Even if you don’t watch ABC’s The Practice, you may know Camryn Manheim, last week’s TV Guide cover girl. Manheim became a folk hero earlier this year when she won a dramatic supporting actress Emmy award for her work on the weekly drama. In the most resonant minority cri de coeur since Marlon Brando sent his Native American squeeze to the Oscars, Manheim ended her thank yous by flinging her Emmy aloft and crying, “This is for all the fat girls!”
If you know Camryn Manheim, you surely know Calista Flockhart, the wraithlike star of Ally McBeal. Calista is as thin-bone-molding, tissue-paper thin-as Camryn is fat. For some reason, this seems to piss people off.
Camryn reports that since she’s become the poster girl of fat acceptance, she’s been inundated with letters of love, gratitude and support. Calista, on the other hand, gets hate mail. Yet something tells me that among those letter writers are plenty of women who, given the choice, would rather walk a mile in despicable Calista’s size 2 than in admirable Camryn’s size 22.
It’s no surprise that in a nation in which 60 percent of the adult population is officially classified as obese, fat is an ongoing societal obsession. And given that this is America, it’s equally unsurprising that it’s taken on a moral dimension. Weight is not about more pounds or fewer; it’s about good and evil. The trouble is that when it comes to thin and fat, no one can make up her mind which is which.
In hopes of making some sense of this moral confusion, I recently turned to Manheim’s new autobiography-cum-manifesto Wake Up, I’m Fat! Reading her account of her spiritual and professional triumph over a world that hates fat people is a little like being on the listening end of a telephone conversation with an excitable, foulmouthed friend whose favorite expression of rueful outrage is “Man-o-Manishevitz.”
Moreover, she’s got plenty to be ruefully outraged about: judgmental acting teachers, indifferent agents, uninterested casting directors and rejecting men, whose brush-offs are recounted in painful detail. It is only natural that Manheim, a red diaper baby, makes the personal political and takes up arms against the “beauty myth.”
Depending on your temperament, after reading Manheim’s book you are likely to do one of two things: You’ll either defiantly throw open the freezer door and dig into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s as a political statement or you’ll run to the bookstore (thereby burning 3.3 calories a minute) and pick up the diet book The Skinny, figuring you’ll do anything if it will save you from the pain and humiliation that Manheim routinely suffers.
The Skinny, as its title suggests, takes the opposite worldview from Wake Up, I’m Fat! It could be called Shoot Me, I’m Fat!, since its authors Patricia Marx and Susan Sistrom are certain that fat people loathe themselves because fat is loathsome. Figuring that girls in the diet trenches (or is it troughs?) know at least as much about losing weight as doctors and experts, they put together this folklore of dieting after gathering tips from various size-6 New York media chicks over-what else?-lunch. (I’ve yet to meet the woman who can open a menu without reciting everything she has or hasn’t eaten in the last 24 hours.)
Their amazing conclusion: If you want to be thin, eat less and exercise more. The fun is in the tips: for example, “Eat all you want, but never swallow. Spit always.” (Be grateful you didn’t have to eat lunch with whoever came up with that gem.) In this moral universe, the end justifies the means.
If I garnered anything from reading these two books, it’s that fat girls and skinny girls really are different-and weight is the least of it. Based on Manheim’s account, fat girls are sincere, self-protective and believers in the therapeutics of a big hug. Skinny girls come across as ironic, self-mocking and a little waspish. (Being hungry all the time does make for a bad temper.) Fat girls may think about food, but they never talk about it. Skinny girls don’t talk about anything else. Fatties see a hatred of fat people as a social evil; skinnies think the desire to be thin is part of the natural order-and thus beyond good and evil.
Which side are you on, girls?
What I learned from these chronicles is that it really doesn’t matter; either way, you’re screwed. Eating tiramisu with your head held high in the face of nasty men, disapproving parents and unsupportive employers is daunting emotional work. But then, so is submitting to the punishing catechism of nos, don’ts and nevers that the skinnies live by. Man-o-Manishevitz, I’m still confused. I think I’ll go munch on potato chips. Or celery sticks. Or write Calista Flockhart a hate letter. ƒ
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