The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life

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.

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23 Responses to The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life

  1. litlove says:

    You know, it strikes me that we are who we are, not just in terms of personality but in terms of size. I am ultra thin and can I put on weight? No. Believe me, it is no better to be thin than fat. Colleagues at work keep insisting I am anorexic, despite seeing me regularly eat lunch before their eyes, and they DO NOT BELIEVE ME when I say I eat very well. I could stand to be a lot fitter, though! I basically think the obsession with body shape really needs to be tackled – it’s such a huge issue because loads of money can be made out of diets and clubs and pills and goodness only knows what. But my experience suggests that although we can alter ourselves a bit, diet a bit or train a bit, it’s incredibly hard to really get past the basic tendencies of our bodies. Much better to accept ourselves with compassion, as you say.

    • Teresa says:

      I can totally believe it when it comes to thinness. Shanker talks a little about how thin women can also be Fat Girls in that they also get harangued by the culture about their bodies.

      And I love what you say about how hard it is to get past the basic tendencies of our bodies. So true. Probably regardless of how much I exercise or diet, I’ll always be Fat in the eyes of the culture, unless the culture itself changes.

  2. Kristen M. says:

    What a charged and complex topic. I’m in the middle of my first real attempt to change my weight/fitness level after years of heading in the wrong direction and it’s all-consuming. It’s even part of why I’ve been blogging less. I spend most of my day thinking about exercise, what I eat, how I feel and everything else that goes with it. I’m mentally and physically exhausted and, though I am having some success, I’m afraid that it will all be negated if I lower my concentration. And yet, I don’t have the best quality of life right now because I’m so obsessed. It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Thin (or thinner, anyway) and stressed or fat and sort of happy? I don’t know.

    • Teresa says:

      It is so, so hard to find that balance. I’ve gone through periods of obsessing over every bite I eat and every moment of exercise, and I have lost weight when I do that. (My most recent funk, however, comes from a lack of success despite being vigilant.) If I don’t pay attention at all, I do tend to overeat, so I have to pay attention. But as you say, it can so quickly become all-consuming. I think I’d rather be fat and happy, as long as I’m basically healthy.

  3. Deb says:

    As a “full-figured gal” myself (with, as you point out, normal cholesterol and blood-sugar readings), what I dislike most about ALL books regarding diets/obesity/compulsive eating/being overweight/etc. is the energy you have to put into eating or not eating or figuring out what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat, etc. That’s exhausting before you even count one calorie.

    One of the saddest memoirs about growing up obese was Judith Moore’s FAT GIRL. She passed away a few years ago, never having made peace with herself or her weight. A book I really enjoyed was Frances Kuffel’s PASSING FOR THIN, about her struggle to lose almost 200 pounds. I was saddened, but not surprised, when I recently learned that she had gained back over half of the weight she’d worked so hard to lose.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes! As Kristen said, it so quickly becomes all-consuming. There are other things I’d rather think about!

      And thanks for mentioning those memoirs. I’ll look into those. Sad to hear that Kuffel gained so much weight back, but yeah, it’s not unusual. I often wonder about the long-term success of anyone with a high-profile weight loss success. Keeping it off is really the hard part (and I speak from experience on that).

      • Deb says:

        Couldn’t agree more. I always say, “It’s not the losing, it’s the maintenance that’s the hard part.” I also tell people, “If you want to know how to lose weight, ask the biggest woman you know. I guarantee she’s lost hundreds of pounds throughout her life.”

  4. Lu says:

    Oh, I loved this review. I have the same fear of being one of those obese people on television. Look, show my face. I’ll show you what being obese looks like. It’s not sloven, it’s not ugly, it’s human. When I tell people I’m technically obese, no one really believes me. (Except my doctor, who is amazing about weight. I love her, love her, love her. I wish every woman could be her patient. She is amazing.) None of that is to say that I look skinnier than I am, because I don’t think I do, instead it’s just that we have this awful perception of what obesity is. I want to be healthier, but if the only way we measure that is thinness, we’re wrong. I want to be healthier, but not for you, not for that person that judges me when I get a regular coke or an ice cream, not the person who tells me I’m unhealthy even though I didn’t ask them. I’m doing it for me, because I love my body.

    But sometimes I still get sad about it. I’m so glad to see posts like this, books like this, just conversations being had about weight and body image. No one should be ashamed of how they look or feel guilty for it.

    Thanks, Teresa, for sharing your story. <3

    • Teresa says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Lu.

      I’ve gotten the same response you do when I mention that I’m obese–I think you’re right that people really have a different image in their head when they hear those alarmist headlines. But the thing is, I know that if the people who tell me I look fine were to just see my jiggly midsection in isolation, they might not feel the same way!

      And I love your attitude about being healthy for you. You go! That’s what I want to–what I need to do better is to put away my own hope that getting healthier will mean getting thinner. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

  5. Steph says:

    I really think there is such a huge problem with weight today… not just in terms of people who really are unhealthy, but with us telling those who are healthy that they aren’t. At my very skinniest, I weight 125 pounds – I could wear a size 2 or 4 in most stores, but because I’m 4″11, I was still technically considered overweight! Can you believe that?!? I’m always going to be curvy, I’m never going to look like an Olson twin, so for people to say my proper weight is like 100 lbs? No way.

    I am nowhere near 125 pounds anymore, and I hate feeling like I should be ashamed of my body. I eat healthy – rarely eat out, cook things from scratch (using whole ingredients), and yet I’m nowhere near a sample size. And it’s terrible that I’m supposed to feel like there’s something wrong with me. I am trying to be more active, and I’ve started doing some serious portion control work with my food, but it’s hard work and with all of my other demands, not at all easy. Part of me wonders what I’ll need to do to truly feel at peace with my body, no matter what it’s size. I’d like to reach a point where I just don’t think about it anymore, but what is the likelihood of that?

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, I hear you. It is such a struggle, isn’t it? And the standards are so ridiculous. I can know in my mind that the weight I’m “supposed to have” is just not possible for me. We all have to make choices about what to focus on, and I know I don’t have it in me to take the care that the diet gurus tell me I must in order to be healthy according to their standards. I wonder the same thing you do, though–I want to stop worrying about it, and books like this help, but there are so many voices sending the opposite message.

  6. Jeanne says:

    I’ve never heard of Passing for Thin before, but what a great title! It sounds like this book is about not passing. The attitude reminds me of Camryn Manheim’s book Wake Up, I’m Fat which is evidently something she had to say to her mother to get the right size in a department store dressing room.

    This whole conversation thread makes me think of the Andre Dubus short story The Fat Girl. It’s a great story. I used to always wonder how he wrote it, because it’s one of the only things by him I really like.

    • Teresa says:

      I think Shanker actually mentions Manheim’s book. It’s definitely a book about not passing; it’s about accepting, owning, and even celebrating.

  7. Emily says:

    Such an important and difficult topic for people of every size. It sounds like Shankar does a great job of off-loading some of the ridiculous cultural baggage we as a society feel the need to load onto fat folks. Think about if news stories treated a racial group the way they treat obese people – searching out and zeroing in on, for example, round butts on black women, or greasy hair on Hispanic men, in order to objectify them and further other-ing stereotypes while conveying the message that the only acceptable way to be is thin/white/rich/etc. It’s totally unacceptable.

    It’s also so counter-productive the way our culture isolates “fat” people and “very skinny” people and supposes that one can tell by looking at a person that “they have body issues.” Whereas the rest of our culture doesn’t? What a joke. I’ve never met a woman who didn’t have a body wish-list of some kind. I’m not fat or super-skinny, but as a stress-starver I definitely get my fair share of messed-up cultural messaging. (One exchange from several years ago: “You’re looking so great – did you lose a few pounds?” “Uh, yeah…I’m having trouble eating since my cousin was diagnosed with cancer.”) We need to acknowledge that increased thinness does not always indicate that a person is “doing well” or “getting healthier.”

    Anyway, thanks for writing on this, Teresa.

    • Teresa says:

      She really does a great job of pointing out the problems in society’s messages about weight. We assume that we can tell so much about people by looking at their bodies, but bodies only tell a teeny tiny part of the story.

      She actually talks about “compliments” like the ones you mention, which shows so clearly that weight loss doesn’t always mean a person is doing well.

      • Deb says:

        A friend of a friend was dying of pancreatic cancer. The woman had always been large, but now weighed less than 100 lbs. She had that “very near the end” look (bulging eyes, wispy voice, skeletal frame) and yet people who didn’t know she was terminally ill would say to her all the time, “Congratulations on your weight loss. You look great!” Of course, there was no way that she did look great, but people were simply looking at her SIZE, and not at HER at all.

  8. Kathleen says:

    Great post and the book itself sounds really interesting. The whole weight thing is such a charged issue. I feel like women are so much more focused on it and we beat up on ourselves when we don’t meet “the standard”. I’m a curvy woman who would have had an ideal figure in the 1950’s but by today’s standards am overweight! It is crazy the pressure we put on ourselves and the pressure that society puts on all of us. I try to focus on being fit and not measuring my self-worth with the number on the scale but some days that is easier than others.

  9. trapunto says:

    Great review, much appreciated. I tend to blame the ready-made clothing industry for this, if you can blame the flow of history. Imagine a world in which clothes were expensive and relatively difficult to come by, were made of beautiful, high-quality materials to last for a long time, and were still made for YOU to fit YOUR body–instead of being something hanging in cheap, ill-made ranks on store-racks that you were supposed to buy seasonally, in quantity, and then *try to make your body fit.* Just bizarre, when you think about it. I’ve read about the point in the 19th at which the “revelation” came that certain combinations of dressmaking and tailors measurements went together often enough that you could call them a “size” for mass manufacture. ARGH.

    • Teresa says:

      Wow! I had never thought about ready-made clothing fitting into this, but what you say makes sense.

      Shanker at one point talks about finding a “uniform” for each season—a handful of well-made pieces that fit and look great that you can mix and match and vary with accessories. That doesn’t perhaps seem so different from what a person might have to do when relying on custom-made clothing. Great quality instead of quantity.

  10. Aarti says:

    What a great review, Teresa! Weight and self-image are such charged topics these days. I don’t know anyone who is happy with her weight or figure, and it’s sad to me. I know that now I am in the habit of going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week, I feel guilty when I don’t go (which in a bizarre way makes me feel GOOD, because a year ago at this time, I’d never have any guilt about not working out). I also am much more careful about what I eat, because I think about what it will “cost” me at the gym. I am certainly not one of those people who sits around telling other people how much they should weight or how much they should eat or how many calories are in the meal that I just enjoyed- I HATE THOSE PEOPLE. But even so, I think everyone has that internal annoying conscience voice telling us that we’re not as good as we could be, if we just tried a little harder. And that can be depressing to hear.

    I absolutely agree that when you want to be healthy, it should be for you. Not for your spouse, and not for an event like a wedding. Just to feel better about yourself. Now, when I go to the gym, I am no longer even losing weight, but I feel like I’m pushing myself and I like the feel of the sweat on my forehead showing me that I’m working hard. Even if my belly still has some jelly :-)

    • Teresa says:

      You’re so right that hardly anyone seems happy with their figure, and it’s crazy! I do love how I feel when I’ve been working out and eating right, but I’d like to be at the place where I’m pursuing that feeling and not hoping for skinny thighs (because that hope is futile!) It’s so hard to get to that place, though.

  11. Christy says:

    Great post and I’m liking the conversation in the comments too! Just this week, one of my co-workers was asked by another co-worker if she was putting on weight, because she was looking a little bit ‘thick.’ My co-worker took her to task for saying that, and the woman apologized immediately.

    I’m very thin and tall. I never know how to respond when people say they wish they were as thin as me. They are probably just as healthy as I am, as you pointed out in your review. I only do a quasi-good job of watching what I eat and hardly exercise. When I mention that I want to do better at what I eat or exercising, people say, why do you need to do that? As if weight were the only marker for health! I have a cousin just as skinny as myself, and only in his early thirties, and he had high cholesterol.

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