By Carol Lay
200 pages, color
Published by Villard Books
As soon as I saw Carol Lay’s The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude, I knew I had to read it. After all, in early 2004 I’d looked at a photo of myself and decided, "Enough is enough." Ten months later, I’d dropped 60 pounds of fat and have since kept them off. So if there was ever a graphic novel memoir that I had a chance of completely and utter relating to, this was it.
The Big Skinny is non-fiction, Lay’s life story of how she gained weight as a child, and her up-and-down yo-yoing pounds over the years. Sometimes the people around her would help her lose the weight, other times they seemed to push the pounds on. But eventually, Lay saw that it was time to really change her eating habits—and found a system that really worked for her, one that involved that arcane and crazy scheme called, "Eating less calories and exercising."
I had to laugh when Lay talked about how most people flee when you reveal that your weight loss method didn’t have any sort of gimmick or special secret to make everything easy. I once had a co-worker complain loudly in my direction that she, "wished [she] had a magic wand to lose weight, too." The reality, of course, is that there isn’t any sort of magic bullet solution, and that’s something that Lay goes on about in great length here. For Lay, what ultimately did the ticket was counting calories every day, something that she’s very strident about. It’s interesting, because as someone who kept a food diary not only while losing weight but also for a good six months afterwards, I certainly understand and agree with that strategy. At the same time, though, I have to say that Lay does come off a tiny bit shrill in places. I think it’s because of her utter dismissal of everything that doesn’t work for her. It’s tough, because on a personal level that is exactly what you have to do—discard what doesn’t work and stick with what does—but in terms of helping others lose weight, discounting things like the Weight Watchers point system seems a bit much. Then again, this is ultimately Lay’s book about how she lost the weight, so she does get to hand out absolutes like that.
That said, The Big Skinny is certainly an enjoyable read. There’s a lot of really good information here, a lot of it presented in the form of short recollections. Talking about how she gained some weight while on vacation at Burning Man and then shed the pounds afterwards is a great lesson about both vacationing and how to deal with that dreaded holiday weight, for instance. Her stories of friends and how and why they lost weight are good ones too, with different viewpoints and reasons for deciding to drop the pounds. There’s even a chapter on how food in general works as a comfort device starting from infancy; it’s those sorts of digressions and alternate routes that help keep The Big Skinny fresh and fun. Even people who don’t really want to lose weight will certainly find entertainment in those sections.
I think it does help that The Big Skinny is told in a comic book format, for two reasons. First, it helps Lay’s trademark humor come to the forefront, making the ideas seem a little less scary and more likely to be picked up by someone who thinks that they need a "fast read." (Of course, it’s anything but a fast read, but that perception in the general public regarding comics is certainly out there.) Second, it means that she can really properly illustrate the ideas she’s presenting—showing the actual physical difference in herself and her friends at their high and low weight points, for instance, but never in a mean-spirited or judgmental way. It’s much easier to recognize overweight self in one of Lay’s drawings; the people may be heavy but they look like real people, not some sort of grotesque caricature.
For those who are interested in losing weight, there’s a lot of great additional information at the back of the book. I love that Lay laid out sample menus (at her 1350 calorie a day level) to show just how much food she still can eat, for instance; I think that right there will go a long way towards making the idea not seem quite so bad. Plus there are huge calorie charts, over 30 pages of easy recipes, and general tips and suggestions on how to make the transition easier. This is a clever book, and I hope it makes it into the hands of people who need and want it. It’s a little pushy at times—I’m a little more lax with myself, but even if I don’t count exact calories any more I still keep things under in control—but I also know what works for myself. In the end I’m fully in favor of The Big Skinny. This rings absolutely true from start to finish.
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