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Body Image

Three books talk about weight: losing it and living with it.

Reviewed by Lily Burana
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page BW10

Starved for Love

Fat. Is there a more emotionally charged word in America today? From one extreme, we hear about how grossly overweight Americans have become, a sign of our heedless, over-indulgent times as well as a barometer of our too-stressed-to-eat-well fast-food nation. From the opposing extreme comes an insistence on tolerance for bodies of ample proportion, a suggestion that our inability to accept the curves and softness of the human form speaks to some corporate-concocted fascist ideal that keeps us marching in anorexic lockstep. In between the two polarities stands the ever-enlarging average American, heavier than he or she likes to (or should) be, vacillating between the urge to trim down and the longing for self-acceptance. Fat, both as a substance and a personal struggle, is gloppy and troublesome. But fat as an issue is nothing if not fluid.

"I am fat," declares author Judith Moore at the start of her memoir Fat Girl: A True Story (Hudson Street, $21.95; forthcoming in March). "I am not so fat that I can't fasten the seat belt on the plane. But, fat I am. I wanted to write about what it was and is like for me, being fat." Moore, a Guggenheim and NEA award-winning writer (as well as author of Never Eat Your Heart Out, published in 1998), tells the story of her life as a female never quite at home in her large body or her broken family.

The only daughter of a couple who divorced when she was very young, Moore spent her childhood shuttling between her embittered mother, her indulgent uncle Carl (who had a secret life of his own), and her stern maternal grandmother. She paints her mother as both harridan and fashion plate. "My mother was dainty and petite. She wore a size five shoe and a size six dress and her bra was 34B; when she slipped her stocking feet into her high-heeled slippers, she was five feet tall. She was built like a pear, with a pear's waist and rounded hips. Her voluptuous bosom sat high on her chest; the crevasse between her breasts was deep and she powdered there."

Prone to beating, berating and abandoning her daughter, Moore's mother at one point hissed, "You are eating me alive."

The most pleasant parts of this difficult book come when Moore waxes rhapsodic about food. She reveals herself as not just a wounded soul in need of succor but also a world-class sensualist. "Food is the enemy. Food also is the mother, the father, the warm-hearted lover, the house built of red brick that not even the wolf can blow down."

"I daydream about crab legs dipped in hot butter or crab cakes dribbled with garlic aioli. I consider toasted cheese sandwiches and homemade lemonade pinkened with macerated strawberries or carrot cake with brown sugar frosting that I ate, once, twenty years ago. . . . Foods I ate once and liked I think about the way people think about old lovers."

For all the childhood angst -- and eating -- she shares with us, her adulthood gets but a cursory nod. The ending is far too rushed: Two failed marriages, a child, a jarring reunion with her father, and a "there you have it" sign-off leave us not with a fully recounted life story but the achingly incomplete cry of a love-starved girl.

Pasta? Oui!

The titles of diet books inspire all sorts of visceral reactions, from "Yeah, I'd need a 'miracle' to manage a diet that strict" to "Bah, I'm not that desperate" to "Could this possibly pathologize appetite more?" So it's easy to eye-roll at a quaint weight-management title like French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, by Mireille Guiliano (Knopf, $22). One imagines a smugly mature but sylph-like Gallic lass trotting up the Champs Elysées, manuscript tucked under her birdy little arm and Hermès scarf aflutter in the breeze, followed by a gleeful vision of her getting mowed down by a speeding Citroen. But fear not, mon chou, this book spares us any Frog-footed twee-twee stuff, and manages to possess both Continental charm and a bracing slap of good old American-style realness.

When Guiliano found herself packing on 20 extra pounds during her college studies in the States, her family doctor set her on a course for restructuring both her body and her eating habits. He started her off by insisting she take inventory of every bit of food that passed her lips to determine what her "offenders" were. Then came a weekend soup fast (recipes for "Magic Leek" and "Mimosa" soups included), followed by implementation of a food-loving, flavor-savoring plan that stresses both moderation and enjoyment. Some of the advice exceeds the realm of the possible -- "Buy only what you need for the next day or two" -- while other suggestions are quite easy: "Don't stock the offenders." The basic common sense is interspersed with fabulous recipes that could recruit even the most finicky calorie counter:

Grilled peaches with lemon thyme, tartine au cacao, chicken au champagne and halibut en papillote -- have we heard the "indulge within reason" spiel before? Oui. But not lately with such élan and joie de vivre. It's hard not to be enlivened by a "diet" book that celebrates both chocolate and bread, and espouses such wisdom as "Life without pasta? Perish the thought."

Fat as Experience

Fat, diet, body image and body politics are the focus of the 17 essays in Scoot Over, Skinny: The FAT Nonfiction Anthology, edited by Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang (Harvest; paperback, $14). "Fat," the editors write in the introduction, "is the adjective that leaps in front of every other descriptor: fat writer, fat professor, fat mother, fat friend. Fat insulates our bodies and fat infiltrates our identities. Fat is more than a social issue . . . fat is an experience."

The variety of voice and perspective makes this an ambitious yet quite uneven collection. Some pieces inspire indignation, like Sarah Fenske's "Big Game Hunters," about thin men into "hogging," i.e., bedding and humiliating overweight women. "The common denominator is extreme emotional detachment," Fenske writes. "Scott tells me about a friend who slept with a hog. Scott called the next day to taunt him. 'You didn't cuddle with her in the morning, did you?' He repeats his friend's answer with glee: 'No, I stepped over her fat ass and left!' " Others elicit tremendous compassion, like Anne Lamott's "Hunger," about her struggle with bulimia, and Sallie Tisdale's "Letting Myself Go," in which the writer finally gives up battling the bulge.

A real standout is Pam Houston's "Out of Habit, I Start Apologizing," a piece chronicling her ambivalence about her sturdy, athletic shape. "I am walking down the street in Manhattan, Fifth Avenue in the lower Sixties, women with shopping bags on all sides. I realize with some horror that for the last fifteen blocks I have been counting how many women have better and how many women have worse figures than I do. Did I say fifteen blocks? I meant fifteen years."

As one might predict, the most successful pieces are by fat people, not by those observing them, though Lori Gottlieb's "Fat Like Him," about being a slim former anorexic dating a very overweight man, has a certain bravery and empathy. The rest of the essays in the book run the gamut from Up with (Fat) People boosterism to lamentations, self-analysis and cautionary tales. At worst, they're tough chewing; at best, provocative food for thought. •

Lily Burana is the author of "Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America."

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