“Her Body & Other Parties – sixth story – Eight Bites” by Carmen Maria Machado

I struggled with “Eight Bites”, the sixth story in “Her Body & Other Parties”. I could feel its power but I couldn’t distil its meaning on a first read.

On a second read, when I could focus less on the narrative thread and more on the themes woven into it, things became clearer but no less strange.

This is a story about how identity is established within a family. It’s about the impact that mothers and daughters and sisters have on who they want to be and who they become.

Our heroine is dissatisfied with who she has become. The external image that she presents to the world doesn’t seem authentic to her. She does not want to be the fat woman that people see. She wants to be like her mother:

who always looked normal, not hearty or curvy or Rubenesque or Midwestern or voluptuous, just normal.

Her mother maintained this normalcy through an iron discipline, never allowing herself to take more than eight bites of any meal. This was just enough to allow her to be polite in company and to get a sense of what she was eating without allowing her to gain weight inconsistent with the “normal” image she crafted for herself.

Our heroine cannot make herself stop at eight bites. Her appetites are stronger than her will. So, like her sisters before her, she has decided to have bariatric surgery to make her lose weight by reducing her ability to eat.

The story starts with her falling into unconsciousness as her operation begins. It is transformational for her but thoroughly mundane to the women making the transformation happen.

After a few paragraphs, we stumble back in time to January at Cape Cod before the surgery has been agreed to. Cape Cod in winter is presented as a place going through its own, rather sterile and cold transformation. Our heroine tells us she:

“…waded through two feet of snow on a silent street, and came to a shop where wind chimes hung silently on the other side of the glass, mermaid-shaped baubles and bits of driftwood and too-shiny seashells strung through with fishing line and unruffled by any wind. “

That image of windless wind chimes, static but still beautiful, stuck with me. I wondered why it was so clear in our heroine’s memory. On the second read, it seemed to me that windless wind chimes had achieved a state she envied.

Cape Cod in winter seemed to me to be a metaphor for her own interior state, the real her that those around her never saw. She tells us.

The beach bunnies and art dealers would never see the town like this, I thought, when the streets are dark and a liquid chill roils through the gaps and alleys. Silence and sound bumped up against each other but never intermingled; the jolly chaos of warm summer nights was as far away as it could be.

In Winter’s grip, our heroine considers following her sisters into surgery. Each of them claims to have been liberated by the process, to have regained their joy or lost their shame, to have become more themselves.

While our heroine compares herself with her sisters and seeks their advice there is no sense of intimacy or empathy. The sisters seem at arms length to her and not all of them with her well.

So there is more to our heroine’s desire for surgery than an urge to be normal like her mother or to follow in her sisters’ footsteps. The motivation for the surgery, which seems to me to shape everything else in the story, is grief.

Our heroine mourns who she used to be. She reviews photographs of her young self and becomes:

“sick with nostalgia. Even when I thought I was fat, I wasn’t; the teenager in those photos is very beautiful, in a wistful kind of way.”

The midwife of her grief is clear to her:

“But then I had a baby. I had Cal—difficult, sharp-eyed Cal, who has never gotten me half as much as I have never gotten her—and suddenly everything was wrecked, like she was a heavy-metal rocker trashing a hotel room before departing. My stomach was the television set through the window.”

Cal, her daughter who

“is in her late twenties and lives in Portland with a roommate who is not really a roommate and she will not tell me and I don’t know why”

A good part of the grief that drives our heroines reshaping of herself seems to come from the broken relationship with her daughter. Her daughter has done more to her than ruin her body, she has turned on her and diminished her self-worth. She asks herself:

“When did my child sour? I didn’t remember the process, the top-down tumble from sweetness to curdled anger. She was furious constantly, she was all accusation. She had taken the moral high ground from me by force, time and time again.

Oddly, almost illogically, our heroine’s defence against this diminishment it to have a part of herself cut away in surgery. She chooses a surgery which is irreversible because she doesn’t trust her own will. The night before the surgery she says:

“I had no self-control, but tomorrow I would relinquish control and everything would be right again.”

I found the next part of the story the hardest to understand.

After the surgery, our heroine at first gets what she expects: she is unable to eat more than a little so her weight drops away. She has successfully remodelled herself. Then she discovers that she is sharing her house with the spirit of what she had cut away from herself. When she checks with her sisters they admit to having discovered similar presences sharing their homes. Her sisters’ companions/ghosts/phantom-selves were shame or joy. Our heroine’s companion is less easily explained and certainly less welcome.

As the ghost of what she had cut out of herself takes on a physical form she finds herself deeply angry with it. She tracks it down and attacks it, knocking it to the ground and kicking it until it curls into a ball. Then she tells us:

I lean down and whisper where an ear might be. “You are unwanted,” I say.

The thing I struggled with was the nature of this part of herself that she has severed. At first, I thought it was her desire for a life less disciplined, one where she indulges her appetites and doesn’t worry about normal but that didn’t seem like a great fit. On re-reading the story, I think it maybe that she has cut out of herself the desire and the ability to be motherly.

The story ends with our heroine foreseeing the day of her own death, decades in the future. She imagines a reconciliation of sorts.with the part of her she cut away. This part of her has taken on an immortal life of its own and is present with her at her death. Our heroine imagines she will:

curl into her body, which was my body once, but I was a poor caretaker and she was removed from my charge.

“I’m sorry,” I will whisper into her as she walks me toward the front door.

“I’m sorry,” I will repeat. “I didn’t know.”

I’m not sure that I know what this means It seems to fit with the idea of her having become estranged from her own ability to mother but I don’t understand why this has become immortal or what that means or why this part of the story is told in the future tense.

I’m certain some part of this story is slipping through my fingers.

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