Fat chance

Can a fat teenager find happiness? Cherie Bennett, author of the young adult novel "Life In the Fat Lane," talks about binge-and-barf clubs, Madeleine Albright's thighs and why well-meaning mothers often make things worse.

By Leora Tanenbaum

Published March 11, 1998 12:39PM (EST)

Lara Ardreche, the protagonist of the young adult novel "Life in the
Fat Lane," is a beautiful 16-year-old who, from a
teenage girl's perspective, has it all: beauty pageant titles, including Miss Teen Pride of the South, and a
gorgeous boyfriend. Lara is charming and friendly, liked by
just about everyone in her Nashville high school, but then most
beauty queens are -- if you want to win, congeniality goes hand in hand with curves and carefully
applied makeup. Her successful parents (her father is an
advertising executive, her mother the owner of an upscale catering
business) adore her and are thrilled when she is, of course, crowned homecoming

But then Lara develops an obscure metabolic disorder and gains weight.
A lot of weight -- within a few months, 100 pounds. Before,
she had joked that she'd rather be dead than fat. Now she begins to grapple with how obesity reshapes her life. She loses
control over her main source of power, her body, gaining weight even on a
monitored semi-starvation diet. No more size 4 dresses -- now she drives to the other
side of Nashville, where nobody knows her, to shop at Lane Bryant. Her parents accuse her of sneaking food into her room late at
night, eating when they aren't looking. Though her boyfriend says he still loves
her, it's obvious he's no longer attracted to her. Her classmates call her "lard ass."

Along the way, however, Lara comes to see things that were hidden in the shadows of her thin, picture-perfect life.
For the first time, she recognizes that her parents care more about
appearance than anything else -- and that her father is having an
affair with a younger woman. She throws away her
pageant persona and learns to speak what's
really on her mind, even at the risk of standing alone with her
opinions. But she discovers that even that's not so bad -- as
outcasts, she realizes, fat people have a freedom that insiders rarely possess.

Lara becomes a stronger person, but still, she's only human. She continues to look down on
obese people -- after all, she has a metabolic disorder while
other fat people are slovenly overeaters. At the book's end,
Lara is beginning to lose some of the weight, although neither she nor her doctor
knows if she will ever lose it all. By then it doesn't even really matter:
She has come to accept herself and a new group of friends, many of whom
are overweight.

"Life in the Fat Lane" is sure to strike a chord among teen girls and
young women. Author Cherie Bennett knows what's on girls' minds: Her teen advice
column "Hey, Cherie!" is syndicated
and she has written numerous young adult novels, including the
award-winning "Did You Hear About Amber?" and all 40 installments of
the wildly popular "Sunset Island" series. Her address is printed in
the back of most of her books with a note telling readers that they
can write her. And do they. After a new book is released, she receives an average of 150 letters a week from girls and
boys ages 9 to 18. One wall of her office is covered with photographs of kids who have sent
her their pictures. But Bennett's novel will also enlighten
parents. As she has discovered touring
the country speaking to groups of mothers and daughters, the issues of
weight and looks never fail to create household tension.

Salon spoke recently with Bennett, who lives in Nashville.

What prompted you to write "Life in the Fat Lane"?

It was a combination of things. One is that I'd gotten around
10,000 letters over the last seven years from kids, and second only to
the letters about love and sex were those about weight and body
image. I have a whole stack of them. They would just break your heart.
I've gotten everything from "I weigh 250 pounds and school is a living
hell and I want to kill myself" to "I'm in the binge-and-barf club at
my school and we're the popular girls but what people don't know is
that every day we go to the bathroom and barf together." These
binge-and-barf clubs of the cool girls are a trend that's going around
the country.

You mean these girls are out about it?

In some places nobody knows
about it, and in others people know about it but it's
considered cool. The weight and body image letters are the scariest letters I've
received. Girls who wear a size 12 or 14 or 16 refer to themselves as "disgusting fat pigs" -- and they mean
it. It's become such
a cultural obsession, and it is killing -- literally and figuratively,
spiritually and emotionally -- a generation of young

I also have a personal interest in this issue. I was a fat teenager.
Actually, I wasn't all that fat, but I was fatter than other kids, and
I suffered for it. So when I get these letters, I know exactly how
these girls feel. Lara's journey was not literally my journey, but her
pain is something that I knew. As an adult, I lost weight. I was round. I had
crossed that line from fat to voluptuous. But around eight years ago,
I got rheumatoid arthritis and was really sick. I was bedridden, then
in a wheelchair, then walked with a cane. One of the drugs I started
on was prednisone, which is a steroid. Plus I couldn't exercise, I
could barely walk. And if you take steroids and get no physical exercise, and
you have a genetic propensity to gain weight in the first place, and
you have utterly wrecked your metabolism with the diet thing from the
time you were a kid, you gain weight -- and gain weight and gain
weight. That's exactly what happened to me.

How much weight?

Eighty pounds. I remember looking in the mirror and seeing my face
blowing up like a balloon, because steroids do that to you. They make
your face get round and they cause you to gain weight in the middle of
your body. I would put on something one day and it would fit, and the
next day it wouldn't fit. So even though I didn't have the disease in
the book, it felt exactly the same. I felt like this monster thing had
invaded me and there was nothing I could do about it.

Did people treat you differently after you gained weight?

Absolutely. Interestingly, as a fat woman you become both an
object of ridicule for taking up too much space and invisible at the
same time. You are no longer looked at sexually by the majority of
men. Thin people, especially
women, feel superior. They think, I
can control my appetite and she can't. People
would very patronizingly offer me their diet plans.

You know, we don't know anything by looking at people from the
outside, but people assume they do. I couldn't wear a
sign that said, "Excuse me, I'm taking large amounts of prednisone and
I can't walk across the room; ergo, I'm gaining all this weight. It's
not because I have an uncontrollable appetite and eat 24 hours a
day. Thank you."

Did you fall victim to the thought process that Lara goes through in the book? "I'm fat because of this disease, not because I overeat.
Other people are fat because they overeat."

Somewhat. But as an adult, I had some maturity and insight
that she doesn't have.

A lot of people make fun of Alicia Silverstone and Kate Winslet
for being fat and looking like "pigs." These are two young women who
are anything but overweight.

It's a perfect example of the kinds of pressures that exist now
that didn't exist 20 years ago. My mom's generation wanted to look
like Marilyn Monroe -- and that was tough enough for many women. Then
the standard got thinner and thinner. By today's standards Marilyn
Monroe is fat. Now not only do you have to be thin, you have to be
thin and buff. The standards are always a little too difficult to
attain. And women stay insecure. They stay feeling that they have to
buy products and do things to be OK.

The first thing we have to get across to girls is that who you are is
not the size you wear. You can be unhappy with the size you wear and
still be happy with yourself. I don't know anyone who's happy with
every aspect of herself. If your body size defines who you are,
there's a real problem there.

If I say to a 13-year-old, "Madeleine Albright is not obsessing
about her fat thighs when she goes in to the U.N.," that
13-year-old is going to say to me, "Well, I don't want to look
like Madeleine Albright."

But does she want to be Madeleine Albright?

Some do. They want to be Madeleine Albright and look like Gwyneth Paltrow.

So your book is an answer to that point of

I hope it's the beginning of standing up and saying, "We're not
going to take this anymore." We created this insanity, so we can change it. Call me
crazy, but I really believe that. If one size 14 model appeared with a size 8 model in the pages of
Seventeen, everybody would be shocked at first.
Then let's say the next month there are two size 14
models. This begins to change people's
perspective. What is shocking at first eventually becomes normal, and
normal becomes acceptable. And when it's acceptable and part of the
culture, then a 15-year-old boy is not going to feel like he
can't ask out the girl who wears a size 14 because his friends are
going to rag on him.

By the end of "Life in the Fat Lane," Lara learns to accept
herself. While I wouldn't say that she's happy, I think it's fair
to say she's content. In the context of the book, her transformation
works. But in reality, do you think a girl who gains 100 pounds would learn
to accept herself the way Lara does?

I think she'd be a hell of a girl if she could. You know, nobody
whom I've known, at 17 or 70, decides, "I'm
OK," and then feels OK every day that she wakes up. There would be many days that she would wake up and hate
the way she looks and hate the things that people say
to her. Because as long as we live in
a world that is telling girls that their worth is based on their size,
any teenage girl is going to want to get thin. What we have to do is
change the message. That is part of our responsibility as adults.

Yet Lara's parents are incredibly
superficial and self-centered, and you make it clear that they are a
major cause of Lara's problems. Have your letter-writers complained
about much the same thing to you?

Yes. The good news is that a lot of kids out there really like
their parents -- more so than I think people appreciate. But I get a
lot of letters from girls who have problems with their parents. The
whole thing with mothers and daughters and weight is a really big
issue. If the generation of women with teen daughters obsesses about
weight, how are we supposed to raise a generation of girls who don't?
The mom, being enlightened, will often say to her daughter, "Honey,
you're fine just the way you are. All that matters is that you're
healthy." But it's lip service, it's

Even if the parent really believes that, nobody else does.

Even if the mom believes it 80 percent of the
time, it's only part of what she believes. There are other messages.
One of them is: "Oh my God, I don't want my daughter to be fat because
I know how painful it will be for her if she's a fat teenager, so I
will help her to lose weight." Another message is: "I really want my
daughter to be thin because she'll have so much more fun, and I
can vicariously have fun with her. She's going to have dates and be
popular, and after all, isn't that a reflection on me, her mother?"
Or if the mom is fat, she often feels guilty if the daughter is
fat. But if she's thin, then
she's proven she's a good mother.

What do you tell mothers when you speak to mother-daughter groups?

I say that first of all you have to get OK with your own body. Then, as difficult as this is -- and
this is very difficult for a lot of mothers who mean well -- short of a true medical problem, your daughter
should not go on a diet if she is 10 or 12 or 14.

So how does a mother who wants to lose 15 pounds herself maintain
an anti-diet message for her daughter?

First of all, I think she should examine why she wants to lose 15
pounds. Does she really need to? Or is it her own obsession with
wearing a size 6 instead of an 8 or size 10? Then I would say she needs to approach
weight loss from a health point of view and not from a denying-of-food
point of view. I am pro-athletics for girls because athletics make you
feel strong and confident in your body and healthy and have nothing
to do with guys or being looked at as a sex symbol. So if the mom
becomes more athletic and more fit and toned, and ends
up losing weight, then more power to her. Then she's a good role model
for her kids.

Some of your other young adult books, such as "Girls In Love" and "The Bridesmaids," are
designated as romances. Yet you don't seem to write in the traditional romance formula.

Scholastic, the publisher, has characterized those books as
romance novels because that helps to sell the books. Every book I've written is a girl-empowering, girl-advocate
book. Many of them have an element of romance to them, but I have
never written a "romance."

Does the characterization bother you?

It bothers me in the sense that I know what the romance novel
formula is and these books are not that. In adult fiction,
there is something called "women's fiction," which is about a woman's
journey. But there is no such delineation for young adult fiction, there is no "girl-empowering" category,
which is too bad.

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B O O K++I N F O R M A T I O N:


Leora Tanenbaum

Leora Tanenbaum writes about gender and culture for Ms. and other magazines. She lives in New York City.

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