Diana Spechler, author of the critically acclaimed novel Who By Fire (Harper Perennial, 2008), has a new book out that's already stirring up controversy. Skinny is the story of 26-year-old Gray Lachmann, a compulsive eater reeling from her father's death who goes to work at a weight-loss camp to overcome her grief and her bingeing --and where she encounters a half-sister she never knew existed.
I talked with Spechler about body image, her website BodyConfessions.com, and why she's drawn to writing about insular worlds.
Have you ever been overweight? If not, did you worry about tackling this hot-button topic?
I haven't been overweight, but I have struggled with body image all my life, so I wanted to write a book about people's bodies. In Skinny, I never name the weight or measurements of the protagonist (a binge-eater, and at other times, an obsessive dieter), my intent being to show that "fat" and "thin" often have less to do with reality than with our self-perception.
In our society, we roll our eyes when a thin woman says, "I feel so fat." However, because it's irrational, the claim warrants attention; many eating disorders begin with a healthy woman "feeling fat."
But of course I worried about tackling the subject of weight. No matter what the circumstances are, tackling a sensitive subject scares me. I explored religion in my first book, Who By Fire, a story set partly in a yeshiva for Orthodox Jewish men. Because I'm not an Orthodox Jew, I had nightmares before Who By Fire's publication that I was going to alienate a whole community.
I write about what impacts me. In my early 20's, what impacted me was religion. When I started writing Skinny, what impacted me was the body. I don't want to upset or offend my readers, but when I want to write something, I write it. Even if I try not to, I wind up writing it.
There aren't many adult novels that focus exclusively on body image and food issues. Why is it important for adults to read a story about an adult with an eating disorder?
Our society assumes that eating disorders are for teenagers. I was glad to see the recent New York Times piece about middle-aged eating disorders because it shed some light on the truth: that eating disorders can worsen over the years or begin late in life.
Our confidence is expected to increase with age, and in some ways it does, but eating disorders aren't solely the product of low self-esteem. Moreover, it's tough to outgrow an eating disorder when aging makes weight loss more difficult and our bodies less cooperative
Because many adults suffer from eating disorders, obesity, and poor body image, I wanted to write about body obsession and body shame from the point of view of a grown-up.
You're also the creator of the site BodyConfessions.com, where users can anonymously post their feelings about their bodies. There's been some controversy surrounding the site, specifically that it's "body-negative" and "triggering" to people with eating disorders. Why did you create the site, and what is your response to the backlash?
When I began writing Skinny, I kept writing and cutting, writing and cutting. I couldn't find my way into the story because I was so worried that creating a protagonist with body image issues would out me as an author with body image issues. I've always felt embarrassed about the amount of time I spend thinking about food and worrying about my body. I've always thought I should rise above such superficial concerns. Because I couldn't rise above them, I felt ashamed. For a long time, the prospect of revealing my problem terrified me.
Once I let that fear go -- in the end, writing prevailed over hiding -- the novel came more easily to me. And when I finished, I realized that a lot of my issues -- obsessing over every flaw on my body, eating when I wasn't hungry, not eating when I was hungry -- had lessened. I'm not saying that writing Skinny cured me, but "confessing" my secrets anonymously (that is, attributing them to fictional characters) provided some relief. I wanted to give that gift back to the world. So I created Body Confessions.
Ideally, we would all openly express our feelings about our bodies, but unless we're in therapy or a recovery community, we usually don't. If our feelings are socially unacceptable (i.e. this confession from the site: "When I'm going through a purging phase, I drink a lot of tea so I don't have to feel hungry all the time"), we're supposed to keep them secret.
I understand the concerns about the site, but I disagree. Yes, reading people's body confessions might be "triggering," but not as triggering as letting the food lobby control the public messages about our bodies and food.
There's a surplus of deceptive rhetoric: "Eat anything you want! Then just walk to work instead of driving!" Please. For many of us, no amount of walking would cancel out what "anything you want" would entail.
So, many of us pretend. We pretend to exercise. We pretend to eat in a way that we're taught is "normal." We eat in secret. We wear Spanx and all black. We avoid horizontal stripes and harsh lighting. And then we feel ashamed. Denying our shame compounds it.
Did researching/writing this book give you a new perspective on obesity in America?
I had always known there was a problem -- pressure on women to be thin; pressure on men to be tall with thick hair; pressure on people to avoid obesity, and thereby discrimination -- but my research showed me just how complicated the problem is. It's a tree with many roots.
Some of the roots, however, such as the food and diet industries, are the kind that push through the soil and trip us.
We see food everywhere, making us think we're hungry. We eat too much of it, gain weight, and then feel desperate to lose weight. Now. So we turn to the diet industry for quick fixes -- pills and potions, fasts, weight-loss camps, carbohydrate-deprivation. The quick fixes work temporarily, but when we fall off the wagon (and because diets don't work, we inevitably fall off the wagon), there's the food industry again -- those golden arches that make us salivate; donuts at work meetings; an infinite variety of Doritos; an obscene number of cattle clogging the earth, keeping the fast-food industry thriving. The cycle is insidious.
Your first novel, Who By Fire, was partly set in a yeshiva, your second, em>Skinny, at a weight-loss camp. What draws you to insular worlds?
Insular worlds mirror the family structure -- the most focused study of human interactions and social dynamics. In places like yeshivas, college dorms, and summer camps, people love one another fiercely, make true enemies, have to learn to live together, gossip, fight with passion, dole out the silent treatment, show loyalty when threatened by outsiders, and suffer from envy.
Just like home.
I love studying insular worlds and microcosms. People in the regular world are too diffuse. If things heat up, they can disappear at will. They don't have to stay in the kitchen.