Thursday, February 7, 2013

6-pack abs & buns of steel. Starving & bingeing. Is feeling fat the same as being fat?

Today: The Story Behind the Story by a survivor of the diet wars, the sane & sensible Anne R. Allen

FOOD OF LOVE—a novel about friendship, size acceptance and a small nuclear bomb

Does anybody remember the size acceptance movement of the 1990’s?

Fashion magazines like Mode and Radiance featured gorgeous models with non-surgically-enhanced curves. The plus-sized Emme became a supermodel and motivational speaker. Romance publishers issued whole lines featuring curvy women who didn’t diet to find love. Helen Fielding’s BRIDGET JONES DIARY and Jennifer Weiner’s GOOD IN BED topped the fiction bestseller lists. Books like Geoffrey Cannon’s DIETS MAKE YOU FAT and Susan Powter’s STOP THE INSANITY let us know 98% of diets result in weight gain.

The movement urged women to put energy into living instead of dieting. It reminded us that nobody who’s starving can work at full capacity. It told us that if women channeled the energy we were putting into hating our bodies into changing the world, we could make a difference.

I wrote my novel FOOD OF LOVE during that era—just when a diet drug combination called phen-phen had to be taken off the market because it, well, killed people (but left a fashionably skinny corpse.)

I wanted to point out the ironic truth that women—no matter what culture, sexual orientation or race—are united by one thing: the compulsion to diminish ourselves by dieting. I showed how women inflict this insanity on ourselves and each other—as one character says, “women are always complaining how the menfolk are oppressing us, but you know…we’re pretty damn good at oppressing our ownselves.”
I didn’t want to write something preachy. Or another “men are jerks” saga.

So I combined satiric social observations with a roller-coaster plot involving an aging supermodel, a conservative talk show hostess, a hot KGB agent, a small nuclear bomb, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

Two different agents took it on and tried to sell it, but it didn’t pigeonhole neatly into a prescribed genre. Finally in 2001 I found a medium-sized independent publisher in the UK who loved it. I think the book might have taken off if they had been able to get US distribution. But one of the owners of the company died under mysterious circumstances (yes, fodder for another novel—coming out soon) before the book had a chance to find a US audience.

Soon afterward, New York pronounced romantic comedies “over” and plump, life- affirming heroines were replaced by vampires, zombies and the hungry undead.

At the same time a new cultural mindset emerged—carefully orchestrated by the multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry. By the mid 2000’s, the concept of body acceptance had been erased from our consciousness. We were again being told that starvation (and/or surgical enhancement) was the path to happiness.

I suppose it helped that our romances were all about falling in love with vampires, zombies and other assorted dead people.

Boomers were told the natural weight gain—which has been happening to aging human bodies since we were swinging from trees—is “unhealthy.” Children as young as six were put on diets that destroyed their natural appetite regulators. We didn’t let them run free and exercise, then shamed them for being fat. Fad diets like Atkins came back with a vengeance. Fat people were humiliated for entertainment and dieting lies got new life with the 2004 debut of “The Biggest Loser.”

Personally, I lost faith and fell for the lies again: “It’s not a diet—it’s an 800-calorie-a-day ‘lifestyle’.” I was swayed by those nightly news reports about the obesity “epidemic”—which turns out to have been created by reducing the medical definition of “normal” weight, inflated by the natural weight gain of aging Boomer bodies. I was shamed by those decapitated images of people who dared walk our streets without buns of steel or six-pack abs.

After three years of starvation dieting and the subsequent craving, depression, and binging, I’d gained thirty pounds and looked for help in the size acceptance movement again. But I discovered most of their websites were dead and/or had been vandalized. I Googled “Emme” and couldn’t find one entry. It was as if the whole movement had never existed.

But last year something happened that gave me hope. The brilliant actress Melissa McCarthy won the best actress Emmy.

I’m not a big awards show fan, and the TV was on only to accompany my laundry-sorting. McCarthy’s sitcom, Mike and Molly was barely on my radar. But as I stood there folding my plus-size clothes, watching her walk regally across the stage, I shocked myself by bursting into tears. Here was a beautiful fat woman—seriously fat, not simply un-skeletal—winning an award over the likes of Amy Pohler and Tina Fey.

I couldn’t stop crying. It was as if some huge shift was happening in my own consciousness as well as that of the Academy voters. I had a glimmer of hope that maybe things were moving back to sanity. Later that evening, I Googled Emme and found she has a new website, Emme Nation full of new messages to women about honoring ourselves, no matter what size the bodies our genes and age dictate.
This all happened the same weekend that FOOD OF LOVE finally made its US debut—thirteen years after I wrote the first version.

I am so blessed that a small publisher liked my blog enough that they contacted me and asked about my out-of-print books—and then liked them well enough to offer a contract. With a fresh edit and a gorgeous new cover, the book is as relevant today as when I wrote it—maybe more so, because a whole generation of young women haven’t been able to hear its message. Most women still need to learn to stop “oppressing our ownselves”—and love the bodies we were born with.
FOOD OF LOVE is about living life to the fullest and honoring our own passions—whether for food, music, faith, or an all-consuming romantic love.

So, readers, please tell us if you've fought the diet wars and let us know if you've won or lost. Have you made peace with your weight or are you still struggling to meet an ever downward-moving "ideal" weight? Do you rank every mirror you pass as a "thin mirror" or a "fat mirror" and when's the last time you had dessert?

Anne R. Allen is a former actress and the author of six romantic-comedy mysteries:  FOOD OF LOVE, THE GATSBY GAME, and the Camilla Randall Mysteries:  GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY, SHERWOOD, LTD, THE BEST REVENGE and NO PLACE LIKE HOME The first three Camilla books are available in a boxed set. She has also written a guidebook for authors with Catherine Ryan Hyde (author of the iconic novel Pay it Forward.) HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY!

Anne blogs with Ruth at Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris.


  1. Thanks for hosting me here today, Ruth. I hope people will speak out about their dieting experiences. Did anybody try that low fat diet that said you could eat cookies and cake as long as the package said "fat free"? I sure gained a lot on that one. And felt hungry the whole time.

  2. Those cookies & cakes sound like just about every diet: lies, hype & hunger. One of the great liberations of being a Baby Boomer is that finally, finally, finally you get the message & stop falling for the latest, greatest (not!) diet/weight loss plan and the BS artists who make money off them—and us.

  3. Wonderful post, Anne and Ruth! Having been skinny most of my life, I'm struggling to both accept and battle my postpartum flabby tummy. I don't like it, but I also don't care enough to spend all my time exercising when I could be writing. My compromise is to run and swim one or two days a week and to eat fruit instead of sweets most days and indulge when I really feel like it (like I plan to after I make strawberry cupcakes for Valentine's Day). Obsession over body image is something all women struggle with, no matter how heavy or thin. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Anne, and giving all women the permission to love their bodies as they are!

  4. P.S. I want to read Food for Love!

  5. Meghan—Thanks for the kind words but all the credit for this post is due to Anne. Her honesty is touching and will speak to every woman. As will Food of Love.

  6. Thanks so much for your comments Meghan! I know you're a former model, and most people would probably assume you don't have any problems in the body image department.

    But my character of Regina in Food of Love was partly inspired by a model I met in Rome in the 1970s, who said the only way she stayed thin was with drugs. She said she sometimes felt like "a prisoner of war." And I have a very thin sister who has had body image problems her whole life. So much of our culture teaches that a women's value is entirely dependent on her ability to starve herself while keeping up a facade of carefree energy and happiness.

    Last night I saw a commercial that literally made me feel sick. An anorexic-looking model with silicone breasts wearing a tiny bikini was eating a huge, gooey cheeseburger on the beach. You know she went and threw up after every take.

    If you want a review copy of Food of Love, I'd be happy to gift it to you!