Before sitting down to write this review, I did a quick mental checklist of my female friends and acquaintances. Out of two dozen gal pals, I could only think of one who is not actively obsessed with/hateful of her body. One of 24. And I’m sure if I asked her to elaborate, she’d generate an entire laundry list of flaws on her seemingly perfect figure. I mean, honestly, outside of Los Angeles, can you think of any red-blooded American female who isn't horrified by the thought of trying on bikinis in those horrible fluorescent dressing rooms? I’m convinced Dante got it wrong and this is actually the torture inflicted on damned women in the seventh circle of hell.
It’s no secret the women in our society are seriously fucked up when it comes to body image. And one can’t blame them, given our heinously fucked-up culture that idolizes thinness, yet bombards us with fatty junk food.
Fat is essentially the last legal and acceptable discrimination in this country. Fat is the favored insult against women; if she’s not a slut or a bitch, she’s a big ol’ fatty. Even perfectly normal size 10s are subject to a derogatory “fat” remark if they incur someone’s wrath.
Wendy Shanker wants to know why. With her new memoir/self-help book, The Fat Girl’s Guide To Life, Shanker asks a very important good question: Why are fat people subjected to so much hate and ridicule? What did they ever do to you, anyway?
“It’s my body,” Shanker writes. “I know full well what I’m doing to it. I’m not blowing second-hand smoke on you. I’m not drunk driving into you. I’m not taking food out of your mouth.”
Or as groundbreaking plus-size actress Camryn Manheim puts it: “We hurt no one. We’re just fat.”
Shanker, a humor columnist and former Michigander, has spent her entire life battling her weight, and, at 215 pounds, has finally forsaken diets and decided to accept her fatness — for the most part. In the beginning of the book, Shanker fully admits she’s still recovering from years of hating her body, and has a ways to go — and her conflicted feelings arise several times in the book. She damns women’s magazines, but then praises Glamour for including the occasional plus-sized section. She touts acceptance of her body, yet wears control-top pantyhose every day. She calls for acceptance of women of all shapes and sizes, and then proceeds to make fun of “Skinny Chicks.”
The latter is a pet peeve of mine; I have countless naturally thin female friends who are often accosted by total strangers with, “Oh, you’re so skinny! Do you eat?” Even if this is intended as a backhanded compliment, it’s still every bit as rude as approaching someone on the street and saying, “Oh, you’re so fat! You must eat a lot!”
The occasional skinny barbs aside, Shanker delves into some very interesting topics that separate this tome from just another self-help manual. Her chapter on “Political Pounds” explores how allegedly impartial nonprofit organizations like the American Obesity Organization are funded by corporate partners like Weight Watchers and pharmaceutical companies that manufacture weight-loss drugs. As Shanker points out, weight loss is a booming multibillion dollar business, and everyone’s looking to make a buck off you and your allegedly huge ass.
At her lowest point, Shanker forked over the money to attend the Duke Diet & Fitness Center, “a renowned research center and weight loss treatment clinic.” For a month straight, Shanker worked out religiously and ate according to the plan crafted for her. She lost two pounds. With the total cost of the program adding up to $9,430, it worked out to $4,715 a pound.
Shanker also points out she is a healthy, fit person — she claims to work out several times a week and eat a balanced diet, but her body is simply genetically predisposed to be fat. Or Fat, as Shanker puts it, calling for an embracement of the “f-word,” much like feminists have reclaimed “bitch” and gays and lesbians have adopted “queer,” explaining, “… fat girls hide their bodies in big, drapy, shapeless clothes. But Fat girls show off their cleavage and draw attention to their curves.”
Brutally honest, occasionally conflicted, wryly funny and sadly poignant, the book is choppy at times but definitely worth a read, for any woman, regardless of her size. Shanker envisions the day will come when women will no longer be so hung up on their bodies, and instead direct their time and energy into more fruitful projects, like, oh, joining the Peace Corps, starting a business, following a dream or becoming the first female president.
But sadly, that day seems far too distant. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to avoid trying on bikinis in fluorescent dressing rooms.
Author Wendy Shanker and fellow Michigan author Aaron Hamburger will be at Borders Books in Farmington Hills (30995 Orchard Lake Road) Thursday, May 13, at 7 p.m.; call 248-737-0110.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected].