I took a while reviewing Diana Spechler’s new novel, Skinny because I was too busy trying to fit into itty bitty shorts at Banana Republic. I tried to do double-duty—reading some of the book while I waited in line—but it was too confusing. All those size zero mannequins that looked like Gray Lachmann, the protagonist of Skinny and her co-counselors at “fat camp” telling me to go to work out, while a new, blank document in MS Word sat on my desk at home saying feed me!
Skinny tells the story of a weight-obsessed woman named Gray who goes to work at a “fat camp” because she thinks she might meet her half-sister there and make up for “killing” her father by letting him eat “artery-clogging food,” and sent me on a rampage about how women are marketed to. The cover of Skinny and the images on its companion website, BodyConfessions.com, a place where readers can confess their problems with body image and food, make me want to vomit—possibly on a daily basis for several months. The cover features two white, half-naked girls with their heads cropped out and some girlie pink fonts. I honestly couldn’t tell if they were starving women or pre-pubescent girls. BodyConfessions.com, like the cover of the novel, shows us half-naked women—one overweight, one. . .I don’t know, is that normal size?—with their heads cropped out.
I doubt the contradicting images are Spechler’s fault, but rather the result of miscommunication with marketing. Spechler, for the most part, tells a very non-stereotypical, un-chick-lit. story. Body image is not a solely white, ditzy, adolescent upper middle-class female issue. With a preface from Raymond Carver’s “Fat,” and a candid description of a co-ed weight loss camp, Skinny shows that men are just as warped about food and body image as the women. Lewis, the founder and leader of the camp who pushes salads and exercise onto the campers, has his own set of issues with food.He tells the campers to write letters to fat people who have “invaded our bodies.” Fat people are the enemy and the campers must express their hatred of the fat-cell lovers in order to “set [themselves] free.” These letters, however, are not for the benefit of the campers, but rather a way for Lewis to address his own self-hatred. A secret binge eater, Lewis hides bags of Doritos, Twinkies, and twelve empty pizza boxes in his room. When several of his female campers demonstrate signs of bulimia—regular late-night puking after clandestine trips to McDonald’s with Sheena, an unqualified, bully of a counselor—Lewis simply tells the girls to “cut their shit”—further evidence that forming a healthy relationship with food is a struggle for adolescents and adults, both male and female.
Bennett, a coworker whom Gray falls for, has as distorted a view of weight and exercise as the rest of the campers. Lying in bed with Gray, he caresses her emaciated, body, telling her “You are the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever seen.” He brags about his own virtually fat-free body—his “unpinchable” stomach and 8% body fat. Only at the end of the summer when the dysfunction of the camp becomes painfully apparent, does he admit, “Our reality’s all out of whack.”
Indeed, our reality is all out of whack. Written in first person, Skinny, draws us into Gray’s mind seamlessly, leaving us to wonder if her accounts are objective realities or skewed interpretations. Her father’s death has little to do with Gray’s actions—there’s no massive force-feeding scene. Likewise, her belief that one of the campers is her half-sister is not founded in facts, but rather a series of extrapolations based on Gray’s interpretation of her father’s behavior more than a decade ago.
Gray’s misconceptions aren’t limited to familial relationships. At the beginning she informs us that she is fifteen pounds overweight, but later on, “twenty-two and three-tens of a pound” lighter, her hair is falling out and she’s plummeted to a size zero. Clearly, Gray never really was overweight.
It is not Gray’s actual body that controls her habits but rather her perception of her body. And the underweight mannequins at clothing stores need not confuse us, distorting our self-images as “fat camp” does to Gray. Who says we need to wear itty bitty shorts anyway?