I’m incredibly honored to present my interview with Ellen Frankel, LCSW, who’s specialized in the treatment and prevention of eating disorders for over 15 years. Now a full-time writer, Frankel is author of the recently published novel Syd Arthur about a woman entrenched in the diet and thinness-equals-happiness mentality who finally starts searching for something more meaningful in her life.
If you remember, Frankel is also co-author of the excellent book The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care. I interviewed Frankel and her co-author and sister Judith Matz for Weightless (Part 1, 2 and 3).
Today, in part one of our interview, Frankel talks about what inspired her to write a novel, the impact of fat-talking and how we can stop. In Syd Arthur, the main character Syd along with her closest friends regularly complain about their supposed flaws and vow to diet together. This week is actually Fat Talk Free Week, so the topic couldn’t be more relevant.
Plus, so many of us can relate to bashing our bodies, whether out loud or in our minds. We also make fat-talking a friendly affair.
(By the way, like my friend and fellow blogger Anna Guest-Jelley, I wish that “fat” was used in a neutral way.)
Also, at the end of the Q&A, there’s a fun synopsis of Syd Arthur. Stay tuned for part two of our interview tomorrow, where Frankel talks more about dieting, weight and our culture.
Q: What inspired you to write a novel, instead of say a self-help book, that focuses on dieting and weight, authenticity and spirituality?
A: We need non-fiction books that explore moving from dieting to attuned/intuitive eating, and we need non-fiction books that teach the great wisdom offered in the spiritual traditions. In fact, my first three books spoke to those issues.
But we also need novels we can relate to, stories that point us to a new way of seeing this life we are all living. In creating the character Syd Arthur, it is my great hope that readers will respond to her by remembering their own stories and will follow their own path toward a life that reflects their authentic self. While my novel deals with themes such as the cultural obsession with thinness and the endless search for happiness through the external rather than the internal, the book is humorous and entertaining, inviting the reader to relax and enjoy while at the same time considering some important issues.
I think that many people today are questioning the way in which we live in the West; the cultural pressure for perfection at all costs, the rushing through our lives almost as if we are living a race versus living a life, and the pervasive focus on the material rather than the spiritual. I wanted to write a book that gave voice to these issues in an entertaining way, and that offered readers a place to reflect on their own lives.
Increasingly, people are looking to the East and its philosophy, be it through yoga, meditation or another type of spiritual practice, to find more meaning, awareness and calmness in their lives. Through writing this novel, I hope to offer a funny yet insightful way to consider how to cross the intersection of East and West.
Q: The main character Syd and her closest friends do a lot of “fat-talking,” commiserating about their supposed flaws. At one point in the book, Syd says that it’s the “polite thing to do” to listen to her friend complain about her stomach and thighs. These conversations are so commonplace, and many women use them as a way to almost bond with each other. What do you think about fat-talking?
A: I think one of the saddest and most painful consequences of the cultural obsession with diets and weight is the way in which women bond with one another over such conversations. In sisterhood, they complain about their diets, berate their bodies, and support each other in the fantasy that once they attain their “perfect” weight, they will have the “perfect life.”
Think how much time and energy is wasted in both the obsession and the conversations that occur across the country day in and day out. If women weren’t engaged in this process and this way of connecting with others, imagine the energy that would be released. Imagine women sharing their gifts and their talents, their passions and their dreams.
Diet and weight obsession, “fat-talking” as a way of connecting with others does a disservice in one’s relationships with others, with themselves and ultimately the world as so much creative energy and potential is lost. The fact that such conversation has become normative, that, like Syd in the first half of the book, women feel that it is both a polite and supportive to engage in such conversation, reveals the depth of this destructive and insidious behavior.
It reminds me of the practice of foot binding; in this case, the culture is celebrating and encouraging women’s obsession with an elusive ideal of thinness, regardless of the physical, emotional, relational and spiritual consequences. In the end, just as with foot binding, women are held back from moving forward into their powerful, truest and most authentic self. At one point in the book, Syd Arthur questions her willingness to buy into the idea that external perfection leads to happiness. (p. 154):
I have been a seeker all my life, I realize, but a seeker of external perfection: searching for the perfect outfit, praying for the perfect diet, making my house a shrine to contemporary living. But when I die, what will people say about my life? I can just picture Jodi’s eulogy at my funeral:
“Syd was taken from us suddenly, going into cardiac arrest wearing a darling size four Burberry tweed sit and carrying a fabulous Birkan bag. Syd would have been happy to know hat she died on one of her ‘thin’ days, and thus will remain svelte into perpetuity. She maintained a spotless house and, thanks to her wonderful housekeeper Marina, barely had to lift a perfectly polished finger to do so. Syd was my best friend, and she can never be replaced. Though we will need to find a new fourth for our Mah Jongg group. We play on Thursday nights, and if anyone here is interested, please see me after the burial.”
Q: How can women stop fat-talking?
A: It’s understandable that women engage in “fat-talking.” Everywhere we look, people are discussing, judging and berating their body and the bodies of others. Waiting in line at the grocery store, magazines and tabloid papers shout headlines about who’s dieting to extreme thinness, and who’s eating is “out of control” as their weight has ballooned. Glossy magazine covers tell us how to lose weight before the bathing suit season along side a feature story telling us how to make delectable, ‘decadent’ chocolate desserts.
Some politicians are talking about their “weight problems” while others are calling for legislation to tax sugary drinks or “junk” food. Movies, television and commercials all encourage talk about diet and weight, reinforcing the idea that such conversation is normal, indeed healthy as a way to get Americans motivated to work toward the perfect body so that they can have the perfect life.
Our society sells the idea that a magic number on the bathroom scale will translate to success in every facet of life: promotions at work, happy marriages, great sex…these are the fantasies sold around weight loss. All of it comes at great expense to our physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Before women can stop engaging in “fat-talk” they have to see how our insidious and unhealthy both the talk and the goal is. For example, dieting in now a $50 billion industry and despite a recession, it’s booming. While any diet will result in short term weight loss, 95%-98% will regain the weight, often plus extra pounds, in the long term. Dieting has a failure rate unthinkable in any other area. I mean really, can you imagine anyone else selling a product that only works 2%-5% of the time and stay in business?
We need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We need to understand that diet failure is inherent in dieting itself, not the fault of the dieter. Dieting typically leads to increased weight, lowered self-esteem, increased depression, increased risk for developing an eating disorder; and yo-yo dieting leads to increased risk of cardiovascular problems and Type 2 diabetes.
Moreover, we need to look at the fact that the cultural decision to celebrate one body type-tall and thin- over all other body types is, in fact, merely a cultural decision. In other cultures, other body types are held up as the ideal, and within our own culture, different body types have been celebrated above others at different historical time periods. Consider that icon Marilyn Monroe would be considered fat by today’s standards.
We need to celebrate body and size diversity, instead of buying into the idea that one body is better than all others, and that with enough power and effort and products, we can all fit into the 5th percentile of a bell-shaped curve which holds the naturally tall and thin.
Until we get the message and the research out – that diets don’t and that bodies naturally come in different shapes and sizes, people will continue to engage in “fat-talk,” and believe that their worth as a person is best measured by the numbers on the bathroom scale.
Each day, we can choose to be part of a revolution. We can choose to put our time and energy into our own passions, talents and gifts, and to talk with others about our vision. And we can listen to others share their ideas about life and living, their hopes and dreams and goals. It takes time to move away from diet and fat talk because such conversation has become so accepted.
With the awareness of just how abusive such talk is, we can consciously refuse to engage it and feed it. Perhaps you choose to tell your friends why you no longer want to engage in such conversation. Or you might change the subject when “fat-talk” comes up.
There are different ways to go about letting go of fat talk, but I believe, for our own health and the health of our children, it is crucial that we do so. And we can start today in our conversations with ourselves and with others. Gandhi said we must be the change we want to see in the world. Be part of the change by ending the fat talk, and begin talking about what really matters.
Synopsis of Syd Arthur:
Prince Siddhartha, raised behind palace walls and showered with every extravagance, abandoned his protected life to embark on a spiritual journey. He ultimately reached enlightenment, and became known as the Buddha–which means one who is awake–and spent his life teaching that everyone has the potential to awaken…
2,500 years later in the cloistered world of suburbia, meet Syd Arthur! Syd is a middle-aged Jewish woman who is potentially awake, but likes to start her day with a strong cup of coffee, just in case. Her daughter has just left for college, and her diet is once again off track.
While for most of her life she has been convinced that happiness can be attained by a magical number on the bathroom scale—or a really great shopping day at Bloomingdales—she finds herself in the grocery store with an empty shopping cart wondering if there just might be something more. After a tragic accident shakes her town and stirs up long buried pain, Syd finds herself questioning the meaning of her life.
When East unexpectedly meets West, she embarks on a journey as a spiritual seeker ignoring her Mah Jongg groups’ insistence that this is merely a midlife crisis.
Soon Syd is in over her chakras as her search takes her from the yoga studio, to the meditation hall, to the ashram’s gift store and to the pages of the Zensational catalogue. But once she discovers how to sift through the fluff and reach to the core, nothing can stop her journey toward Nirvana, not even the hottest sale at Nordstrom’s.
Follow Syd as she finds her bliss and discovers a richness that rivals a Godiva truffle, making for one delicious enlightenment.