During my first few days in training as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, a fellow volunteer told me a story of his Salvadoran host mother filling his plate full of too much food at every meal. He’d eat a little, and she’d come around with a spoonful of more food to put on his plate, ensuring that a blank spot of plate didn’t show for more than a few seconds. After a few days of this, noticing a trend and fearing he would be stuffed for three months until training ended, he quickly got out his Spanish-English dictionary, found the translation for “enough,” and came up with the word “bastante.” So the next time he saw her coming at him with more food, he’d say, “gracias, bastante.” And she would beam and pour more food than usual on his plate. Confused and frustrated, my friend presented this situation to one of our teachers. Turns out, bastante means “more, lots more” while the word “basta” is the proper way to communicate “I’ve had enough.” Both with a literal translation of enough, but with quite distinct interpretations.
The cultural interpretation from this encounter is that many people, rural Salvadorans included, value being not thin. Because not being thin means not being poor. Because not being thin means being healthy.
Cultural immersion in a place where thinness is not valued was incredibly healing for me.
My mother is very thin, and VERY tidy. Growing up with a very thin, very tidy person had a profound effect on me. Other than her, I do not come from thin, tidy people. Yet she was my biggest influence and the person I was most attached to. So this was quite a dissonance, trying to make sense of an anomaly that seemed like the norm.
My reaction to this? I married a not very thin, not very tidy person who is extremely comfortable with both. And was a fellow Peace Corps volunteer at that. I am not very thin either, and not very tidy. I’m probably average on both. But every day, several times a day, a voice in my head tells me that I should be thinner, and that I should be tidier. Then my REAL voice tells me to shut the fuck up. And then a middle-of-the road voice pipes up and says, “It’s ok, neither is right or wrong, neither is perfect nor imperfect.” And then I move on with life. And I don’t eat less or clean more. But what an ordeal just to settle back into being myself!
Growing up with a very thin, VERY tidy person was definitely enough. Enough as in bastante, way too much.
“…I developed a theory that if you are thin and smile a lot, people tend to believe that you have the universe’s secrets in your pocket and that a raindrop has never fallen on your head. If you also happen to be wearing trendy jeans, well then, fuggedaboutit,” wrote Glendon Doyle Melton in Carry On Warrior. Sigh. When I read that, I felt so much relief, a sudden feeling of having already figured out something very important about life.
So when that nasty, tired, old voice tells me I should be thinner (which, by the way and of course is not JUST because my mother is a very thin woman; I’m not oblivious to advertising, its slippery, nasty little effects on my self-image, and the contrast of what feels right and what fashion trends say is righteous and best) day after day, since 2000 at least I have been reminding myself that being not thin is really, really valued by many people. That I have a good life. I am healthy. I have steady income, and I spend quite a large chunk of it on delicious food. That I enjoy that food. That I enjoy something sweet once a day. That I enjoy cheese once a day. I have so much to celebrate in this good life we live, and that that’s why I’m not thin. And not super tidy. And do not care to appear perfect.
Which reminds me of an anonymous quote I remember reading when I was a teenager: A clean house is the sign of a boring person. It got me through the nearly impossible feat of living with an impossibly tidy person during possibly my most untidy phase. I don’t actually think my mother is boring. But I still like to tell myself that I would become more boring if my house were any cleaner.
It all helps.