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I read Jaclyn Friedman’s What you Really Really Want when I was 26 years old. Even though I went to the type of small liberal arts college in Iowa where suburban young women discover feminism, I didn’t stumble into contemporary feminist culture until I’d finished grad school. It set my brain on fire.
I was single for the first time in my 20s and just starting to think about sharing my body with unfamiliar men, so I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to apologize for the stubble on my legs or the curve of my waist or the oil in my hair.
I read and read and read about the ways that women I admired had found to occupy their bodies. I had been apologizing for the space I occupied as a woman, and I wasn’t going to do it anymore.
I discovered something that we all hopefully discover, that my body was a lot more than a list of problems I was working on. In fact, my body wasn’t a list of problems at all. Instead of trying to fix it, I challenged myself to focus on taking care of it.
And it worked, mostly. When it came to my body, my feminism included the following truths:
1. I can be healthy and desirable at any size.
2. Wasting time trying to be smaller is a huge distraction from all of the work we have to do.
I exercised when I could. Ate vegetables when I could. I started meditating and stopped weighing myself.
And then something frustrating happened. After I moved last October, I found a few itchy patches on my arms and the backs of my knees. My roommate showed no sign of bedbugs, so we decided it must be hives.
A week later, I took myself to the walk-in clinic. The doctor took a look and told me -- with less confidence than you really want from a doctor -- that I was definitely reacting to something. She prescribed some non-drowsy allergy medication and hydrocortisone cream. Weeks went by.
The definite-reaction-to-something had spread down both of my arms and across my lower back. My normally dry legs were beginning to inflame. I scratched constantly.
I went back to the walk-in and the same doctor was on duty. She wrote me a prescription for a topical steroid and a nighttime allergy pill since I was so itchy I barely slept. She referred me to a walk-in dermatology clinic on the other side of town. She suggested I get there early.
I got to the clinic at 8:05 and it was already packed. It was a rough morning. I was under deadline on some freelance work and I’d just gotten a period in the middle of my cycle (which never happens to me, by the way), and my arms and legs were starting to bleed from the scratching, no matter how short I kept my fingernails.
Once I actually got in to see the doctor, he looked at me, saw how much I was scratching, and declared with some authority that this level of itch could only be one thing: scabies.
At the streetcar stop by the clinic, I tried to Google my diagnosis and ended up smashing my phone screen instead. As soon as I saw the damage I burst into tears. Like my mid-cycle period, sobbing at a streetcar stop was unusual for me. The topical steroids had to be throwing my hormones off.
I pulled out the papers the doctor had given me and realized that I’d already been prescribed two of these meds at the walk-in clinic. He hadn’t even read my file.
The treatment for scabies involved washing everything I owned in very hot water or quarantining it in garbage bags. I covered my entire body from the neck down in this clear gel, and then hung out naked in the bathroom until it dried.
Since I was too emotionally exhausted to cart all my stuff to the laundromat, I curled up in a sleeping bag on my bare mattress while my quarantined sheets hung out in a trash bag against the wall.
Since I have a buckwheat pillow that can’t be washed, I tied a trash bag around that too. The next morning, I washed off the scabicide. Since the doctor really didn’t want to see me again because he works at a private clinic that only takes government insurance one morning a week, he told me to do the treatment twice, just to be safe.
The scabicide didn’t help. I stopped using the topical steroids. My body was turning back into a list of problems.
When the rash began to creep across my chest in March, my sister the naturopath recommended the Candida Diet.
I looked up critiques of the diet to make sure that there weren’t any severe risks or dangers. Most of the criticism I could find was from other holistic nutrition types who wanted to make the case for their own antifungal diet, but these all seemed to fall into the same basic category of extremely restrictive diets that non-desperate people would never try.
The Candida Diet had apparently been pioneered by a pair of MDs, but it wasn’t supported by peer-reviewed research then, or widely accepted by the medical community now. But what had the medical community done for me lately? Not much.
I decided to give it two weeks. Two weeks without sugar, fruit, starch, grains, caffeine, cheese or alcohol. Sure, I liked those things. But I also liked getting through the day without scratching all of my skin off. This was something I had to remind people a lot when I explained the diet.
Yes, it’s an experiment. Yes, it’s a big adjustment. Yes, you’d be able to stick with it too if the alternative was a 14-day menstrual cycle.
After those two trial weeks were up, the rash had disappeared from my chest. My arms were noticeably less swollen. I didn’t care if the theory behind the diet was legitimate. It was working.
At this point I was eating a lot of coconut and almond products. I made all of the cookie recipes on the Candida Diet website. I took probiotics and antifungals. I had no idea if they mattered.
About three weeks into the diet, I noticed that it wasn’t just my skin that was changing. You probably won’t be as surprised as I was to hear that my pants were looser. I was getting smaller. The body I had committed to occupying was now 15 pounds lighter.
I decided to start tracking my weight and calorie intake. I was pretty sure that two pounds a week was the most you could lose safely. I wanted to make sure I didn’t somehow lose more than that.
So, OK, I know feminism is about choice. But up until this point I had chosen not to personally engage this body image quagmire by assuming I wouldn’t ever get smaller unless I was trying, and that I wouldn’t ever try because that would involve conforming to cultural standards of beauty that didn’t align with my feminism. Things started to get a little cyclical.
People began to comment after 25 pounds. Mostly it was to tell me I looked great. The “After” Myth had recently made the rounds on the Internet, giving me a mental touchstone for some of the feelings I was having.
I felt like I’d just had my hair cut and everybody could tell, but only some people mentioned it. When other people get haircuts, I’m never sure if I should say something. I feel pretty neutral about other people's bangs. So now I was walking around with that haircut feeling all the time and I felt like I had to explain why I looked different.
All of a sudden, I wanted to apologize for my body again. I didn’t realize that this diet was going to make me lose weight, but it had.
One week I told my writing group that my body was defying my politics. I didn’t know what to do. If I stopped the diet, I would get itchier. If I continued the diet, I’d lose more weight.
That part of me who used to apologize for my stubble and my waist and my hair was beaming now. She liked the thigh gap that emerged during downward facing dog. She liked the way my formerly tight boyfriend jeans were now sagging over my emerging hip bones. She liked when the number on the scale went down. She was secretly pleased when I had a 700-calorie deficit one Sunday. She was not a feminist.
For years, I thought I’d evicted her from my brain. Feminism had helped me evict her. But now she was back.
I wondered if I should stop exercising, just to maintain a weight I wasn’t particularly attached to. I knew a few men who had lost weight recently. I asked them if they were worried about the cultural and political implications of their weight loss, if they agonized about how much space to take up. They didn’t. They lost weight. They felt good about it.
After 35 pounds, I hit the target weight I had set for myself in college (you’ll recall that this was before feminism). I’d never weighed this little in my adult life. The rash was confined to a patch on my left shin.
I finally got a family doctor and she suggested we do a biopsy to figure out what we were actually dealing with. She scooped a little piece of flesh from my leg before I left for vacation.
I started to make occasional exceptions in the diet. I noticed that my nose ran a lot whenever I had refined sugar. My skin seemed to flare up whenever I had refined flour. These findings weren’t scientific or conclusive. I started a new job where nobody knew that I had recently lost weight.
At 40 pounds lighter, I contacted my doctor to find out the result of the biopsy. She told me that it’s a kind of eczema. The treatment is topical steroid cream.
In a way, this was a relief. Once I found a medical solution, I expected my diet and my body would change again. I still haven’t bought any clothes in my new size because I didn’t want to invest in my weight like that. But now I know that my skin and my diet and my weight might always be connected.
I’m still surprised to find my ribs and my hip bones so much closer to the surface than they used to be, and I’m still disappointed to feel like I owe the world an explanation for the smaller space I now occupy.
But I’m counting calories less rigourously. Weighing myself less frequently. I eat fruit and beans and cheese with the occasional glass of wine or slice of cake. And I’m reading and reading and reading about the ways that women I admire have found to make peace with their bodies.