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.

*  *  *

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

8 Comments »

Kate on July 13th 2011 in body, food, guest post, weight

8 Responses to “Diana Spechler, author of “Skinny”, talks body image with me in a fantastic, inspiring, slightly controversial interview”

  1. Sooz responded on 13 Jul 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Interesting post. Sounds like a very intriguing book. Gotta admit, though, I was put off by her picture b/c she’s skinny and well…that makes me jealous. Ugh. But that’s about me; not her. i think I will get her book and give it a go. Thanks Kate for a great interview!

  2. Amy responded on 13 Jul 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Loved the website, too. Confessed my own feelings. Yes, some are definitely dark. But they need to be said. Life isn’t ponies and rainbows. And so many of us… need a place.

  3. Julie responded on 14 Jul 2011 at 11:13 am #

    I’m definitely going to read it. Diana, you are so funny and honest! I really appreciate it.

  4. Bee responded on 14 Jul 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    I’m not going to lie, the website makes me uncomfortable. I’m neither skinny nor overweight, I’m a healthy weight with curves. My closest, bestest, most important friend in my life has had an eating disorder since she were a teen and she fights every day to stop women believing others on websites like the one above.

    I’m not hating on women sharing, unfortunately sometimes it does create an ‘it’s okay because everyone else is doing the same’ we need to promote healthy body image at every opportunity to change the way women feel about themselves and change the media that has them feeling this way.

    I don’t want women to feel alone and ashamed but neither do I want them to just accept this is the way they are and their issues with food are for life.

    You can get better, you can feel ‘normal’ and you can be healthy, especially your mental health.

    I love this blog, and everything it stands for, this is probably the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable from reading something on it.

    All women are beautiful.

  5. Deanna responded on 14 Jul 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    I think we need a place to vent. I believe so many women have issues not only with their weight, but with the way they look. No one believes that even skinny girls get the blues, but I can tell you I despised my looks for so many years despite the fact I was thin. No one ever told me I was pretty and I grew to believe them.

    I walk around and I see all these beautiful women with thick hair, big eyes, smooth silky skin, great bodies…and it makes me feel awful. I can’t talk about this with my clients or with my family because it makes me sound foolish and immature. I’m not either of these things but I still have terrible issues regarding my looks. Being able to voice these concerns instead of pretending to love the way I look is helpful to me and knowing that other women suffer from body image whether it;s about big hips or too much body hair is good for me. I don’t want to be the only woman alive who feels that at times..not all the time or even most of time…that I don’t measure up in the looks dept.

    Thanks for the new website.

  6. Isaac James Baker responded on 14 Jul 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    Thanks for this great post. I can’t wait to read the book. I’m not trying to shamelessly self-promote, but I have a novel coming out that deals with similar issues. Your story is much different than mine, so I can’t wait to read another voice. I ended up in an eating disorder psychiatric ward after a combination of mental health issues collided and i stopped eating and sleeping for a month. but while i was in the unit, i met so many amazing people with these tragic stories. So many beautiful people destroying themselves. It was an intense experience, so I had to write a novel about it. It’s called Broken Bones and comes out this summer. Sorry for the pitch, but I really enjoyed this post and wanted to share my experience.

  7. Eat the Damn Cake » It’s OK to feel really ugly sometimes responded on 15 Jul 2011 at 10:13 am #

    [...] Diana said in our interview the other day made me think about how important that [...]

  8. Allison responded on 15 Jul 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    My mother has always told my sisters and I how brilliant, how wonderful, how amazing and perfect we are. My dad does the same. But – ever since we were little tiny things – they have disliked people telling us anything along the lines of, “You’re so pretty!” My parents never tell us we’re pretty – they never comment on our appearance at ALL. They tell us not to eat like pigs and pile us in the car to go on long hikes, but we wear what we want and cut our hair like boys and don’t wear makeup and one time, when my mother mentioned to my friend that I was pretty, I actually snorted in laughter and asked, “Really?”

    Because I didn’t think she noticed. Or cared. More often than not, she says stuff that leaves no doubt that to her, physical attractiveness is a silly lie she has seen through.

    Now we’re older, and we are tall and athletic and we have big boobs and even bigger blue eyes. People tell us we’re pretty and my mother rolls her eyes. Later, she’ll tell us we’re so smart, so kind, so perfect. She tells us that we are beautiful by the standards that matter.

    I have been raised to know that pretty doesn’t matter – that I am brilliant and perfect and wonderful and loved and I have a pouch of fat hanging out under my belly and who gives a shit?

    And this rant doesn’t really have to do much about this (awesome) post, except – except it does, because it is about perception and the culture of your world and the way the world shifts when you realize that pretty doesn’t matter.