Monica Lewinsky wasn’t invited to Tori Spelling’s ninth birthday party.
She went to the same exclusive private school as Tori, and they were in the same Brownie troop together but she was the only one of all their classmates who was excluded from the event. By all accounts, the party wasn’t a typical child’s birthday celebration. Word has it that the Spellings, in traditional Hollywood style, had gone all out for the occasion, inviting the world’s smallest pony and king-of-pop Michael Jackson (pre-child abuse accusations) to serve as entertainment.
When Monica got the snub her mother tried to intervene. According to Andrew Morton’s 1999 biography Monica’s Story, Monica’s mother called the Spellings’ social secretary to request an invitation. But even after securing one, Monica refused to attend. Her classmates were already teasing her about not being invited — a shift from their usual barbs about the little girl’s weight. She was prouder than to suffer the humiliation.
Rejection stings. Maintaining one’s pride soothes it only mildly.
I imagine Monica stayed at her home in Beverly Hills staging a protest of one. Little Monica locked herself in her bedroom, laid face down on her floral bedspread, alternating fists taking punches at her pillow. She wrote I hate Tori one hundred times in her diary. In the class photo, she cut out the eyes of all of the kids who called her Big Mac. On the Monday following the party she faked being sick to get out of going to school.
I don’t know, of course, if this is true.
What’s true is that Monica changed schools at the end of that year.
At summer camp when I was nine the boys called me Curdled Milk. The metaphor is imperfect, but I think the idea was that I was chunky.
When a camp counselor overheard them and tried to address it, the leader of the boys’ pack said: Ok if we can’t make fun of her for being fat can we at least say that she’s loud and annoying?
At fourteen, I’d spent enough time cycling through skipped meals, Weight Watchers, and the occasional purge to become a size that boys were allowed to consider desirable. I started at a new school that year, a private academy known for its debate team. I’d been debating since fifth grade and was often placed within the top spots at tournaments, which was rare for public school kids. But most of the students who went to Nationals or even Worlds were from this private school. It was the most expensive school in my hometown of Winnipeg. My parents knew that they couldn’t afford it on their own so they found a bursary that helped pay the tuition and also borrowed money from my grandparents.
Arriving in this new, thinner body was as exciting as it was confusing. I wasn’t sure if I was small enough yet and was awaiting confirmation from others — especially boys. In the first week, one of my classmates asked me on a date after science class. Another told his friend to tell my new friend to tell me that he liked me. All this attention only confirmed that a smaller body was a ticket to being noticed in a different way.
A month later I would go to my first U.S. debate tournament in Minneapolis. Seven students piled into a van chauffeured by our teacher for the eight-hour drive across the border. By hour six of the journey home we’d started to play Truth or Dare. The most popular girl in school, who had only signed up for the tournament so she could go shopping at the Mall of America, dared Ryan to finger me. In the backseat of the van he creeped his hand up my pleated skirt and fiddled around for no more than four minutes. Tell me if you’re going to moan too loud, Ryan whispered. The 14-year-old boy’s estimation of my enjoyment of this experience was more than a little inflated.
The next day at school: I heard you got fingered by Ryan!
I tried to deny it. Oh come on, Tara, I smelled it, the Popular Girl announced.
The taunts came quickly. Each one hitting harder than the one before.
What’s that smell?
People would ask as I walked through the hallway.
Do you smell fish?
Each time I entered a classroom.
Seen filthy fingers lately?
Whispered the boy who had asked me on a date the month before.
By evening more than half of the kids in my grade had changed their name on MSN Messenger to some variation of What’s That Smell? It was an inside joke that everyone could participate in. No one’s allegiance to the new girl was yet strong enough to choose her side. No one wanted to be sullied by perceived proximity to the dirty one.
I faked being sick the next day. Bought packs of “freshening wipes” at the store that promised to make my vagina smell like rainwater. Ate lunch alone the rest of the year.
Then I switched schools.
I am listening to a podcast about fat camps on an evening walk, trying to get my 10,000 steps for the day. It comes up as part of my regular rotation of feminist, queer, body positive, pro-sex, intersectional, political content.
I feel horrified hearing what children at fat camps are subjected to: the weigh-ins, extreme calorie restriction, forced exercise for hours each day. The podcast hosts say they found one fat camp that marketed to kids as young as seven. They also tell me about the existence of adult fat camps, only they tend to call them weight loss resorts, or, better yet, more euphemistic wellness retreats.
The first time I went to a Weight Watchers meeting with my mom I was nine. I asked my mom to buy me a Weight Watchers membership when I was thirteen. When I lost 4.5 pounds in my first week my mom said Honey, that’s amazing.
When I get home from my walk I google weight loss resorts and wellness retreats. I click ‘Register’. I stop short of entering my credit card information. I am 32 years old.
Monica was thirteen the first summer she went to a fat camp. It was her idea.
I imagine Monica with a selection of brochures laid out on her parents’ dining room table. She put as much thought into how to become smaller as she did into the writing of her frequently praised school essays. She presented her case to her mother, articulate and persuasive, but her mother didn’t need much convincing. She too wanted Monica to be smaller. They decided on one in Santa Barbara. The brochure showed young teenagers laughing and having fun, playing volleyball on the beach. The program consisted of a “healthy diet regimen” and “regular exercise” as well as plenty of time for socializing and creative pursuits.
Monica lost 22 pounds that summer at the fat camp. “It was the start of a great year for me,” she said to her biographer Andrew Morton in 1999, of entering eighth grade in a smaller body.
I went on another school trip in grade nine. This time for the National Debate Championships in Alberta. I had won Provincial Finals the month before and I was determined to win the Nationals. First, because I didn’t like being humiliated. Anything short of first place was humiliation. Second, because being crowned Canada’s best debater would surely have been a useful addition to the resume I was building to effectively change the world one day.
I wanted to win this debate tournament almost as much as I wanted to be thin and almost as much as I wanted boys to like me. These are, of course, the same thing.
The kid who got second at Provincials also got to attend the Nationals. His name was Kyle. He went to a different school. He was smart and cute in a nerdy way. In the way that only high school debaters might find cute. I wore my school uniform during the tournament. The shirt was a loose button down. I liked how it hid my stomach. When Kyle was in the room, I rolled up my pleated skirt to make it shorter than allowed at school.
When we weren’t at the tournament I wore my baggy Hollister sweatshirt and velvet pants. It was hot out and I was sweating underneath but I didn’t take my hoodie off for fear of Kyle realizing how fat I was. On the afternoon that all the debaters got to go swimming at the wave pool, I pretended that I had forgotten my bathing suit.
When we got back home from the trip Kyle added me on MSN. I told him I thought he was cute. He asked if we could hang out, and we arranged to go to the movies together. I bought a self tanner and new eye shadow in preparation for this meeting. We chatted on MSN every day in the week leading up to our movie hang out.
Two days before we were meant to see each other Kyle typed:
<<do u think u would want 2 do some stuff at the mall after the movie on saturday?>>
<<or during the movie???>>
<<wut kinda stuff?>>
<<like fool around. i think u r hot.>>
<<ya I think so. u r hot 2.>>
<<wut r u gonna wear on saturday?>>
<<wut do u want me 2 wear?>>
<<a tite tank top. a short skirt. do u have that?>>
On Friday I told Kyle I couldn’t make it anymore. I had a cousin who was coming to town and my mom was making me hang out with her which was soooo lame. He tried to reschedule for the next weekend and I found another excuse. If he saw me in a tight tank top right then he wouldn’t want to fool around with me anyway, which made the whole excursion pointless. I was trying to hold him off until I could make myself even smaller.
We had been chatting on MSN for a few weeks. When I told him I had seen Fahrenheit 9/11 in theaters he told me it was propaganda. I couldn’t believe it.
<<george w. bush is a war criminal… over 100 THOUSAND ppl have died in iraq!!!!!>>
<<GWB = hero. canada shuda helped the U.S. we r an embarrassment>>
I stopped talking to him after that. Bush supporters weren’t worth starving myself for. Still, he told his friends that the debate champ had given him five blow jobs and then we never saw each other again. I felt humiliated but also proud because some people knew that a boy liked me enough to ask me to give him a blow job.
Of course there are the parts of the story that everyone knows about Monica, unless, perhaps, you were born well into the new millennium or grew up in a place somehow uninfected by the virus of American political culture. Her life between the ages of 21 and 24, or parts of it, is recorded in the more than thirteen books written about the scandal. Not a single one by a woman.
It goes like this:
A president of the United States.
Secretly recorded phone calls.
A blue dress with a conspicuous stain.
A grand jury.
A million late night jokes about Monica and her sex life and her weight.
All wrapped up in an international debate about who’s to blame and who deserves what punishment. On the side of Special Counsel Ken Starr were those seeking to expose what they saw as a philandering corrupt president who, with the help of his repugnantly ambitious wife, would ruin America if left unchecked. Publishing explicit details about the precise sexual acts that a 22-year-old Monica had engaged in was considered both justified and necessary to nail the Clintons. It was also, conveniently, titillating and entertaining. Any humiliation Monica suffered was moot, her reputation so worthless as to be considered only minor collateral damage.
On the other side were those who sought to defend their progressive presidential hero. To them, Monica was an immoral temptress, a woman whose appetite for sex must be matched by her appetite for food as evidenced in the excesses of her body. A woman who said too much to too many. Whose desires and indiscretions were responsible for almost destroying the president and all his potential policy achievements.
To a few, she was a victim.
To everyone, she was entertainment, a punchline — even to those tasked with defending her. Her first lawyer, Bill Ginsburg, relished in the media attention and did little to dispel the image of Monica as a babbling slut. He once described her to Time magazine as a “caged dog with her twenty-four-year-old libido.” At the height of the debate all sides could at least laugh at the same blowjob jokes.
Her image was everywhere and her voice nowhere. Monica was only asked to speak when it served one of the sides.
I sometimes wonder how Monica remembers it, or pieces of it, when her Traumatic Event spanned years.
My Traumatic Event was much shorter. It comes in snippets.
A spinning room.
A ripped tank top.
Yoga pants pulled down.
The people who walked in and saw me naked.
The half memories.
Then, the debate:
Arguing in the affirmative were those who said I’d wanted it. I had drunk his rum, they reasoned. Their supplementary evidence: I had obviously been flirting with him. I’d gone into the back room with him. I was awful for cheating on the guy I’d hung out with twice and spoken on the phone to four times.
On the other side was my friend who declared the boy a Rapist. Reminded everyone I was a virgin. That I had already had a sort-of boyfriend so obviously I hadn’t been looking to hook up. She cussed out anyone who hung out with the Boy. She told everyone the story again and again. So she could remind them how terrible he was, of course.
I wished I could have had a voice in that discussion without having to talk about it. I was, after all, a really fucking good debater. But I didn’t enter tournaments I couldn’t win.
In the years since Monica has started speaking publicly about the shame there has been a cultural reckoning of sorts about the way she was treated. The cautionary tales that cast Monica as the protagonist — the ones that told us not to fuck anyone who might be sloppy with hiding the evidence, especially if we weren’t thin — are being re-written. Political pundits, cultural critics and feminist commentators have started to acknowledge all the ways we got it wrong. Maybe a 22-year-old intern wasn’t deserving of such public ridicule, regardless of what she looked like or what she did or whom she told. Maybe the question of consent was complicated when it involved power differentials of presidential proportions.
Our collective re-examination of the Clinton-Lewinsky story has coincided with broader discussions about slut shaming and fat shaming (or sex positivity and body positivity, depending on your framing). In a way, this reckoning turned Monica into a martyr for girls with big appetites. Big appetites for sex. For food. For success. She sacrificed herself, however unwillingly, so we could all eventually get to hear that we aren’t so bad, that we didn’t deserve to suffer the humiliation.
Sometimes, Monica comes to me when I’m dreaming. Or when I’m entering my calories for the day. Or in the middle of a boring phone call. Last week I was in a meeting with mayors of major Canadian cities and she arrived, declaring herself the Mayor of the Town of Women Who Are Too Much.
When she shows up, there is so much I want to say to her but it feels like it’s all been said before: the size of your body doesn’t determine your worth, you’re allowed to be sexual, you didn’t deserve what they did to you.
She knows all of this already, of course. So I save those things to tell myself and own up to the ways I’ve used her too.
I say, simply:
I wrote as you before I could ever write as myself.
Image: photo by Steve Jurvetson, licensed under CC 2.0.
- Monica, Me and Girls With Big Appetites - November 25, 2022