As Leslie's in Chicago, our interview occurred via phone. Immediately, I was struck by her interpersonal ease, her warmth, sincerity, and sense of humor. If she were in New York, I'd love to have her as a friend.
At the end, I picked her brain about the publishing world--this is a woman who, at very young age, has published numerous magazine articles, and who (especially admirable and inspiring to me), managed to publish a book. My interview with her appears below. For the questions she posed to me, check out her blog today.
You mention in the prologue to your book that you struggled with anorexia. How did you recover? Is there still a pull toward eating-disordered thoughts, feelings, and behaviors?
I had an eating disorder in college—it was a very kind of cliché ED: I was the straight-A, perfectionist, eager-to-please young woman who goes off to college and freaks out and develops and eating disorder to cope with it, to cope with this new dis-order in her world. I lost a significant amount of weight; not so much that the fashion world would be appalled, but enough that I looked horrible. In terms of recovery, I got better physically within my freshman year, gaining most of the weight back. . . but it wasn’t until, I’d say, my junior year that I started looking deeper and realizing it wasn’t just about food—that it was so much more.
I do view eating disorders kind of like alcoholism—it’s a coping mechanism—you can get through it and live a healthy life, but it’s always there, it’s always something that you have to think about, like "I can’t go back there." I’m not going to say that I don’t think about food or working out or my body today, but I know I can’t and won't go back to what I was like—I have too full of a life to let that happen.
Why do you think The Scale has such an influence on women?
I think that that number is something tangible for women to grab onto, and kind of identify with, and measure themselves against. . . I actually just wrote about this today on my blog—I remember when I was writing my book, I interviewed a woman who said, "At 114, I feel skinny and beautiful; at 118, I feel fat." And this is a smart, educated lawyer. But this isn’t about being smart. So many of us are smart, educated—it’s about the weight-obsessed world we live in. . . and you read about the celebrities, and you think, "That’s what I need to do to be successful." There are so many women who get on the scale, and that number rules their day. It can make or break their day. You can see women get on the scale, and if they’re unhappy, they’ll slump. They’ll take off their flip flops or towel to try to lose that extra quarter pound.
Were women in the locker room generally approachable?
I found that women were approachable when I explained what I was doing and when I explained that I had had an eating disorder. When I revealed my past struggles, it made me more approachable. But some chapters were more difficult that others. The chapter on obesity was very difficult—I found a lot of my sources through blogs or friends of friends. You can tell when a woman’s open: There was a woman sitting on the ground, breastfeeding her daughter, I could tell that she was at peace with her body by the dreamy smile on her face and she just seemed like on open soul.
A lot of my research took the form of observation—I did a lot of looking and listening. I did worry when the book came out that people would think I was spying on them. But that was not the case. I wasn’t judging them. I was doing it more from an anthropological standpoint. If I did talk to women, I always got their permission.
How much female-female competition did you encounter?
It’s everywhere, and not just in the locker room. If you just watch, you’ll see women using glances, looking each other up and down. You can just see the thought bubble over their head, "Thank God she has a big butt," or, "Oh, she has cellulite, too" or "I wish my boobs were like hers." There’s already enough competition and self-loathing. I think women should be joining together and supporting each other. Another example was women watching each other get on the scale—one woman would get on and other women would wring their necks, trying to see.
Are you comfortable naked in the locker room?
Yes (laughs). I walk around, usually with a towel around my waist. I certainly don’t rush, rush, rush when the towel drops to get my underwear on. I will say one of the really interesting things I learned while writing the book on the chapter on ethnicity. Some of the women who worked in the locker room were raised in a culture that was much more modest. One woman said she couldn’t believe that women were walking around naked, bending over. I did start covering up, in some ways, as a matter of respect, but there are parts of me (my arms, my stomach) that I’m particularly happy with and proud of and I so I don't mind walking around topless or in a bra.
How do you think your book would have been different if you were a male journalist hanging out in the men’s locker room?
(laughs) I probably would have gotten in my share of fights - I don’t think most men would take to a man with a pad and a pen. But, from what I hear from men, their locker room is much different. They take much greater offense to men walking around naked. The younger men are always complaining about the older men walking around naked. I don’t think men have the same pressures women have. . . . I think men must look at each other to see what’s normal.
We both attended weight-loss support group meetings for research purposes. What was your experience like? How did you leave there feeling?
So, I attended a Weight Watchers group, and I was a bit troubled by what happened. I had a similar experience to you—many people were a normal weight—maybe they got there by attending the meetings. But I felt there was a lot of sadness. When the moderator would ask people to share, one man mentioned he had had gravy on his chicken, and I was sitting behind him and it was like he was going to cry, so I wanted to cry. The whole thing seemed cult-like, but so many people have had wonderful experiences with it, and I really can’t be one to judge. Maybe for him, it was very freeing to talk about his "dietary slip ups." And then of course, there’s the whole weigh-in aspect where they weigh you in behind the curtain. And, I have a problem getting on the scale and tying your self-worth to a number. For some people, the number can be motivating.
Did you get weighed at the meeting?
No. I was a first time visitor. No one pressured me or anything like that.
You speak of differences in body image based on culture. How do you think socio-economic status factors into the mix?
I do think that it has to do with socio-economic status. I think that regardless of your racial or ethnic background, the more money you have, the more access to things you have (health club memberships, fat free foods, fashion magazine subscriptions), things that pave the way toward exercising or eating [problems]. I do think also that different cultures appreciate different body types in different ways. But that’s not to say that Black women don’t get eating disorders or Indian women don’t get eating disorders, because they do.
How would you recommend mothers introduce their daughters to the locker room?
You know, I see mothers and daughters all the time in the locker room, and I see things that are positive moves, and I see things that make me cringe. I think, first of all, don’t introduce the scale into the equation. Just pretend it’s not even there. . . . I think it’s great when women are showering to talk [to their kids] about what they did at school that day or what they did at camp ("I heard you were great in archery").
Do not point out flaws in your own body. Make a concerted effort not to grimace at your body as you look in the mirror, or as you tweeze your eye brows. Allow them to explore, "Do you want to dry you hair?" "Do you want to comb it?" "Do you want to try getting dressed all by yourself?" Or, if they’re at the appropriate age, "Do you want to try to open the lock this time?" "Do you remember the combination?" Don’t focus on looking at yourself in the mirror. Make it a time when the two of you can have mother-daughter time and not a body-bashing session.
What’s your take on dieting?
I don’t even know if I can answer that. It’s so different for so many people. If you’re trying to lose some weight, dieting can be a helpful tool. I’m trying to think of a way to put it succinctly—I think dieting can be a useful tool if you’re working with a doctor or a nutritionist, but I think it can become an obsession for many people. But, I think there’s no reason to live your life on a perpetual diet, to live your life obsessed with every single calorie. There’s a fine balance. . . .
Some of my readers pointed out that your blog does not always champion health at every size. Any comments on this?
It’s so interesting, because people on my blog will say basically that I am too much on the pro-size acceptance front. I’ll be blogging about dancers in their 200s [weight], or just recently I blogged about the triathlete who weighs 300 pounds. . . or getting upset at my gym because they were playing a song that was derogatory toward heavy people. Readers sometimes will think, [these people are] overweight, why are you advocating it? I posted a quote by [the actress] Mo’Nique about being happy at any size on [another blog], and I got blasted. I also get a lot of comments about my own weight—"Well, you’re thin, why should I listen to you?" It’s like, why should my weight have anything to do with what I say? Or, they forget that I have had an eating disorder, have had my own struggles, am not immune to their comments. I’m just at a comfortable weight for me.
Is there a follow-up to Locker Room Diaries in the works?
Right now, I’m focusing on full-time magazine writing. I would love to write another book, but nothing has hit me in the same way that Locker Room Diaries did. That idea struck me right in the gym. It was so obvious. Every time I was at the gym, I could not escape hearing women talk about their bodies. I know that my next book will be focused on women, maybe not about body image, but it’ll be women-centered for sure.