Size matters

In her engaging memoir "Wake Up, I'm Fat!" Camryn Manheim of "The Practice" reveals how she learned to throw her weight around.

Topics: Memoirs, Eating Disorders, LGBT,

When Camryn Manheim accepted her Emmy for best supporting actress last
September, the co-star of ABC’s courtroom drama “The Practice” punched the
air with the trophy and shouted, “THIS is for all the FAT girls!” And all
the fat girls watching at home — and all the girls who aren’t really fat,
but think they are — wept sisterly tears into their Ben & Jerry’s, because
Camryn Manheim was standing up there onstage, triumphant and glowing and
fat, living one of those prom queen/Cinderella moments usually
reserved for skinny girls. Manheim wore a low-cut black velvet gown that
dipped in at the waist; her long hair was upswept like Audrey Hepburn’s
around a sparkly band; serious jewels dripped from her throat and earlobes.
She looked Hollywood-goddess gorgeous, but more than that, she looked like
she belonged.

Overnight, the outspoken Manheim — who also happens to be a terrific
actress — became the unofficial poster child for fat acceptance, a role
she has performed with grace, humor and really good quotes. The 38-year-old
Manheim’s just-published memoir “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” — she reclaims that
particular “f” word the way Richard Pryor reclaimed the “n” word — is the
heartfelt and ballsy story of how she learned to be comfortable in her own
skin. And that’s no small feat for a size 22 (yes, she admits it) in a
profession (and a society) that usually regards women over size 8 as circus
freaks.

She was born Debra Frances Manheim (you didn’t think her parents named her
“Camryn,” did you?) in Peoria, Ill., the younger daughter of good Jewish liberals with a long family history of labor activism and civil
disobedience. When she was 11, her family moved to Long Beach, Calif.,
where her father had accepted an administrative position at the state
university. Unfortunately for young Debi, this was the exact moment that
puberty kicked in and her body betrayed her. She got fat, and shame swiftly
followed.



In “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” Manheim engagingly describes a rebel-misfit
adolescence as a chub in a town “where people shop for groceries in
bikinis.” She armored herself in Levi’s and baggy shirts, endured
disapproving clucks of “such a pretty face” from relatives and fantasized
about being a willowy hippie chick with a bearded, guitar-strumming lover.
Her soul was saved by rock ‘n’ roll (her older brother bought her the
guitar she’d coveted), motorcycles (she now rides a Honda CB650) and the
Renaissance Faire. Hey, it may be a kitsch festival to you, but to the
teenage Manheim, the Faire was a revelation: “Fat women with their breasts
bowing to the sun, women of all shapes and sizes kissing men and singing
harmonies. Wenches and princes and strolling minstrels … Have you ever
wanted something so badly that to have just a little bit of it made you
want to have none of it at all?”

As soon as she could, she got a job at the Renaissance Faire, where she
spent four unself-conscious summers frolicking merrily (and, after hours,
naked) with ye olde show folk. “I learned to love my body … Who knew that
what I had accomplished at age 16 would be systematically taken away
from me until I learned to hate myself?” she writes. (OK, so she reads too
much Naomi Wolf.) Manheim’s free-spirited feminism led her to UC-Santa Cruz
(the quintessential California hippie school) as a theater arts major. At
Santa Cruz, she fell in with the radical feminist Praying Mantis Brigade,
which staged colorful protests of the Miss California pageant. She also
tried her best to be a lesbian, but there was only one problem: She was straight.

After Santa Cruz, Manheim (she was “Camryn” by then) was accepted to New
York University’s Master of Fine Arts program, and the place nearly broke
her spirit. She was humiliated in front of classmates by professors who
told her she needed to lose weight, and put on probation until she did.
Manheim ended up dropping 80 pounds — and almost killing herself — with
crystal meth. “I don’t get it,” she writes. “If Art is supposed to imitate
Life, why do they want all the actors to be thin? There are fat people in
the world. Shouldn’t there be a few of us actors to represent them?” In her
student theater work at NYU, Manheim was never chosen to play a romantic
lead; she was repeatedly cast as motherly characters over the age of 50.
She only got to play an inginue once, in a senior production of Caryl
Churchill’s “Fen” that was guest-directed by a pre-”Angels in America” Tony
Kushner, a pioneer in non-stereotypical casting.

After graduation, and rejection by every casting agent who came to
audition the Master’s class, Manheim put the weight back on and went home
to her parents hoping for sympathy. Instead, there were disappointed sighs
and disastrous attempts at “subtle” persuasion. Remembering an ill-fated
shopping trip with Mom, Manheim writes, “My mother thought that if she
brought me a smaller size, she’d throw it over the door, I wouldn’t notice
the size, I’d put it on, it wouldn’t fit, I’d be so frustrated that I’d
beat myself up, and that would be the day I would miraculously decide to
lose all the weight … I checked the dress tag again to be sure, swung
open the door and in the middle of the fat-girls’ section of
Bloomingdale’s, I screamed, ‘Mom, WAKE UP … I’M FAT!’”

Manheim’s story of how she peeled herself from the depths of depression and
self-loathing is inspiring without being soap Oprah-ish. Manheim is a
natural writer; she has fine powers of description (her chapter on Emmy
night is at once dishy and spellbinding), she’s tart and funny and she’s
smart enough to know that interludes called “Conversations With My Fat,”
which are exactly what the title says, are best written with self-deprecating wit,
not self-help earnestness. After reading and watching that
spoiled rotten whiner Monica Lewinsky blaming her chubby childhood for
everything, Manheim’s dignity and self-reliance are downright
refreshing.

When Manheim couldn’t get work as an actress, for instance, she polished up her knowledge of sign language and became an interpreter for the deaf. She wrote and starred in the autobiographical one-woman show, “Wake Up, I’m
Fat!” which eventually made it to New York’s prestigious Public Theater. She
instructed her agent to suggest her for parts that were originally written
for men — she landed guest roles as lawyers on the TV shows “New York
Undercover” and “Law and Order” that way. When Manheim describes how she
finally hustled her big break by brashly boasting about her cribbage skills
to “Practice” creator — and cribbage freak — David E. Kelley, you want to
give the book a standing ovation.

In “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” Manheim leaves no dis unanswered, from the blind
dates who bailed when they got a look at her to the caterer on the set of
the movie “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” who, thinking she was a
lowly extra (such a fat girl couldn’t possibly be a featured actress!),
berated her for taking too much food at the lunch buffet. And then there
were the prop people who wanted to put a huge bowl of candy on her
character’s desk in the first episode of “The Practice”: “I turned to the
director and said, ‘Let me tell you a little secret, fat girls don’t keep
candy on the desk, they keep it in the drawer. So if you want to have candy
on someone’s desk, put it on the skinny girl’s desk, and I promise I’ll
give it a little glance every time I walk by.’”

Manheim seems to thrive on disagreement and confrontation — that’s what
her character on “The Practice” is all about. The show’s law firm is a
close-knit yet combative pseudo-family, and Manheim’s Ellenor Frutt is the
classic competitive middle child. She’s overshadowed for the affections of
“dad” Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) by the brilliant (and thin) “older
sister” Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams), and unable to bond with Bobby on the
guy-pal level enjoyed by “older brother” Eugene Young (Steve Harris). So
she bullies the younger siblings/associates and passionately fights for
every underdog client that comes her way.

Although Ellenor has had one grand opportunity to stand up in court for the
rights of fat people (this past season, she represented a fat woman suing a
carnival barker for making degrading remarks to her), her character is not
reduced to a number on a bathroom scale. She has the same career and
relationship issues as the rest of the characters on “The Practice” — although, Manheim writes in “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” she had to complain to
David Kelley in order to get a bedroom scene for Ellenor and her boyfriend.
Kelley immediately acquiesced and wrote two bedroom scenes for Manheim and actor J.C. McKenzie.

In her book, Manheim thanks Rosie O’Donnell
for opening doors for large
women in the entertainment industry. But the in-your-face book jacket photo
of Manheim in a bathing suit, high heels, tiara and beauty pageant sash
emblazoned “Miss Understood” is more reminiscent of vintage Roseanne, who
gleefully appeared in body-revealing get-ups in her sitcom’s later seasons.
Like Roseanne, Manheim celebrates success by flaunting her luxurious flesh
and playing with our rigidly programmed notions of beauty. And maybe Roseanne, Manheim, O’Donnell and other realistically proportioned stars
like Queen Latifah, fashion model Emme, Kate Winslet and Janeane Garofalo
have succeeded in changing perceptions about what is an “acceptable”
weight for a woman — there’s a piquant irony in the way Manheim’s recent
affectionate press coverage (“Camryn the Great,” read the May 8-14 TV Guide
cover) coincides with the media’s open season on Calista Flockhart.

On “Ally McBeal” (coincidentally, also a David E. Kelley show), the wispy
Flockhart has always looked as if a mild summer breeze could knock her
over. But then she appeared in a backless gown at an awards ceremony, her
shoulder blades and ribs quite prominent, and the whispers of anorexia
turned to roars. Supermarket tabloids ran headlines like “Shocking new
photos of ‘Ally McBeal’ star!” She became the butt of lame jokes on late-night talk shows. People did a cover story on the rumors, in which
Flockhart denied that she had an eating disorder and was asked (and agreed)
to list everything she consumed in a typical day.

Flockhart is now apparently expected to eat on cue in interviews. On her
current publicity tour for the movie “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for
example, she’s been interviewed over lunch by TV Guide (alas, she only
ordered a cappuccino and a glass of orange juice) and the TV newsmagazine
“20/20.” The latter interview had a painful moment when a defiant Flockhart
asked Connie Chung, “Do I look unhealthy?” and Chung replied, “You look
very thin.” At which Flockhart raised her chin and in her most snappish
McBeal tone said, “I was thinking that you look very thin.”
Recently, Flockhart canceled a “Today” appearance rather than face
more questions about her weight and did a cover interview for the May issue
of George in which she vented at the media for its intrusive and
“incredibly vulgar” treatment of her. “If you’re thin and you’re healthy,
there are certain people in the world who are going to be pissed off about
it,” she told George. “It’s discrimination. There’s a double standard. In
my life, a lot of people have said ‘Uchhh! You’re skinny!’ As if
they’re just disgusted by it. But nobody would walk up to someone who’s
overweight and say, ‘Ughhh! You’re so fat!’ It would never happen.”

But Flockhart is wrong. As Manheim details in “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” people
do walk up to fat people and tell them they’re fat, all the time.
Sometimes the comments are made out of cruelty and sometimes they’re
well-meaning — the same things that motivate remarks about Flockhart’s
weight. It seems that you can be too thin, or too fat, and the
screaming headlines and media “concern” and the prospect of Joan Rivers
circling you like a buzzard on awards night can wear down even the most
powerful of stars — look at Oprah, dieting at the request of the editors
of Vogue so she’d photograph better for a cover. Is Manheim’s self-esteem
made of tougher stuff?

Maybe. In “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” Manheim quotes a newspaper column by fitness
guru Kathy Smith, which took issue with her “fat girls” Emmy speech. Under
the headline, “If Fat Becomes Hip, We Are in Extreme Trouble,” Smith wrote,
“The desire to look good and be sexy is usually the most powerful motivator
to keep extra weight off … But if the motivation were eliminated by a
growing acceptance of fat as desirable or even just ordinary, we’d lose
vanity as a weapon in the health wars.”

Manheim’s response is straightforward — and mouth-watering: “If I am
presented with the choice of a rice cake or tiramisu, I know that Ms. Smith
would so desperately want me to choose that rice cake … But that’s not
living. That’s merely existing. And I want to live in a world with tiramisu.”

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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