Who you callin' fat?

After a lifetime of obsessing over her weight, the author of "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life" embarked on a mission to free women from their fear of fat.

By Corrie Pikul

Published May 3, 2004 7:18PM (EDT)

Don't be turned off by the title: Wendy Shanker's self-help memoir, "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life," isn't just for overweight women. Shanker's frank and funny look at living large in America will resonate with any woman who has obsessed over her body image (and who hasn't?). Sounding off on everything from diets to drugs, models to magazines, food to finances, "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life" recounts the strategies that Shanker, a TV and magazine writer and stand-up comedian, has used to "come to terms with the skin I'm in." She's unapologetically Fat with a capital F -- "fat is a state of body," she writes, "but Fat is a state of mind" -- and wants to demystify and reclaim the word.

She didn't always feel this way. Shanker begins "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life" with some of the most significant moments of her "fifteen-year odyssey of self-loathing and self-doubt." She recounts her dieting debacles (including a fluke armed robbery at a Weight Watchers meeting), embarrassing setbacks (like getting caught devouring the last piece of her college roommate's birthday cake), and her efforts to figure out the psychological factors that influence her relationship with food. She's incredibly candid and doesn't shy away from sex or between-the-sheets body-image worries: "I'd live in fear that the guy lurking down below would suddenly lift his head and scream, 'Ewww! You're fat and disgusting! What the hell did I just touch? Is that even a body part that other people have?'"

In early 2002, Shanker hit rock bottom and checked herself into the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, a renowned research center and weight loss treatment clinic in Durham, N.C. For one long, frustrating month, she ate like a monk, exercised like a Olympian, spent almost $10,000 on programs, therapy and travel -- yet still only lost two pounds. It was this experience that shaped her current attitude toward fat -- and her vow never to diet again. "If we can't take it off, " she writes, "then we might as well just take it on."

Salon met with Shanker at a local bakery (yes, the cappuccinos were full fat) to discuss America's obsession with obesity and her quest to empower Fat Girls.

Titling the book "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life" is a pretty bold move. Did you have any fear of people being put off by the title?

From the first minute I thought about writing this book, I knew I was going to call it "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life." I was shocked that title wasn't already taken by somebody! Part of what I'm trying to do is demystify "fat," to make it a word about size and not a word about personality. My publisher and I talked about softening it up, putting a subtitle, something like "Your Body's Great!: The Fat Girl's Guide to Life," but we could never decide on the right phrase, and I didn't really want to go there anyway.

One of the questions I keep getting is: "I'd really like to buy this book for a friend of mine, but I'm afraid I'm going to offend them." But if that's the case, then tell them that this is the story of a fat girl named Wendy Shanker, and then they can pretend that they're reading about me and secretly they can be thinking about themselves.

You open the book by saying, "This book is for you, whether you feel fat or look fat or act fat or none of the above." Do you think those "none of the above" people will really pick up the book and read it?

OK, 68 percent of the adult female population is wearing a size 12 or larger, so even if I just spoke to women whose doctors would say, "You're fat and you need to lose weight," that would be two-thirds of the population. That'd be great, but part of what I think is crazy about body-image dynamics right now is that there are so many skinny girls and average girls who think they're fat and are looking for answers to some of their fat problems. If you think that you're physically fat, you're gonna read this book and say, All right, fine, so I'm fat, big deal. That's me and I'm happy. And if you're not, then I hope that you can plug in to it.

Going into the book, did you know exactly what you wanted to do? Did you have a finished product in mind?

I've been a columnist for Grace, I've written for Mode and other magazines, so I thought I'd string together a bunch of essays and laugh my way to the bank -- or not. What I found while I was writing was that I had a lot more to say than I thought I did. It's really about covering the evolution I've made in terms of thinking about my body, particularly over the past couple of years. After I went to the Duke Diet and Fitness Center (which I talk about in the book), I sort of had this epiphany. It felt like that material I'd written before and the way I thought about body image before that just seemed irrelevant. I've come to terms with, "OK, here's my body. It's fat." I don't have to be in love with it, but I certainly have to appreciate it and stop fighting what it wants to be and what it wants to look like.

I checked out the fat-acceptance Web site Big Fat Blog that you mention in your book. Responses to "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life" were mixed: Some from the Big Fat Bloggers felt that you were ambivalent about "true fat acceptance," that you sounded "deeply conflicted in [your] own journey to self acceptance," and that you gave "seemingly contradictory recommendations."

I think that the fat-acceptance crowd is going to be a lot more critical of this book than the mainstream reading audience. To the regular girl who's reading Glamour or Marie Claire, the idea that your body can look however it wants to look is a pretty radical notion. To the Big Fat Blog audience, it's offensive that you would think any other way. This book might be a little too gentle for a group that already feels empowered and already feels politicized about size issues. So I'm not surprised that they're going to be tough on me. I anticipated it and am very interested in hearing it.

As you were writing the book, did you ever reach a point when you were like, who is my target audience here? Am I talking to the kind of woman who is willing to wear the control-top pantyhose and the girdle, or am I talking to the ones, like those at BFB, who want to just let it all hang out?

At first I was really torn, I wanted to be everything to everybody. I remember sitting in my living room with little index cards that said things like "Fat and Happy," "Fat and Concerned," "Fat and Fit," "Fat and Wondering," and thinking, Who am I writing for? At some point I realized that this really does have to come from my experience. People will either agree or disagree. The trickiest part of writing this book was to talk about that ambivalence and to talk about that complexity. I really did not want to write, "I'm fat and happy and I love my body!" because the truth is, I don't. Some days I do, and other days I'm like ugh! I'm like anybody. That's really what I'm trying to get at here.

Having worked in TV and magazines, do you feel conflicted that the same system that perpetuates unrealistic images of women (or children, or men, or homes, or lifestyles, for that matter) is the same system from which you derive professional fulfillment? The same system that helps you pay the rent?

Yes, definitely. But my goal has always been, well what can I do from inside the system to get that alternative voice out there. How can I be subtly subversive? One of the delightful things about working at TRL on MTV was that my underlying ambition was to get girls on TV that didn't all look stick figures. If we're going to show girls dancing at the MTV Beach House, let's also show girls who aren't wearing bikinis, who are wearing T-shirts and shorts. Let's show girls in the audience of different ethnicities; let's show girls speaking in a humorous voice instead of just "Ohhh, I love Justin!"

Entertainment is so intense. It's really hard to knock on the outside and say, "Put a fat girl in a movie!" It's a lot easier to do that from the inside.

How do you feel about America's newly declared "war on obesity"?

I think it's terrible. The U.S. Surgeon General recently said that the threat of obesity in the United States is worse than the threat of terrorism. I guess that makes me Osama bin Larden. That's ridiculous! What I put in my mouth will not destroy lives in America. I was supposed to be on CNN last week, and they bumped me because hostages were taken in Iraq. I was like, Well, CNN doesn't think that my fat ass is more important than terrorism, so why does the U.S. Surgeon General think so?

What would be the ultimate reward for writing this book?

Let's see ... I guess one of the greatest outcomes would be Brad Pitt hooking up with a fat girl in a movie in the steamiest sex scene ever and everybody saying, "Wow, that was hottest thing I've ever seen!" That would be symptomatic of this book having an effect.

The other best thing has already happened. I got a letter from a woman who said, "I've felt weird and freakish my whole life. I just read your book, and I want to thank you for being you, and for being a Fat Girl." I thought: OK, I'm done. I'm going to cancel on Salon, I'm going to cancel on CNN, I'm going to stop selling the book, because this one woman in Brooklyn said this, and that just totally does it for me.

Corrie Pikul

Corrie Pikul writes about women's issues and pop culture. She lives in Brooklyn.

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