Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005 | 10:18 a.m.
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"The Fat Girl's Guide to Life"
First and foremost, the definition of "fat." It's the first chapter in the book and Wendy Shanker deals with an issue I often deal with when using the word "Witch" to describe myself. Why use such a charged word? To reclaim it. To begin the process of deconstructing its power as a epithet of shame. Shanker says, "Words are just a bunch of letters in a row. A word isn't negative, it's our connotation that is. The words can stay the same; it's our attitudes about them that have to change." Yes.
So to begin with, Shanker uses fat as a descriptor. It describes her body size and she is unapologetic about it. She uses Fat with a capital "F" to describe an attitude that can be used by women of any size, an attitude that says that my size is not your measure of my worth - Fat Girls fight back. "Because," she goes on, "fat is a state of body-- but Fat is a state of mind."
I think it's important to note that Shanker is fat, but not unhealthy. She exercises regularly and eats a balanced diet. Her heart is healthy by all measures. Maybe she eats more on occasion than the slave to the diet, but overall, the content of her eating habits is sound. That's important for two reasons. First of all, it undoes the stereotype of fat = unhealthy. Secondly, it points to what can happen when you stop fighting your body, stop trying to make it something it will never be, and start honoring it. She states unequivocably that no one wants to be fat. But if you are, you are. You work with (i.e. care for) what you have. In no ways is she advocating unhealthy habits -- just a realistic approach. I appreciate that even if I don't agree with everything she says.
In a later chapter, Shanker takes on the obesity myths in our society, questioning the science that so many of us take for gospel. Whether or not I agree with all her challenges to medical science, I do agree (and so do many "experts") that the BMI is woefully inadequate at assessing health. By BMI standards -- which only take into account a height/weight ratio, not sex, not fat percentage, not anything else -- several of the men in Hollywood are overweight, including Mel Gibson, George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Obviously, that is ridiculous and yet several statements about the obesity of America are made based on this very faulty measure.
The closest Shanker gets to advice on diet and exercise is sensible -- eat a balanced diet and exercise. She devotes a chapter to it, but really, the bulk of this book is about learning to accept your body no matter its size, to stop comparing yourself to impossible ideals (because as we know, even the models don't look like their photographs most of the time). She laments that fat people are the last "safe" group to take potshots at. She tackles Hollywood (and the brief popularity of fat suits for actresses), the fashion industry (Vogue magazine's begrudging inclusion of Kate Dillon in an "accept your body" issue) and the ever-manipulative diet/health clusterfucks.
Most of all, Shanker takes on a culture that paints a lot of inaccurate "truths" about fat people, their habits and their worth. She's battled with her own body for most of her thirty-some years and has some experience to fall back on. Her writing style is witty and engaging. While there were part of the book where I felt she veered from strong analysis to weaker defensive reasoning, but no matter what she says, she says it strongly and without apology. She challenges the mixed messages of society, debunks a lot of fat phobia and generally offers a refreshingly real take on body image. When I finished reading it (note that it snuck into the middle of Awakening in Time), I sat for a moment and thought... Yes. What if I exercised simply for health and not for some expressed or hidden need to lose weight? What if my measure of health was more about specific measures like cholesterol, blood sugar and ability to move? What if I ate a balanced diet but didn't worry about calories? What if my focus was on fit, rather than fat? And for the first time, I could begin to see what that might be.
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