August 2011

Roxane Gay

features

Reaching for Catharsis: Getting Fat Right (or Wrong) and Diana Spechlerís Skinny

I went to fat camp once, the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I went to fat camp once, mostly against my will. I thought I was too old to be going to a camp of any kind. I told myself I wasn't really fat enough for fat camp. For the three previous years, however, I had been eating everything in sight. Finally, forty pounds heavier, people were beginning to notice. My boyfriend made annoying comments about my moderately expanding hips when we were lying on his twin bed. One of my classmates said, "Damn girl," when she noticed an extra shake in my ass. I would come home from boarding school for holiday breaks and my parents noticed a new roundness to my figure. They did not approve. They gave me all kinds of advice about exercising self-control and eating properly. Moderation, my father would say, is the key to everything. Moderation is pretty much his favorite word. My parents meant well. They worried because I had always been thin, kind of lanky, and then I wasn't. Suddenly, I was stuffing my face with Twinkies or ordering a pizza late at night, trying to fill this ragged thing inside me that couldn't be filled or quieted. I ignored my parents and their worry entirely. All I wanted to do was eat because eating felt productive and food tastes good. My body grew, became more significant, more noticeable and more invisible at the same time. Most importantly though, the bigger I made my body, the safer I felt. Bad things, I decided years earlier, could not happen to big bodies. I was not necessarily incorrect in my thinking. Eating was, in part, a survival instinct.†

I read Diana Spechler's Skinny because I am not skinny. The novel tells the story of Gray Lachmann, a woman in her twenties who runs away to work as a counselor at a fat camp in North Carolina, while grieving her father who has died. There's a complex history between Gray and her father, from whom she was estranged prior to his death, and for reasons that are indeed a bit tenuous, she blames herself for her father's death. When she runs away to fat camp in North Carolina, Gray leaves behind a long time boyfriend in New York, Mikey, and a mother who also has a troubled relationship to food. What Gray neglects to abandon is her lifelong obsession with her body and being skinny and binge eating. At the fat camp, run by an incompetent group of people who have no business looking after anyone's children, let alone fat campers, Gray has ample opportunity to continue to indulge her unhealthy behaviors. She has ample time to try and satisfy her own ragged hungers. When she sees problems with the campers, she tries to bring them to the attention of the camp director, Lewis. Given how woefully unsuited she is to the task of serving as a camp counselor, she does as well as can be expected. Gray isn't that different from most summer camp counselors.

There are other things going on in Skinny beyond the grief and self-loathing and Gray's trying to regain control over her body. Gray believes she has a half-sister, a camper named Eden who she found via the Internet after Gray was appointed executor of her father's estate and learned that a sum of money was bequeathed to Eden's mother. Eden is why Gray is really at the fat camp and Gray spends the summer trying to get into Eden's good graces with little luck, because Eden is a teenager, and teenagers are hard to get close to, unless they aren't. Though she has a boyfriend back in New York, Gray also begins a complicated affair with Bennett, the camp's physical trainer, who is not really a physical trainer. (The camp's staff members, in fact, aren't at all prepared to fill the roles they've been assigned, but they make do, unless they don't.) Bennett is very physically fit, and so Gray's obsession with her body only intensifies. She spends her nights sneaking off to see Bennett, using sex to forget about her self-loathing, her grief and anger toward her father, the man she left behind, her exhausting interior monologue. She spends her days trying to make herself beautiful, as if through beauty she will find happiness. "I spent my free periods doing important things: folding Crest Whitestrips over my teeth, rubbing self-tanner into my breasts, trying on my jeans that were now too big, rolling the waistband down to admire the jut of my hipbones." The book is almost hypnotic in how intimately we are immersed in Gray's self-absorption. At one point, Bennett and Gray are having a conversation and he says, "It's like you're... I don't know, in love with yourself," and she replies, "Self-absorption is different from self-love."†

The camp I attended was nestled in the Berkshire mountains on what I was told were beautiful grounds, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and beauty I did not behold. I thought the camp was the worst place on earth. I went there for six expensive, excruciating weeks. It was hot and there was no air-conditioning. We had to walk everywhere and there were great distances between all the buildings. The cabins sat high on a hill, and when I say hill, what I really mean is mountain. If you wanted to change clothes or lie down for a minute or if, God forbid, you forgot something in your bunk, you had to scale the fat camp kid's version of Everest. It was exhausting, which was, I suppose, the point. We had to spend a cruel amount of time outdoors doing activities like hiking and swimming and getting eaten by mosquitoes. The weigh-ins were a humiliating affair in which you took off your shoes and stepped on the scale and held your breath as the director kept sliding whatever those things are called back and forth until the scale settled on your weight. If you did well, you were congratulated and encouraged to do better. If you didn't do well, you received a stern lecture and a disappointed look. None of the campers really gave a damn one way or the other because kids at fat camp don't care about being really fat or sort-of fat or on the verge of fat. †

Like most summer camps, in addition to all the exercise and dieting, we had activity nights and we wrote letters home and we gossiped and hooked up. You know what I really learned at fat camp? I learned how to smoke. I fell madly in love with smoking. I learned how to make myself throw up. I learned how to stand on the edges of the scale to throw the weight off a little. After the younger kids had their curfew, most of the counselors, a motley crew of college students not much older than us, some of whom had once been campers themselves, would gather behind one of the cabins to drink and smoke and make out. When we hovered around their circle of heat, the counselors rarely protested and often encouraged us to join in the fun. There is a certain thrill in corruption. There is a certain thrill in being corrupted, even though for most of us, our corruptions had started long before we arrived at the camp. The first cigarette I ever smoked was a Benson & Hedges menthol. I felt like quite the sophisticate sitting on a log, inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly, pretending I had been smoking for years. The habit would stay with me for the next eighteen years so in some ways, fat camp had a very lasting effect.†

I enjoyed Skinny partly because it reminded me of the misery of fat camp and partly because it's rare to read well-written fiction about matters of weight. At the same time, I struggled with this book. It was hard to take Gray seriously because she clearly wasn't that overweight. I know the body is a personal territory and that every person's weight struggle should be taken seriously but there's overweight and there's overweight. If you're the latter, it is difficult to take the former seriously, right or wrong. No one who shops at Lane Bryant or The Avenue or Catherine's is going feel a great deal of empathy for someone who is thirty pounds overweight. It's not going to happen. There are two significant weaknesses with this book and the way thirty pounds of excess weight is treated like it's three hundred pounds of excess weight is one of them.†

It makes perfect sense that many of us obsess over our bodies. There is nothing more inescapable. Our body moves us through our lives. It brings us pleasure and pain and sometimes the body serves us well, and other times, the body becomes terribly inconvenient. There are times when our bodies betray us, or our bodies are betrayed by others. I think about my body all the time -- how it looks, how it feels, how I can make it smaller, what I should put into it, what I am putting into it, what has been done to it, what I do to it, what I let others do to it. This bodily preoccupation is exhausting. There is no one more self-absorbed than a fat person and one of the things Skinny does well is highlight just how obsessive people are when they are unhappy with their bodies. This is not to say all fat people are unhappy with their bodies, but many are. Most of my friends are equally obsessive even though they are thin -- hating themselves or specific parts of themselves, their arms, their thighs, their chins, their ankles. They do crazy diets and starve themselves, trying to maintain some semblance of control over things that are somewhat out of our control. I don't know any woman who doesn't hate herself or her body, at least a little bit. Bodily obsession is, perhaps, a human condition because of its inescapability. †

Skinny is interesting because it speaks well to how inescapable our bodies really are and how easy it is to lose all control. As the summer progresses, Gray becomes anorexic. What starts as a desire to lose her excess weight becomes a singular focus. She takes to eating nothing and exercising all the time, running, doing aerobics, reveling in the dramatic way her body changes with jutting bones everywhere and loose clothing and the airy high of starvation. When Gray is having sex with Bennett, she marvels at how athletic and fit they both are and how their bodies fit together. "I would straddle him, kneeling, holding the handles of his ears. Or I would lean all the way back, my spine arched, my hair spreading over his feet. Or I would lie supine as he knelt above me, his legs as sturdy as Corinthian columns, my head hanging off the edge of the bed, a heel on each of his shoulders." Gray drowns herself in her affair with Bennett so she can avoid confronting herself or her grief. Their relationship is borne, primarily, of opportunity. Gray thinks about her boyfriend Mikey occasionally, but shows little remorse for how she is betraying the man who loves her, how she betrays herself. She is grieving after all, and in grief, there is a certain amount of leeway for bad behavior. Sorrow allows us certain freedoms happiness does not. The writing as Gray's body thins, soars with euphoria, almost as if the writer herself feels freer.†

It can be hard, at times, to separate the writer from the writing. I didn't know anything about Diana Spechler prior to reading Skinny. I confess I used Google's image search to see if she was fat. I was curious to see if she wrote from experience or if she was writing what she imagined to be the interior life of a fat person. I wanted to see if she was the kind of person who thinks that thirty pounds of extra weight is obese even though there is absolutely no way of determining such a thing from a photograph. I have to believe I am not the only reader who did this. I know better. I do. I couldn't help myself. Photographic evidence reveals that Diana Spechler is a gorgeous, thin woman with long hair. She may not have always been this way, I do not know. This does not matter, but it does. It matters because we're talking about bodies and fat we all deal with. It matters because I wonder how a skinny person could possibly write fat right when a mere thirty pounds is treated as the same burden as a hundred pounds, more. In graduate school once, a classmate said she took a book about race more seriously when she learned a white woman wrote it. I wanted to slam that classmate's face against the table. It offended me that she thought a white woman deserved more respect and held more authority for broaching complex issues of race. I thought of that day with a (very) tiny bit more understanding as I read Skinny and was willing to take the book more seriously if it had been written by a really fat woman, someone corpulent, wallowing in rolls of flesh, someone who would truly know what being fat is like, the overwhelming omnipresence of it, and be able to write that experience authentically. I wanted a lot from this book and its writer. I suppose I chose to ignore the ways in which I know better. If the book had read more believably, though, I don't think I would have bothered to find out what the author looks like. †

When it comes to fat, there has to be a reason. People need an explanation for how a person can lose such control over her body. They want to know if you come from a fat family or if you have some kind of medical condition or if you are simply weak and really love food that much. In Skinny, Gray has gained the thirty pounds because her father is dead. The most immediate explanation for Gray's weight concerns, is grief, but, perhaps, there's more to the story; that's not enough for the story to feel as credible as it should. †

I watch all the televised fat-shaming porn as penance and motivation -- The Biggest Loser; Ruby and Heavy, shows on cable channels; recently, Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. It is perversely thrilling to see the gorgeous, perfectly fit trainers yelling at and shaming the fat contestants into working out for hours a day while consuming only twelve hundred calories so the fat people can become an instantly-gratifying success story, however temporary that success might be. Throughout each episode, the trainers or the producers will, at some point, get shallowly psychological with the contestants, trying to figure out why the contestants weigh 280 pounds or 357 pounds or nearly 600 pounds, trying to uncover that fat genealogy, as if all it takes to solve a weight problem is a tearful, heartfelt conversation about what went wrong or who did wrong, when and why. There are dead husbands and dead babies and divorced parents and absent fathers and terrible abuse and all the painful things that happen to a person over the course of a lifetime, the kinds of things that can be appeased, or at least numbed, in part, by a quart of ice cream or the melted cheese of a pizza. Sometimes the contestants say, "I don't know how I got this way," but they do. There's always a reason. Jillian Michaels, one of the Biggest Loser trainers, loves to force her contestants into dramatic catharsis. It makes for good television. In Skinny, you get the sense that Gray is reaching for catharsis, too. She's pushing herself in every way she possibly can to reach some kind of emotional breakthrough. I'm not sure she ever quite finds it.†

Sometimes, a bold, sort of callous person will ask me how I got so fat. They want to know the why. "You're so smart," they say, as if stupidity is the only explanation for obesity. And of course, there's that bit about having such a pretty face, what a shame it is to waste it. I never know what to tell these people. There is the truth, certainly. This thing happened and then this other thing happened and it was terrible and I knew I didn't want either of those things to happen again and eating felt safe. French fries are delicious and I'm naturally lazy too, so that didn't help matters. I never know what I'm supposed to say so I mostly say nothing. I don't share my catharsis with these inquisitors.†

I was prepared to love Skinny even though I was nervous about how the author handled the fat issue. I was prepared to love this book because the way Spechler wrote Gray's grief was sharp and compelling, but the missteps in the book are distracting. Throughout Skinny, Gray writes letters to fat people. These letters, which the campers also have to write, are an opportunity for soul searching and truth telling and all that. Anyone who has spent time in therapy is familiar with the tool of letter writing as a step toward healing. Fat is about the mind more than it is about the body, isn't it? Lewis, the camp director, wants the campers to write these letters to fat people to explain why they hate fat people. "You all hate fat people." Lewis declares.†These letters are the first step, he says, to help the campers accept their bodies and begin to change their bodies. The letters are full of the cruelties (or truths?) everyone thinks about fat people.†

Gray writes, "Excuses are worthless. Either change your life, stop slinging blame, stop stuffing food into the cracks in your heart, or give yourself over to the shortened, uncomfortable, sweaty life of the obese." These letters are clearly supposed to add something to the narrative. They are deliberate, didactic moments. They get the job done in that you can't help having a reaction, but the novel would have worked just as well, or even better, without these interludes so you have to wonder why they were included. The letters were somewhat forced, like those shallowly psychological moments in extreme weight loss television programming, as if the letters were opportunities for the reader to reach a cathartic place too, for readers to nod and say, "Yes, I think these things about fat people too," so they might ultimately reach a place of empathy and understanding. †

At times, these letters felt hollow and indulgent because they seemed to be written by a skinny person imagining only one possible existence for a fat person, imagining that the fat life is somehow markedly different from the skinny life. It is, but it really isn't, save that the wardrobe of the skinny is generally better and the people around you are kinder. †

There's a letter where Gray writes, "Dear Fat People, I see you in motorized wheelchairs, in bus seats that don't accommodate you. I see you taking breaks when you walk, pretending to admire the scenery." I get what's going on in that letter. I'm fat but I have eyes and I judge people too. The other day I was in a clothing store and there were three very fat people, all on motorized carts, congregating near the cash register, laughing merrily, and I thought, "How can they be so happy when they are immobile?" Then I felt guilty. Then I considered all the terrible things people must think when they judge me. We're all complicit in these matters and these letters function, in part, to remind us of that fact.†

It's not that I expected these letters, or even this novel, to address the full spectrum of the fat experience. Is that even a thing? It's more that the letters spoke to the lowest common denominator, nothing more. It's disappointing that Gray cannot possibly imagine that perhaps some fat people have amazing, athletic sex, just like she does. Perhaps they aren't sitting around miserably stuffing their faces next to someone who doesn't love them. The two weaknesses in this book -- the implausibility of all this drama over a mere thirty pounds of excess weight and, of course, these Dear Fat People letters -- are symptoms of the same weakness. It's as if the author's understanding of fat people is such that the fattest she could imagine Gray as still desirable and interesting to Mikey, to Bennett, to the reader, is with only thirty pounds of excess weight. This book would have been stunningly improved if Gray were a hundred pounds overweight, maybe more, but I got the sense that the writer was afraid to go there. The Dear Fat People letters are purportedly from Gray but as the book goes on, I got the impression they are actually from the writer herself, confessing her sins, reaching for catharsis from within her own personal prejudices about fat.

It is hard to write about anything involving the body. I understand the immensity of the task Spechler faced when she wrote Skinny. She was telling a story, and a really interesting one, about a woman in mourning, about a woman in deep conflict with herself, about a woman trying to uncover a secret about her father's past and trying to connect with her dead father through the girl she thinks is her half-sister. There is so much Spechler gets right: Gray's grief, her neurosis, her inability to make sense of how her choices affect the people in her life. The way Gray throws herself into her relationship with Bennett, the desperate way she throws her body against his like she's trying to break herself down are nicely controlled and ring true. Spechler also does a fine job of capturing the voices of the teenage campers, their exasperation with adults, their bittersweet ambitions and heartbreaks, their feigned ambivalence about their fat bodies. Where they are concerned, she is not concerned to make them the kind of fat that makes us uncomfortable. The details she uses to describe the fat campers, the weakness of the human body, the smells, the fluids we secrete, are intimately, elaborately described. It's a thought-provoking contrast between the fat of the campers and Gray's fat that so much of the novel hinges upon. †

By the end of Skinny, everything has fallen apart for nearly everyone in the book. The camp is shut down. The campers return to their lives, skinnier, certainly, but only by happenstance. They haven't confronted their issues or learned about healthy eating and healthy ways of dealing with difficult circumstances. They haven't acquired the tools to prevent their bodies from further expanding. Bennett returns home and Gray returns to New York, though not her relationship with Mikey. She gains back most of the weight she'd lost. The ending is a bit rushed, so it's hard to know that she has learned much of anything. At the end, Gray is sitting in an empty room with Bennett. There is a new distance between them, even though he does not know it yet. "And for just a second, I forgot where I was. I forgot the things I always wished to forget. And I felt a remarkable lightness." We are led to believe that something has profound has happened in this moment, but I was not convinced.†

In the last Dear Fat People letter, Gray writes, "You wonder why we hate you? You are the visible manifestation of the parts of ourselves we hide." This is probably the most truthful moment in the book. Fat people wear their shit on the outside with sagging breasts and swollen ankles and heavy thighs. There's no hiding that there's something wrong the way a heroin addict might be able to cover track marks with long sleeves. Fat people have secrets, and you may not know what those secrets are, but they can be plainly seen. By the end of Skinny, we know many of Gray's secrets but we don't seem to know the ones that matter. We don't see the visible manifestations of the parts of herself she hides and that absence is noticeable.†

When I left fat camp, I had lost the weight I needed to lose, mostly because the food at camp was terrible and there was just so much walking. Anyone can lose weight if her only culinary options are Jell-O and salad with light dressing and grilled chicken breasts and she's never given a minute to sit and relax. In the first few weeks after fat camp, it was fun to feel like myself again, to feel light and somehow freed. When I returned to school, there were compliments and other expressions of appreciation for my much thinner body. That felt good too. But then, I started eating again, worked even harder to make my body fill as much space as possible, tried to fill that ragged hunger inside of me. Like the campers in Skinny, even like Gray Lachmann, very little had changed at fat camp for me, either.