Within an Inch of My Life
My daughters approach their fights with an arsenal of insults honed on the classroom battlefield. In this stockpile, the word “fat” is heavy artillery.
“You’re a big, fat liar!” one daughter hisses at another.
“Mommy!” her sister wails, “She called me fat!”
Please note that, in the above exchange, “fat” is worse than “liar.”
“How do you say ‘Be quiet’ in French?” my daughter asks.
Our family is driving to Montreal for the weekend.
The girls squint through the minivan’s foggy windows at French graffiti and billboards. Of the van’s eight occupants, I’m the only one with any knowledge of French, courtesy of high school language classes completed 22 years earlier.
“Tais-toi,” I answer. “Well, actually, that’s more like saying, ‘Shut up.’”
“Tais-toi!” they yell delightedly at intervals throughout the remainder of the weekend. “Tais-toi!”
I’ve never had a particularly good memory for anything useful, like key historical events, names, or most of what I learned in school. But French has endured; it’s a tribute to Dr. Weiser.
She emphasized that “Dr.” on the first day of class, but thereafter she tolerated us calling her “Madame Weiser.” She was legitimately French, from Nantes, and although she’d married an American and lived in Northern Virginia for over a decade, her English was still heavily, glamorously accented.
Everything about Mme. Weiser was glamorous. She was barely five feet tall, and she teetered around the classroom on impossibly thin legs – bird legs – wearing pumps with three-inch-high heels. She dressed in silk wrap skirts that ended above her knees, silk blouses, and chunky gold jewelry. Her hair was styled in a frosted blonde bob, her nails always polished, her lips always lipsticked.
She looked fragile, but she was tough, in complete control of her classroom of ungainly, hormonal teenagers. Speaking only French, she wrangled our accents and minds into submission.
She broke from French occasionally, to riff on her family life. “Oh, my ‘usband,” she’d moan, rolling her eyes in mock dismay, “’’e is so bo-ring! ‘E is a law-yer.” (It came as little surprise, years later, when I heard that she’d divorced.)
During my senior year of high school, Mme. Weiser taught Advanced Placement French Literature. Among other things, we read, in the original French: Camus’s The Stranger, Voltaire’s Candide, Sartre’s No Exit, and poems by Rimbaud and Baudelaire. I can’t keep straight which of my daughters are allergic to penicillin, but I still remember the poems she made us memorize: “Il pleure dans mon coeur. Comme il pleut sur la ville.”
For my French Lit final project, I created a multi-sensory experience of Baudelaire’s poetry. Using slide film, I photographed French Expressionist paintings and handwritten quotes from Baudelaire’s poems. I made a cassette tape of song clips from The Doors. I played my slideshow in time with the music. I got an A+.
I chose a Doors soundtrack for my project because Jim Morrison cited Baudelaire as one of his inspirations. But as I listened repeatedly to The Doors’ catalogue, seeking echoes of Baudelaire, I gradually became a Doors fan.
The music of a heavily drug-influenced 1960s rock band seems an unlikely choice for a straight-A good girl in 1990s suburban Washington, D.C. Throughout high school, I never attended a party where there was drinking or drugging; everyone knew better than to invite me. But alone in my floral wallpapered bedroom, Jim Morrison, of the shirtless torso and leather pants, urged me to “break on through to the other side.”
As I discovered Jim Morrison, I also learned about Pamela Courson.
Pamela Courson was Jim Morrison’s girlfriend; her family claims that she was his common-law wife. She was a California girl, raised in Orange County. She was tiny – anecdotally anorexic – with long, straight, red hair. She was a heroin addict. Her voice in the few available recordings is soft and hypnotic, but reportedly she and Jim Morrison brawled like Irish sailors. She was the first to find him, dead, in the bathtub of their Paris apartment. She was his sole heir. She died in 1974 of a heroin overdose at 27 years old.
One of my college boyfriends was half French. During the summer of 1996, we spent a week with his two aunts on their farm outside of Paris.
The aunts were 60-something, unmarried, childless. “The thing about them,” my boyfriend told me, by way of preparation, “is that they’re really prejudiced against fat people.”
In my memory, he says this apropos of nothing, in a slightly bemused, affectionate tone. In my memory, his statement has a before-and-after quality.
The word “waif” has its origins in the Middle English and Anglo-French adjectives for “stray, unclaimed,” and an Old Norse term that means “something flapping.” As a modern noun, it describes an unclaimed piece of property, stolen goods thrown away by a thief, or a stray person or animal – especially a homeless child.
In the 1960s,“the waif look” referred to a fashion trend inspired by extremely skinny models like Twiggy and Edie Sedgwick. Today, the definition of “waif” includes: “a very thin, often small person, usually a young woman.”
The word has evolved over time, but its definitions all share an element of lost-ness.
Pamela Courson was just one of a series of waifs with whom I was obsessed during my own lost years.
There was the actress Calista Flockhart, who portrayed the title character on the television series Ally McBeal from 1997-2002. I rarely missed an episode, watching it on futons in Connecticut and New York. I admired Flockhart’s style and her fragile physique, which prompted tabloid speculation about an eating disorder.
There was Mary-Kate Olsen, half of the acting, fashion-designing Olsen Twins. Like Flockhart, her eating habits were fodder for tabloid gossip after a photograph of her bare back showed her ribs as clearly as an x-ray.
There was Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, who died at age 33 in a 1999 plane crash with her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr. Rumor had it that, like Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson, JFK, Jr. and Carolyn had a tempestuous relationship; there was talk of drugs and infidelity. Rumor also had it that she achieved her sleek style by starving herself, straightening her hair and bleaching it white-blonde, and, as one magazine put it, “plucking her eyebrows to within an inch of their lives.”
During the years in which I scoured tabloids, bookshelves, and fashion magazines for biographies and pictures of these waifish women, I earned master’s degrees in Education and Studio Art, taught at prestigious private girls’ schools in Connecticut and Manhattan, and met and married my husband. Yet the women I longed to emulate, although they had careers, did not attract attention primarily for their accomplishments; they all achieved notoriety for a similar reason: because of how they looked.
They looked fragilely beautiful, famished, and vaguely depressed.
They looked the way that I felt.
I was an overprotected only child on my own for the first time, a straight-A student who was no longer being graded, a good girl who had just realized that perfection is unattainable. I wanted to both hide and be admired. I wanted to be both independent and cared for. I wanted to shrink, but I wanted people to notice.
People noticed. “You look great!” they said at first. Then: “Are you eating enough?” “You’re looking too thin.” “Are you okay?” I feasted on their attention and concern in lieu of food.
Breakfast: One skim latte. Lunch: One plain bagel. Dinner: One baguette.
“You’re becoming a public health risk,” cautioned the principal of the girls’ school where I was teaching. In order to keep my job, I entered treatment at an outpatient eating disorders clinic.
I had to “re-“ everything: I reinhabited my body, I relearned basic survival instincts, I rewired my brain around obsessive thoughts about food, I reconsidered my cravings for love and attention.
It was a tortuous process, and then one day it was in the past. One day I was older than Pamela Courson was at her death, then older than Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy at hers.
I became a mother: In one of life’s great ironies, I am a mother of four daughters.
“You’re a big, fat liar!”
“Mommy! She called me fat!”
I tread carefully. I tell them that fat is not a bad word; fat is a body type and not an insult.
I fear that I convince neither my daughters nor myself.
I want my children to see beyond appearances, I want them to be kind, I want them to appreciate the range of physical variation, I want them to be healthy. But if I’m honest, I don’t want them to be fat.
“The thing about them is that they’re really prejudiced against fat people.”
I pause, and the images and words in memory’s storehouse rush to fill the void.
The girls fight in the next room:
“You’re a big, fat meanie!”
“Mommy! She said I was fat!”
Then: “Tais-toi!” they scream at each other. “Tais-toi!”
Faith Gong has been a teacher, a photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Now she is a writer whose musings can be found in the bi-weekly “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent, and on her blog, The Pickle Patch. She lives in central Vermont with her husband, four noisy daughters, and one even noisier dog.