A writer and blogger who writes primarily fat-positive personal essays, Kim Brittingham’s first novel Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large brings her refreshing tales of self-acceptance and fat-positive feminism to the world of memoirs. Each chapter reads much like a standalone essay in Brittingham’s lifelong journey to accept her body. In some ways this style was jarring because it is not linear – we learn about her experiences in middle school, high school, college, young adulthood, and present day in no particular order. But as a whole, all of these experiences and realizations helped to form the positive body image that Brittingham has today, much like how individual moments and experiences form our current selves.
Not considered overweight myself, I did not personally relate to all of the book’s narratives (particularly her experiences on the bus or frustrations with plus-size catalogs), but I share her “radical” fat-positive views about the human form, believing that women of all sizes should be accepted and treated equally with no size discrimination. However, this book is inspirational to all women, regardless of size and their relationship with their bodies, because the “fight” with food and weight is something that all of us have in common, whether we acknowledge it or not.
We all have been either teased or harassed for being overweight or underweight, been guilty of judging other women’s bodies against our own, or glanced at the magazines at grocery store checkout counter that promise to tell us which celebrity has the “hottest body” and who has cellulite. We live in a culture obsessed with weight, food, and dieting. The shame associated with “failing” to be the “perfect” size primarily affects women (though certainly some men as well). Brittingham’s words about body acceptance, a healthy relationship with food, and her dislike of traditional exercise seem radical compared to most memoirs on body size, which generally equate on weight loss with inner growth. Her experiences with dieting, binging, and self-hatred are ones that most readers can relate to (as troubling as that is), and Brittingham’s eventual overcoming of negative body image is inspirational to all women, regardless of their current relationship with their bodies.
A good example of our culture’s obsession with weight comes early in the book when Brittingham tries carb-free and Edie JeJeune (a pseudonym for a weight loss group I presume was Jenny Craig) diets, and her friend hears about weight loss tea:
“Look what they had. This tea. Look, it says it can help you lose ten pounds in seven days. And it’s all natural. A lady in the store saw me with the box in my hand and said she tried it. She said she lost a ton of weight the first week, but it gave her explosive diarrhea and stomach cramps. I think I can live with that, though, as long as it works.”
Funny? Yes. Serious? Also yes. Crash dieting and quick fixes, regardless of health consequences, are prevalent in today’s society, so much so that studies reveal how far women are willing to go to lose weight:
“One in six women say they would rather be blind than obese, a survey has found. Others would prefer alcoholism or catching herpes to being massively overweight. Researchers in the U.S. interviewed 100 women and asked whether they would rather be obese or have one of 12 other socially stigmatized conditions, including depression, which was chosen by one in four.” (Daily Mail)
I responded to this Daily Mail article last week, saying that if we stopped fat-shaming and equating a woman’s attractiveness and worth to unreasonable, media-driven standards of beauty, maybe women wouldn’t prefer blindness over obesity.
Brittingham also writes about the plus size clothing industry, its marketing (using thinner models and primarily selling grandma-like “big A-line dresses” and Teddy Bear sweatshirts), and expectations for larger women to cover up their bodies so onlookers won’t be subjected to seeing a “cankle” or “roll.” This is one of the worst forms of oppression – restricting the way that women express themselves through clothing, lest onlookers be repulsed by their bodies.
Most of these concepts of how a woman’s body should appear in clothes, or how to dress for your (somehow unfortunate) shape come from the mainstream media and non-plus-size clothing companies. In one anecdote, Brittingham discusses her former fear of baring her bare legs:
“Even in the late 1980s, when I was at my lowest adult weight, I refused to show off my legs. I believed the white fish-belly skin on the back of my calves and thighs made them look huge and swollen. It limited my wardrobe choices and forced me to find creative ways to work around my ‘misfortune.'”
When she finally gives herself permission to wear light wash jeans, Brittingham writes:
“It hurts to realize that for years, I tossed aside so many authentic parts of myself and dressed like an old lady instead, just because I was trying to protect other people from my appearance. But the very people I was trying to protect – the most judgmental among us – were the people whose approval I wanted the least, though by wrapping myself up, I was only perpetuating the idea that larger, curvier, lumpier, thicker, softer bodies arent meant to be seen. The more we show a variety of bodies and the more we show ourselves being relaxed with our own “imperfect” bodies, the less taboo and imperfect they will seem to others.”
Brittingham shares a few personal stories of her experiences with not just overt disgust from onlookers due to her appearance but verbal harassment as well, including an extremely rude woman on the bus who refused to sit next to her. This woman muttered that Brittingham should have to pay for two seats. Brittingham also recounts her famous experiment with a faux book jacket entitled Fat Is Contagious: How Sitting Next to a Fat Person Can Make You Fat and the reactions she received from fellow Subway passengers – everything from laughter, to genuine discomfort, to checking Amazon for the book’s availability.
Read My Hips did make some classic first mistakes, however. In addition to the occasional time whiplash between chapters, I found Brittingham’s tone varied sharply between a humorous, candid personal memoir and a self-help book. The self-help style phrases were a bit jarring and brought the story back to the reader and away from Brittingham: “Maybe you miss wearing things that make you feel good. Maybe you’ve never known what it is to dress the part of who you truly are inside… Maybe you want to break out and be free – but you’re scared. I was once, too.” Perhaps some readers would appreciate this, but I found it took away from the rest of the intensely personal narrative.
All in all, however, Brittingham’s premiere novel was an engaging, strong argument for fat-positivity with her humorous and honest personal anecdotes.
Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy of this book to review for free.