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  • katherine halligan

Watching and Weighting

Well, it’s official: I have now gained the quarantine fifteen.

On each thigh.

Apparently, calories consumed during a pandemic do still count, so even while everything else in the world has turned upside down, that pesky rule still holds. And I have consumed many, many calories. Sometimes seeking to ease boredom, sometimes seeking to ease my anxiety, I am most definitely eating (and drinking) my feelings.

And these days I have a lot of feelings.

I am not new to the world of weight gain, having worn in my adult life everything from a size 4 US (8 UK) to a size 14 US (18 UK). As a slim child I had a prodigious appetite (what, don’t all nine-month-old babies enjoy a hamburger, baked potato and a giant helping of creamed spinach for dinner?), but those hollow legs began to fill out when I headed off to college, and my weight began to rise and fall with my stress levels. Some people get thinner when they’re stressed, but I would have been excellent at surviving during times of famine in days of yore, as my currently expanding thighs will attest. I have broad shoulders (which I love because my clothes always hang well), big bones (is that a thing? They’ve never broken so perhaps it counts for something) and good birthing hips (definitely a thing, because I birthed two babies very naturally and easily, one of them in 45 minutes flat). All this means that I knew I’d never be a fashion model, and I made peace with that long ago. I normally like the skin I’m in, no matter how much of it there is, until a few years ago when I realised that the fat suit I was wearing was stopping me feeling like myself.

So I embarked (not for the first time) on Weight Watchers, which a friend of mine, with her wonderfully dry British humour, used to call “Fat Club”. The thing is, Fat Club works. It’s easy and forgiving and if you stick even vaguely to the plan, you will lose weight. These days it’s very snazzy and modern and there’s an app for it, and you can find recipes and inspiration and look at other people’s transformation photos while never posting your own because that’s a step too far. You track what you eat by entering it into the app and it calculates the points value of pretty much everything under the sun. The points are based on calories, fat, nutritional value and some mysterious algorithm which means — I’m sorry to have to tell you — that eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s or an entire jar of salted macadamias is probably not a good idea — but the excellent news is that you can eat all the raw celery or poached eggs you like. It also tells you how many points you have left in a day or a week, so you can save them up and plan what to do, say, for a Friday treat. I’m not entirely sure how that actually works, since I have never had anything other than a negative amount of points left in my budget by the end of the week. Some weeks I might only go over by 30-odd points, and then I lose weight (which is pretty miraculous when you consider that you’re only allowed around 28 points a day, max); other weeks, for example when I go on vacation to Hawaii to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary and indulge in a delightful reprise of that game we played twenty years earlier, called Honey-ballooning, I might go over my budget by 287 points (true story), and then I don’t lose weight.

So, it’s all very simple really. Which means it’s not remotely surprising when my body tapped into its genetically programmed urges and started living in March what my mind had been anticipating since February: disaster meant famine was on its way, so food became our primary obsession. We weren’t actually starving (unlike my cousin in New York City, who was genuinely struggling to get any kind of food, so I’m not being flippant here), but our bodies definitely went into some primal, comfort-seeking, eat-whatever-you-can-now-because-tomorrow-there-may-be-no-woolly-mammoth-burgers mode. That urge to prepare for a winter of privation (in March), combined with the fact that everyone in the world was doing the same, meant that we ate large of amounts of very odd foods, often just because we could.

Living with a scientist who’d worked on pretty much ever major pandemic since 1997, we were ready for this one, or as ready as we could be. We bought a chest freezer back in early February and quietly filled it. We’d already started an earthquake-and-fire contingency cupboard, but we knew it was time to raise our game. So we calmly stocked our shelves with canned peaches (which we never normally eat, but thought they would be an excellent way to ward off scurvy); we tranquilly tracked down toilet paper (but we did not hoard! We promise! We even made a spreadsheet to calculate our projected usage and I’m happy to share it with anyone who questions whether we were the reason there was no toilet paper left in all of Southern California). We felt like good Girl Scouts: we were prepared.

Slowly, almost surreptitiously (I demurred when the lady in CVS wondered why I was restocking our entire medicine cabinet; if she couldn’t guess why by February 27, then I wasn’t going to be the one to set off panic alarms unnecessarily), we filled our pantry and garage shelves, due to a slightly weird but not entirely unfounded worry that an earthquake would hit in the middle of the pandemic and we would have to survive for even longer without basic foodstuffs. Not having been raised in Communist Russia, it was a rude awakening when our supply chains actually stuttered and choked, but among the many painful lessons we have learned this year, we all now know what life is like without flour, rice, milk, eggs or guacamole... and it isn’t pretty.

As we learned to survive without avocado products, we learned to be creative with our consumption, depending on what was — or more often was not — available at the grocery store. This meant snacking on everything from cheese puffs to whipped cream (not at the same time, I hasten to add; things were never that bad), and nearly always finishing the day with a drink in hand. A bottle of wine has 22 Weight Watchers points, and I was only allowed 23, so as my wine consumption increased, I was faced with some cruel choices: three full meals plus a snack, or one cracker and a bottle of wine? That sort of starvation math never worked for me, so I just glibly pretended that the wine calories didn’t count, added them to my carefully-tracked healthy food choices for the day (whipped cream has surprisingly few points), and gaily ignored the clever little markings on my Weight Watchers wine glasses that are intended to inspire self-restraint.

Among the many more important lessons I have learned of late, I also discovered to my horror (for the Weight Watchers app is full of all sorts of horrifying discoveries, just like the newspaper these days), a small-sized, ostensibly-healthy, eat-your-greens-type smoothie at Jamba Juice, whilst offering far more obvious health benefits, has as many calories as an entire bottle of wine. (Yes, really!) Forget the greens: pass the corkscrew, please.

But the food and especially the wine served their purpose: I needed a way to numb myself, very slightly, to the realities that we have all faced during this strangest and most difficult of years, as we have watched and waited for an end to the nightmare that is gripping this nation (since March 2020, but also since November 2016), and hoped against hope that it would resolve itself and we could wake up to a better, more recognisable reality.

So the food and the wine were, especially in those early days of this pandemic, a form of comfort, a way of taking the edge off of days which were decidedly sharp and spiky and painful. And during these endlessly edgy days, accomplishing anything — anything at all: folding the laundry, making a phone call, waking up — feels like a cause for celebration, so on days which aren’t officially terrible, I like to celebrate. (Which means wine, not smoothies, and cheese puffs, not apples.)

Celebrating seems perverse and sometimes wrong these days, but not celebrating also feels like a missed opportunity. And so I seize the day by seizing another bag of tortilla chips, and making (low calorie!) margaritas, because who knows what tomorrow will bring and whether there will be any limes at the grocery store? At some deep level that it took me a long time to acknowledge, the lurking fear of COVID-19 meant that I treated every meal like that of a condemned prisoner: what if was my last? So despite the fact that I recently spent nearly 18 months doing Weight Watchers to lose nearly fifty pounds, I threw myself with gusto into this new carpe-diem-style celebrating. It’s not surprising, then, that the numbers on my scale have crept steadily upward, toward unseen heights, much like our COVID numbers.

So although I’m on a healthier slope these days, the corona-coaster has also been a caloric-coaster, at least for me. This is in part because the type of calories I’ve consumed — both liquid and otherwise — has been rather unlike my normal diet, especially at the beginning of lockdown and we were obediently staying home. We ate what we had and we didn’t complain. When a grocery delivery arrived, I celebrated the prospect of another week of fully stocked cupboards by eating two days’ worth of food. We were bored so we baked; we were frightened so we fried. My husband and children did a lot of cooking, while I dutifully enjoyed the fruits of their labours. All roads led back to the kitchen (and many to the wine fridge) and so my waistline grew as our world shrank.

When southern California started opening up again, we treated ourselves to marvellously indulgent meals. Having eschewed takeout for months — initially out of fear of transmission of the virus and then out of fear that if my husband lost his job we would need to save all we could for that very rainy day — we were overjoyed by our first dinner delivery. My daughters and I actually hummed and sighed with happiness as each delicious bite from our local Greek restaurant melted in our mouths. Just as we were emotionally exhausted, so were our palettes, after weeks of pasta. Desperate for anything new and different, we went around the world in 80 (well, maybe 8) restaurants: we nearly cried with happiness at a plate of calamari; our tears of joy merely added to the sweet saltiness of our sushi; we danced with delight at our first Thai takeout in months. Whether we were eating because we weren’t entirely sure if there would be food on the shelves the next week, or because we were celebrating there being food to spare in restaurants, we ate. And ate. And ate.

My growing children could get away with this; my exercising husband could get away with this; I, however, could not. And so, eventually, something had to give. Perhaps it was fearing that the extra pounds meant extra risk from the very thing we’d been trying to avoid all along. Perhaps it was mere vanity, in my case. Or perhaps we were simply, finally, bored of eating and drinking, just as we have eventually bored of so many of our other quarantine pastimes, like TV and video games. Whatever prompted it, we have turned a corner. Our daughters are dancing again; we go on family jogs; sometimes — just sometimes — I choose veggies over vino; I stand on the scales occasionally and wrestle with the truth.

We are also wrestling with some very difficult truths as a nation. Just as I am forcing myself to be accountable about my choices, so must we force our leaders to be accountable about theirs. Just as I have acknowledged that something has to change to return myself to my best version of my self, so must this country acknowledge that something has to change. My personal realisation that I need to look in the mirror and be honest with myself comes alongside a national realisation that we need to reflect on ourselves as a society and truly see that we cannot continue as we are, any longer, if we are to return to the best version of ourselves.

We are often told that we need to accept ourselves as we are. But sometimes acceptance is not a good thing. Sometimes we need to fight. Against excess weight and bloat, against apathy and resignation, against gluttony and greed, against blindness and selfishness. I’m not giving in to this place I’m in now; I’m not giving up on my better self. Nor should we as Americans: we need to take this fight to the ballot box, so that we can get back to being who we really are.

As I have watched my weight go up, not down, we are all also watching and waiting for this country to go up in the estimation of the world or else down in flames, to return to sanity or else to dissolve into chaos, to grow up or else to blow up.

We all need to look into that mirror and ask ourselves what truly matters. Would that it were a magic mirror, which could tell us the future: not who is the fairest (we know which one that is), but whether our election will be fair, whether the results will be accepted, whether goodness will prevail over evil.

Without that magic mirror, it remains to be seen how this story will end.

So we watch. And we wait.

And we hope.

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