“I Couldn’t Possibly,” Maddy Heck Reviews Carmen Maria Machado's "Eight Bites"
“Eight Bites,” a short story from Carmen Maria Machado’s award-winning 2017 collection Her Body and Other Parties, spins a dreamlike tale of a middle-aged woman undergoing an all too easy to imagine stomach procedure, in which surgeons snip away at her vital organs to permanently suppress her appetite. Her daughter, Cal, presents the voice of reason, but her anger with her mother’s inability to accept her “flaws” further strains their already fraught relationship, as the narrator is more committed to her bodily goal than to considering how she may be hurting her daughter. While her inner monologue expresses obvious mental health issues, her desperation for her ideal body reads as both heartbreaking and timely.
Aside from the commentary on topics like diet culture and body dysmorphia, “Eight Bites” artfully displays how these issues can easily be passed down, particularly infecting mother-daughter relationships. For instance, the narrator holds decades-long resentment for her daughter, as her postpartum body never “bounced back” to how it looked before birthing a beautiful baby girl. Cal, however, has suffered throughout her life by witnessing her mother’s backwards view of eating and body image. Cal’s most heartbreaking argument in the story is when she asks her mother if she hates both their bodies, since Cal now looks similar to how her mother used to. The narrator’s issues are personal, but but her inability to consider how they inherently hurt her daughter emphasizes just how deep her self-hatred runs.
Growing up, my mother was a constant dieter and never, ever, missed a workout. Though I know she loves me in any form, I always viewed food as an enemy to be defeated, and that this was an inherently and universally feminine battle. No matter the strides that recent body positive movements have made, societal pressure and expectations for women to look a certain way continue to infect our culture. Though we’ve come a long way from outwardly harmful tropes, such as Kate Moss’ infamous “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” quote, diet culture persists, especially in college. Overanalyzing how clothes hang on our body, what we eat before going out, or how long we spend on the elliptical to reach a calorie deficit can hijack our thoughts, and like the narrator, cause us to ignore what matters.
However, “Eight Bites” displays how these concerns can feel absurdly important when they’re about us, but when others express these concerns, we tend to look kindlier at them. When the narrator has her first consultation, she greets the doctor and thinks, “[. . .] but she was sweetly plump--why had I skipped over the phase when I was round and as unthreatening as a panda, but still lovely? She smiled with all her teeth.” This innocently tragic contemplation makes the reader want to scream, “That can be you! You don’t have to do this,” but our narrator is determined and unwavering. She’s tired of having to wear clothes she hates, of watching thin women seem happier than she ever could be. This is what makes “Eight Bites” so thought-provoking. Why can we so clearly see that the narrator’s happiness relies on mental health, her relationships, and not her appearance, but we can so easily miss this in ourselves? Why do we see our friends, our mothers, and women on the street as beautiful, but have so much trouble seeing our own beauty?
After a short, lonely, post-surgical life, the narrator slips away at seventy-nine, and she finally accepts and apologizes to the faceless ghoul that's haunted her since she went under the knife--a personification of the fat she once felt the need to discard but now realizes was a beautiful part of a healthy body. She refers to herself as a poor caretaker, and the audience sadly but readily agrees. Her tragic trajectory is a cautionary tale: how we see and love ourselves shapes how we live, and we’re all capable of living well.
"Eight Bites," from Her Body and Other Parties
By Carmen Maria Machado