Monday, December 08, 2008

Book Review

I just finished Such a Pretty Fat: One Narcissist's Quest To Discover if Her Life Makes Her Ass Look Big, Or Why Pie is Not The Answer and wanted to discuss it here. Author Jen Lancaster also penned Bitter Is the New Black and Bright Lights, Big Ass (have you read them?), but it was this title that grabbed my attention at the local book store.

Quick disclaimer--for those with clinical eating disorders, this book could be triggering, as Ms. Lancaster's book deal is based upon her losing weight. For the "Every Woman" variety, I don't believe this piece will be triggering, but rather that you'll find yourself identifying with much of what Ms. Lancaster has to say. To be clear, it's kind of a diet book, but it's an anti-diet, diet book. You'll see what I mean. . . .

What surprises me most about her book is Ms. Lancaster's general acceptance of her weight (at any size), her ability to take weight gain in stride, and her sense of humor about it all. All this despite some challenging formulative experiences:

My mom was so damn mad at me after my freshman year, especially once she saw me in a bathing suit for the first time. I went from 135 pounds to 150 and you'd have thought I'd flunked out given her reaction. She always used to tell me her greatest fear was that I'd walk across the stage at my high school graduation overweight. Really? I remember thinking. With forty girls in my school who'd either gotten pregnant or had babies, this is her issue?
In reaction to her parents beginning officiating weekly weigh-ins, Lancaster writes:
I desperately hated the whole process, especially because I had no choice in the matter. I knew being heavier didn't change who I was, and I was furious at being forced to alter something about which I felt perfectly fine.
How many college students do you know with this kind of persepctive? More to the point, how many full-grown adults can say this for themselves?

When Ms. Lancaster begin her weight-loss journey (the point of this particular book deal), she weighs herself a couple of times in disbelief:
I trot down the hall--which I can do because I'm not completely obese--and try to calm myself down. I'm totally overreacting here. I am fine. I know I'm fine. Whatever I weigh is just a number. I'm fun and smart and I can perfectly blend three shades of eyeliner. I enjoy my own company and I make myself laugh. I dress well, even on a budget while wearing Crocs, and no one makes a banana daiquiri like I can.
I suppose it's not that surprising that she was alarmed by her weight--she chooses to focus on so much more. I find her attitude incredibly refreshing, particularly in a current cultural context that demands we focus on looks at the expense of all else.

Lancaster writes about our obsession with thin celebrities:
[Nicole Ritchie] really didn't get famous until she got pin thin. Ditto Kate Bosworth and Lindsay Lohan. And no one would have even remembered Mary Kate Olsen if she'd just eaten a sandwich once in a while. This makes me wonder how much the media plays into the self-image of [dieters]. Did they call Jenny because fashion and gossip magazines force photos of hungry women down our throats and try to make us believe their boyish bodies are the ideal? If so, we're all destined to fail.

Personally, I never want to be as thin as most of the women in this magazine; they look gross to me. The only ribs I want to see are covered in barbecue sauce.
Ms. Lancaster has had her share of weight-loss experiences, illustrating why diets don't work:
Consuming a thousand calories a day with very little protein, I felt lightheaded and weak every second for three whole months. I wasn't just hungry. I was famished. Starving. Ravenous. Not only did I want to consume my parents' cooking in vast quantities; I was in such a state that I'd look at the love of my life, a 140-pound Great Pyrenees mountain dog named George, and I'd fantasize about his tender, meaty flanks, charbroiled over a hickory-wood fire and served with a side of home fries.
Perhaps most illuminating is Ms. Lancaster's realization that food restriction can work against us. She chats with a friend:
"Funny, but when I'm not dieting I can go hours and hours without thinking about food. Some days when I'm busy it might be four in the afternoon before I remember to eat something. But now that I'm doing Atkins*, all I can think about are bagels and donuts and Lucky Charms cereal, and I'm making myself crazy."
(Spoiler alert)

In the end, Ms. Lancaster does lose some weight, and it's no surprise how. But, if you read closely, you can't help but realize that her weight-loss is just another life task for her (like writing a book, or learning a skill), accomplished with curiosity, humor, and positivity, the inspriational outcome atypically disengaged from her self-esteem.

*I had a typo on "Atkins" and guess what? Spellcheck on Blogger corrected it for me.


Rachel said...

I agree that this book isn't your typical pro-dieting, weight-loss memoir and I find Lancaster's self-confidence refreshing. I haven't read this book, but I have read certain things in reviews of it that leave me concerned. In a promotional video posted by Lancaster on the book's page, In the video, Lancaster introduces her trainer Barbie and they go on in-depth about how grueling the workouts are and the shenanigans Lancaster pulls to get out of exercise. We also see Barbie insultingly holding a donut in lieu of a carrot in front of a sweaty Lancaster pounding away on the treadmill. Fat insult aside, this only reinforces the notion that exercise is a grueling regime to be done only for weight-loss and that one has to "punish" oneself for being fat and that thinness is worth the cost, whatever the cost.

As well, Lancaster seems to assume as many do that other and all fat people must have some kind of "core issue" that makes them overeat or eat emotionally. This kind of mentality is at the heart of why obesity is now being lumped in with the study of eating disorders, as if obesity itself is a psychological disorder like anorexia and bulimia. It isn't.

I blogged about this book after it came out and lots of readers more familiar with Lancaster and this book offered their own commentary on it. You can read it all here.

Anonymous said...

I've read her other two books..and they deal more with consumerism (her own)and unemployment and her weight is touched upon, but Lancaster's weight is more or less of a setting for things (like having 47 cabinets in her home or being 50 pounds beyond "still fat") its all part of the scenery in her world.
Her inner monologue is fabulous...and I can't wait until her next book!

MelissaS said...

i can't tell you how many times i've picked up Jen Lancaster's books, wanting to want to read them, but i inevitably put them down. it seems like she really does want to lose weight, and that's hard for me. still, you and the drunkenhippy make me want to try again. still, i had the same reaction as Rachel when reading blurbs from the book. i'm off to barnes and noble to buy gifts. i'll pick up her books one more time.

Anonymous said...

I'm concerned that she uses fat stereotypes about herself to make it seem like all fat people are bingers and find it hard to move. I have a BMI of 52 and yet I can still run, dance, garden, bike, climb stairs easily, etc etc etc. I'm a Coeliac vegan and am very aware of nutrition as I have to read the labels on EVERYTHING and do most of my own cooking. And see a dietician now and then, not for weight loss, but to make sure I'm getting enough of everything. My doctors are very happy with my health. I hate that doctors can proclaim fat a "death sentence" and push people to do things like work with awful trainers that hold up donuts. Sure, some people may have health issues related to weight, but trying to scare people never ends up working in the long run. And I don't care what you say, if you are restricting foods and exercising as punishment, it's a diet. A very unhealthy one, IMO.

drstaceyny said...

Thanks, Rachel, for the other info. As for the promo, I don't think it's funny, but I'm guessing a lot of people do. I wonder if it was Lancaster or the publisher who initiated that. I can't help but find frustration in the fact that dieting books sell so well and other ideas (like that we shouldn't be dieting or should rally against caloric labeling) don't. I think I'd have a book deal already if I promised a weight-loss cure at the end. But, that's another story.

I'm curious to know what others think, whether or not Lancaster's restricting or not. She tries diets and, it seems, decides that the restrictive part of them does not work for her. I do think that she begins to eat in a healthier way toward the end (forget about any weight consequences, even if she gained weight, I'd say she was eating in a healthier way--like farnacle, I think we need to separate health and weight). Now, is Lancaster eating intuitively? Not quite, but she also wasn't eating intuitively to start. I don't recall her bingeing (or that there was necessarily an emotional reason for her size, though she was, as I write, forced to diet by her family), but she sometimes seemed to eat beyond fullness or eat foods that she may not have intuitively wanted almost to prove a point. I hope this makes sense--you know how I feel on the importance of eating what you want.

Re: her grueling exercise, I guess I'm unclear how tortured she was vs. in some ways appreciating a challenge. I'm wonder if she exaggerates to some degree. I do not think that exercise should be done exclusively for weight loss (see my previous post), nor to punish oneself, but I also think that, in order to reap the health benefits of exercise, you have to push yourself to some extent, right? Sure, moderation is important. It seems she went from not physically active at all to pretty strong/fit and her transition may have occurred to quickly (dependent on the book project).

In any case, I'm curious for those of you who have picked it up (or plan to), if you think it's a cookie-cutter diet book, or if you think she somehow transcends the genre with some different ideas about herself.

Michal said...

Rachel you are so right.

Dr. Stacey, THIS particular woman may have had some unhealthy habits and happened to lose weight when she improved them. (OR, she's just describing it that way in the book to make it seem like it's not a diet.)

But SOME women decide at some point to eat and live healthier and don't lose weight, or even gain weight, compared with before. But hey, who wants to read about THAT...

I recently read "Thin is the New Happy" and had the same response. Well written book but the "Not Diet" described there may or may not be a diet. And even if the weight loss described in that book is permanent, not everyone reaches a size 8 when they are being healthy.

It's just very convenient to say "oh well I don't want to be REALLY skinny like models, that's gross. I just want to be at my natural size. Which happens to be a culturally accepted size like eight."

What about those of us who settle at a less culturally acceptable size? Where is the line drawn between what could be someone's natural healthy weight, and what must be a sign that they think "pie is the answer"?

Also, seriously, I don't buy someone being so blase about their parents forcing them to weigh in. I think it's just a humorous way to look at it. I fought hard with this and reached similar conclusions around age 19-20, but it still hurt every time my parents fought me on it.

MelissaS said...

i got the book. i'm heading to rehab (alcohol, klonopin)next week, so i'll have plenty of time to read. i'll check back in.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, her mom and my mom must have went to the same school of "how to install eating disorders in your daughters". My mom was always completely obsessed with my weight from the day I grew boobs (not overweight). I'm still stunned by the damage she did, though I don't think she realized how bad it was. She hid food from me, criticized everything I ate, nasty looks, anything. This from the woman who ate Pepperidge Farms cake for breakfast, and still to this day eats like that (but only if nobody's looking). Lucky her, to be blessed with a metabolism like that. And it also still stuns me to think of the dangerous diets I tried, speed (those days called diet pills), 2 am jogging, starving, midnight binges, lawdy lawdy.

I'm almost 40 now, and finally starting to feel like I am getting a grip on this food thing. But I cannot help but resent my mother, and to this day will rip into her over anything and everything. Rational or not, there is just too much anger there.

Gayle said...

I have about 20 pages left and have chuckled through the whole thing. I wouldn't even call this a diet book. More like humorous non-fiction. I now look forward to reading her 2 prior books - just for the fun of it.

And this is coming from a 48 year old mother of 2 with a severe purging disorder. No triggers for me - yay!

Anonymous said...

If your thought it that every woman has an eating disorder, which I as an eatind disordered woman respectfully disagree with, how come in your review of this book you say for eating disordered women this book may be triggering..and then go on to qualify a seperate group of non eating disordered women. If you believe your own hypothesis why isn't this book triggering for every woman?

My point isn't about the book at all..just about your own hypothesis of every woman having an eating disorder. I don't think you actually believe that. If it was a fact...I would pray every day that I could have the eating disorder that my friends have..the one where they eat a normal amount of food and feel no sense of shame or accomplishment based on their meal..the disorder that they have where they look in the mirror and although may wish something was "better" are able to go on about their day and not have ocd tendancies studying that part of their body for the rest of their waking hours. I do belive all women are very body conscious and can be overly critical...but does every woman have an eating disorder? No...not by a long shot.

I write this with much respect due to the research you are doing on this topic. I also do not mean to be argumentative...however being a blogger, I assume opinions are always welcome.