The Pressure and Struggle to Be Thin
Thin is in. Ads on television and in magazines are either celebrating the thin physique or telling you how you can achieve thinness by taking a miracle pill. The other evening my daughter looked across the table at me with a disgusted look on her face. "You're eating the chicken skin? That is pure fat." I stopped chewing and stared at her. She's 9. A 9-year-old is already worried about fat? We don't talk about fat or dieting around our house, so I assume she is getting her information from her friends at school. Can you imagine a table full of fourth grade girls discussing fat, calories and dieting?
Bennett says she chose the subject of weight because of her readers. "I get maybe 50 to 100 letters from girls every week," she says. "And while many of them are the 'I love your books, they're so kewl, where do you get your ideas' variety, many others are quite serious." Because Bennett writes about real issues facing young girls, many of her readers feel they know her. "They confide in me. And, second only to questions/problems about boys and romance, weight and body image problems comes up in my mail again and again and again."
Most of the letters Bennett receives are not from obese, or what society would consider "fat girls," either. "They're from girls who are everything from a size 4 to a size 14, who are obsessing about every bite that goes into their mouths," says Bennett. "They're telling me about the diets they're on, and how they're trying anorexia as if anorexia is a new haircut." After reading so many letters regarding weight, Bennett had enough. "Girls had to see that obsessing over their dress size at age 14 was a colossal waste of time -- that you're not what you weigh. This was an issue I just had to tackle in a novel. Life in the Fat Lane was a result."
The story Bennett weaves is an intriguing one. Lara Ardeche, the main character, is what most every teenage girl aspires to be -- popular, a great student, friendly and well liked, the Prom Queen, and most of all, she is thin. Lara's world begins to change when she suddenly starts putting on weight, and a lot of it. Over a seven-month period, she will put on 100 pounds. Lara does not take the weight gain lying down, but diets, exercises, and even visits doctors, but the weight keeps piling on. She is eventually diagnosed with a fictional disease called Axell-Crowne Syndrome.
Why did Bennett feel compelled to give her main character a fictional disease to explain the weight gain? "I wanted to write about the WHAT of weight, and not the WHY," says Bennett. "Let's face it: when we see someone on the street who is overweight, we have a whole bunch of visceral reactions and we jump to a whole bunch of conclusions. Yet in actuality, we know nothing about that person besides what she looks like; we don't know if she is a compulsive overeater or if she is taking Prednisone in a life-and-death battle against lupus. Both can give you a big weight gain. All we know is what she looks like -- fat." By creating a fictitious disease, Bennett was able to "divorce" the book from the "why", and concentrate on the "what."
Lara's "what" revolves around her changing world. She is faced with people looking at her differently, losing people she thought were friends, her family's embarrassment, and not liking herself anymore. She finds herself on the other side of the fence, and does not like it. As the story progresses, Lara grows and learns some valuable lessons about life, though she still longs to lose the weight.
Bennett feels the images of thinness thrown at society everyday is debilitating to young girls. "It's hard to accept that girls whose bodies are changing at younger and younger ages are not psychologically able to deal with this onslaught of thinness, but they're not. The result is that girls start to think about dieting when they are 6 or 7 years old because dieting is so much a part of American culture." Bennett says preteen and teenage girls are no more ready to handle these issues than 6 or 7-year-olds. "A preteen or teen girl is not any more ready to deal with the psychology of dieting, and its repercussions, than she is ready to deal with sex at the same age. We wouldn't encourage a 13-year-old to have sex -- why would we ever encourage the same girl to diet? I'm not saying that we ought not encourage girls to be healthy -- you won't find a bigger proponent of girls' sports than me. But encouraging girls to deprive themselves of food? All it does is establish a life-long relationship with food that is very, very messed up."
The idea of a mother encouraging her young daughter to not eat and diet seems almost unreal, but it's not. In the book, Lara has to deal with her mom -- ex-Prom Queen, owner of a successful business, and a 'thin is in' advocate. Being perfect is pushed on Lara daily. She is questioned about what she eats and pushed to diet to rid herself of the pounds. Bennett encourages mothers of young girls to look at how they perceive their own bodies. "We must start by taking a real close look in the mirror," she says. "It doesn't do any good to a girl who is a size 12 for us to say to her, 'Oh sweetie, you're perfect just the way you are,' and then one minute later have her overhear us telling our best friends how disgusted we are that we can't fit into the same clothes we wore last year. Girls are really smart."
Lara and her mother's relationship in the book is an important one. Instead of encouraging her daughter, she makes Lara feel even worse about herself. "The mom's disgust and shame at Lara's weight gain makes Lara feel exactly the same way: shamed and disgusted with herself," says Bennett. "Believe me, fat teens face a living hell much of the time on the school yard. They don't need to face it at home. And girls in that size 12 to 24 range desperately need mothers and fathers who truly believe that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes -- believe in it so much, in fact, that they believe it about themselves."
Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters -- everyone should read this book. A number of states agree with this and have put Life in the Fat Lane on their junior high and high school reading lists. In 1999, the American Library Association named Life in the Fat Lane "Best Book for Young Adults," and it also won the 1999 Pinnochio Project Award for artistic endeavors that counter "looks-ism" in society.
Bennett hopes girls walk away from reading this book and realize that obsessing about weight is taking away from other things they could be doing. But, she wants girls to know there are definitely issues out there regarding weight. "I want them to realize some weight issues are dangerous: a girl 5'5", who weighs 75 pounds, or the same girl who weighs 475 pounds, has a serious medical problem. But the vast, vast majority of girls don't have serious medical problems with their weight. They're size 4 or 10, 14 or 24, and they should feel OK." Bennett also hopes her book will make kids more sensitive to their peers who are overweight. "Girls who read Life in the Fat Lane will never, ever make fun of someone because of their weight ever again."