I hate New Year's resolutions. There are plenty of personal goals I hope to accomplish in 2015 – listen to music, read and review writers of color, put out an underground feminist literary journal with a supergroup of my favorite lady writers using code names from Little Women.
Yet toward the end of every December, I begin to dread status updates about New Year's resolutions on Facebook, especially on the handful of all-female Facebook groups to which I belong. I see friends, colleagues, and acquaintances – mostly women – posting about diets and exercise routines and gym memberships, and my stomach clenches. Most avoid the actual words "losing weight"; instead, they talk about being healthy, gaining strength and endurance, eating better, taking up new sports, pushing their bodies to new limits.
It's not that I don't believe them. It's myself I don't trust. I enjoy exercise, but I avoid it for fear of the inevitable morning when I will wake up with my hand already on my stomach, checking it for flatness; the first time I take an extra peek in the mirror on my way to the shower; the first millimeter of change I spot, after which I will begin unobtrusively but compulsively examining myself in every reflective surface I pass, trying to catch my body in the act of disappearing. As I shrink, little splinters of self-hatred will work their way to the surface. They still have the power to draw blood.
"It feels like exercise will never belong to me," I find myself telling Jené Gutierrez during my recent three-hour interview for her podcast, The Bod Pod. Gutierrez interviews people – writers, children, strippers, and now me – about our bodies, and our feelings about them. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I interview her and she interviews me. We talk about the way that our culture reads bodies, in particular women's bodies, for evidence of moral character and general worthiness. She quotes from Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. I talk about my mother.
My mother got into aerobics during the height of the Eighties craze. Around that time, she started speaking to my sister and me in refrigerator magnet slogans: "A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips." "Ask yourself if you really need that second slice." "Do you want to look like your friend who eats all the cookies she wants?"
A late convert in her mid-30s, exercise made my mother feel strong and look strong, helped her shed the residue of awkwardness from her own girlhood. Once, for her birthday, I drew a Crayola picture of her exercising in leg warmers, a golden Wonder Woman crown on her thick, wavy, black hair. The Lynda Carter TV show was still airing in the afternoons, and I was just young enough to be slightly confused about where my Lynda Carter-esque mom disappeared to in her red leotard and wristbands. It's not that I thought she was Wonder Woman, exactly; but I wouldn't have been surprised to see her spinning around in our living room or hopping an invisible jet, either. Above my picture of her, I wrote in gangly, little-kid letters, "Happy Birthday! I wish you could work out even better!" I suppose it was what I thought she wanted most.
Maybe exercise didn't really belong to her, either.
Listening to Gutierrez interview guests on The Bod Pod, I hear women call up memories of the first time they worried their bodies weren't good enough. Most seem to happen around age 8. They remember being enrolled in Weight Watchers in elementary school, being called fat by their fathers. Imagine the sheer amount of time, money, and emotional energy women spend over the course of their post-8-year-old lives wondering whether they're good enough.
And how do we know when we're done? It's not enough to feel stronger, to know that we're working out even better. We need evidence, photographic proof. On Facebook, we post pictures. You see? the images say. For one moment, when I snapped the picture, I was good enough. Our friends obligingly crow: "Gorgeous!" "You look ah-mazing." "SO HAWT."
We are used to our bodies being evidence. A woman can work out every day and eat perfectly healthy meals and research a cure for cancer in her spare time, but if she's fat, her sins are written on her body for all to read. Meanwhile, it doesn't matter how much I eat or exercise; I'll always look like a slightly taller, slightly larger version of my mother. This was not a choice, any more than it was my sister's choice to hit puberty five years earlier than me, gain weight faster than me, and wind up six inches shorter than me.
Gutierrez tells me, quoting Bordo, that this all goes back to the era when you could read moral profligacy in syphilis chancres. But health is rather beside the point for most of us, no matter how much we protest our intentions. She remembers being complimented on her weight loss after being hospitalized for two weeks in sixth grade with a rare disorder.
"I could have died!" she protests.
"But you would have been thin!" I shout. "What could be more important than that?" We are both rolling on the sofa with laugher, because you kind of have to.
New Year's resolutions perpetuate fictions of self-determination that we cling to because we fear acknowledging how little control we have over our destinies. These fictions are helpful as motivational tools. But every time they are invoked, something else is erased: the idea that we are not necessarily the problem. Maybe the problem is with the fashion industry and the fat-shaming fathers, the media and the mothers and their mothers before them, the lawmakers that want to enshrine individual responsibility while erasing choice. Instead of resolving to change ourselves, let's resolve to keep working on changing the system. It's the only resolution worthy of the name.
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