March 9, 2018
Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today’s post.
An unnamed narrator sheds weight but not her past in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Eight Bites.” After a gastric bypass surgery, old flesh is personified into a “body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth” that lingers in the protagonist’s house (165). Machado’s surrealist blurring of realities rejects the possibility for any universal ideals, including a woman’s thin frame as the standard beauty model.
In the story, the protagonist’s mother only consumed eight bites of any meal, regardless of her hunger or the food’s content. The extremity of the eating practice stresses that the characters’ conflicts with their size was one concerning their appearance and not their well-being, significant when popular culture disguises many of its beauty standards as health claims. With eight bites, the mother could maintain her slender frame and never risk social deviance, still able to “compliment the hostess” (152). The difference in body size between the narrator and her mother constructed a wall of dissonance and uncertainty between the two. Why didn’t the narrator inherit her mother’s restraint? Why could she not subsist off minuscule portions? Eight bites became a conquest, a mallet to shatter the wall isolating her from her mother.
The narrator blames the birth of her now-grown daughter, Cal, as the instigator to her weight gain. Unlike the protagonist’s nieces who support their mothers, Cal—a difficult, incomprehensible feminist—is the antagonist to mainstream ideologies and is hurt by her mother’s surgery. She shares her mother’s shape, and when her mother renounces her own body, she renounces her daughter’s. The narrator cannot see how she is passing down to Cal the same maternal dissidence she experienced and dismisses Cal’s anger as one more thing she cannot understand about her daughter. Of course, Cal’s body is imperfect, the narrator thinks to herself, but can’t she see how her youth grants her ample time to change? The protagonist, like many subjected to the repetitive frames dominating popular media, regards the thin body not only as preferable, but as the only legitimate body to have.
When the protagonist’s sisters decide on surgery, she joins them, not because she needs a superior body, but because she fears risking marginalization otherwise. When the initial sister underwent the surgery, rather than responding with envy, the protagonist feared her sister may be dying. But when sister two and three each followed and the bypass was explained, the narrator could not overcome her feelings of being left behind. To mark the death of her old shape, the narrator orders a last meal at Salt. While the location of her favorite restaurant remains the same, the restaurant itself is always changing, always improving, in parallel with society’s continuously elevated standards. At the newest spot, the narrator eats a platter of oysters, and one of them sticks to the shell. The narrator realizes the mollusks are alive: “they have no brains or insides…but they are alive nonetheless” (156). She believes if there were justice, she would be choked by the oyster, a symbol of the discarded parts of her body that too cling to their shell. Plate in front of her, the narrator “almost gagged, but then [she] swallowed” (156).
Post-surgery, all appears to go well; the neighbors notice her weight loss—an implied compliment—and when she makes a chicken dinner, she stops at bite eight. She has joined her mother and sisters, tossing aside the body that made her an outcast before. But she is not quite free. That body haunts her, appearing initially as an unseen presence, and then as a tangible form one night at the end of her stairs. At first, the narrator believes the shape, almost prepubescent, to be her daughter. Soon, however, she recognizes her [the shape] to be the body she had tried to abandon—her post-Cal body. She tells her body she is unwanted, violently kicking her, yet wishing she, like the oyster, “would fight back” (165). After that, the body stays out of the narrator’s sight, leaving behind trails of laundry and offerings of hard candy which let the protagonist know she “is around, even when she is not around” (167). No one else ever witnesses her, but the protagonist never wonders whether she is literal or imagined, ghost or dream. Because she does not spend time worrying about or even questioning the physicality of the form, the significance of the debate itself is subverted. In any encounter, the details we notice, the meanings we attribute to interactions, everything is shaped by the lens constructed by our backgrounds. Outsiders do not perceive the body because they have not lived the life required to see her.
In popular media, women’s sizes are hierarchized, bigger bodies assuming the pyramid’s bottom row, and the slim and often underweight forming the tiny triangle on top. Society justifies this hierarchy by framing the thin body as the image of health, a more objective sounding ideal than one based in beauty. In the story “Eight Bites,” it is neither the narrator’s physical discomfort nor her high regard of a thin body that motivates her to undergo the gastric bypass surgery, but her fear for marginalization had she not. Only in death, when her old body comforts her, reaching out to “touch her cheek like [she] once did Cal’s” (167), does the narrator recognize how she cut herself down for a society she was never going to fit. The problem had never been her body, but the culture that trained her to believe it was.
Machado’s ambiguity between reality and hallucination illustrates the fallacy in universal standards. The narrator may share her sisters’ blood and size, but her different experiences alter how she lives inside her body. Her post-Cal shape was a culmination of all her identities and adventures, including childbirth, and to dismiss the body is to dismiss the life that led to it. In her smaller frame, the narrator may have been able to stop at bite eight, but she was never full.
Machado, Carmen Maria. “Eight Bites.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 2017.
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