Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Thin is the New Happy: Valerie Frankel

Written by Susannah Wexler
Valerie Frankel’s, Thin Is the New Happy is the study of one’s self—on countless diets. “I approached the scale,” the book begins. “Small, slow steps.” Frankel then guides the reader through 243 pages of diet and body image fat-chewing—and the extent to which you enjoy it will probably depend upon the extent to which you enjoy the joys and pitfalls of memoirs.
Valerie Frankel’s, Thin Is the New Happy is the study of one’s self—on countless diets. “I approached the scale,” the book begins. “Small, slow steps.” Frankel then guides the reader through 243 pages of diet and body image fat-chewing—and the extent to which you enjoy it will probably depend upon the extent to which you enjoy the joys and pitfalls of memoirs.

I generally admire a memoir writer’s boldness. Not many of us, for example, would literally undress the way Frankel has. She poses nude for Self Magazine, tells us about her “muffin top,” “back bacon,” coke habit, and fantasies about dating other men while her first husband is dying. While some readers may gasp and judge, others, I am sure, will find solace in a shared experience. And this is the beauty of memoirs.

The problem, however, with memoirs, and one that Frankel falls into, is the problem of power. As someone who has ever reminisced about anything with anyone knows, we all have different, and sometimes extremely divergent, memories (I, for example, swear I only taught one of my little sisters how to climb out of her crib, while my other little sister swears I taught her as well, and that she never stared at the crib-climber sister with scathing jealousy...). Divergent memories are fine and positively human. What, however, happens when only one of the participants has the power to write and publish her story?

Though rendered humorously, Frankel’s memoir is about how people have mistreated her. “She’d screamed at me for something totally unfair,” she writes about her mother at one point. “Can’t remember what.” The story begins with Frankel—age eleven—stepping onto a scale and watching her mother cry. She weighs one hundred pounds and Judy, her mother, immediately puts her on a diet. The idea that any mother would ridicule her daughter’s weight at any point in her life—let alone before puberty (most mothers should obviously want their daughters to grow beyond one hundred pounds)—seems horrifying. Years later, Frankel approaches her second husband about his request, five years prior, that she lose her stomach. During this confrontation, she says, “My mother used to criticize my belly too…that comment opened up a well of negative associations.” While I understand that memoirs are, to a very large extent, explorations of writers´ emotional memories, I can’t help but think that it is a little unfair to blame one’s mother for a lover’s nasty comment.

Aside from discussing her mother’s failures, Frankel also devotes a large portion of her book to the boys who teased her in junior high. One particular boy would “moo and oink.” “The scariest times,” she tells us, “were when he’d corner me in the hallway, and hiss ‘fat’ right into my ear.” Needless to say, the incident makes me cringe. When—twenty-five years after the episode—Frankel hunts one of her tormentors down (through a Google search that leads to his wife’s parents’ phone number) and calls to respond to his harassment, I feel bad for all involved.
 
Despite moments of discomfort, Thin Is the New Happy ultimtately does what memoirs do best. It invites readers to share an emotional reality and gives the writer an opportunity to, as Joan Didion says, use “writing” as “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.”

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