My father is missing the sunrise this morning. He pulls a string to light the single, unshaded lightbulb dangling from the basement ceiling. It’s an okay substitute. The NordicTrack ski machine is a Frankenstein of 1980s golden oak, black metal, and long cords, and suddenly it’s screaming and he’s sweating. His brown arms and legs move back and forth, back and forth. I am mesmerized, but he never sees me while he’s working out. His world narrows to a gigantic pair of wireless headphones, an ostensibly exciting episode of West Wing, and cardio.
Upstairs, my mother taps at her iPad. Distractedly, she pets at our little dog, who squirms and purrs for her attention. There’s big talk to attend to on the iPad. Her tight-knit group of online friends was brought together by the Weight Watchers forum page. Today, as every day, they are discussing politics, pop culture, or family life. It’s been years since my mother was on Weight Watchers, but we still see her friends whenever they’re in town, and our cabinets are still filled to the brim with “healthy” cookbooks.
It’s almost time for school, so I turn into the kitchen. I have one piece of toast for breakfast. I used to have two. For lunch, I pack one-quarter cup of nuts, an apple, rice, and beans. All plain. I remember I have cross-country after school, and throw an extra apple into my bag. I contemplate a protein bar, but it seems too much. My sister packs one granola bar. That’s it.
In my house, we all believe that one day soon, we are going to lose the weight. We will shed the round bodies we were born with and become fragile and beautiful, like butterflies. We live in expectation of this slim day and always have. Sometimes, we become thinner––on purpose or by accident––but we never make it to “thin.” I don’t think we ever will. Still, we spend our days preparing for the arrival of thinness, an approaching houseguest perpetually delayed.
Thinness is my family’s false idol, finely arrayed in silver and gold above our hearth. We depend on it for truth in our lives, for structure. It gives order to the nonsensical and promises a world of explanations. It tells us we are unhappy because we are fat. We are unlucky in love, we perform poorly in work, we feel tired and we age because we are fat. Our false idol tells us, what luck! It is all an easy fix! But it is harder than it seems. We can trust our idol too completely. We undereat, overexercise, pick hatefully at ourselves. This is where it goes wrong.
Self-improvement makes big promises. Rarely are they fulfilled. Rarely did we need to “improve” ourselves in the first place. I don’t believe I would be happier if I was thinner, but the siren song still hooks me. Living in service of these false idols feels so real. It’s hard to admit that they’re hollow, that their words are untrue. It’s easier to live with and through their consequences, because they explain difficulty so easily. They make chaos so organized. I don’t want to let go, even though I know their danger.
I’m an adult now. I try to train myself out of all of this. I listen to podcasts about body neutrality, diet culture, and evidence-based wellness. I unpack unhealthy beliefs with my friends. Mostly, it works. When I stand in front of the mirror, I like the way my belly looks, and my thighs. But then I turn to the side, and for a second my hip bones come slyly to the surface. And I can’t help but think: I could lose this weight. A few more months and less cream in my coffee, maybe. I promise you: I am almost thin.