The wages of thin

"The Skinny" wants to be the world's first humorous diet book, but it's weighed down by its own neuroses.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
June 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I've looked at life from both sides -- from fat and thin -- and I've got to admit, thin is better. But unlike Patricia Marx and Susan Sistrom, the authors of the recent paean to ectomorphism called "The Skinny," I don't want to go all mental about it.

It's not exactly startling news that the American female's relationship with her body is a tad dysfunctional. Our overidealization of slim hips and tight abs has spawned an industry whose profits could fund the defense budget, as well as a whole passel of wildly varying physiological and psychological theories. It's also, inevitably, inspired a fair amount of humor. You can't be in the throes of a national preoccupation with cottage-cheese-curd buttocks without eventually considering that it's a pretty eccentric subject to get whipped up over.

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Authors Marx and Sistrom (the latter a nom de plume widely ascribed to New Yorker writer Susan Orlean) understand that anything that takes up that much space in our brains is worthy of both legitimate attention and serious ribbing, and they attempt to provide both in "The Skinny." Unfortunately, they wind up not just falling short but also coming across as downright disturbing.

When I first heard the premise of the book -- it's a guide to the tips and tricks of the gauntly chic urbanites for whom Tom Wolfe coined the term "social X-rays," a manual of the secrets that no sane doctor, trainer or nutritionist would ever let you in on -- I was intrigued. "The Skinny, " I believed, would be a sendup of "never too rich or too thin" zeal, with perhaps a little feel-good practical advice slipped in. I thought I was its perfect audience -- a weight-loss success story who'd survived years of debasement before the almighty scale, who'd downed cabbage soup and instant breakfasts, who'd spazzed out in front of the VCR with Fonda. Is our female obsession with weight and weight loss funny? Well, mine sure was.

I should mention that even at my top weight I never achieved epic, "Didn't I see you floating at the Macy's parade?" proportions. Throughout adolescence and particularly in my freshman year of college, I was what others gently referred to as "voluptuous," "Rubenesque" and, most damning of all, "moon-faced." What this really meant was that my male friends loved to tell me what a great pal I was, usually as they were tripping over themselves to get next to my less ample companions. Then, the summer before I turned 19, I decided I'd get more action if I lost weight. And surprise, surprise, I was right. That fall I returned to school with 20 pounds gone and another 20 soon to follow. Eager to show off the new me, I decked myself out for the first big party of the year in a tight red dress. Call me petty, call me shallow, but the fact remains that when the dorm stud sauntered over and asked me if we could get together later, it was probably the second most satisfying moment of my life. The first was when I looked him in the eye and coolly replied, "Sorry. I'm busy."

All of this is my way of saying that I know full well how irrational this body-image stuff can be, for I too have walked a mile in those unforgiving Lycra pants. But at a certain point in your life, you've got to get real. If you perpetually measure your worth by your weight, you wind up one of those women I refer to as Chihuahuas -- skinny, yes, but also a quivery, nervous, jumpy little thing who forever looks in danger of piddling herself. You know the kind -- the one who pitches a hissy when confronted with a salad that has the dressing poured on top instead of served on the side. And you don't ever want to be that person.

When I look back on all the diets I tried (and failed at) as a chubby teen, all the ones I tried (and failed at) as a struggling-not-to-backslide early-20s chick, I have to sit back and think, "Whooo -- what was I on?" Only in hindsight can I see that the desperate longing of ordinary women for buns of steel is so over the top that it can be absurd. And nowhere is that both better and more horribly demonstrated than in "The Skinny." Not since "The Rules" has so much warped logic been doled out in one slender volume.

At several points, Marx and Sistrom seem to get their own joke just fine. They let loose with giddily Swiftian corporeal insanity, contemplating the caloric difference between ripe and unripe fruit (unripe is skinnier, by a hair) and asking whether you'd gain weight if you ate your own leg (they vote no). When they're breaking down the nutritional value of a shot of Nyquil or tallying the calories burned in wood chopping or floor mopping, they're brisk and blackly comic, making a wild, winking statement about the lengths to which women will go to get into the juniors department.

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But at other times they seem to be excruciatingly sincere, dishing out earnest -- and rabidly nutso -- wisdom from the sisterhood of the svelte. In addition to spouting such noncomedic pearls as "salt your dessert" and "never eat breakfast," they espouse the belief that women are so biologically incapable of rational thought in the presence of a jar of peanuts that they need to restrain themselves in any way possible. They urge wannabe skinny girls to refuse to stay in hotel rooms with minibars (just not eating from them isn't an option) and suggest sleep as a fat-free alternative to eating meals. And they say it with utter conviction. They certainly don't say it to be amusing, because it's not. After a perfunctory word to the wise about eating disorders, in which they warn you not to use the book if your "dieting habits are destructive or out of control," they go on to embrace yo-yo dieting, fasting, taking Tylenol Sinus as a metabolism booster, chewing gum instead of eating lunch, sprinkling bleach on food to keep from finishing it and going to the movies with a date because "it's embarrassing to overeat in front of someone you might later kiss." Makes you wonder what their idea of destructive or out of control must be.

In our 30s, most of my friends and I have developed a healthier, friendlier attitude toward our bodies -- even the parts of them that aren't in the same places they used to be. Fifteen years down the road, I've kept off all the weight I lost in college not by flipping out over every fat gram but through a moderate mix of sensible eating and self-indulgence, regular exercise and, frankly, serendipitous genetics (thank you, my small-boned parents). I'd like to believe that as we mature we don't have to be as susceptible to diet-industry hype or to our own residual adolescent self-loathing, that we can be like those European hotties who are too busy drinking wine and eating cake to worry about their butts and who manage to have perfectly respectable butts anyway.

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I originally lost weight because I thought that thin people had more fun, and speaking solely for myself, I've got to say that I was right. But there's nothing fun about a hunger headache or the shakes. And if you've ever had a meal with someone who looked at you like you were a child murderer for ordering something with bacon in it, you know that being around that kind of person isn't fun, either. Despite their occasionally entertaining jibes at dietary madness, Marx and Sistrom are both that kind of person -- the kind who tells you that eating airline food is "crazy" and that sandwiches are "stupid." Welcome to Overreaction Island, population 2. How can such a book be an endorsement of the joys of slenderness?

Had "The Skinny" stuck to its weird theories about dieting in outer space (zero gravity does wonders to the scale) and the weight-loss benefits of Third World travel, it might have been a devastating pastiche, a bracing tonic for all of us who have ever optimistically thawed out a Lean Cuisine in the hope that it would magically change our lives. Instead, it appears that, all kidding aside, the authors and the sylphs they've drawn inspiration from mean business. And it's hard to laugh at the jokes when such a sad, twisted undertone mars the big picture.

Early on, Marx and Sistrom vow not to lecture or "push sensible eating down your throat," which is, in its own way, a gutsy alternative to all the bunkum posing as expert advice out there. And by God, they stick to their promise. But when writers who are so clearly and unashamedly funny turn around and offer an unwitty neurotic-waif party line that never begins to consider the concepts of health, sensuality, pleasure or even, heaven forbid, moderation, you're left feeling as empty and useless as a Snackwell. Though "The Skinny" ultimately fails as both a humor book and a diet book, Marx and Sistrom would at least be pleased to know that they've followed their own advice to a T. They've given us an appealing little bonbon and then dumped a painfully nasty flavor on top of it.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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