This comic book can make you thin!

Salon cartoonist Carol Lay discusses the world's first diet-book graphic memoir and why the best approach to weight loss is the least sensational.

By Judy Berman

Published January 22, 2009 11:17AM (EST)

For a month that's supposed to be about new beginnings, January has begun to feel awfully familiar. Every year, we awaken from a food-and-drink coma, repent our sins of excess and begin worshipping at the altar of health and fitness. To this end, January also brings a barrage of new diet books, written by steely personal trainers and smug, tanned nutritionists. Should we put our faith in "The Four-Day Diet," or is "Making the Cut: The 30-Day Diet and Fitness Plan for the Strongest, Sexiest You" more our speed? Perhaps "Joy's LIFE Diet," bursting with energy (and capital letters!) will live up to its "Four Steps to Thin Forever" guarantee. The choices are overwhelming and the promises hollow enough to drive us back into the comforting embrace of a double cheeseburger -- which is just where many of us end up by the beginning of February.

Those of us seeking to infuse our diet-friendly green tea with a dose of sanity and humor might consider Carol Lay's new book, "The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude." Lay's comic strips, "Story Minute" and "WayLay," have appeared in Salon for more than a decade and tackle everything from antiwar demonstrations to the parallels between publishing a book and giving birth with Lay's trademark wit and a keen eye for nuance.

Lay is warmer and more candid than ever in "The Big Skinny," the world's first graphic memoir-cum-diet book and a testament to women's increasing participation -- as writers and readers -- in the comics genre. A compulsive overeater for most of her life, Lay vowed to end her struggle with her weight in 2002. During the year and a half that followed, she stuck to a classic regimen of calorie restriction and exercise and finally achieved her goal weight of 125 pounds. Though, as Lay acknowledges, there is nothing revolutionary about her plan, her plain-spoken commitment to the hard work of weight loss and ending the self-delusion that is, for her, at the heart of "fattitude" is refreshing amid a raft of newfangled diet fads that promise effortless, overnight results.

Salon spoke to Lay by phone from her home in Los Angeles about the joys of telling embarrassing secrets and how losing weight made her comics more autobiographical.

Why did you want to write "The Big Skinny"?

When I achieved my goal weight, I wanted to tell everyone how I did it. Usually, when I have a story to tell, I put it into a comic strip or story, so I drew up a few pages of samples to pitch to a weight-loss company. They didn't bite, but the urge to tell my story only got stronger as I maintained my goal weight over the next couple of years. I finally socked away some time and money so I could work on a proposal, because I knew if I didn't at least try, I would regret it. Fortunately, the work caught the eye of Jill Schwartzman at Random House, and I was able to go to town on it.

What do you hope readers will get out of the book?

Americans have a preoccupation with weight, perhaps because we are affluent and have a big, fat population. And we all know that, while it's easy to pile on the pounds, it's not so easy to take them off. My basic message is: After a 35-year struggle with my weight, I learned how to get fit and maintain my goal weight for over five years, and here's how I did it. You don't have to do it my way, but here are stories and information that will help when you make the decision to change your habits.

How did you set out to make your book different from the thousands of seemingly identical, uninspiring diet guides out there?

I've read several diet books. Some of them I found momentarily inspirational, with their little pep talks. But almost all of them don't want to get into what actually works: fewer calories and more exercise. They say, "Cut back on this and get more of this." I find that ineffective because, as a compulsive overeater, I want to eat as much as I can, and I'll find any excuse to do that.

I knew doing the book graphically would set it apart, because no one's ever done that before. Comics and memoir are a perfect hybrid for a how-to because we tend to absorb information better when there's a visual to go along with it. And when information is packed inside a story, the brain seems to receive and remember it better.

So what do you mean when you say you're a "compulsive overeater"? What's your history with food?

In the past, I would overeat not out of hunger but usually for emotional reasons or out of boredom. My habits were tied in with esteem issues and a conflicting desire to become more invisible and to get more attention at the same time. Finding the causes for my old esteem issues has helped me root them out, so I'm a much happier person now. And being happier helps me not go to my old drug, junk food, which in turn helps boost my esteem.

When did you decide you needed to change your eating habits?

I saw a photograph of myself, looking apparently happy. But I saw that, "Wow, I'm overweight, and I'm tired of doing this to myself." I make the suggestion, "Get yourself photographed." Cameras are much better tools than mirrors. I've got my mirror trained to show me exactly what I want. The camera is out of my control.

You tell a number of personal and embarrassing anecdotes in the book. Was it difficult writing about your lifelong struggles with your weight?

It was liberating. I've heard the phrase, "We're only as sick as our secrets." There is one very embarrassing food episode that I was so ashamed of, and I'd never told anyone about it. [Lay didn't want to spoil the story, but let's say this: It involves insects.] But it was the kind of thing I knew other overeaters would relate to. When I was discussing the chapter with my editor, I just blurted out the story. And once I told her, I was able to say, "I'm going to put that in." It lost its power as soon as I said it. I'm not embarrassed about it anymore because that was the old me.

How did the way you drew yourself as a character in your comics change after you lost the weight?

Even when I was 30 or 40 pounds overweight, I drew the "inner me." I guess I just didn't want to admit I was fat. But now that I'm fit, I see more energy in the way I draw myself. Sometimes I draw myself as light as air, but I see that as a reflection of my attitude, rather than my body.

Your comics have also become more autobiographical since you lost the weight. Do you feel more comfortable representing yourself now?

I used to be a very angry, negative person, and I put a lot of that into my work. Umpteen years ago, in the strip, I was blowing up the world every month or so. These were funny little fantasies. But I lost interest in that as I started shedding my negativity and anger. That period coincided with understanding myself and losing the weight. My emotional life became less extreme. In the past, I always dreaded having an "even" life. I thought it would be boring. But now I find that it's a lot less complicated and stressful. So I'm looking inside more because I find those stories more interesting now. They're not as dramatic, but they're definitely honest.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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