Diana Spechler, author of “Skinny”, talks body image with me in a fantastic, inspiring, slightly controversial interview
And I am really, really excited about it.
Skinny is Diana Spechler’s second book, published by HarperCollins (how amazing is that? AMAZING). She is a big deal. And in Skinny, she writes about body image issues in such a complex, jarring, and deft way that I kept getting surprised, every time I turned a page.
Skinny is the story of a young woman named Gray who struggles with guilt after her obese father’s dramatic death. She begins to compulsively overeat, driven by an enormous hunger she can’t sate. She follows a clue from her father’s past to a weight-loss camp for kids, down south. At the camp, she tries, and fails, and tries some more to understand what it means to carry weight and love. There’s sex and difficult relationships and sweetness and triumph and somehow through all that there is nothing clichéd or easy about Gray’s relationship with her body or the bodies of the people around her. In fact, Spechler makes this story important by refusing to allow it to slip into a familiar niche. And she writes like it’s exactly what she’s supposed to be doing. Which it clearly is. And she clearly is. (For Diana’s site, click here.)
It is so cool that she is here on ETDC, talking with me about her book, which you guys should read. (You can look at it and then decide to buy it here.) Here is our conversation:
You know, that question I absolutely have to ask: What inspired this book?
It’s always a little embarrassing to admit that the answer to this question is “me.” I inspire myself so deeply, Kate. But seriously, I’ve struggled with body image and eating issues since I was thirteen. At some point in early adulthood, I realized that just about everyone else does, too. We all think we’re too fat or our breasts are too small or our thighs are too big or our feet are ugly. In my case, I have objectively ugly feet–really long toes and a bunion. I get pedicures, but I’m fooling myself; painting my toenails is like adorning a leper with precious gems. Anyway. I wanted to explore body image and eating disorders. So off I went to a weight-loss camp for a summer to do research.
What did you learn about your own relationship with your weight, and about body image in general, through the process of writing Skinny?
I was really afraid to write the novel. I thought it would–God forbid!–expose me as a person with body image issues. I kept trying to write around that stuff, to pretend I knew nothing about it, a denial that mirrored my real life, where I pretended that I was too smart and worldly to get caught up in body image, that I didn’t count calories in my head and berate myself for missing a day at the gym and keep four sizes of jeans in my closet. But soon it became clear to me that the novel was going to be pretty lame unless I got my hands dirty. So I wrote a graphic scene about the protagonist bingeing at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. The writing flowed because I was finally being honest. Okay, I told myself. Keep doing that.
By the time I finished the book, I wasn’t so afraid of exposure anymore. Leaking my secrets helped me to feel less ashamed of them. Now I know how important it is for all of us–especially women–to speak openly about our body image issues. I know we’re not supposed to. We’re supposed to say, “My body is an amazing machine,” and, “At least I have food on the table and a roof over my head.” We’re never supposed to say, “I feel fat.” We’re never supposed to tell our friends, “I’m so jealous of how thin you are, I wish you weren’t my friend.” We’re never supposed to say, “I ate a whole large pizza all by myself. Also an order of bread sticks. Dipped in Ranch dressing.” But denying the truth doesn’t help us; it just compounds our shame.
You’re right. I struggle with this a lot. Self-acceptance is incredibly, incredibly difficult sometimes, and I think everyone needs to let themselves have moments where they just admit that they feel terrible and ugly. But those moments are taboo and embarrassing. Thank you for writing about them. Also, the bread sticks with Ranch dressing sound good.
What was the best thing (other than, you know, a FAMOUS PUBLISHED NOVEL) that came out of writing Skinny?
When the book came out, a former student of mine who’s in the storytelling circuit in New York City asked me to perform on one of her storytelling shows. She wanted me to tell the story behind the book–specifically about my summer working at a weight-loss camp. Storytelling is terrifying because you get up on stage with no notes and tell true stories about your life. But I said yes, and it was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. I’ve continued to tell that story, and others, on various stages. I’ve never had a real hobby before. Except once, when I tried to be a jewelry maker. But I was terrible at it, and I kept giving my friends jewelry that would break, and they wouldn’t tell me it broke because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I made everyone feel awkward all the time by asking, “Why don’t you ever wear that necklace I made you?”
The point is, I’m not a Renaissance woman: I like to write. And read. And hug my nieces and nephews. But now I have this whole new passion. I’ve become a storyteller. I never expected that.
That’s awesome. I recently saw The Moth at SummerStage, and what I loved most was that they were normal people, just sharing stories about their lives. It felt kind of pure. And Jewelry making is really hard.
What are some of your thoughts about creating a protagonist who hates her weight gain so intensely that she sometimes can’t think of overweight people as anything except for lazy and pathetic? Did this feel controversial to you?
Um. Yeah. But when you write anything, not everyone will love it. Let me rephrase that: Sometimes they’ll hate it. And that’s okay. If you worry while you’re writing that people might hate it, that your mother might be offended, that your friends might be shocked, that the critics might pummel you, well, you won’t get very much writing done.
Anyone who has ever suffered from an eating disorder or any other obsession knows how consuming it is. It makes an otherwise nice person inordinately selfish. It was important to me to get that on the page. Gray can be insufferable, thinking about nothing but herself and her body, but I wrote her that way because I wanted to portray her disorder accurately.
Selfishness is a characteristic of someone with an eating disorder that I’ve only heard described by family members who have had to deal regularly with a sufferer. I get the feeling we’re not supposed to mention that part. I’m inspired. It’s scary to write in a way that might (will) offend people. You are brave. And speaking of brave, you have a fantastic site called Body Confessions where you invite women to “vent” about their body image. Can you talk a little about that?
After I wrote SKINNY and “confessed” some of my secrets (attributing them to fictional characters, of course), I felt such relief. I wanted to give that gift to others. And so Body Confessions was born. It’s a safe, anonymous space for people to write about their bodies. The confessions can get a bit dark, and some people have criticized the site as “triggering,” but in my opinion, dishonesty is far more triggering than darkness.
OK, so everyone, let’s go check out the site. And I can’t think of anything else, so, in parting, any advice for women (as in all of us) who struggle with negative body image?
Talk about it. All of it. And do yoga.
Wait. One more thing…Do you have an Unroast?
I like that because my hair is dirty today, it looks so shiny.
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Here’s a picture of Diana, with shiny hair that doesn’t look dirty:
P.S. For a version of this interview on the Huffington Post, click here