Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Do I Look Fat in This?"

What happens when a ditzy bookbabe orders the right title but the wrong OCLC number? She gets a chance to redeem her mistake by reading TWO books with the same title, then has the rare opportunity to compare them in a book review.

For those not familiar with the world of inter library loans, an OCLC is something like a zip code. And believe me, when the "wrong" book got here, I was ready to call and raise holy hell about goof. Luckily, my co-worker asked me more than once if I was absolutely sure that I had used the right OCLC number. Turns out, I had not. Sigh.

A month later I have now read both books and am glad I did. What surprised me most is that I think, in the end, I enjoyed the "wrong" book better than the "right" book. Shocking, huh? Guess it's just one of life's little mysteries.

Both books are, at heart, pieces designed to (hopefully) get us women (and men) to stop thinking of ourselves in numbers, whether they be on the scale, on the tape measure, or on the tag in that top you're wearing. Both authors want us to start focusing on who we are, rather than what we are. And both really, really, really want us to stop beating ourselves up constantly and causing ourselves actual bodily harm with punishing diets and grueling exercise marathons.

I'll start with Jessica Weiner's book, seeing as how it's the one I meant to order in the first place. It's a short little thing, only about 200 pages, subtitled "Life Doesn't Begin Five Pounds From Now." That's one of those phrases you hear in The Language of Fat, a whole way of speaking that, until now, I'd never really thought about. As Weiner points out (perhaps a bit too often, but then again, it IS the point of her book), women are much more likely to talk about their body image with other women than they are to talk about the actual feelings that lie underneath. How many times have you said to another female "I feel fat today"? I know I have, so I was really surprised by Weiner's assertion that fat is not a feeling. After reading on, though, I understood what she was talking about - we say we feel fat when what we really mean is something like "I feel sad/lonely/depressed/anxious/insert-your-feeling-of-choice-here." It's a whole other way of looking at the situation, one I hadn't really thought about before now.

Weiner is also very helpful to the men out there, although they may think she's advocating relationship suicide with her suggestions. She wants men to be bold enough to tell their wives/girlfriends/significant others that they know something is wrong and they want to talk about the feeling behind the "do I look fat?" question. She is quick to point out that one must tread lightly in this area, but not to back down, that men can be supportive and maybe even open the eyes of their ladies out there. I say, good luck! I really hope that it works for at least a handful, but I fear that her Language of Fat is too heavily ingrained in the female psyche for such an approach.

And that's her goal, really, for us to stop speaking Fat. For us to talk about how we feel rather than how we look. To take a bold leap and refuse to connect with our female friends on that level of Fat. And to hopefully teach out children to value themselves for their actions and deeds, not their pants' size.

Rhonda Britten has basically the same message, although she takes a slightly different approach. Her work is subtitled "Get Over Your Body and Get On With Your Life"; she was the Life Coach for Starting Over, which I believe is now off the air after a 3 or 4-year run, where she helped women overcome obstacles such as fear, anxiety, depression, etc.

Of course, what she also realized is that a lot of women have major body issues, ones that actually keep them from realizing their dreams and goals.

Britten's book is longer by about 100 pages, but it was worth the extra time. I loved that she started each chapter with a photo of a real woman wearing a black sport bra with black bike shorts, nothing else, and their feelings about their bodies. Even better, Rhonda herself is the first photo! Like Weiner, she challenges the reader to work on things like your inner dialog, and to stop putting off the things you want to do but don't because of your body (or rather, what you think your body looks like). I especially liked the chapter "Who Are You Comparing Yourself To?" in which she detailed an encounter she had in an elevator with a very slim woman. This woman never said a word, but Britten said after just a few floors, her self-esteem was in danger of hitting rock-bottom, all because she was comparing her own figure with that of her fellow passenger. Never mind that that other lady might be starving herself to death to achieve that body, or might be extremely unhappy in her life, etc. Weiner said much the same thing but she used the example of celebrities, and you'd have to be blind not to have seen how many of them have eating disorders/drug addictions/alcohol problems, etc - do you really want to be "thin" at that sort of cost?

I think part of the attraction of Britten's book is the various stories included. Weiner has a little of that; Britten's is just about one story for every chapter, which is nice. Again, I really liked the pictures of the various women, and it was extremely interesting to read what they thought of themselves. One was a yoga instructor in a highly flexible pose, and reading how she still thought she was "fat" and ugly was a shock indeed. Part of me immediately thought "how will I ever feel better about myself if SHE doesn't?!", the other part of me thought "nice to know she's got insecurities just like me".

In the end, I would recommend both books to anyone who has a love/hate relationship with their body, which means just about everyone I've ever come in contact with, plus millions out there I don't know. I totally agree with both authors that we, especially American women, have come to a point in the road where we MUST stop measuring our worth by our appearance. I don't want to be known for being short and matronly - I want to be the cool library lady! I want to be known as the true, honest, loyal friend. I want to be known as the loving, giving, wife. I want to be the best sister in the world, and hopefully a gracious daughter. I want to end my days knowing I lived my life the best I could, and that I had a blast doing it. I don't want my obit to read that I was a size 14, or that I weighed 155 pounds, or that I was really into the Zone diet, or any of that crap. Do you?

The last thought for this review will go to Jessica Weiner. I found the perfect line from her book, one that EVERYONE should live by, and here it is:

"Remember that a perfect body is really a body that is at peace with being imperfect."

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