Scales in Her Eyes

Our favorite waiter didn't recognize me. We'd been twice-a-month regulars at the local Chinese restaurant for more than a decade. Over that period, he'd watched our daughter grow from a toddler to a teenager. He'd taken my order for kung pao shrimp scores of times. But now he looked at me with impersonal politeness, as at a first-time customer.

True, we'd stayed away from the restaurant for the better part of a year. My fault: I'd spent that period almost single-mindedly devoted to losing weight, ruled by the tyranny of the bathroom scale. My self-imposed diet admitted chicken breasts, undressed salads, tuna without mayonnaise. But the richly-sauced kung pao, my former favorite, had been thrust aside under this narrow(ing) regime.

Now the waiter welcomed us back heartily. He shook my husband's hand, remarked how tall our daughter had grown, then turned to me-and that's when the shadow of confusion crossed his face. I received a polite nod, my husband an uncertain glance. When I ordered steamed vegetables and chicken, the waiter's sadness seemed confirmed. He looked at our daughter with a touch of pity.

"Does our waiter seem in an odd mood?" I asked as he walked away to consult with the owner in Chinese. Almost immediately he was back at our side, chagrined but visibly relieved, greeting me profusely and apologizing all at once. He hadn't known me. He thought my husband had divorced me and now had shown up with a new wife-who turned out to be me.

We laughed about this one for days, although it was unsettling, too. Some fantasy for you, I teased my husband, getting a new wife with no alimony payments. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. This incident marked the fulfillment of a fantasy of mine as well, a proof that my low-fat eating regimen and hour of daily exercise had succeeded beyond my expectations. Had I morphed into the "new you" magazines are always promising we can become? It seemed I had undergone a fabled makeover, like Cinderella. Or had I?

Movies and fairy tales paint an unalloyed victory for the remade heroine, who becomes recognized for what she truly is only after working an astonishing change in her appearance, and that renovated self becomes the condition for love and marriage. But what the movies and fairy tales, not to mention the diet books and magazines, rarely disclose is the hint of something darker lurking inside a dramatic physical change, an estrangement, in which one may become less recognizable to oneself as well as to others. Ovid understood this as he sang of bodies changed in the Metamorphoses, where a nymph may be transformed into a cow, a hapless hunter into a stag, and where Midas's greed turns a seeming blessing into an unforeseen curse. In their changed forms, do these characters become more themselves, or less?

A great change in body size in either direction carries with it a challenge to self-identity, as anyone who's read Alice in Wonderland knows. A tiny Alice fears drowning in her own tears, while the gigantic Alice grows literally as large as a house and finally larger, and much of the trouble stems from a cake that says "Eat me."

In fairy tales and movies, dramatic transformations take place instantaneously, with the wave of a fairy godmother's wand or in a cinematic montage that collapses a year's hard work into ninety seconds of film time. In real life, we theoretically have time to adjust to gradual changes over the long effort of sticking to a diet and an exercise regimen. A semblance of continuity and coherence holds identity together. Until moments like the one in the restaurant, which reflect back to us a thought lingering at the back of our minds: is this still me?

Don't get me wrong. The gifts of better health and stamina that accompany a regime of eating right and exercising certainly are absolute goods. And the world is unquestionably more benevolent towards people who fit culturally approved notions of how we ought to look than it is to those who fall outside those narrow bounds. Yet it's also true that aspects of the reducing process break down the notion of the whole self. I found after a while that an obsessive quality set in, in which I focused my attention too closely and discontentedly on individual parts of myself. Popular media encourage this frame of mind. Exercise programs, weight-loss infomercials, magazines, and Web sites scream at us about abs, shoulders, thighs, hips, the dreaded upper arms, until it's easy to imagine we're a fractured collection of individual parts and not a coherent whole.

Life is short, dieting long. I'm no longer at my lowest weight nor at my highest but somewhere in between. It's time to take off a few pounds again, but I hope I can do it from a place of self-knowledge, a recognition that the self is greater than the sum of its parts. This time I hope the scales fall away from my eyes, as I seek a better way to take the measure of myself. I may even make room for the occasional order of kung pao.

Back to Top