If I didn’t live in the country, I would look much better in a bathing suit. I comfort myself with this thought whenever swimsuit season rolls around. It certainly isn’t my fault.
When I met my husband 23 years ago – while, ironically, wearing a two-piece on a Florida beach – I lived in a culture that was far more conducive to swimwear readiness. I’m referring to Atlanta, but really I could be talking about any place that had embraced 20th-century attitudes about diet and exercise, any town where the restaurants served something besides fried chicken and vegetables floating in pork fat.
At the time, I ate a lot of steamed broccoli and broiled fish and baked potatoes with plain, nonfat yogurt. Not only did I eat such healthy fare, I had actually convinced myself that it was pretty darn tasty. I typically drank water with a slice of lemon or 1 percent milk or something sugar-free. I was stingy with the butter. My refrigerator was stocked with Lean Cuisines and low-calorie everything. I attended an aerobics class semi-regularly at a fitness club in the basement of my Midtown Atlanta office building. I was no Jane Fonda, but I did all right – all right enough, at least, that my future spouse did not run screaming when he first spotted me on the beach.
It was shortly after this, I can see now, that everything went to pot. In retrospect, it’s apparent that several major life changes ganged up to unfairly conspire against me and my bathroom scale. First, my metabolism turned 30. Then I moved from the skinny-obsessed city to the comfortably plump country. At the same time, I left behind a culture of comparative restraint (Atlanta) for one of bacchanalian abandon (Louisiana). Finally, I gave up the me-focused single life for marriage – marriage to a working farmer whose normal weekday lunches resembled Sunday dinner on the grounds and whose ideas about healthy eating were completely at odds with mine. With so much stacked against her, the most disciplined person (which I am not) might find herself saying yes to the elastic waistband.
If I had to pick a turning point in the demise of my self-control, I would probably have to blame Wookie.
Wookie is a living saint and amazing Southern cook who worked for my in-laws and helped raise my husband and his six siblings here on the farm. When I arrived on the farm in 1992, Wookie was still preparing full-blown, meat-and-vegetable lunches every day for my father-in-law, my husband, various relatives and the men who worked on the farm. These midday smorgasbords featured dishes such as chicken pie, fried catfish, fried chicken, pot roast and creamed potatoes with homemade biscuits and sweet tea. High-calorie and high-everything-else-that-is-bad-for-you, the noon meal was intended to stick to the ribs and give a manual laborer fuel for the rest of the day. It was also a social event and a reward for a job well-done. Given the choice of eating a lonely, sensible lunch or joining in the daily fun and fellowship at the main farmhouse, what choice did I really have? I could hardly risk offending my new in-laws, now could I?
Of course, these long-ago lunches didn’t single-handedly undermine my healthy habits. They were just symbolic of a completely different mind-set that I found myself up against in the country. My new husband was not only accustomed to eating like this every day (and active enough to get away with it), he scoffed at the notion that diet food could ever be better for you than real food. In his book, sugar was a healthier choice than artificial sweeteners. Margarine was “a bunch of chemicals,” and diet sodas reminded him of “diesel fuel.” He also happened to be a dairy farmer who had grown up drinking milk straight from the cow. His attitude about reduced-fat milk was that I was welcome to drink it if I liked that sort of thing, but as far as he was concerned, whole milk was far more nutritious. Whole milk, which I reluctantly gave in to, was just a gateway dairy product. Before I knew it, I was also joining Harvey in his nightly ice cream ritual, and we’re not talking that low-fat frozen yogurt stuff, either. We’re talking Blue Bell, people.
Hey, who is a dairy farmer’s wife to look askance at ice cream? Again, I cannot be held responsible.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before my clothes started shrinking. My first instinct was to exercise, but that was easier said than done when the closest thing in town to a fitness club was an unattended room full of exercise equipment in the back of a hair salon. For a highly motivated person, such a setup would be more than adequate. But I wasn’t a highly motivated person. I needed something fun and group-oriented, peer pressure, something where my absence would be noted, something like the aerobics classes I took in Atlanta. Nevertheless, I made the best of it, joining the health club once or twice over the years but never really making it stick.
These days, we do have fitness clubs that offer fun classes, but alas, I face another obstacle. Every time I mention joining a health club, my husband – perhaps remembering all the membership dollars gone to waste in the past – suggests I can get in shape right here on the farm. If I really want to take off some pounds, he insists, he can put me to work hauling hay and cleaning fence rows any time I want. All I have to do is say the word. When he puts it that way, I realize I’m probably too old to take up aerobics anyway. Probably best if I just drop the whole health club idea.
Then again, I could always walk – we have a mile of traffic-free dirt road right here on the farm. Unfortunately, walking around the farm just reminds me of all the repairs we need to make and the projects we need to finish, and everyone knows stress is not good for you. I could avoid these unpleasant thoughts by walking at the fairgrounds in town like other people do, but how silly would it be to waste gas driving to town when I can walk right here on the farm? Clearly, this is a no-win situation.
I suppose I should be depressed about it, but why beat myself up? I’m finally at peace with the fact that you can’t live where I live, eat sensibly and exercise on a regular basis. Thank God I’m a country girl. Otherwise I’d have no excuse whatsoever.