Thursday, October 09, 2008

Review: Thin is the New Happy

I have a soft spot in my heart for Valerie Frankel, because after reading the excellent reviews on the Elastic Waist Book Club of Thin is the New Happy, I hunted down a copy in the airport bookstore on my last trip, so Frankel kept me company as I was flying home from the west coast.

The Elastic Waisters have already given a good summary of the plot of the book, and an interview with Valerie Frankel gives us even more insight into the process of writing it. I was struck by the way a narrow strip of weight-loss territory became such a battlefield for the author. In her childhood, her mother attacked her relentlessly over ten pounds, which Frankel would dutifully lose and rebelliously gain over and over again. The weight loss battleground got a little wider in her adult years, as she navigated jobs and marriages, deaths and pregnancies. During a particularly memorable scene, her current husband made a comment that kicked me in the gut just reading it. Oddly, that comment doesn't seem to get a lot of examination, except as a catalyst for Frankel's self-discovery process in which she realizes that her weight has become a distraction from a lot of things that really matter.

The book is very dark in the first half, as Frankel describes being tormented by her parents and her junior-high classmates and the meanies at Mademoiselle. It seems artificially sparkly toward the end, as she embarks on a Non-Diet mentality and a newfound self-confidence. She decides to confront her problems head-on instead of through the proxy of her weight. As much as I enjoyed the book, I really feel like part of the process is missing here, because I don't really get how she got from Point A to Point B, other than that her Non-Diet plan helped her to get rid of the extra weight for good. Yes, there is the clothing makeover (with Stacy London, who can come raid my closet anytime) and the photo shoot, but I feel like some of the deeper issues Frankel faced as an adult got glossed over.

The biggest of these is the relationship with her husband. When she finally confronts him about his comment, he claims that he thought it was okay to make it because she seemed so confident. I don't buy this for two major reasons. First, he has to have been living on Mars to not know that almost all women have body issues, no matter how beautiful they are. Secondly, it seems to validate the self-defensive crouch that many of us live in when it comes to weight. Just as we always feared, if we seem too confident, we're just inviting attack. As the book stands, it suggests that unless we can figure out how to do the Non-Diet thing successfully and stay thin (Please, please, please, someone tell me how to do that), our lives are going to be a big mess as people pick us apart.

I can understand not wanting to do a public vivisection of your marriage for your readers' pleasure, but it seems to me that her husband's comment couldn't really have been about weight. If, as he said, he thought she seemed happy with her body the way it was, what was the reason for introducing insecurity? Frankel does a great job of showing how women use their weight as a proxy for other things that bother them. It seems to follow that her mother, the kids at school, the fashionistas at Mademoiselle, and the husband were also using weight as a proxy for something else. The book would have been better for me if it had poked into that can of worms for a while.

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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07