Jeanette Winterson's 1986 Diet Book Is Here

The year I was born, Jeanette Winterson wrote a diet book for women — I’m not sure if this means I finally qualify for secondary narcissism or if I simply still don’t understand what secondary narcissism is, but I can’t help but take it personally. A couple of weeks ago I read a review of her latest book, Frankisstein, that gave me pause; I’m usually skeptical when a cis person writes a trans-ish book that implies or states outright that 1. Trans people represent the inevitable future of gender, an imaginative act that immediately turns cis people into scrappy underdogs and 2. There’s something universal about transness that’s not simply relatable but common, which makes those who transition embarrassingly literal-minded. And this review did not make me optimistic about Frankisstein, although it’s always possible I’ll be surprised when I get around to reading it:

Beginning, evocatively, with Shelley composing Frankenstein, the novel leaps confidently into the present day to tell the story of Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor self-described as “hybrid”, meeting Victor Stein, a celebrated professor working at the bleeding edge of “accelerated evolution” through “self-designing” life. His interest in Ry is both sexual and detachedly philosophical. In Ry’s post-surgery body, he sees transhuman implications. “You aligned your physical reality with your mental impression of yourself,” he tells Ry. “Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all do that?”

Ry is quick to acknowledge the distinct and in some ways lonely intersection of science and gender fluidity that their existence encompasses. “I live with doubleness,” Ry says at one point. But where Stein sees Ry as a “harbinger of the future” who “chose to intervene in your own evolution”, Ry’s view is rooted more in discomfort with the present. “I am part of a small group of transgender medical professionals,” Ry says. “Some of us are transhuman enthusiasts too. This isn’t surprising; we feel or have felt that we’re in the wrong body. We can understand the feeling that any body is the wrong body.”

Anyhow, I haven’t read Frankisstein and so there’s a limit to how extensively I feel prepared to critique the premise, but I have now read Winterson’s third book (it’s her third book, she wrote it after Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit), Fit For The Future, because I ordered it the second I clicked through to her Wikipedia page from the original Guardian review.

I know, of course, that your first question about the book — as was mine — must be, “Does Jeanette make a joke about oranges in it?”

Here’s the table of contents:

Something I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about is my total receptivity to scolding, admonishing-type diet books, especially those written by no-nonsense women. I don’t usually go in for whatever diets they espouse, but there’s a part of my brain that still believes whenever an enormously together-looking woman yells at me, she’s right to do so, and it’s all for my betterment. Transition has sadly not cured me of this belief. French Women Don’t Get Fat and The Dancer’s Body Book fall into this category, Skinny Bitch is perhaps its apogée. I can never completely rid myself of the idea that a stern, competent, disappointed woman is going to sufficiently externalize my self-loathing for my own squishiness, both physical and spiritual, such that I will absorb her sternness and flintiness into my own body and become resourceful, self-sufficient, masc4masc but in a second-wave feminist sort of way?? And Fit For The Future more than delivers on that front; it opens with “You owe it to yourself to be beautiful,” then demands the reader scrawl this mantra all over every surface in her home. Everything is tied up into ideas of “self-respect” and a certain sort of cleaned-up “wildness,” it’s equally dangerous to become a Bridget-Jones-type diet bunny (stupid, worthless, nigh-unsalvageable) or a diet-unconscious slob (embarrassing, but at least capable of being reformed) – honestly, sometimes it feels like Winterson is trying to build the reader into her ideal girlfriend, stylish and flexible, strong and graceful, constantly tearing off her (still-stylish!) clothes in order to glory in the clean lines of her perfected nudity, and throwing out promises of an improved sex life and sense of self-respect on nearly every other page.

Also, there are a ton of impossible-to-prove-physical claims – that men, even gymnast men, can’t walk on balance beams (?) because their centers of gravity are too high, women’s menstrual cycles prepare them for temperature fluctuations and therefore make them better swimmers (I think that was the point?), “women don’t join clubs the way men do,” the limbo isn’t an Olympic sport because no one respects feminine endurance, “caffeine has the same effect on your body as chocolate.”

I don’t mean to suggest that the only pleasure found in reading Fit For the Future or any old diet book is in feeling morally superior to the author, although I can’t deny that’s also part of the reason I read them. I experience myself as a shuttlecock when I pick up books like this one. One minute I’m a dearly-loved but wayward and erring pupil in need of correction, the next I’m the maximally-enlightened inheritor of feminist tradition correcting their foolish and misguided elders, which means I get to feel both self-pitying and self-congratulatory. Oh dear, I think I’ve finally answered the question as to why I like to read old diet books. And I still can’t even touch my toes.

Joss Whedon, Men, and the Hugest Shirts In The World

First, a bit of housekeeping – a number of you responded to yesterday’s post about becoming estranged from my family of origin, and I’m deeply moved and grateful for those messages. I hope you’ll understand that I’m not able to reply to them all individually, but it means more than I can say.

Which brings us to the issue at hand; namely, focusing on little details about twenty-year-old television shows, which is what’s getting me through this week. I’ve been going through old episodes of Angel lately, and one of the things I’ve been most struck by is the absolutely massive scale of male shirting. “Draped in fabric” doesn’t quite seem to cover it somehow. I was around in the late 90s/early aughts — I remember the “big shirts for boys, crop tops for girls” era — but I kept thinking to myself, “Surely it can’t have been this bad.” Here’s Gunn wearing a polo shirt where the sleeves break past the elbow:

It is a shirt designed for Shaq to wear! Look at how close the folding-creases are on the torso — it’s been folded in half at least six times just to get it small enough to fit in a drawer.

Here’s Xander in a pair of pajamas so voluminous they skip right past being modest and circle back around to being obscene. His clothes are so baggy as to become skimpy; at every moment he is more on the verge of popping out of his top than Anya is, in her sensible, close-fitting half-cami and high-waisted skirt combo (you can intuit, rather than see, that she has chosen to wear bike shorts under her skirt).

Xander’s jammies are closer to a judge’s robes, or one of those acrylic Halloween zoot suits that you pay for by the yard. There’s a scene — I wish I could find it for you, I think it’s from the episode where Wesley has to kill his cyborg father — where Wesley points menacingly at someone, but his shirt-sleeves are so inhumanly capacious that it’s totally impossible to pay attention to what he’s saying. All you can do is stare at the black hole of fabric (vaginal imagery? Is Wesley a trans man?) gaping around his elbow, and wonder who sent him onto set looking like that.

Is it homophobic? Is it a late ‘90s homophobia thing, or an early-aughts backlash against the rise of the supposed metrosexual? I’m broadly familiar with the hip-hop-influenced origins of oversized jeans and jackets in the ‘90s, but by the time we get to Angel, we’re talking about mostly-white occult librarians in just tremendous amounts of wool sweaters.

Look at what is happening here! Gunn is wearing a vaguely human-sized shirt — the tie’s a little big for my tastes, but it’s fine — Fred has been sewn into a sexy nurse costume with, I want to say, slouchy beige kitten-heel boot-clogs? Again, fine — but here’s Wesley in his Frankenstein clothes, “No time to press either but don’t worry, they’re both linen, so no one will notice,” swimming around in his Great Plains-sized pants and his Tom Hanks from Big shirt.

Once the outrage subsides, there’s something oddly stirring-yet-soothing about the hulking male clothing of Angel and Buffy, like watching the last of the charismatic megafauna roll over the bluffs of a vast continent. Shirts so huge, draped so voluminously, that they can carry any burden, absorb any blow, encase any man and hide his body from the world; Joss Whedon protects what the Greeks showcased. This is the ideal make body, etc — you may not like it but —

Finally Taking My Own Advice About Thanksgiving

Today, as you likely know, is Thanksgiving in the States. It’s also my 33rd birthday, and the first birthday I have celebrated since becoming estranged from my family of origin. I cannot quite settle on an appropriate term for what these people are to me right now. ‘Biological family’ seems to imply a historical lack of closeness, which isn’t true in my case. ‘Family of origin’ is perhaps the most accurate, but strikes me as clunky and oddly evasive. I could refer to them simply by their names, of course, but there’s something about attempting to eliminate relational language completely that strikes me as wishful thinking: Look at how much I already don’t care about them. Our only connections are haphazard, arbitrary, and genetic. Lucky me, I’m already self-actualized.

In my other job I often find myself in the position of giving advice to other people on the verge of becoming estranged from their own family. While I don’t offer that suggestion lightly, I do think I’ve approached it from a sort-of mathematically perspective – If they do X thing Y times a year and show Z remorse, you should start considering cutting them out of your life, at least until such time they demonstrate an interest in real, good-faith change. The assumption there is that the family of origin has always shown their hand, that you have time to see the estrangement coming and do your level best to avoid it or at least batten down the hatches in advance. I on the other hand, was caught completely off guard. Two weeks ago I learned something I could not live with – asked what had been done about it – learned that nothing had been done, nor would ever – was chided for suggesting it was, in fact, morally necessary to take action immediately – estrangement from my family of origin, which had the day before been the furthest thing from my mind, became a matter of the keenest urgency.

In the last week, I have been able to hastily rewrite the portions of my book concerning my family of origin, and have taken Grace’s last name – feeling, I think quite naturally, a little tired of how many times I have changed my name in the last two years. I have made choices I know I can live with, choices that prioritize loving accountability over secrecy, and encouraged my family of origin to do the same. I am spending my birthday-Thanksgiving with people I love and trust and know myself to be safe with, which I’m enormously grateful for. Now that I’m in a position to slow down and catch my breath, sift through what’s been done and what remains to be done, and assemble my priorities, I find myself with a number of things I cannot so easily estrange from myself—formerly happy memories which now cause me great pain, an impossible desire to remove all mannerisms and habits and turns of phrase that remind me of my origins, a sense of disequilibrium as I reassess the foundation of my existence. Also grief. Also anger. Also a desire to go back in time and do—something. To take new knowledge out of the present and into the past, and so redeem it. Also the flat realization that transition, the act by which I set such great hopes for future models of relating, is of no help to me in this present moment.

There’s an interlude from my new book about Bugs Bunny and Rilke I’ve been revisiting often in the last two weeks:

Rilke Takes A Turn

We cannot fathom his mysterious head

Through the veiled eyes no flickering ray is sent;

But from his torso gleaming light is shed

As from a candelabrum; inward bent

His glance there glows and lingers. Otherwise

The round breast would not bind you with its grace,

Nor could the soft-curved circle of the thighs

Steal the arc whence issues a new race.

Nor could this stark and stunted stone display

Vibrance beneath the shoulders heavy bar,

Nor shine like fur upon a beast of prey,

Nor break forth from tis lines like a great star—

There is no spot that does not bind you fast

And transport you back. You should have taken

a left turn at Albuquerque.

Hey, Doc, you’ve got a slight problem.

Just between the two of us, it’s duck-hunting season.

Have you ever had the feeling you were being watched?

Like the eyes of strange things are upon you?

Look, out there in the audience. My,

I bet you monsters lead interesting lives.

I said to my girlfriend just the other day—Gee,

I’ll bet monsters are interesting,

I said. The places you must go and the places

you must see, my stars! And I’ll bet

you meet a lot of interesting people, too. I’m always

interested in meeting interesting people. You should have taken

a left turn at Albuquerque.

The thing I had not realized about my own family estrangement until it came was that it was not an act of punishment or anger I could either decide to take or not. It was a moral and emotional reality that I could choose to accept or deny, but the estrangement exists with or without my consent. Many people, many queer people I love and admire, do not spend the holidays with their families of origin; I draw great strength from that and know there is great joy and goodness ahead for me. The loss is real, the wound is deep but not mortal, and I am not alone; today will be a good birthday, and unlike any I have ever had before.

With great affection,

Danny Lavery

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