Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Weight-Loss Memoirs



I've always liked this type of memoir.  Even the ones in which weight loss is decidedly not a good idea.  Why?  Well, they have an arc, and sometimes, a twist.  They appeal to the side of me that enjoys Naturalism (Human vs. Human, Human vs. Nature, Human vs. Self).

Digging down in the deep chest freezer of my memory, here's what I found from that genre:

1. Solitaire - Aimee Liu.  I read this one during my high school years.  If I'm not mistaken, this was one of the first memoirs of anorexia.  I remember feeling appalled about someone in the book going a whole summer eating and drinking nothing but carrots and Tab, and feeling impressed that Aimee was able to lose weight during a family vacation in France by constantly ordering fish and salad.  Liu dedicated a lot to energy to detailing her eating habits and weight loss.  When she made the decision in college to start eating, it seemed as if the book trailed off and came to a hasty conclusion, almost as if the author had lost interest.

2. Starving For Attention - Cherry Boone O'Neill.  This book was a shocker.  Aimee Liu merely didn't eat.  Cherry Boone binged and purged.  Vomiting and laxatives were her tools. I'll never forget the opening of the book in which she creeps downstairs in the middle of the night after Thanksgiving because she is craving turkey skin.  There are also some sobering photos.  Cherry also doesn't present her parents, especially her father, Pat Boone, in a very flattering light.

3. Mary Ellen's Help Yourself Diet Plan - Mary Ellen Pinkham - Best known for her household hints, Mary Ellen Pinkham had a weight problem that first she tried to disguise by wearing beige.  The thing that pushed her over the edge was when her kid came home from seeing Cinderella and said that the little fat mouse in the movie reminded him of his mom.  Being a sensible type, Mary Ellen didn't reach for the Ex-Lax, but instead lost the weight the tried and true but dull and boring way of counting calories and lots of walking.  I remember this book as being quite witty.

4. Stop the Insanity! - Susan Powter.  Powter started out large and did a lot of yo-yo dieting, then finally realized that the body was like a machine that must be fed healthy food and exercised regularly.  She called out the diet industry, and built her own empire for a few years.  Some of her detractors said she was lying about having been obese, but I always believed her.  She was always seething.  That rage had to come from somewhere.

5. Diary of a Fat Housewife - Rosemary Green.  The author of this book was a former beauty queen, then she got married, had 6 kids and got up to 300 pounds.  The book is a diary of her struggles served up with a large portion of self-loathing.  I remember that at the end, she had lost a substantial amount, but wasn't at goal yet.  This was also the first book I remember reading that suggested obesity be treated like a disease, and that people should be more understanding and less judgmental. Yet she doesn't apply that compassion to herself or others.  Of course, this is a diary, and people are rawer and less consistent in that format.  I often wonder what became of her.

6. Drinking: A Love Story - Caroline Knapp.  Early in this prose-perfect memoir of high-functioning alcoholism, the late Caroline Knapp wrote about her eating disorder.  It seemed to start when her boyfriend went off on a summer vacation and she couldn't go. She was lonely and she was pissed off, so she decided to stop eating, and it spiraled from there.  She got down to an emaciated 83 pounds, eating things like one egg for breakfast, a bagel at lunch and an apple and a slice of cheese for dinner.  After a while, drinking became more and more attractive.

7.  Wasted - Marya Hornbacher.  This was the book that made me swear off of anorexic and bulimic memoirs forever.  The part that did it was when Marya was staying with relatives. She threw up so often, she ended up bursting their pipes. Then she pointed out in the very next sentence that this happens all the time in campus sorority houses. Ewwwwwwwwwwwww.  No more.

8. Fat Girl - Judith Moore.  Here's my review from 2008.  I stand by my original conviction that this manuscript should never have seen the light of day:

 Moore must have intended to keep the reader at a cool remove during this memoir of growing up in the 1940s and early 50s, unloved by most of the adults around her. Her petite mother was especially furious with Judith over her size, and would put her on crash diets and abuse her verbally and physically when the number on the scale went up or stayed the same. The father, who Judith resembled, was absent in her life and went on to a new wife and child when Judith's mother threw him out. Moore also writes about her life as an overweight adult and shows the reader that her bitterness and self-loathing knows no bounds. She died of cancer soon after this book was published, and it's obvious that it was written while she was feeling the full effects of her illness and the grueling treatments that would eventually fail her. I think if she'd been healthy, she would've framed this book differently. Fat Girl book reminds me of someone in my family who also grew up fat with a svelte mother who was determined that her daughter should be thin, and, like Moore's mother, wasn't very subtle or supportive and even to this day still comes out with unfeeling comments. This relative and Moore even have similar names. Reading Moore's memoir left me incredibly sad.

9. I'm Not the New Me - Wendy McClure.  Wendy McClure?  My favorite Bonnethead in the whole wide world?  Wrote a weight-loss memoir?  Reader, I made this book fly to me in a New York (allowing for the time difference) Minute.  Nor was I disappointed from my first sight of the Roy Lichtenstein-ish cover.  McClure's motivation for weight loss came from an unflattering photo of herself doing karaoke, so she repaired to Weight Watchers, and started a blog called Pound.  Cruise control to the happy slim ending, right?  Not exactly. McClure explores her mother's dramatic and unsuccessful attempts to lose weight, takes an amusing journey to Lane Bryant, dates a couple of guys who turn out to have shitheel tendencies, and finds some really scary vintage Weight Watchers recipe cards (included in the book) that are guaranteed to put even the heartiest eater off of her feed.

10. 344 Pounds - Shawn Weeks.  Here's what I wrote about Weeks' memoir last year:

When Shawn Weeks decided to vanquish his lifelong weight problem once and for all, he created a blog in which he periodically photographed himself shirtless, then went and hit the gym. He ate what he liked, but tried to burn more calories than he consumed, or "erase" the ones he over-consumed.  His story is a familiar one, and he tells it plainly and honestly. His message is more about getting real than it is about a bunch of facile diet tips.

11. Veggies Not Included - Christine Leo.  In 2008-9, Christine Leo lost 130 pounds and has kept it off for 5 years.  Her "rock bottom" moment was having to make presentations at work in front of a group of people, while her image was projected on a huge screen behind her.  In this engaging and extremely readable memoir (which has one of the best first lines I've ever read) Leo frankly admits that she loves fast food and hates vegetables and exercise.  She believes that most diets tell you what you should do and don't address what people actually do.  She built the bridge over that cognitive dissonance, met somewhere in the middle (relying on calorie-counting) and her success speaks for itself.  Her methods are similar to Shawn Weeks', but Leo is more articulate and connects all the dots for readers.

Have you read any of these weight-loss memoirs?  Is there one that sticks in your memory?  If there is, please give me the title.  And yes, I would like fries with that.


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bibliophiliac said...

One weight loss memoir I remember is Frances Kuffel's Passing for Thin. That emotion of self-loathing seems to pervade so many weight loss memoirs. It is sad, because research shows how difficult is is to lose weight and then maintain the weight loss. It seems as though self-blame and shame are inextricably tied to weight. Thus the "guilty pleasure"!

Jeane said...

I read Wasted and the details horrified me. It's a book I wouldn't want my image-conscious daughter to get her hands on at a young age. I had thought of reading Fat Girl, but now I don't want to anymore!