In Diana Spechler’s novel, a young woman struggles to make sense of the link between hunger and emotion, while making peace with her demons.
Book synopsis: In the aftermath of her Orthodox Jewish father’s death, 26-year-old Gray Lachmann finds herself compulsively eating. Desperate to stop bingeing, she abandons her life in New York City for a job at a southern weight-loss camp. There, caught among the warring egos of her devious co-counselor Sheena, the self-aggrandizing camp director Lewis, his attractive assistant Bennett, and a throng of combative teenage campers, she is confronted by a captivating mystery: her teenage half-sister Eden, whom Gray never knew existed. Now, while unraveling her father’s lies, Gray must tackle her own self-deceptions and take control of her body and her life.
Gray, the main character in your book has a difficult time coping with her father’s death. We also learn he had been growing increasingly Orthodox in his Judaism. How does this play in to Gray’s emotional journey?
I’ve always been interested in the way religion can divide a family. My first novel, Who by Fire, centers on a young man, who moves to Israel to immerse himself in Orthodox Judaism, and his family, who thinks he’s crazy. In Skinny, Gray and her father become estranged because he’s an Orthodox Jew and she’s in love with a man who’s not Jewish.
Judaism plays a smaller role in Skinny than it does in Who by Fire, serving mainly as a reason for estrangement between Gray and her father. When he dies, she feels impossible guilt because they were on such bad terms.
Skinny explores the relationship between food and emotions, and the ties between hunger and longing. Do you think Jewish women struggle with these blurred lines in a different way than the general population?
Not necessarily, but it’s inevitable that if you grow up in a traditional Jewish home, you will face countless holidays, which means endless food. From a young age, we come to associate food with love. We remember our grandmothers serving us matzo ball soup, our mothers teaching us to make kugel. We remember the steaming brisket at the hub of the Shabbat table. Later in life, if love becomes elusive, we may turn to food as a substitute. It can be a difficult habit to break.
Recently, a piece in the New York Times claimed that young Orthodox women are particularly susceptible to eating disorders, mostly because they feel pressure to stay thin and marry quickly. It was an interesting article, but it failed to mention that women outside of the Orthodox community feel exactly the same way.
Skinny deals with male eating disorders in addition to female eating disorders. This is something we don’t read about much. How is it different for men?
Men have body image issues, too. (Doesn’t that sound like a T-shirt slogan?) They worry about their hair thinning, about their sexual efficacy, and about the size of their pecs. Anorexia and bulimia are less common among men, perhaps because society doesn’t demand thinness from them the way it does from women, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t men out there with eating disorders. Sadly, eating disorders carry a worse stigma for men, so many keep it a secret. In our society, men are more likely to binge than to starve themselves. In Skinny, several male characters are binge eaters.
You worked as a water aerobics instructor at a “fat camp” in 2006, which I’m guessing had a major role in the research of this book. What did you learn there that surprised you?
I was the water aerobics instructor as well as the head counselor for the oldest girls. Later in the summer, I also taught calisthenics, running, and a variety of other fitness classes. All of that seems sort of absurd now, considering I had no background in fitness and had never even heard of water aerobics. But I took the job because I wanted to write a novel set at a weight-loss camp; I felt that I should do research. Skinny is partly based on my experience that summer.
I was most surprised by how open the kids were about their bodies. It took only a week or so before they were walking around in bikinis and barging into my room to stand in front of my full-length mirror in their underwear. They were really cool. I doubt they were as comfortable at home, among their thinner peers, but at camp, everyone was overweight, so all of the social norms shifted.
What one thing would you want to tell girls/women about body obsession in our culture?
There is a lot of dishonesty when it comes to how we talk about our bodies. Society gives us an earful: Be thin. Love your body. Go on a diet. Never diet. Eat healthily. Eat whatever you want as long as you exercise. Stay positive!
We have to understand that we’re victims of these mixed messages, that the food industry is telling us to eat, that the diet industry is telling us how to fix the problem once we’ve eaten too much, and that the “beauty” industry is capitalizing on the insecurities the food and diet industries give us. All we can do to combat the insanity is pay attention, sift through the messages and evaluate each one, and speak openly. Speaking openly is so important. I created a website called BodyConfessions.com to encourage that.
How did Skinny impact the way you personally think about food and/or weight?
I’ve always struggled with body image. I remember sitting on a beach at ten years old and feeling a roll in my stomach and thinking, “uh oh.” But simultaneously, especially as I got older, I always felt ashamed of having body image issues, as if I should be above them. I mean, I have a master’s degree! I’m a published author! I live on my own in New York City! But my body image issues have never cared about my accomplishments. Because I always felt ashamed, I was secretive about my struggles. Writing Skinny allowed me to leak some of my secrets onto the page (attributing them to fictional characters, of course), and that really helped me. I still struggle, but I feel less ashamed. I’m open about my problems now. I call that progress.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Most of all, I hope people think it’s a good read. I write to entertain. But I also hope that Skinny is meaningful to anyone who has ever struggled with body image, eating disorders, or obsessions of any kind. It’s a very raw, candid book, and while some people might have trouble with that, I’m always gratified to hear from readers who really connect with it. I’ve gotten a number of emails from readers who have told me that Skinny made them feel less alone. I can’t tell you how amazing that is for me.
What question do you wish I would ask you, and what is the answer?
Q. Would you like a free trip to Belize?
A. Why yes, thank you.
About the Author
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who By Fire (Harper Perennial, 2008) and Skinny (Harper Perennial, 2011). She has written for The New York Times, GQ, O Magazine, Esquire, Self, Details, the Wall Street Journal online, Nerve, Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, Lilith, and elsewhere. She received her MFA degree from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University. She teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio.
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