Hades gave Persephone a pomegranate. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, the queen and king of the gods of ancient Greece. Hades showed up one day on his chariot and whisked her away and her mother was so heartbroken that she stopped all the plants and trees from growing in Persephone’s absence and went down to the gates of hell to rail and roar and demand her return.
Hades wasn’t feeling it. He agreed to let Persephone go, but not without slipping her a pomegranate as a parting gift. Eating the fruit of the underworld, especially the fruit that Hades himself puts in your hand, comes with a price—Persephone was by the taste of it tied to the underworld, and had to return to Hades for a third of the year, every year. This is why we have winter: because the plants and trees die every time she goes away.
The first time I see a pomegranate I am in a crowded Financial District meeting room in San Francisco with fifty other women. I see it in the hands of the redhead beside me as we sit: it is notable that we sit because there are many women standing, softly shifting their weight from one foot to another, almost jogging in place—or dancing listlessly to a tune only they can hear. Each movement is something burned from their bodies. But we sit. Me and the girl with the pomegranate. The pink jewels in membrane come away in her fingers, a cracked open orb in a Tupperware box. I have no idea what it is but if she’s eating it in here, it must be good, it must be approved of, it must be free. You couldn’t just sit here eating in front of the standing, swaying women, unless somehow the thing you were eating was as virtuous as exercise. I want to know its name, so I can go and get one for myself, add it to my list of permitted foods.
We listened to the thin woman at the front of the room every Tuesday and then we lined up to get weighed. We got a sticker if we had lost something. I loved the stickers, I loved the gradually receding coastline of my body. It was just the hunger I couldn’t stand.
Sarah, the girl beside me, eventually offers me some of the fruit because I am half-staring, and laughs—not unkindly—when I ask what it is. Americans do this when I reveal that I have never eaten foods that are commonplace to them, when I refuse to pretend that I have assimilated and wear my otherness without shame. I take their laughter, because I know it is a small price to pay for safe passage.
She passes me a little cluster of ruby seeds, still clinging to the interior scaffolding of the fruit. I pluck one and it bursts in my mouth, bright and tart. I eat the others, too, like tiny candies. How have I shared a planet with these things for so long and never known this sweetness? Better, this permitted sweetness, this sweetness that comes with no price? She nods when I ask if it’s free to eat, and says, ‘You can have as many as you want.’ I thank Sarah and thumb the membrane between my fingers, too scarlet to ask for more, but determined to find one of my own on my way back home.
After this I see them everywhere. The sex pink moon of the pomegranate manifests itself in supermarkets, on menus, in conversation. It has always been there, just never in my orbit, but now it sits in my skyline, full.
It feels strange and humiliating to admit that I have attended weight-loss programmes. Admitting this kind of participation in a very patriarchal breed of capitalism does not feel feminist, it feels like a failure. All this, and the truth of it is that I have tried to lose weight by eating what a company told me to. I paid these companies and they handed me the spellbook and I charmed myself and my plates in the hope that my body would shrink. This feels like revealing a profound flaw in how I handle my self-loathing. It feels like admitting I woke up one day and my body was not my body, rather some strange island I washed up on without a map. It feels like raised hands to a world of brutal, impossible beauty standards, a white flag to the trained male gaze. It feels like I should be smarter, like I should intellectualise myself into a certain peace with my body.
At the time of writing, in the dense summer flat of a heatwave, this is the longest I have gone without joining a programme in eight years.
My twenties were defined by pursuit of thinness and crushing, repeated failure. Due to wild bouts of depression—something I did not for a long time have any language to describe—my body changed again and again, against my will and my willpower. Hunger and excess lie in each of my palms and both of them are pomegranates: sweet, heavy things that I could barely identify until long past my teens. The truth is that I have, in my life, lived in a body that has shifted in ways that mean I am mystified looking at photographs of myself during the last decade. Nobody ever really said much about it: they let me starve, they let me swell. This underworld was mine to navigate and there were no search parties coming, just myself at the door whispering through the letterbox, ‘Do you want to feel like this for the rest of your life?’ It is not that I wanted to be congratulated on loss—though I was, sometimes, because the world we live in unfairly rewards the shrinking body. Congratulations on all the hunger, the counting, the exhaustion, you look like you’ve dropped a dress size. That, I didn’t want. I think I just wanted someone to ask if I was okay.
I am not sure that there is anything political about my current body size: in fact, there was little or nothing political about it when it was larger, or smaller. I am a medium-sized creature in the world who does not slot neatly into binary conversations about bodily representation. Fat bodies are punished, thin bodies rewarded—bodies in between occupy a liminal and often privileged space. There is potentially no conversation that even needs to be had about my body: I am in many regards invisible. A little taller than most people. Mostly pretty healthy, bar a bad back and somewhat mysterious kidneys. I am writing from a place of the deeply, invisibly average. This is the only point I can write from; I can’t claim to speak from any other size or place. Just from here, in the space in between.
This in mind, joining a weight-loss programme—then failing out, then re-joining again—was a mundane surrender. In the grand scheme of the systemic battles that we fight daily as women, did this truly matter? The deep red marks in my hips or the tracks from denim seams on my thighs or the fact that I did not keep a full-length mirror in my home for five years—were these not petty, small problems of privilege? I had been told again and again that there was nothing more boring than listening to a woman talking about trying to lose weight, so I didn’t do it. I promised myself during the eight years that I attended meetings in grey rooms full of nameless women, that this bit belonged to me. The meticulous counting was mine. The long, burning walks that earned me extra points, or just a little less guilt, were mine. My head down in meeting rooms, my fists full of pomegranate seeds. These were mine. This failure was mine.
In New York City, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a piece entitled the Unicorn Tapestries hangs in eight parts. Nobody knows who wove it; it dates from the Medieval period, which means it was probably designed and constructed by a collection of French women whose names are long lost to history. The sequence depicts the taming and capture of a beast. Even the word ‘unicorn’ has lost the wonder it previously held: the creature is no longer just mythological, now an emoji, a t-shirt design. In the seventh of the eight images, ‘The Unicorn in Captivity’, a pomegranate tree stands in the center of a lush green meadow, and tied by the neck to the trunk is a unicorn. The legendary beast sits under the boughs, tamed, thighs stained with pink juice from the bursting fruit above. The unicorn is satisfied. It does not want to leave, though it couldn’t if it tried. A happily bound creature.
Here’s a secret. During the period in which this tapestry was woven, there were no pomegranates in France. The tree was depicted with no knowledge of the reality of the fruit, just whisper and myth. The women who wove this image had never seen a pomegranate tree: a thing as mythological to them as the unicorn tied to the trunk. Still, the story made sense. The pomegranate kept the unicorn happy. It was enough.
In my time I have willingly been bound to two trees, I have stepped into two hells by choice. One was Slimming World, the other Weight Watchers. Their vocabulary and their treatment of nourishment, plates, ingredients—their matrices of rules—are still in my daily interactions with food, though I do not go out to get weighed by them. They have crept into me, seeded there.
In Slimming World, the shadow-twin of Weight Watchers, you lose what weight you want to lose through the limitation of fat intake. The idea is, the less fat you take in, the more of your body’s stored fat gets burned day to day—or so the husky-voiced group leader here in a suburb in Dublin tells us as we sit in a circle around her. We do, of course, have to have a certain amount of these naughtier foods a day, or the whole thing won’t work. She assures me there is delicate, considered science here, but to be frank, I am not here to learn science. I am here to lose weight. Besides, she says, we’d all lose our minds if we denied ourselves a cheeky single measured glass of wine or a children’s sized ice cream or a low-fat one-hundred-calorie fudge brownie less than the diameter of the palm of your hand, wouldn’t we? These thimbles of wine and other miniature treats are measured out to us in the unfortunately named ‘syns’. Synthesis Foods, the group leader and the information books insist. Funny little coincidence, that.
The propaganda of the weightloss industry speaks to us in terms of temptation and sin. Our sinful bodies. To be fat is to be impure, to be weak to sweetness and luxury, to bear the evidence of excess. Bones now, they’re white, aren’t they? Clean. They’re one of the first signs of weight loss, for me. A more defined jaw. A collarbone. Eventually, a spine.
Over my twenties, I have participated in both groups. The portion-control-oriented Weight Watchers, the fat-restriction-focused Slimming World. I lose around a stone, usually, then become less anxious. I maintain the loss, then, eventually, am so much at peace that I begin to eat and drink without fear. I swell again. I wake up one morning and decide to return, normally around a year later. I lose, I become happy, I gain, I become anxious, I go back to the realm of the pomegranate and I tie myself to the tree. I ask myself questions with the rope around my neck. I think, am I a bad feminist for this kind of participation? If the bright, brave women I admire find out that I do this to myself, will they judge me—will they believe me stupid for this compliance? Will I be sent out of my coven into the world because I am ungrateful for what I have, a healthy body that grants me the highest of privileges in this world available to a woman? Shouldn’t I know better, shouldn’t I just love my body regardless of its size, is it not truly radical to refuse the patriarchal gaze that demands my thinness, my hunger? Here I find some of my most personal struggles politicised: here I find myself failing not only as a woman in the patriarchy, but as a feminist railing against it. I only have the admission that I do not know how to correctly be a body in this world: and in that, I don’t know how to talk about being a body in the world, either.
I stop using olive oil and mayonnaise, I stop drinking pints. I put hot sauce on everything, I only drink whiskey on ice. Every time I stand on the scale at a meeting and lose, I am losing some weight from my body, sure. However, I feel I would lose the respect of my peers, if they knew.
Here’s another secret. I started an Instagram account without my name on it to document what I was eating every day, syn by syn, free portion by heaped, free portion. The images feature acres of broccoli. Tins upon tins of Heinz Spaghetti Hoops. Almost every single day for breakfast, exactly one slice of bread with the crusts cut off, a portion of mushy peas and enough sriracha to start a small house fire. There are oblique hashtags across the digital expanse, ciphers that signal an account’s participation in the program: signs to other participating women that the meals chronicled here are within the rules, maybe something they themselves can emulate. I will not write the many hashtags here: it would feel like a betrayal to the hundreds and thousands of women who live in these secret annals of social media, like me, under anonymous accounts where our bodies and faces do not appear. Just our meals, how we navigate hunger and rise past temptation and still feed ourselves.
The plates in the images that fill these hashtags—millions of plates—are seldom shot beautifully. They are just smartphone snaps of overflowing plates made under the strict but simple tenants of the Slimming World handbook. There are often lots and lots of vegetables: cauliflower florets framing spaghetti bolognese, the sauce full of mushrooms and laced with cubes of carrot. Fat, rugged chips made in the oven with a strange, bastardised oil replacement in a spray can instead of shining, malevolent olive oil, and coated liberally with paprika and celery salt. Here is how you still eat, somehow, each picture says. Here is how you stay full. Here, I am doing this too. No, I will not tell you my name.
The secrecy is part of this underworld club of women bargaining their meals away: the secrecy somehow abides by the truth that while we are doing this to fit better in a world that elevates and values thin bodies and shames fat ones, we are also doing this for ourselves. How can something exist in the space between self-care and obedience to brutal, dangerous cultural norms? What does this mean to the lines of dancing Persephones in the South of Market meeting rooms in San Francisco, the faceless women who chronicle their meals and losses and struggles in those coded hashtags on Instagram—all of whom are real women, whole people with inner lives and personal histories and intelligence and power and kindness. They are just living their lives, enacting their personal quests for peace with their bodies—or a bargain with the patriarchy—or wherever those two things meet and become one. I am at once a participant and a voyeur. In judging them, I judge myself. When does this become disordered, when does this pursuit of control turn and control us? Does the secrecy just make it worse, a collusion of hungry women, thighs red with pomegranates juice, bound, but content? At least these women have one another to talk to, free from the confessions we are told are boring, or worse, oppressive. Is this semi-public journalling of diet disordered, or is it orderly, or is there some space in the margins for which we do not yet have a critical feminist language? I am not sure I can see it objectively, because I’ve waded through those mires, I have the stains on my skin, I have been tied to the tree. I find myself with only questions, not answers—the interrogation of the body and loss and gain is not one that just ends, rather one that spawns.
My mother joined Weight Watchers when I was a child. My godmother was the first to pass me photocopied-and-stapled-together pirated Slimming World information booklets when I asked for them, discontent and a stranger in my own skin. I think about how hard both of these women work, how their lives and mine are intrinsically woven together—how our faces match, our bodies match, especially as I grow older. I think they are both Demeter, they are both Persephone. They are both busy, and kind, and supportive. They are vocal feminists, my mother a campaigner. I do not know their lives in their bodies: that is not my story to tell. I only know that I have the same nose as them, the same architecture of bones. I do know that I don’t consider them traitors for their counting of points and syns. In fact, I feel a rabid fury in my chest at the thought of anyone making judgements about them in this regard. Perhaps I am Demeter too.
There is a restaurant in San Francisco, somewhere in the cross-section of the Mission and Bernal Heights, called The Front Porch. It is a long, dark cavern where buttermilkfried chicken comes in buckets littered with oily, salty popcorn—where the Bloody Marys have diced bacon around the lip of the glass, where I discovered a wild taste for deep-fried okra and a loathing of grits. It is where all your syns come home to roost, where your points lay themselves out on the menu and render themselves pointless. I did not last long in Weight Watchers that year, and would throw myself at this altar of oil and seasoning and new tastes and love every second of it, the fullness that came with such indulgence, the spectacle of soul food, how profoundly opposite to the plates of my childhood each turn here was. My husband and I would sit at brunch time, listening to Nirvana roar foggily over the sound system in the darkened booths and get drunk too early in the day, coasting through a menu of delicious harm, wondering what the hell we were doing in America other than eating ourselves numb and working ourselves to death.
The cocktail I would order with my breakfast—most often, a duck confit and sweet potato hash crowned with two outrageous, golden eggs fried in butter—was called the Persephone. The ingredients were simple: prosecco, pomegranate molasses, and a twist of orange peel to garnish. It was served in a champagne coupe and the molasses would gather heavy at the bottom, like clotted blood. I could have as many as I wanted: this sweet fruit belonged to me and perhaps I would pay for it when the time came, but until then I just tilted my head back and drank. I would down one after another after another.