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An Essay About Watching Brad Pitt Eat That Is Really About My Own Shit photo

The first movie I remember watching Brad Pitt in was Meet Joe Black. This was also the first movie I ever saw on a date — seventh grade, with a horse girl who took great pains to let everyone know she was an other-side-of-the-tracks sort of horse girl, one who had to ride someone else’s pet and they never let her forget it. I remember she showed me her father’s empty liquor bottles under the sink in their apartment, which felt important because it implied a certain darkness to her life, and she talked about how to be an elite show jumper they made you ration your food, so there was this whole thing with her regimentation versus her father’s neglect. When we hugged, I could feel her ribs. I didn’t offer any glimpse into the darkness in my own life, though I could have, but that felt out of the emotional range of my self-presentation. None of this has to do with Brad Pitt, but also it does.

It was a group date, Friday after school. I had been on an unofficial fast for most of the day, which I then broke at a bodega where me and the other boys with dates were buying flowers. I picked out my flowers, went in to pay first, grabbed a Hershey’s Cookies n’ Cream bar and crammed it into my mouth before anyone saw. I could feel the white chocolate all over my teeth, so I was rubbing my tongue along the borders of tooth and gum while keeping my mouth closed.

In the theater, everything was about mouths — what you could or should do with them and how you could or should do those things — and of course bodies, either touching or not. It was one of those supercharged moments when normally slouched and silent tweens puff up and laugh louder than necessary, secure in their pack. I hadn’t bought popcorn because of the candy bar. My date sucked a Diet Coke and didn’t offer me any. I watched the other boys shovel snacks into their mouths while the girls plucked single kernels; both parties looked somehow correct. I felt an familiar mixture of jealousy and hunger. On screen, a young, clean-shaven, mop-haired Pitt gleamed; he played Death.

I don’t remember much of the movie, other than him getting hit by a van (which turned him into Death?) and the scenes of him eating. These were a running bit, an attempt at levity in an otherwise humorless slog. Brad Pitt, Death, eating a lamb sandwich while Anthony Hopkins talks to him about cilantro. Brad Pitt, Death, accepting a spoon of peanut butter, sticking the head into his mouth, closing his lips and working his tongue over it, eyes flickering with pleasure as his jaw flexes. Eating as an activity both naïve and erotic, like a first kiss. The bit is that Death has never had the pleasure of tasting anything, but it only works if Death looks like Brad Pitt, the impossible ideal of what a man’s body could be before any sustenance is added or taken away. Even as Death, he’s like Aphrodite being born, rising out of the water fully formed, simultaneously perfect and nonexistent, a vessel only.

On screen, like a child, he asked, Can I have more?

We never had peanut butter in the house because my mother said it was one of those fake healthy foods. At friends’ houses, I’d eat the Oreos first, but at some point I’d see the jar of peanut butter, not even shelved with snacks but a staple. I’d open the silverware drawer as quietly as possible, take a tablespoon, force myself to swallow it all in a rush, and then wash and dry the evidence. In the theater, I put my hand on my date’s hand and hoped it wasn’t too heavy.

Rewatching the movie, I think it might be the blankest performance Pitt’s ever given, which is saying something for an actor whose most positive reviews usually include the word understated. The eating scenes are the only ones he perks up for, like he’s finally got a chance to do something. Him and Anthony Hopkins interviewed each other decades later, and barely brought the movie up, even though it was one of only two times they worked together. Pitt said, I was actually going through a difficult time during that film. I felt pretty shackled. I didn’t feel very free. Hopkins said, Oh really? I had no idea.  

When we kissed, I thought my date would taste the Hershey’s on my teeth. We came together quickly, then apart. We didn’t look at each other again; we watched him.

***

There are many options available if you want to watch a supercut of Brad Pitt eating. They range from three-minute collections of the obvious clips to the more satisfying 20-minute epics that trace his consumption across three decades. His two greatest eating performances, in my educated opinion, come in Moneyball and the entire Ocean’s franchise, primarily because nothing about the character or plot seems to call for food but Pitt makes the choice to turn food into a central component of both. Casing a luxury casino in your silver leisure suit? Eat an ice cream cone in violent lunges and gulps. Pacing the bowels of a baseball stadium during the late innings of a crucial game? Shove half a hero sandwich into your mouth, let mayonnaise and lettuce leak onto your trapezoidal chin, chew for an impossibly long time before delivering your line. These scenes blur into a sort of magical realism for me — this particular, painstakingly captured hunger incongruous with every other data point given by the movie.

What I’m talking about is watching a body that is made to be looked at, that is professionally looked at, behave as though it’s simply doing something natural, unconcerned with what we might see. It seems I’ve just described the concept of acting. What I mean, though, is when the incongruity feels gratuitous, or at least pointed, and the lack of acknowledgment of that pointedness becomes part of the pleasure or tension — the one nude person on a non-nude beach rolling over for an even tan, an act of defiance made nonchalant.

No man in my lifetime has ever done nonchalant beauty better than Pitt, certainly none of his immediate peers. Someone like Matthew McConaughey seems to want very badly to be that kind of chill hunk, but he’s so insistent that it becomes shtick, which is not nonchalant at all. Keanu Reeves doesn’t want attention, but he doesn’t want it to the level that it just makes everyone kind of sad that he has to deal with it, and sometimes I want to be like, hello he’s rich and beloved, good for him that he takes the subway but let’s move on! These are all Gen X examples for a reason. I grew up watching these men, pushed toward their films by my older brothers who wanted to be them, and I was unquestioning of my brothers and their desires, no matter the darkness that swirled around them. They were perfect, unattainable, and so too were these heartthrobs, vessels for both desire and envy. I think of them now as the last of a type. Now, beauty in general, and for the first time male beauty, is sold not as some brooding, enigmatic, otherworldly quality, but as constantly documented work. Cheerful, inclusive, attainable progress.

Sometimes I look at the Kumail Nanjiani’s cheat day Instagram posts, which exist only to reinforce the gymbro monasticism of every other day, since even the act of holding up a fork sparks sinuous ripples across a body pushed to its very limit, and I feel only contempt. I got into a Twitter hole recently of people looking at Nanjiani’s old face next to his new one (from one of those photos where he smirks over his once-a-week cake), and speculating about steroid use. I felt enormous satisfaction, the same as when people turned on Chris Pratt — long before he became overall hate-able, I hated him for the transformation, the supposed-to-be-humanizing profiles, the gosh-look-what-a-regular-guy-can-do-if-he-cuts-out-beer workout pics.

Even with a genuinely magnetic star like Michael B. Jordan, part of the appeal lies in seeing how he was made — the story of the skinny, sweet-faced kid from The Wire contrasted with what he has become, though not exactly that because there’s passivity in the idea of becoming and that’s not what’s being sold. In Creed, we watch him make the body we’re watching, an instructional montage for hotness, with a soundtrack attached begging fans to emulate him. I have, stumbling through jumping jacks, trying to ignore myself bouncing, then settling, more ashamed than exhausted. When Michael B. Jordan eats in a movie, it is infrequent and purposeful: pure fuel.          

***

There’s a way of looking at stars as something aspirational, and a way that’s the opposite. It’s akin, I think, to looking at a wealthy person and seeing a benevolent future peer or looking at a wealthy person and seeing a monster forged from luck and evil. For a long time, I was obsessed with reality TV, in large part because the distance between original person and the person they made to be watched was collapsed. Instead I got to watch the effortfulness — some alienating, some seductive, all of it, in at least a small way, familiar to my experience of being in the world. The reality show obsession that has lasted longest for me is Love Island, and I think that’s because of the amount of time dedicated to men with perfectly engineered bodies thinking and talking about those bodies. The gym is a central setting in the house they all share. It’s where the men talk, or really groan, to one another, about their lives and their feelings, which are often related to the bodies they’re working on. If a man is absent from a scene set elsewhere, we know where he is and why. Sometimes they bob into the background of a conversation, in their tiny, sweat-drenched shirts, shaking protein mix into water, scrambling up enough eggs to overflow the pan. When they dress for dinner, they stand in front of the mirror and pull at their shirts, try to move their body so the fabric settles haphazardly but in the right way, vacillating between frustration and satisfaction. When I’m watching this, I am free of envy because they look so worked up about it all, so small and human even as they don’t want to be.

In 2008, the film critic David Thomson mourned the death of stardom, pointing at Heath Ledger and saying that the cult calling him a superstar would last maybe through the opening weekend of The Dark Knight. His essay is that wonderful combination of crankiness and nostalgia, whittling down to anger at us, the viewers, who gave up [our] affection for stars…and replaced it with mounting cynicism. He situates true movie stars, from the old studio era, as the timely American replacement for Gods and royals, an image of a chance at happiness. The more we see of them, the constant accesses of modernity and all that, the closer they come to resembling us, or at least some cursed middle between us and Gods. Then his ultimate thesis: we don’t like our stars — but we don’t like ourselves so much [either].

He wrote this over a decade ago, and the years since have continued to move in the direction he pointed, though I think a counter-pressure has emerged. Stars are more muscly, more oddly and inhumanly beautiful, more famous, while also becoming more streamlined, more constantly accessible across platforms, more needy of every little glance — ultimately interchangeable. It’s the simultaneous celebration of commonness and perfection. A movie star doesn’t feel that different from a Love Island star to me, at this point — both clearly know I’m watching all the time, and depend on that; both make me feel weak and fat and mortal, but also like they would be, even would want to be, my friend.

I want to be a different person a lot of the time, but really that means I want to be in a different body. It’s hard for me to watch someone and see the emotion they’re performing in some vacuum of intellect where their body doesn’t exist in the performance. It’s hard to separate depression from vanity. When I was at the heaviest I’ve ever been, I got into a fight with my father that culminated in him holding a belt and yelling that if I really didn’t feel like I’d become obese put it on and see if any of the loops fit. The worst part of the memory is that I did it. I put it on and sucked and clenched everything, and it did fit, only barely, and it took a few moments for me to realize how much sadder this was than if I’d walked away. I thought about it every day, for months — when good things happened, it was the caveat lurking immediately behind them; when bad things happened, it felt like the reason. I lost a lot of weight through starvation and one of those CouchTo10k apps. When I saw my father again, he said, now you can’t write about being a fat person anymore because people will get mad about appropriation, which was meant as a compliment but felt like silencing, and also served to prove my suspicions that everything I’d ever felt or expressed was really about what was wrong with my body.

***

My wife and I have a pact to not make our daughter feel the way we felt as children, which was an acute awareness of the size of our bodies in relation to those of our peers, and a sense that what we saw in ourselves was not what we wanted, that what we wanted was something to be earned, attainable yet always out of reach because we never reached hard enough. Loving her body, telling her to do the same, turns out to be easy, but I don’t trust the ease, because when I see her lovable body moving around in the world, mine is always next to her.

Sometimes, she’s naked before her bath, sprinting the hallway in the apartment, and I catch her, wrap my hands around her belly, drum her skin with my fingers and say, Look at this beautiful body. The spot right under her top rib makes her ticklish.  She bucks and writhes and giggles. Sometimes she’ll repeat body body body, through the giggles. In these moments, I very often will have a rush of emotion so intense that it’s literally destabilizing. I’ll sit down and squeeze her until she says, I wanna go back, which is a throw away line from a random scene in Moana that she uses to reference all forms of displeasure.

My daughter is in love with the way her body looks and feels. She is old enough now to understand when we tell her that we love it, and that has increased her love because of the validation she can receive simply by lifting up her shirt. When she’s upset, she runs away into our bedroom, finds the full length mirror that is a source of great anxiety for me, and stands there watching herself until her image settles her down. When I go get her, I crouch so that we’re both in the same image, but then instinctively look away. She thinks I’m ignoring her and says, Daddy daddy daddy, until I smile.

The relationship between a toddler and reflective surfaces is all possibility. She’s still surprised, I think, by just how many different objects can become vessels to bring her back to her own image, her own body moving through world, always moving. Everything blurs and then suddenly, wonderfully, there she is again, mimicking herself. Sometimes I see her move past a reflective surface and only realize what she sees when it’s almost out of view. She’s like a cartoon, freezing for a moment before springing back to look. If she has food in her hand, she’ll shove it all into her mouth to watch her cheeks expand, and then she’ll lean in close to watch her jaw work. We have an advent calendar going, and when she eats her daily Hershey’s kiss a line of muddy spit trickles out. In her reflection she follows she spit down her neck and torso, finally pooling in her belly button.

I like to talk about her stats every time we come back from the pediatrician. 99th percentile — in a room of 100 toddlers, there might only be one taking up more space than her! I worry, though, that this is starting to become as performative as so many other aspects of parenting, like every pixelated friend on the other side of FaceTime, every stooped and hurried playground acquaintance, is paying keen attention to whether I’m expressing the correct sentiment. It’s in line with when she got obsessed with a baby doll at daycare and I took her to buy one and, faced with a row of dolls identical in every feature except for skin color, she picked a Black baby because that’s how her daycare doll looked to reflect the racial composition of the school, and for a while I couldn’t stop posting photos of her holding her Black baby doll.  It’s that weird grey area where an aspect of your child is not staged but…highlighted. She loved this doll and carried this doll everywhere and I was — I’m not sure if proud is the right word but, sort of — proud of the implication that I encouraged this, which really just means that I wasn’t such an absolute asshole that I demanded she get a white doll because she’s a white kid. To mention it outright is gross enough to ruin any good implications, so it was left for me to perform without comment, hoping that someone else might. It’s that feeling, all too specific, all too recognizable, that I get when I express yet again my joy at a big daughter, who holds her belly to feel the shape of it and likes to watch her skin jiggle in the mirror — so beautiful, I say again, so hungry. I pull a banana from my back pocket; she eats in gulps. I hand her pieces that are too big and she pushes a new one into her mouth before finishing the last one. She’s overflowing, but she’s smiling at the sight of her body and her eating, our closeness through it all.

Hooray, I say, hooray my big eater, my best eater — leaping over that lowest bar of not making a toddler feel anything toward herself but love.

***

In an interview alongside Margot Robbie during the press tour for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt was asked if he’d seen any of the supercuts of his eating. Robbie appeared more interested than at any other point in the conversation. I…have noticed, she said, smiling but pointed. Pitt, of course, claimed to be entirely unaware of the fact that there was any noticeable pattern, and that he was just behaving the way any human might. He had his little incredulous half-smile.

I’m a grazer by nature, he said, which, okay sure man — I imagine him grazing quite literally on grass.

Robbie, bless her, pushed him. She brought up Ocean’s Eleven and asked if there always just happened to be food around during his shots.

Here, Pitt jumped into actor-discussing-craft mode. He said, Oh, well there was actually a method to that. I thought, he’s always on the run, always on the go, he never has time to sit down and have a real meal so he’d just have to grab something.

I love how implausible this explanation is. The idea that, in a movie designed to be pure fun and fantasy, all shimmer, playing a barely 2D character who seems to have no motivation or distinctive features beyond beauty and poise, Pitt would drill down on this central question of, My god how is he supposed to get his calories in mid-heist? And none of the other characters, all keeping the same schedule, under the same stress, respond by eating, so the result is the very noticeable (just ask Margot Robbie) juxtaposition of his co-stars doing what people in movies usually do — not eating — while Pitt polishes off a hot dog and an ice cream cone, chomps down on a nearly un-licked lollipop, shovels jelly beans from a crystal tumbler at a hotel bar as though that’s the sort of thing that would come gratis at an upscale casino. In a cynical read, it’s a particular kind of bad acting that conflates being noticed at all costs with creating character, like the kid in my college production of King Lear who did a Mike Myers Scottish accent for three hours while nobody else did any accent at all. But Pitt isn’t a grandstander; again, part of his seduction is that it doesn’t seem like the desire to steal a movie would occur to him. If anything, he believes he’s out there performing a perfect approximation of a regular man doing regular things, a regular body covered in flesh in the midst of that regular act of shoving sustenance into his facehole.

In the interview, I don’t think he realizes that his tone becomes anthropological. He’s 55, still sitting the way popular high school boys sit, which is easy to confuse with self-satisfaction but is really lack of concern so pure that the question of whether or not to feel satisfied wouldn’t ever come up. He doesn’t shift his weight. He doesn’t tug at the white shirt tapered around his arms and waist that offers no cover for whatever might spill out and over. He wears a cap that on any other aging star would be the ultimate white flag to pattern baldness, but with him it just means he likes hats. All of this is so expected, has been repeated seamlessly so many times, that interviewers never really comment on his looks or clothes or lifestyle choices. He is as he has always been — what is there for him to say about it? It’s not just that his body has remained static over 35 years of fame (other than a quick detour into even greater buffness for Troy), it’s that he inhabits that body in the same way, both as a character and as himself talking about his characters. Brad Pitt on press tour in 2019 sits just like Brad Pitt shirtless in Thelma and Louise in 1988, a purely physical, entirely un-internalized gesture that makes him seem almost neon compared to those around him, memorable for his pure act of being. The critic Manhola Dargis described it best: a sublime lack of self-consciousness and self-doubt about taking up space…This isn’t swagger; this is flow.

But none of it is interesting to me. None of it is worth remembering beyond simply knowing I saw it, like a better-than-usual painting in the lobby of the building where you work. I only care when his flow reaches for food, makes a show of it, invariably breaks down into self-caricature. There is nothing less human to me, nothing more strange and showy, than eating freely, constantly, without noticing yourself, and without any physical or emotional consequence. It’s not even that I don’t believe the character, it’s that I don’t believe Brad Pitt. I believe him lounging and talking and having whatever little tics he chooses for a given role and smiling and fucking but I don’t believe him eating. Always, still, to not believe him, to find that crack in him, is a relief. I remember only the unacknowledged incongruity, like a TikTok of a bulldog skateboarding or a cop being kind.

***

There was a brief period when my father bought and used a camcorder. Most of the material was long ago taped over or lost. I’ve only seen two videos — my grandmother’s 80th birthday, unearthed because it was at that restaurant on top of the World Trade Center so it later took on a dark novelty, and my own second birthday, which I scrounged up to watch after my brother overdosed, since he was the one holding the camera and you can hear his voice. The video is mostly of people I don’t remember, just milling, saying random things when my brother prods them to. When I appear, he moves the camera in through a little crowd that has assembled for the ritual of watching children eat cake. Quickly, the show becomes only me, round and blonde and unmoving, as my peers lose interest and wander off to play. I’m left alone at the table with the cake, cupping my hands to scoop in a way that suggests a more advanced dexterity than I’ve often been told I had. I eat and eat. I don’t say anything to anyone, I don’t look up to acknowledge the camera or my parents laughing out of the frame.

My brother films himself for a moment — aviator sunglasses, clean-lined jaw, swoop-necked weightlifter’s tank, all the totems of his attempts at a modeling career. He grins, then turns back to me, the big baby, too concentrated to be happy exactly, entranced by taste and texture, food in mouth, how much I could consume and still find more. Laughter continuing from all around; me oblivious to the laughter — how soon would I become conscious enough to no longer be oblivious? When I fill in the blanks of early memory, the image that remains most indelible of my brother is this one, when he turns the camera on himself, brooding, fleeting, and the image most indelible of me is the toddler eating amidst the laughter. This is unfair, of course — reducing his unknowable pain to a before picture of beauty, elevating mine because people generally like to laugh watching a chubby kid eat. But to remember admiration for him, how good it felt, I need to remember his once-sculpted body, find the power there in this thing he had that I never will, as though seeing him that way is an act of generosity.

I don’t know why this particular video was saved when others were lost. Probably, certainly, there was no nefarious intention, and yet. However it came to be, this is the only video recording of my body and my brother’s together. I knew all its beats before I ever watched it; it was central in jokey family nostalgia, just one of those anecdotes. Like how my father gained all this weight during my first two years. Always, I wanted to eat, and sometimes, when my mom was busy, he fed me, and when he fed me he succumbed to temptations and ate, too. Baby food — sweet and mushy, it went down without making him think. You know I’m a grazer, he has always said, and now I hear myself saying it, too. So many childhood memories, everyone’s hand in everyone else’s plate — If I didn’t order it the calories don’t count! Stop me, I’m so full, it’s disgusting, how could I still be eating? There should be different plateaus in memory, one up high to keep real grief, real love, away from the superficial maw, yet there my brother is, still inseparable from a general idea of appetite and why it’s wrong, always the conflation of petty shame and danger.

I pilfered the nursing snacks I bought for my wife when we got home from the hospital. All the trail mix, too many of the peanut butter stuffed pretzels, even though those were the ones she liked best. Breast feeding was hard; the baby rejected it and she never slept, so the first month of nights went in shifts — my wife would wake to pump, leave the bottle, wake me to feed her with the bottle, then I’d set her down and she’d be up again for more before my wife was done with the next pump. There was a feeling of shared purpose and burden to this time that was the only nice part about it; we were made as close to interchangeable as possible, rotating in and out of the same Ikea chair, writhing warmth pressed back and forth to each of our chests in a steady rhythm. It made me feel like I was doing more than I was. The physicality of my wife’s year had been so stunning in its endurance and elasticity, all the extremes absorbed. There is nothing to say about it that won’t now sound trite; somehow I’d never considered the athleticism of birth. I’d been trying to cut weight in the months prior. I’m not sure why, exactly — because the literalness of my wife’s need for sustenance allowed me to frame mine as superfluous? Because something life changing was going to happen, and this is the way I’d grown accustomed to marking change? Because I was trying to budget for the parental weight gain I’d been warned about, that I once caused? When she was born, I cut the chord and took off my shirt for skin-to-skin, the way they tell you to. She was so small on my chest. The doula took a picture, and I felt myself try to tighten, felt my weight shifting, such a clear wish amidst the chaos that the newborn was a bit larger so that she might cover more of me. I was crying from fear and love and pride for my wife; still, phone turned on me, there was my body to consider. Back in the nursing chair, feeding the baby the bottle of the sustenance pulled from my wife, one hand in the pretzel bowl in the dark, wondering if the baby was settling into sleep, wondering how few pretzels I could leave while avoiding the panic of my wife bringing it up.

Will I ever tell my daughter about this? I’ve imagined the conversation the way I imagine so many versions of her being older because it’s nice to dwell in only possibility. In my mind, on an optimistic day, it’s a throw away line that holds so little weight that we won’t remember it — we’re on a hike, we’re on the way home from a movie, we’re just passing time together. I’m planning it fifteen years out, hoping it doesn’t mean anything.

***

Pitt is taken seriously now, which I’m mostly happy about.  He is the last of the beautiful Gen X leading men to receive this treatment, probably because he’s the most beautiful. At some point people stopped thinking it was silly that Ethan Hawke brooded and called himself a novelist, and there was the very hyberbolic and ill-conceived McConaissance moment; now we have Pitt, who is a better actor than these peers but is also so much nicer to look at that it’s taken him a decade or more to catch up.

Manhola Dargis’s essay makes this explicit: beauty can be as much of a trap as a benediction, even for men. Then she doubles down: there’s nothing new about how we punish beauty — again, she makes a point to say that while this notion is more readily exemplified by female stars, Pitt proves that a man too can be pretty enough to make people want him to eat shit. She’s right, though it’s a touch ironic that this essay ran alongside Pitt’s lauded performance in a Tarantino film as a near 60-year old, still peaking in a career that has provided him choice roles with no fallow period and only a single Oscar — how many of actresses he’s been associated with over that time would consider this a punishment?

But then there’s Dargis’s point, perhaps: I am much more willing to be sympathetic to the obvious biases foisted upon famously beautiful women than I am to accept that anyone has the power to make Pitt feel something other than chill. It remains important to me to believe that Pitt never has to think about the power of beauty if he doesn’t want to, even though his whole life has been defined and bankrolled (and, sure, I guess maybe pigeonholed) by people marveling at the beauty. I’ve been searching for an interview where he talks about it and there’s hardly anything, which is like LeBron James never talking about basketball, though of course in Pitt’s mind his basketball is acting, but who gives a shit about his acting? All I want to do is talk about his body and how noticeable it is to me, how noticeable every body is, that’s the problem, and how insulting to think that nobody makes him account for himself.  This is the greatest privilege afforded in my fantasy of thinness: that it eventually might allow you to disappear — to other people sure, but most of all to yourself.

***

I always wanted a daughter — some misguided hope that the particulars of the shame baggage we try not to saddle her with wouldn’t exactly be mine. Also, more insidious: I don’t trust myself to be kind to a son. I can recognize and reject the cruelty done to a young girl’s body by reinforcing what it isn’t, what someone else thinks it should be. There’s an obvious track record for that cruelty, a consequence baked into every bit of society. Fat men have power, and sometimes it seems like nobody has ever made them feel shame; fat men do bad. I have known fat men whose fatness was a show of strength, or even a performative joy — look at all that I can consume; it’s a joke to me, so you can laugh, too. I’ve felt hatred for these men, and a great deal of jealousy, but never kindness. If I had a two-year-old son in front of me sizing up his birthday cake the way I once did…the thought trails off, or I don’t want to follow it.

I never get the tone right when talking or writing about men’s bodies, least of all my own. Despite (because of?) that, I won’t let myself stop. In graduate school, I turned in an essay that organized a day through calorie counting, and in my mind it was a fun, sometimes-funny experiment, dipping my toe into lyric essay land. My peers liked the piece, but in the way that people like the most morose memoir material, when admiration and pity become indistinguishable. A classmate called it one of the most courageous but self-loathing things she’d ever read and I was like, woah wow haha, just a chubby goof over here, did you get to the bit about forgetting to wipe my hands after the Tostitos and then rubbing my eyes? Right after, I wrote another weird piece that (surprise!) underneath the experimentation ended up being all about my body, and this time I thought I was leaning into the darkness of it all. But when I read it in front of a crowd at a bar I got such big laughs that I pretended humor had been the goal.

When you’re in the community of people who believe it’s valid, even valuable, to write about one’s self, there’s a lot of talk about trauma, and always I nod along but don’t see myself in the conversation. It’s hard to call any of these invisible scars of fat boyhood or yoyo diets a trauma; I still don’t really believe they are. I think it’s my choice whether or not this pain over my body is real, is earned, is worthy of having ever existed, yet it always has. To consider life without it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. When I’m asked to empathize with people’s addiction or depression or illness, this is the only frame of reference that comes to my mind for feeling out of control, unable to find catharsis, but I never say that.

When my daughter was maybe nine months old, a spherical cherub who’d just barely begun crawling, a well-meaning person said, Don’t worry, when they start walking they become beanpoles, it’s amazing the way things change. I felt the kind of stunned anger that only clarifies into a response too late. But I also worried about whether I’d been complicit. Had I spoken of her size like I was complaining? Had I suggested that I might need some assuaging? I tried to imagine my own expression as we watched my daughter, what in my face could have sold her out. I’ve heard my parents say, The way she eats! and if I don’t respond fast, they rush into the silence with, Healthy things! All those healthy things! You’re lucky!

In high school, I watched the girls with conspicuous eating disorders, noted their changes and their fastidiousness, which I confused with stoic dedication. I felt misplaced envy, and also shame that they had the capacity to feel bad enough to do something about it. The boys doing pushup contests at lunch until one of them collapsed; the girls consuming nothing but coffee and SlimFast shakes pilfered from a mother’s stash — I saw two halves of a general idea of what personhood looked like for the non-lazy. I knew better than that. There was pain that I at least somewhat recognized that made the girls different than the boys, or maybe even that was wrong but I couldn’t begin to consider that the boys doing pushups felt anything bad, anything at all. I just watched. Let myself think, At least she’s getting something out of it. I tried bulimia a few times; no, it was more than that — knees on the tile floor, fan wailing to cover the noise. I couldn’t ever pull the trigger enough to fully purge. Even now, re-reading that sentence, the judgment appears to be more on the failure to complete than the impulse to try. This is first time I’ve ever written that sentence. I’ve never said it out loud.

***

One thing I’ve always appreciated about Pitt is that he’s never played ugly and he’s never played fat. Even during those years when all an A-lister had to do was put on a prosthetic or gain forty pounds to get an Oscar nod, he never did it. George Clooney was a reliably good actor for a very long time before he flaunted a burgeoning belly in a shirtless torture scene — commitment, to craft over image, got him his recognition, though rewatching Syriana he looks pretty much like himself. There’s Theron in Monster, Kidman’s Virginia Woolf nose in The Hours. Whatever various overrated extremes Christian Bale has taken on over the years.

Pitt has never chosen to not be Brad Pitt in the image on-screen. Even as he’s taken strange, anti-careerist roles, earned that character-actor-trapped-in-a-leading-man cliché, each performance comes attached to the promise of Brad Pitt’s body. He may have done a wacky Irish Traveler accent in Snatch, but he was still a boxer, and there was a slow-motion break in the movie’s frantic comedy to watch him pull off his shirt. It’s almost as if he’s set himself a lifelong artistic challenge — I can believably be anybody, even when I look like this. Or there’s that lingering, glorious possibility that he hasn’t considered his body enough to wonder whether it’s a gift or a hindrance. Or maybe it’s a moral decision, honoring what has always been the money-maker, refusing to take on that greatest and easiest bit of artifice, the physical kind, even in a profession all about playing pretend.

I watched Ad Astra recently, which felt like the closest Pitt has ever come to nodding at the fact of his body, by removing it as much as possible. The movie groaned with the effort of profundity; it’s the first Pitt vehicle I’ve ever seen where you cannot escape how badly he wants critics to use the word brilliant. This bummed me out, but it worked for some. Dargis fawned over his wounded, crumpled humanity, hailed the film as an exploration of masculinity and all its discontents. I try to imagine the words wounded or crumpled or discontents or even humanity being applied to a Pitt role where we see more of him, where its not just his aging baritone mumbling through a voice-over, his partially-visible face floating in endless, weightless black. Did he think he couldn’t tackle all the failure and pain of what it means to carry the broken legacy of manhood if we saw him?

He had a long conversation with Christiane Amanpour on CNN about the film, and it’s the only time I’ve seen him even briefly uncomfortable in an interview. Amanpour says he’s never done anything like this, without a gesture at the upward tilt of a question in her voice, and he wriggles in his chair. He looks way from the camera, seems to consider pushing back, but settles on, Well…no…maybe not to this extent…I’ve always been a little more…physical. He forces that word out, like he’s been looking for the least obvious way to say it. Later, the talk turns to the themes of loneliness that the film explores, and Amanpour gives him the chance to get autobiographical. He demurs, tries to find his footing as the artist, vessel for universal emotion: Well we all…feel great loneliness…sadness…grief. I don’t believe him.

He’s in all grey for the interview, including a grey cap, everything a little baggy — a look chosen, I think, to make him blank, make him anyone, like the outfits they put on a stunt man in front of a green screen.  Maybe, finally, he seems burdened by himself. Maybe the goal all along has been to have his art become as little about his body as possible. Maybe his fantasy is the same as mine — that success, satisfaction, will only come when he feels like he’s disappeared and he no longer must confront what is seen on screen, in the mirror. But who knows? The point is never to know what it feels like for him, right? The point is what it feels like to see him there. Maybe it’s changed for him, maybe he’s changing all the time; the problem is it hasn’t changed much for me.

Brian Phillips puts it well in his essay on Pitt: The secret to [his] stardom has always been to make the watching seem two-sided, to make watching seem like a more alive version of itself.

There is something active to it — the steady brightness of his star over a whole life, returning to him again to reengage. But all this engagement, and what has progressed? Ask me about Brad Pitt and I’ll still make fun of him eating on screen, like a lot of people do, but in a way that is a little too invested and a little too offended. And I’ll hope that the tone reads funny. And I’ll worry that it never did.

***

When I remember my brother now, which is a less and less frequent occurrence, too often I’m thinking about vanity, and always I’m doing the thing where vanity stands in for, or maybe subsumes, pain. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are still the two archetypes of his memory — clean, dazzling, fit; fat, helpless, gone. I didn’t understand track marks or slurred speech or giant pupils as a kid, but I understood a body that, depending on whether we were mad at him at a given time, deserved either pity or ridicule.

A heroin addict should at least be skinny ­— I remember that joke, or whatever it was meant to be.

In his last, lonely years, he’d go through a sleeve of Oreos like nothing was happening. He’d drink a two-liter Pepsi like it was water. Conversations revolved around these details, as though they gave something away. As though the truth, the shame, lay there.

In the year before my wife got pregnant, I got back into therapy to talk about difficulties conceiving, plus my brother, plus the usual making-art-into-the-void, world-dying stuff. The way I remember it, there were all these conversations about fatness and how to think about it or not think about it, and it felt like my therapist kept harping on this, looking for openings to cram her body-posi, self-love message down my throat. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I was always bringing it up and she was like, wow this is toxic and annoying, we should probably work through it. She was talking about disordered eating and I was like, no are you listening? I’m just saying I need endorphins. That sort of thing — back and forth. I left for a residency, only ate breakfast and dinner, ran every day until my knees started to throb, felt briefly amazing at the lake because I was around strangers who had no context for my body other than this slimmer version, and when I came home I never returned the therapist’s calls.

Now everything is physical. More is needed from my body than has ever been, for the pacification and safety of somebody more important than me, somebody whose every move we feel compelled to document. So there I am — ass crack peeking out as I crouch to hold her back from an irritated goose by a river. Looming over and around her on my lap to read a book, that crease in my shirt between chest and stomach, my least favorite of all the creases. Hoisting her above my head when she demands shoulders, my belly button exposed the same way I love it when hers is. I had hoped that needing to simply act so often, so fast, would take away the chance to think about my body, but there it is, there I am. When I tickle her now, she tickles back, and we are two people, big and little, with bodies familiar, bodies that bring each other joy, and I wish I could feel only joy, a binding light.

We want her to eat without thinking about it; my wife and I have been discussing this since before she was born. Eating as just a thing one does, both a pleasure and a necessity, nothing else. We buy cookies and string cheese and off-brand goldfish for her. She knows the words cookie and cracker and pizza and waffle and chocolate and cake. She knows and loves the word bagel so much that it serves as an umbrella term for all circular baked goods. The other night, she was finally down and my wife and I were doing that hunched thirty-minute dance of retrieving her toys from around the apartment, and I held up a bowl still half full of the cookies we’d given her. She’d lost interest at a certain point.

I finished the cookies with my back turned to my wife, then pretended to dump them into the garbage. She said, “I’m proud of us for this.”

We don’t say that a lot parenting-wise; I don’t know, either we’re not proud in a given moment or we don’t want to jinx it when things feel good. I didn’t respond, so she said, “The cookies aren’t a thing for her. They don’t mean anything. She eats until she’s done.”

I wanted to ask my wife jokingly if she was tearing up, but then I was tearing up. Happy tears, proud tears, layered on, or really mixed into, those of regret. That ultimate sensation of parenthood — the simultaneity of something beginning and something ending, constant potential only solidifying what has been lost. Think so hard about how fragile this little person is and you forget your own fragility until it floods you, like a migraine, creeping, creeping, ignorable until it’s not.

This isn’t a climactic moment, just one of many that ebb and flow, that feel the same way. The question is how to end a narrative that hasn’t changed and that I still can’t envision changing, no matter how much I want it to, and no matter what in my life has changed around it. When the baby sleeps, we scroll through pictures of her awake. There she is; there I am. I don’t want to change anything about the pictures except my body in them, and sometimes, when I think that, I can almost convince myself that it’s reasonable. I’ve tried so many times to change my body, but it’s never changed the way I feel about it, just distracted from the effort it might take to love myself the way I want her to. And I want her to so badly, but what does that desire mean if I lack the imagination to even approach the feeling for myself.

I’ll end on a desire for a smaller change, an end that can hopefully be a beginning. In the morning, when I pull my daughter from her crib and hold her, and her little fingers search across me, then finally squeeze, I don’t want to flinch. 

 

image: David Wright


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