by Maggie Roberts ’20
Last spring—my sophomore spring—I got fat. Truly, properly fat. By mid-April, bright red stretch marks fanned across my hips and breasts. My formerly-thick, now-enormous thighs chafed holes in the crotch area of my favorite pair of jeans. My BMI was, and still is, undeniably in the “overweight” range.
I could barely force myself to look in the mirror.
And the more I hated myself, the more I binge ate. Idly but frequently, I thought of suicide.
That semester, I was reading Ulysses for an English class. I had been too anxious—for no particular reason, just mentally fried—to commit to the novel. I viewed reading it as a chore instead of as the stimulating, enjoyable challenge it should have been for me. Finally, at the end of April, when I had just about given up on myself intellectually, writing myself off as dumb as well as fat, I was able to fall in love with the novel, its creative language, its self-involved, ever-so-realistic characters. Most of all, I fell in love with Molly Bloom.
Molly Bloom—the self-possessed adulteress whose iconic, triumphant monologue constitutes the novel’s finalé—is portrayed as attractive not in spite of, but because of, her weight. She isn’t obese, but she’s soft and curvy and self-indulgent—and, as many characters comment throughout the novel, decidedly fat. The way she carries her weight makes her desirable, and she’s very aware of it. And, because she likes herself so much, she lets her body have the things it wants. She sends her doting-and-cuckolded husband all over Dublin to buy her the food she likes (particularly cream, which I learned during my semester abroad is an absolute delicacy in Ireland), letting her body’s cravings, both sexual and edible, dictate her actions. This leniency with herself—this tendency to embrace, rather than repress, her physical desires—makes her the most liberated, well-adjusted character in the book. She doesn’t care at all about the the fact that she’s fat, not because she doesn’t care about herself, but instead because she assumes that people will want her the way she is.
And people absolutely do want her the way she is.
As cliché as it sounds, Molly thinks she’s beautiful, so everyone else enthusiastically shares this view. Molly eats whatever she wants and doesn’t worry about it, and so she gets to commit adultery at four p.m. with the much sought-after Blazes Boylan.
I wrote my final essay for that class on the use of the word “cream” in Ulysses and how it pertains to female sexuality, particularly Molly’s. Writing that essay was the best body image therapy I could have asked for. Just as watching a thirty-year-old interview with Princess Diana helped to wrench me out of my bulimia in high school, reading a hundred-year-old novel taught me to love my body. I started to like the way I looked again. I started to like myself again in general. College made me fat. So what? College is a lot of carbs and stress, so if you’re built a certain way—or, more importantly, if you are often kept awake or made unable to focus by all-consuming, persistent cravings—you’re bound to put on a few pounds. But you’re still you, and if you value yourself and carry yourself with that confidence, people will find you attractive. It’s truly that simple.
And if you don’t believe me, go read Ulysses. Because let’s face it: you probably haven’t.