Disclosure: I received an advanced copy of this book to review for free. I also have the same literary agent as the author, whose name I will guard with the ferocity of a mother lioness. ROAR! So don’t ask. I ain’t telling.
I related a lot to author Kim Brittingham as I read her new book, Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large. We both moved a lot as kids. We both had frizzy unmanageable hair that I have only recently learned how to tame. We both thought we might be having a heart attack at 23. We both have old “fat” photos from our teen years in which we don’t appear fat at all. And after weight loss and weight gain we’re both at places where we’re basically cool with our bodies. (Well, cool with the weight thing, anyway. I have numerous complaints about the chronic headache, crooked teeth, bad vision, flat fleet, five wisdom teeth, etc., etc.)
You might have heard of Kim after she got some media attention for riding the New York transit system while reading a book with a fake cover called “Fat is Contagious: How Sitting Next to a Fat Person Can Make YOU Fat.” (View a Today Show video interview here.) Each chapter in Kim’s book could probably stand on its own as an essay or narrative short story, but they’re linked together with the common theme of the book. That theme is Kim’s shifting attitude about her weight throughout life, detailing the sadly all too common stories of body self-loathing in her younger years to how she came to a place of self-acceptance in her 30’s and 40’s.
The most fascinating chapter describes her experience working as a weight-loss counselor for a company called Edie JeJeune. (I think this is a pseudonym to protect the innocent and the guilty since Google couldn’t turn up anything on it.) The company sold people diet plans that required pre-packaged foods and encouraged clients to buy motivational audio tapes. Most people know that the weight-loss industry exists to make money, but it was eye-opening to see how sales-oriented Kim’s managers were. The cutthroat atmosphere and pressure to meet sales goals at the price of compromising your morals sounds eerily similar to stories I’ve heard from friends with other sales jobs. This is frightening to contemplate since selling someone a new bathtub doesn’t affect their health like selling a diet plan could (unless they slip, fall and break a hip, I guess). The emphasis wasn’t on helping people either, just meeting sales goals. The counselors weren’t required to have any kind of certifications or degrees, and some were secretly binging on the foods in the warehouse, making the whole debacle seem like a case of the blind leading the blind.
On the positive side, Kim gives a speech during a work seminar that urges people to go for what they want now instead of waiting for something else first (like losing weight) that was so inspirational two of her co-workers decided to quit that day. Sounds like she could have a career as a motivational speaker if the writing thing doesn’t pan out.
The other chapters cover topics such as the fat prejudice she was subjected to from a PR company that represented a line of plus-sized clothes, the fat-person stereotypes she had to fight while filming a video with a major media corporation, and enough stories about the New York public transportation system to make me never want to ride the subway again.
Kim was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions I had after finishing her book.
One idea you stress in the book is that you shouldn’t wait until you’re thin to do things, that you should “Be. Do. Have.” instead of “Do. Have. Be.” That’s a philosophy I believe in too, but sometimes I find myself slipping into old thought patterns, like recently thinking that I should wait to take a martial arts class until I’ve lost some weight. Do you ever find yourself slipping into old patterns like this and if so what do you do about it?
Sure, I notice it happening all the time. I think it’s like anything else, it takes practice to change. The more you stop and recognize your old patterns and interrupt them, the easier it gets. For myself, I find I notice those patterns more readily now than I ever did before. It’s not as easy for negative self-talk to worm its way in and take hold. At one point I was frustrated and asking myself, “Well how the heck do I remember to remember to not have these thoughts?” I think it takes more than a single decision sometimes, and more effort than reading one good self-help book. You need to seek out multiple resources. Several books. Podcasts and videos, workshops. Reinforce those lessons for yourself in a variety of ways, then it becomes more second-nature.
Early in the book you talk about Glory Davis, a girl at school who lost weight over the summer. You try to get her to reveal the secret of her transformation, but she doesn’t seem to understand what you want and acts nonchalant about the change. It was at this point in the book that I thought you were going to reveal that you later discovered Glory Davis had an eating disorder. That doesn’t happen though, and it made me do some uncomfortable self-reflection on why I would assume that. Did you ever wonder if Glory had an eating disorder? Whether you did or not, do you have any thoughts on what it means about our culture that my mind immediately jumped to that conclusion?
You know, that’s an interesting point. No, it never occurred to me that Glory had an eating disorder. When she returned to school thinner, she had also blossomed in other ways. She had a self-assurance about her that transcended mere weight loss. It was like she’d discovered who she was. And I never saw any signs that her relationship with food itself had changed. She was always very much at ease with food, which is never the case with an eating disordered person. There’s always a tension. Guilt, resistance, desperation, uneasiness. All kinds of thinking about the food. Glory just seemed more interested in…well, boys than food, to be frank! And before she lost the weight, I never saw her overeat. So maybe for Glory, her chubbiness was a classic case of baby fat that sheds itself in good time. I remember a lot of kids like that, which is one reason I’m really disturbed by this growing trend of casting a floodlight on fat kids and stigmatizing them. From Michelle Obama framing her Let’s Move campaign as a fight against childhood obesity instead of a campaign in favor or healthy habits for children of ALL sizes, to billboards in Georgia making fat kids out to be freaks and their parents in denial. It’s going to cause a lot of damage to kids who would otherwise be fine without this holier-than-thou societal “intervention,” and we certainly won’t embarrass or shame any child into eating better and exercising more. If anything, we’ll accomplish the opposite. We’ll isolate fat children even more from their peers, and they’ll likely seek comfort in the one friend who’s always there: food. That is, if they don’t discover drugs first.
But I’m getting way off topic here, aren’t I? The fact that your mind jumped to that conclusion about Glory might say something about our cultural beliefs, I don’t know. We do cherish our preconceived notions about people and weight in this country, don’t we? Fat people are portrayed as unlovable, antisocial gluttons, whose greed must be condemned. Women who are rail-thin are assumed to be anorexics or purgers. Weight loss itself is always assumed to have been orchestrated on purpose and is uniformly praised. I remember seeing Tyra Banks’ show one day in the laundromat, and a guest mentioned she’d recently lost X number of pounds. The audience immediately took that as a cue to applaud. And I remember thinking, what if she fucking has CANCER, for God’s sake?
You recount a story about Marilyn Monroe in the book and how she could change from being almost invisible in a crowd to being the subject of attention simply by changing her body language and attitude. You have similar success attracting people to you by exuding an aura of confidence, though you admit it is hard to keep up all the time because it’s not 100% natural. Do you have any advice for other women on how they can try to access their inner Marilyn?
Well, it might be that we all have to be clumsy about it in the beginning. Like learning to ride a bike; like me when I first learned to carry myself with confidence. I could only sustain it for so long before it felt exhausting to me. Because it was unfamiliar. It felt like an effort, almost like an act. But after a while, if your experience mirrors mine, you’ll start to recognize who you really are, and you’ll fall into your own natural “strut,” so to speak. You won’t have to live every day of your life like you’re portraying a woman with better self-esteem than your own. You’ll simply have found your stronger self. Also, it’s not your job to put on an air of fabulousness if you’re feeling angry, frustrated, or otherwise unhappy. But giving yourself a chance to find your own inner Marilyn will help you find more presence when you’re in a shitty place, too. You and your feelings have every right to their space. You’re just as entitled as anyone else to every last inch you need.
You got a lot of attention for reading a book on public transportation with a fake book cover called “Fat is Contagious: How Sitting Next to a Fat Person Can Make YOU Fat.” Did you ever considering using that title for you book instead of “Read My Hips” to see if it’d generate more sales, since as you say body-loathing seems to be more popular than body-acceptance?
I did. Not from a sales-generating perspective, but I did shop my book to publishers as “Fat is Contagious.” But Random House suggested “Read My Hips,” which was the title of an essay I’d written for iVillage, and which wound up being a big part of the book’s introduction. It really seemed to fit — no pun intended. Much more so than “Fat is Contagious.” Because with “Read My Hips,” you really are reading my hips — everything that went into the creation of my hips. Everything I did to try and fight my hips and eventually accept them, along with every other part of me.
In the bio sent with the book it says you dream of “finding an affordable fencing school.” Have you taken up fencing like Inigo Montoya like you mentioned thinking of doing in the book? My brother started fencing in the past year and says they never have enough girls. He’d be happy to recruit you!
No, I haven’t taken up fencing and I’m heartbroken about it! The cruel truth is, there’s an excellent fencing school just fifteen minutes from my home, and they even have female instructors over 40, which I think is so cool. But their fees are well out of my league. Someone told me I shouldn’t be surprised, that fencing is one of those sports of the wealthy, like polo. Gee, I didn’t know! I did get a Wii gaming system, though, and my friend Peter gave me a Wii light saber for Christmas. It’s not quite the same thing, of course. You don’t get to perfect all that crisp footwork, and you don’t develop the same defensive instincts you would in working with a real person. But it’ll have to do for this pauper, for now. My pen will be my sword!