwich he eats a couple of hours later: ‘I sucked it up.’ He creates his own language of addiction, and this makes the book itself addictive. I devoured it in two greedy sittings: the first as I sat eating a Granola slice in Starbucks – the man behind the counter had mistakenly given me a fudge brownie, but I made him swap it in an act of enormous willpower – and the second as I sat silently battling with myself not to go and buy a cheese and ham baguette with mustard on it; because the perverse thing about this book is that, while you are reading it, it makes you extraordinarily hungry.

As his memoir begins, Leith is a food addict living unhappily with his girlfriend, who is trying to give up smoking. ‘I wake up on the fattest day of my life, 20 January 2003. I am just over 6 feet tall, and weigh … how much? I step on the scale and off it very quickly, to limit the damage: 236 lbs.’ These days, hunger is the ‘loudest voice’ in his head:

One minute you’re fine, and then click: you’re in a different world. You might be walking along, more or less absolutely certain that you will not have any fries, will not duck under the golden arches, will not walk across the floor, smelling the oil and mechanically recovered meat smell, will not take in the dinky, bright-coloured tables and semi-comfortable chairs, will not approach the counter, will not look at the guy behind the counter, will not look up at him and smile. And while you’re pretty certain you will not do any of these things, you allow your mind to dwell momentarily on the prospect. That’s all it is. You sail towards the storm, and there’s a moment when you can’t quite walk along the deck with your usual assured swagger, because the boat is beginning to pitch a little, to yaw a little. And you tell yourself you’re fine. And there’s another moment when you have lost all radio contact. That’s what it’s like, inside a binge. It’s like losing radio contact. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? But that’s what it’s like.

One minute you’re fine, and then, click.

The Hungry Years is not just a book about overeating: it’s about addiction in general, since Leith also has trouble with drugs and alcohol. But when he leaves his own appetites behind, Leith also does his bit for social history. The research trips, interviews and case studies are meant to frame his personal story. He meets Shelley Bovey, the woman who runs the Fat Acceptance movement, and Dawn French and Helen Teague, who have a clothes range for big women (he interviews Teague; French refuses, her publicist saying she prefers to ‘concentrate on the label, rather than the issue of size’). He flies to New York to interview Robert Atkins a few weeks before Atkins dies of a heart attack. He visits a McCain chip factory and stands on a platform poised over a vat of bubbling fat to watch a chip taster at work, his ‘small bright eyes darting around his large, pasty face’.

He also gives us a whistle-stop tour of the diet industry, with occasional philosophising asides, and explains that there have been low-carbohydrate diets since the Victorian period, but that they always get squeezed out because there is no money to be made from them: he cites the popularity of the high-carb, low-protein diets promoted by John Harvey Kellogg and Sylvester Graham with their accompanying special products – cereal and crackers. ‘If you advocate a low-carb diet, the food industry sees you as a problem,’ he writes, suggesting that this is at the root of a backlash against Atkins. After meeting the great man, Leith puts himself on the diet and loses pounds and pounds. He can wear T-shirts again. He is overjoyed when he goes to a party and a friend greets him as ‘Fatboy’, which he takes to mean that he isn’t any more. Leith is an Atkins convert, and is at pains to defend him against his critics.

By the end of the book, Leith is both thin and off Atkins, having been addicted to the diet itself for a while, hiding the toaster and panicking when he is forced to eat a risotto a friend’s wife has prepared. Eventually he is able calmly to eat the odd slice of toast. No more ‘toast frenzy’ for him; instead, we’re treated to slow, measured syntax describing his morning routine. After the chaos of the binge and its breathless sentences, these lines are meant as an antidote: ‘I get out of bed and walk down the stairs and into the kitchen. I put the coffee on. I cut four slices of bread, two for me and two for her, making sure the slices are roughly even by turning the loaf around as I cut, which is something I never used to be able to do, but am fine about now.’ This is a new prose style for a new man. Leith’s misadventures with food were also associated with his misadventures with women – he describes two disastrous relationships – and his redemption food-wise coincides with his embarking on a relationship with a woman who (we learn from the dedication) will become his wife. Leith has written himself a happy ending. I am, of course, delighted for him. But I preferred the guzzling giant who describes what it feels like to want to eat your own fingers when they’ve emptied a carton of chips and are covered in greasy salt. There’s nothing blander than a recovering addict. At the end of her book Judith Moore is still overweight; the idea that she might one day be thin seems not to occur to her. Neither ending is very comforting.