Shame Culture: Blessing or Curse?

I live in New York City. A city of 8,175,133 people (As of the 2010 census) where the sidewalks are runways and Bergdorf Goodman, a mere walk-in closet (ironically enough, actual walk-in closets are hard to come by, unless you live in one).

As a 23-year-old woman who, admittedly, has some meat on her bones and has struggled to defy genetics and prescription drug side effects her whole life to get rid of said meat, New York is both a blessing and a curse: On the one hand it motivates me to sustain myself on nothing by celery sticks and dreams, on the other, it always sometimes makes me feel exceedingly bad about myself that I’m not a size 00 (nor will I ever be probably) and can’t walk down the street on a humid 100-degree on the concrete August day and look glowing and gorgeous (as opposed to sweaty and miserable.)

When I was in undergrad (2006-2010) I never felt this way. In fact, I was more confident than ever. In high school I hated how I looked but in college, for some reason, everything was peachy as far as my self-esteem was concerned. Maybe it was because I had a serious boyfriend and felt secure? Maybe it was because I was already not a stick and therefore if I gained the freshman 15 it wouldn’t be as embarrassing as the size 2s who did.

More likely it was the college culture. I went to school in Buffalo, NY, for all intents an purposes, a college town. Buffalo is light on the public transportation and heavy on the bars/all-night eaterys. So if you went out and got drunk and decided to pick up 85 garbage plates to bring home and stuff in your face no one was there to judge you except your best friend who was helping you consume them. There was no shame in drinking from a Heineken mini-keg out of the spigot or chain scarfing boxes of taco fries. It was the college culture. What you ordered was between you, your friends and the disgruntled fast food employee. What you did with it once you had the DD take you home was your own business.

And that’s where New York City in all its fat-shaming culture is kind of a savior (and makes me wish I came here for undergrad and not just grad school). In the city you have to take a subway, or a cab, or a bus. Either way, a stranger is driving you and you’re surrounded by strangers. If you schlep home with a dozen Crif dogs and 3 Shake Shack milkshakes at least a dozen people are going to know. That gorgeous girl in the sequin skirt on the subway is going to know that while she goes home and goes right to bed you’re going to be eating enough calories to fill your 2,000 daily quota for eight years.

Ever since I moved here I can’t even look at a McDonald’s without feeling guilty. If I’m out on a Friday and I’m really craving a slice of pizza or an oily food cart hot dog I need only turn to my left or right and see someone who looks like Kate Moss and is staring at the food cart in disgust. New York City and its army of beautiful, thin, healthy women keep me from eating my feelings and my weight in chicken fingers on a regular basis.

One of my colleagues, Eileen Daspin, has a new book coming out called “The Manhattan Diet,” in which she unveils the secrets Manhattan women use to stay slim and trim. Hearing her talk about her book in the office got me thinking that as crazy as some of these women’s tactics might be (pouring water over leftovers so you don’t eat them) really make sense and are therefore the reason behind my admiration of the Manhattan woman and also the reason why I feel shamed when I go into Duane Reade and buy a Milky Way because it’s been a long damn day.

The Manhattan Diet is about portion control and that is where I think my colleague hits the nail on the head. I often see these gorgeous women eating a small cup of fro-yo or sharing a Shake Shack milkshake. These women eat, they just don’t eat a lot.

I think it was Kate Moss who said, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Well, Miss Moss has clearly never frequented Katz Deli or Magnolia bakery. What I like so much about the premise of the Manhattan Diet is that it shoots down Kate Moss and makes me feel like less of a self-conscious psycho when I cross the street to avoid walking too close to a Burger King. Manhattan women eat, they’re just healthy about it so when I feel envious of these women it’s not because they’re unhealthy it’s because they’re doing it right…which is a relief because I would make a seriously scary anorexic (I have a HUGE ribcage. It should be on display in Ripley’s).

People say that society puts too much pressure on being unattainably, Barbie thin. While I think that’s true for TV, movies, fashion magazines, etc…I don’t think it’s true on the streets of Manhattan. The women I see on my lunch break or on the subway are the ones who work hard to be healthy, not the ones who throw-up their once daily meal of baby carrots, which makes them worth envying and emulating.

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