The email notification startles me. It is from Virgin Airlines. Get ready to fly soon. When I click into the notification, Virgin—an airline that has entered voluntary administration—tells me that my direct flight to Tasmania has been changed to three separate flights spread over eight hours. I will be flying from Brisbane to Sydney, then from Sydney to Melbourne, then, after quite a wait, from Melbourne to Hobart.
The problem is I thought I had cancelled the flight. We are still in lockdown. Borders are closed, travel is restricted to within 50 kilometres. After a long and complicated call to Virgin I find out that this ghost-flight is a mistake, a glitch in the system, which will soon be rectified.
But the email serves as a reminder that I am a long way away from my father, whom I miss terribly and who lives in the deep south of Tasmania. It is also a reminder that I have been terribly, suddenly removed from everything I had planned to do in May 2020.
In May 2020 I would go to Melbourne for a series of writerly events and a whirlwind visit to some dear friends, then I’d be off to the Sydney Writers’ Festival—more writerly events, more friends, but after that I would go down to see my dad and end my visit by walking the Three Capes Track.
Three Capes Track is a gorgeous but gruelling walk on the peninsula. Four days of trudging uphill and downhill with all your food and weatherproof clothing in a backpack. There are huts along the way, which saves a walker from having to carry sleeping gear but I am still so hesitant about my ability to walk up even a small to medium Brisbane hill that a part of me is glad that my plans for the walk were scuttled by COVID-19.
If there is a ghost airline ticket taking a ghost me down to Tasmania, maybe in some parallel universe there is a ghost Krissy struggling through the four days of the Three Capes Track. That ghost of myself will be crying at times, sore, full of self-hatred and negative thoughts. Some people thrive when they set themselves challenges like a four-day walk over mountainous terrain. I know from experience that I am not one of those people.
The fact of the matter is that I am fat, and along with my weight (an extra burden that I would have had to carry up and down those daunting hills) I am out of shape. The plan was to spend the early part of 2020 training for the walk. I would get fit. I would learn to love my body again.
I have always admired fat people who can proudly tweet about how comfortable they are with their bodies. Fat and fabulous. It is stirring just to read the words. I wish I were a fat activist spreading body-love all over the world but the truth is my relationship to my body is more complicated than that. More combative, more hateful and, yes, prone to self-harm.
As a chubby pre-teen I remember seeing fat women in a magazine for the first time. It was some glossy thing, Vogue or Cosmopolitan, something where the pages are thick and bright and seductive. I bought the magazine and kept it for years. The photoshoot showed a group of tall fat women dressed in bright, tightfitting dresses, bright prints. Perhaps they were on a beach. I remember the beachball. I remember how they didn’t try to hide their bellies the way my mother tried to hide her belly, the way I did. I remember how they all seemed so oblivious to the fact that their bodies did not fit the stereotype. They had boobs and arses and bellies and thighs. Skin-tight sheaths barely covered their shapes. I was fascinated. The germ of something had begun to grow in me. I tamped it down. I fell back into my body-hatred, which seemed to grow worse every year.
When teenage-hood had flooded my body with hormones, pounding me down to a shrinking, shamed mess, I discovered Divine. It was a video clip. ‘You think you’re a man,’ she sang, and oh yes, that killer line, ‘You’re not man enough to satisfy me.’
Here was a woman, a fat woman, again, dressed in figure-hugging clothes. Here was a woman taking control, telling men that she in all her fat glory could be way too sexy for their puny little bodies. ‘I’m so beautiful,’ sang Divine in yet another song. ‘Look at me. Can’t you see?’
For a brief incandescent moment I tried to be like Divine. I dressed myself up in faux fur. I wore figure-hugging gowns. I was always too glamorous for every after-school gathering but for a brief period of my life I was fat and also very fabulous. But eventually, being 17 wore me down and I began to diet. When that didn’t work I just dieted harder. I was literally starving my body till my mother’s fake furs hung like dead things from my skinny shoulders. I look back at the photographs and wonder how the body I wear now could be the same one I wore then, the bones protruding at my wrists and my hips.
The usual story. A terrible relationship with food ensued. I packed my inner Divine into a storage bag and left her at the back of the cupboard while I enjoyed the slimmer, more acceptable version of myself and all the sexual attention it was able to elicit.
In my thirties my relationship to food began to normalise. I embraced wholesome eating. I made all my meals from scratch. I grew my own food for a while and began to preserve it in pickle jars and as jam. I discovered the pleasures of a good degustation and, when I could, I went out to renowned restaurants to indulge in beautifully made food.
I began to put on weight. I wasn’t gluttonous, but I was no longer starving myself, and my body, so used to the long years of famine, began to hold on to the weight.
I read a study about the show The Biggest Loser in The New York Times, about how losing weight fast just leads to a change in the body’s metabolism. The more weight you lose, the harder it is to keep the weight off. To keep weight off after an extreme diet you would have to eat smaller and smaller portions of food as your body tried to counter the starvation event that had occurred within your flesh. You would become hungrier than everyone else. It would be almost impossible to maintain the new body shape. Every contestant in The Biggest Loser had put the weight back on and more. The horrifying thing was that their metabolism did not flatten out when they reached their original weight. They got bigger and bigger still. Their bodies were stockpiling for future famines. Their bodies were storing fat for a lean time that might never come.
The Biggest Loser was a show that fat-shamed people so that they would diet and exercise to be thin like ‘normal’ folk, but even the ones who won, the ones who achieved their weight goals, were better off before the show had begun.
Even writing this memoir has changed the online world for me. I am being bombarded by weight-loss ads on my social media. Facebook is suggesting I try Noom. It feels inescapable. It feels personal. It feels like I can never be free from being ashamed of my own body and what this body broadcasts to the world.
My body is unruly. My body does not fit into your clothes. My body does not play to the gaze of your camera. My body is an everyday weightlifting regime. My body is its own private airbag. My body protects me from falls. The weight of my body increases my bone density just by the act of walking. My body provides me with so much flesh with which to touch the world.
It is an hour uphill. Not a hill. A mountain. I am climbing a mountain. The heft of this hits me full in the chest. The whole mountain is sitting on me, pushing against me. Why did I think I could walk up a whole sizable mountain when I get puffed on a slight incline?
‘I can’t do this.’
My long-suffering fit and fabulous partner, Anthony, rolls his eyes. ‘You can do it. You’ve done this before. Remember in Slovenia? You walked up big hills in Slovenia two years ago. You can do this.’
But I can’t. I’m not prepared for it. I was late to bed. A few glasses of champagne. A big meal. This morning I woke with the cat curling into my armpit and I wanted to stay under the covers all day. The last thing I wanted to do was walk up a mountain with a full pack.
I can feel my heart thudding. I can feel the point at which my balance would tip me back towards Slaughter Falls where the walk began. I lean forward, away from the tipping point. I find another fulcrum, the point at which I might cry. I waver back and forth around that point. The tears spring to my eyes, are blinked away. It would be a small thing to give in to the shame of it. The terrible spectre of my own defeat.
A young woman in an exercise bra and tights strides past me, her ponytail whipping one way then the other. I am the fattest person on the trail.
What some men don’t realise is that women so often compare themselves to those around them. Even thin women will scan a room to see exactly where they are placed. Does someone else have a bigger thigh gap? Does someone have a slimmer waist? We check to see how big our own breasts are in comparison. Eyes, lips, arse, wrists. No part of our body is exempt from this identity parade.
When I scan the room I am often the fattest person around. But sometimes I am not. I feel a sense of relief if there is someone fatter than me. One person, even two. I am not proud of this. I am not proud of how I check the girth of their hips. If these women are taller then of course they will wear their weight more easily. I shake my head. I can’t compete. If they are as short as I am or close to it I can’t help but stare. Are they more fashionable than I am? If so where have they found clothes that fit? Have they found some way to minimise their bulk? Are they younger than me? If so could they still turn their life around? Do they hide behind makeup? Do they look happy? Do they look like they spend much of their time crying over what they have become?
An older couple stride past: fit, grey, their calf muscles wrinkled but toned. ‘Good morning,’ the woman says and Anthony grins and waves back. I tip my body forward so that I will not tumble back down the slope. I tip my mood back so I will not fall forward into tears. It is an odd and complicated balancing act and I am barely managing to remain upright.
My father texts me. It is cold in Tassie. Snow on the mountain. Rainy, blustery. Somewhere in a parallel dimension a ghost Krissy stops halfway up a steep incline. She is weeping. She is hating herself. She is embarrassed that she has fallen so far behind the others who set out at the same time. She is fighting with her ghost Anthony, who is lean and fit despite eating the same food that she eats every day. Ghost Anthony wants to race ahead, he is sick of walking at a snail’s pace. Ghost Krissy leans towards the steep drop. She is sick of living in this body. She is sick of facing the disappointment of her flesh every day. It would be so easy to slip on the new snow. Heavy pack. She often dreams of the plummet that would free her of this body in the world.
The corporeal me is housebound in a world full of coronavirus fears. I tuck my legs up under me. The cat is curled up beside me, warm and purring. Today is not a bad day. I am glad that I’m not on the Three Capes Track. It is a shameful truth that has been swelling inside me.
Many people are walking their way through isolation. I go down to the river for a stroll and there is a sea of activewear around me. Women jogging, men on bikes, people pumping weights or doing star jumps or burpees on yoga mats.
I just stroll. If I had kept to my schedule I would be collapsing with exhaustion and self-hatred right now. I am certain the last three months of training would have been soaked in tears. I feel a sneaky relief. I won’t have to face failure, ending the walk broken, sad and miles behind everyone else. I am grief-stricken that I won’t get to see my father but I am not sad to be away from the track.
Perhaps I haven’t cried from a sense of failure, but I have cried a lot in the last three months. Tears of stress as I shift the events program I run at Avid Reader Bookshop from real life to Zoom life. Tears of grief as I realise borders are closed and I am isolated from my scant remaining family members. Tears of fear, knowing that having had pneumonia three times in the past three years I am at a high risk of getting gravely ill from COVID-19.
I am listening to Radio National more than usual as I bunker down in my own tiny flat. And on RN Breakfast, RN Drive and in the afternoon programs there is a new word filtering into our consciousness. Iso-weight. ‘So, are you baking your way through isolation?’ says the radio host. ‘Are you worried that when you get out of isolation you will be wearing your new iso-weight?’ One program even starts with a question about iso-weight to segue into a discussion with an astrophysicist about universal expansion. ‘Even the universe is getting fatter,’ the host says.
On Facebook there is a meme being shared. Stages of Isolation shows a gallery of pictures of the Mona Lisa, from smiling muse through weeping wreck to a woman with grey roots to a fat Mona Lisa. The terrible end of the story is fatness. A fate worse than COVID-19.
I do not comment. I scroll away.
I take Patricia Karvelas to task on Twitter about her own iso-weight jibe but of course she was just reading a script. She paused—you can hear it—after the word iso-weight, knowing she would never have said that if she had just had a chance to read the script first. PK is not one to fat-shame others and she tells me so with a tweet. But still, it is everywhere, this fear, this terror of gaining weight. It is written on the faces of the women in their activewear who look like they are running against time. They seem to be more afraid of the scales than the virus as they jog too close to others, huffing and wheezing, spreading their damp breath to other women jogging the other way.
When others panic-bought toilet paper, I started to panic-write. I had been writing a novel about a pandemic when the real pandemic hit. Predictably I was no longer able to continue on with that book. My memoir, The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen, was due to be published in September 2020, and I received word from my publisher that the book would be delayed to some future COVID-free date sometime in 2021. More tears. A never-ending flood of tears.
In my stress I panic-promised to write a new erotic story every week as the pandemic rolled out across the country. I would call the collection ‘Lust in the Time of Coronavirus’ and the stories would reflect the Australian response to the pandemic. I promised I would read each story live and aloud on Zoom every Thursday night.
It is week eight now and restrictions are beginning to be removed. I am afraid there will be a new spike of corona cases. I am afraid of an uptick in the curve. Others on my social media feed are afraid of going out into the world after eight weeks of panic-baking. They are worried about their added iso-weight. I can’t avoid the fat-shaming that is going on in my Facebook feed. It is everywhere. Iso-weight, iso-weight, iso-weight. A brand-new word and already it has become a mantra.
This week I dig deep in the cupboard. I am out of ideas but I must find a theme for my weekly story. At the back of the cupboard there is a vacuum-sealed bag. I sniff it. It is straight out of my childhood in the 1980s. It does indeed smell like teen spirit, my teen spirit, that fat happy child who flourished briefly before I dieted her away. I open the bag and a spray of pink sequins spills out. The fabric begins to fill up like the Michelin Man inflating outside an auto-parts yard. When the inflation is complete, I stand back and wonder at the beauty that is Divine, the sheer kick-arsery of her. The powerful woman singing her way into my skull: ‘You’re not man enough to satisfy me. / I’m so beautiful. Look at me. Can’t you see?’
I look at her. I look at her in the mirror. I take all my clothes off and I look at her again.
I’m so beautiful. Look at me. Why can’t I see?
I put on a tight dress. It feels wrong. I never let myself wear dresses like this. It hugs my curves. It balloons out with my stomach.
I take my notebook and my pen and I go out into the courtyard where there is sunlight. The herbs and vegetable seeds I panic-planted are doing well, eight weeks in. I’m doing okay. I am alive. I am well. I am still writing. I am okay.
I settle myself down on the outside couch. I put my pen to paper. ‘I’m so beautiful,’ I write. ‘Look at me. I can see.’ •
Krissy Kneen is the author of the bestselling memoir Affection, the novels Steeplechase, Triptych, The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine, the Thomas Shapcott Award–winning poetry collection Eating My Grandmother and An Uncertain Grace. Wintering is her latest novel.