Confession time: I am a Fat girl. Throughout my life, my weight has crept up and up and up to the point where now I am actually just over the line into obese territory, according to the BMI calculator (which is not a perfect measure). Most of the time, it’s been a steady, slow climb. I’ve had some success at losing weight with calorie counting and Weight Watchers, but the weight seems to creep back on all too easily the moment I drop my guard. It’s been a lifelong struggle, and when I’m in the midst of it, I beat myself up over every unplanned cookie I eat and every break I take from exercise.
Wendy Shanker’s The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. I got it when I was in the midst of a weight-related funk but never got around to reading it. The last several months have brought on another funk, and I’m glad this book was here to help pull me out of it.
You see, Wendy Shanker is, like me, a Fat Girl—with a capital F. For Shanker, being Fat is not something to be miserable about. She’s out to reclaim the word from all of people who talk about how disgusting fat is, how all fat people are on the verge of a heart attack, and how we’re all lazy slobs with no self-control. No, says Shanker. Fatness is simply what some of us are, thanks to a varying mix of genetics, psychological and cultural factors, and the food environment in which we were raised. It’s not something in our control—and it doesn’t have a clear and obvious connection to fitness. In this book, she tells her own story of her struggle with her weight, incorporating research into obesity, the diet industry, and cultural attitudes toward size and beauty.
Not a lot of what Shanker said is entirely new to me, but I loved the way she packaged the information. This book is not exactly a systematic analysis of weight loss issues or a meticulous take-down of the diet industry—it’s more personal than that (although Shanker does cite her sources, mostly newspapers and magazines). Each chapter has a theme—“The Science of Fat,” “Hollywood,” or “Fashion and Style”—but the heart of the book is Shanker’s bold and funny voice, along with her honesty. She’s sassy and even a little mean, when it’s called for. She’s the kind of woman who makes noise. When a store doesn’t offer clothes in her size, she asks when they’ll start. When a comedian makes a fat joke, she goes up to him after the show and tells him he can do better next time.
One of the most important messages in the book—and it comes up again and again—is that fatness does not necessarily preclude fitness. Just as thin people can be in horrible shape, fat people can be in excellent shape. I can attest to this myself. Despite being obese, my cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and so on, are pretty much exactly what they ought to be. Could I improve my cardio fitness? Yes, absolutely. And so could some of the thin people I know. Could I eat more healthfully? Yes, absolutely. And so could some of the thin people I know. Shanker is all about pursuing health—and she talks a bit about her health regimen—it’s weight loss that she doesn’t care so much about. Here’s what she says about it:
Let’s take the focus off “fat” and put it on health. Let’s take the focus off “skinny” and put it on good common sense. Let’s take the focus off body image and put it on education, women’s rights, human rights, the economy, baseball cards, anything. And while we’re at it, let’s stop showing that same shot of some random flabby midsection jiggling around city streets every time the nightly news does a story on obesity. That same midsection is the “before” in every newspaper and magazine photo. I live in horror at the thought that I’m going to see my big wide ass swinging by as some cheesy newscaster intones, “America’s obesity epidemic is out of control!” If you want to show anonymous fat people a fat person on TV, have some guts, show their faces, and ask them to sign releases and give their permission. Or show us exercising, or working, or hanging with friends—not just slowly lumbering through a park, eating a hot dog, without a friend in the world.
Heh. Yep, I’ve had that nightmare too. What I love about this whole passage, though, is that she is pushing us to recognize that all of us fat people are more than our flabby midsections and wide asses. We are people who exercise, work, and hang out with friends. We are people with minds and spirits and senses of humor. To focus on one part and treat it as if it were an unsightly hazard that’s bringing the country down is to distort the truth in more ways than I can count.
Shanker comes down pretty hard on the diet industry, Weight Watchers in particular. She has some valid points—all these companies rely on return customers for their income, so they have an odd sort of stake in clients’ failure. But I’m less inclined than she is to call it a conspiracy. I’ve found Weight Watchers quite helpful for teaching me how much is reasonable to eat each week and getting me to measure my portions. It encourages mindful eating, not just grabbing what’s handy and eating it all. More concerning to me is how dieting itself can throw your body out of whack and how easily we can come to rely on the diet itself, rather than learning to listen to our bodies. Shanker has convinced me to start learning to live a Weight Watchers sort of life (that is, a life of mindful eating) without being dependent on a points calculator. (Too often, when I go off plan, I stop paying attention altogether, so I end up forking over my hard-earned cash as a way of making myself pay attention, which is something I should be able to do on my own.)
At heart, Shanker’s principal message is that we need to learn to love ourselves, to give ourselves credit for what we do well and not be so hard on ourselves when we mess up:
We have to step into the skin we’re in. Your body isn’t perfect? Well, neither is mine. Neither is anyone’s. It’s time to redefine “perfect” or drop the expectation. It’s time to feed ourselves with compassion instead of grief. Compassion instead of starvation. Compassion instead of food.
I have put myself on a steady diet of compassion that touches every element of my life, from my relationships to my career to my body. I do not judge myself on any standards but those I set for myself.
Compassion—now that’s a diet plan for any body, fat, thin, or in between. That’s the plan for me.