Thin Is the New Happy

Thin Is the New Happy

by Valerie Frankel
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Thin Is the New Happy by Valerie Frankel

You've heard the phrase "the mirror is not your friend." For Valerie Frankel, the mirror was so much more than "not a friend." It was the mean girl who stole her lunch money, bitch-slapped her in the ladies' room, and cut the hair off her Barbie.

Like most women, Valerie spent most of her conscious life on a diet, thinking about a diet, ignoring a diet, or failing on a diet. At age eleven, her mother put Val on her first weight-loss program. As a teen, she was enrolled in Weight Watchers (for which she invented creative ditching methods). As a young woman, her world felt right only when she was able to zip a certain pair of jeans. Not wanting to pass this legacy on to her own daughters, Valerie set out to cleanse herself of her obsession. Thin Is the New Happy is the true story of one woman's quest to exorcise her bad body-image demons, to uncover the truths behind what put them there, and to learn how to truly love herself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312373924
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/02/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Valerie Frankel has been an editor for Mademoiselle magazine and is a contributor to Self, Good Housekeeping, and Parenting magazines. She has written fourteen novels. Thin Is the New Happy is her first memoir. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two daughters, and three cats.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Diets are Forever

Hello, my name is Val, and I’m a diet addict. I exist on a continuous loop of starting a diet, recovering from one, and planning the next. I’m either counting calories, fat grams, carbs, or the number of days until I begin anew (and it’s always "for the last time"). Dieting defines me. It grounds me. If I didn’t have a diet to plan or follow, I’d panic. Going cold turkey on dieting would be a shock to my system. I might have delirium tremens. Or go insane and hallucinate scenes from someone else’s childhood.

Unlike a lot of other chronic dieters, my compulsion is dieting itself. I’m not an emotional eater, per se. I’m an emotional dieter. Restricting food equals self-righteousness. Exercising makes me feel superior, holy, strong of will and limb. On the other ham—I mean, hand—cheating brings on the whiplash of shame, guilt, and disgust. Like numbers on the scale, the emotions of dieting go up and down, up and down.

Although I try to make light of it, the humor of chronic dieting wears thin, even if nothing else does. The alternative to riding the emotional highs and lows? Become what my friend Pam described as "one of those happy, self-accepting fat people." That fantasy—of ordering bacon cheeseburgers with a wink and a cheeky "More of me to love!"—lasted approximately five seconds before I vowed never to give up. Although I’ve quit dozens of individual diets, quitting dieting, as a way of life, would be the ultimate defeat.

My most recent diet was inspired by The Biggest Loser, a reality TV show. The concept was creepy and sadistic and therefore irresistible: Put sixteen grossly obese people of all ages and genders on a ranch in the middle of a desert and make them compete to lose weight for money. As the contestants reduced, they talked to a pantry-cam about feeling reborn, getting their lives back, emerging from a long, lipid-induced waking slumber. Their existential displacement rhetoric was sad as hell. Nearly every contestant cried fat tears of woe or joy, and so did the TV audience (at least, I did). I knew I was being manipulated, but didn’t care. Watching the contestants’ gradual transformations—physical and emotional—over the course of a few months was downright inspiring.

For the competition part of the show, the contestants were weighed on a livestock scale. Some would routinely shed ten, fifteen, twenty pounds in a single week. One guy lost nearly fifty pounds in just three weeks. I’d been struggling to lose twenty pounds for fifteen years. Granted, the contestants started out at 400 pounds. By their standards, I was already an "after." Everyone knew the last twenty pounds was always the hardest. Still, I convinced myself that my Medium-Sized Loser diet would be a snap.

D-day arrived, as it always did, on the first Monday after I got my period after the last major holiday. My inner announcer said, "Start your engines," and I was off and running—or, more accurately, jogging. I was ready. I was pumped.

I was doomed.

However misguided optimism might be, you can’t begin a diet without total commitment. Otherwise, it’d be like marrying a man you hope to grow to love someday. The Medium-Sized Loser Diet (aka The One) would be strict but doable. The rules:

1. Avoid white food (rice, bread, potatoes, sugar, fl our, chips, crackers, etc.).

2. Eat at least six servings of fruit and veggies a day.

3. Drink a glass of water every two hours.

4. Run for half an hour five days per week.

5. Do two thousand crunches per week.

In the throes of the early infatuation period, I was sure this diet would be a piece of (Splendafied) cake. For the record, I did achieve perfection for a solid two weeks. But then life interceded, and my diet was, shall we say, compromised. There was a bake sale at my daughters’ school. I would have just bought the minimal face-saving number of cookies, but Lucy gave me the sad look and said, "We never bake anymore." Muttering, I mixed the batter, repeating the mantra "I will not sample, I will not sample." Needless to say, when confronted with fresh-baked cookies, mantras were useless. I ate seven cookies in the span of five minutes.

I had a new novel out, and a rash of lunch and dinner offers from friends and editors with expense accounts. A very-tightwad, I never refused a free meal, especially at pricey places I wouldn’t go to ordinarily. When you sat down at a two-star New York City restaurant that was famous for its porter house, you didn’t dare order the garden salad. It was an affront, an insult to the chef.

The final nail in my diet coffin was my actor/musician husband’s three-week gig in Alaska. When Steve got work, he took it, wherever and whenever the job might be, regardless of whether it fit into my diet plans. Since Steve was our family’s laundry-doer and vacuumer, his absence doubled my house work load. On top of that, it coincided with the kids’ spring break and a major deadline for me. When dinnertime rolled around (every frigging night), I was too tired and stressed to bake the flounder and steam the broccoli. Pizza came to the emotional rescue.

If the timing had been better or I hadn’t been stressed out, maybe I would have regrouped. Honestly, though, the air went out of my tires during the bake sale debacle. The first cheat created a domino effect (or, I should say, Domino’s). After that, I was cheating regularly, at shorter intervals and with increasing quantities of food per incident. I’d already eaten one slice of pizza, I thought. Might as well have three. What the hell?

It’d taken me six short weeks to go from "This diet is The One!" to "What the hell?" As the saying goes, when I was good, I was very, very good, but when I was bad, I was horrid. General Tso’s chicken for dinner rolled into bacon for breakfast. I said to myself, "Bacon is Atkins friendly!" I had s’mores with the kids and said to myself, "French women eat chocolate!" My own lies were unconvincing— even to me.

When you can’t lie to yourself, that’s depressing.

The guilt and shame of my failure added up more quickly than the calories I was inhaling freely. Did I cut myself slack for erring, being human? No way! I spiraled downhill, despairing. The diet that began with enthusiasm had transformed me—into a depressed, frustrated, stressed-out basket case. Who was three pounds heavier.

When the sugar dust settled, I reverted to the familiar reflective between-diets rest period. I called a couple of diet experts I’d consulted with over the years, shrinks with university jobs who’d become my confidants. Joan Chrisler held up perfectionism as my diet undoing. "Very little in life is perfect. If you expect it of yourself on a diet, you’re riding for a fall." I denied trying to be Polly Perfect. "But you begin a diet on ‘the first Monday after you get your period after a major holiday,’ " she replied. "That’s really about finding the perfect time to start the flawless diet."

Ed Abramson put some nuance on that analysis. "It’s the all-or-nothing mind-set," he said. "You slip once, and it’s over. You see a diet as black or white. On or off. And once you go ‘off,’ it’s no-holds-barred."

Both Joan and Ed talked a lot about motivation. "Why was it so important to diet?" they asked. "Why did you structure your day around an eating-and-exercise plan?"

They might as well have asked, "Why have you structured your entire adolescent and adult life around some eating-and-exercise plan or another?"

Big question. Up there with "Is there a God?" and "If you eat a cookie in the forest where no one can see, does it still have calories?"

Why diet, indeed?

I tried to come up with a decent answer for the eternal question. Was I attempting to lose weight for my husband? Early in our relationship, when Steve and I first fell in love, I was fifteen pounds thinner. Logically, a swing of fifteen pounds wasn’t too significant. I was the same person, regardless of the pants I fit into. Irrationally? Fifteen pounds was a gulf. The difference between a job interview and a job offer. Between a first date and a second date. Between being honored by the nomination and winning the Oscar. The chubby kid I used to be will always wonder which version of me—skinny or fat—is more deserving of love. I knew I’d put pressure on myself to be a good dieter while Steve was in Alaska. I wanted to please him upon his return with a slimmer silhouette. I had the fantasy of his finally walking in the door after three weeks away, dropping his suitcase on the floor, laying eyes on me, running into my arms, and muttering ridiculous sap into my ear, along the lines of "I love you beyond mea sure, every moment apart was sheer agony, your beauty is boundless," etc.

If not for Steve’s sake, perhaps I was a chronic dieter simply out of habit. Diet was what I did. It was all I knew. In fact, dieting know-how had been hardwired into my brain since preadolescence. Thanks to recent advances in MRI technology, we now understand that the brain takes shape according to the stimuli it receives. This was a good argument for forcing a kid to take piano lessons. If she learned to play young, her brain’s nerves and synapses would retain musical affinity forever. I didn’t play piano. Or chess. My teenage brain was honed, forged, and wrinkled for dieting. Reducing was my chief adolescent pastime. I made charts. I logged calorie input and output. I kept food journals. I read diet articles in magazines, ripped through weight loss books (memorably The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, released in 1979, when I was fourteen). Diet tips and tricks were snaked so deeply into my gray matter, there was no surgical or psychological way to extract them.

Another "why me, diet?" reason? The nagging one that Joan and Ed always brought up, the one that rang loud and clear. Dieting was, as Ed said, "a convenient channel for life’s dissatisfactions. Rather than deal with things that make you unhappy, you narrow the focus to eating."

I’d certainly had my share of problems, and at every stage of life, I’d dieted my way through a lot of the bumpy times—even some hard times you’d think would be immune to the cold comfort of losing weight. For instance, when I was thirty-five, I became a widow. My first husband, Glenn, died of lung cancer. He was only thirty-four. It was an unspeakable tragedy for our family—our daughters were five and almost two when he died—as well as for our extended families and friends. The shock of his death was the prelude to the stress of widowed motherhood, of guiding my daughters and myself through grief, supporting our needs on my income. It was a Herculean holding together. I’d managed it, survived. And, yes, I lost weight during those horrible two years, which didn’t cure Glenn or ensure my daughter’s emotional protection but did give me something to think about when all other thoughts were bleak.

Of course, I re-gained the weight I’d lost, that time, and every other time I’d managed to lose. This predictable outcome raised the same question: "Why?" Why should I, or anyone, diet at all, when many experts in the field believe, and have supportable evidence, that dieting makes you fat? My Medium-Sized Loser Diet was a case in point. I’d starved myself at first; my body’s deprivation mode kicked in, resulting in a slower metabolic rate. When I started cheating repeatedly, those excess calories rushed into a body that was burning fuel at a crawl, instantly converting pizza into fat bulges. With each diet I’d tried, I was farther from my goal weight.

My goal weight, since college, had been 135 pounds. At five feet six inches, that would give me a body mass index, or BMI, of 21.8, dead center of "normal" range. I wasn’t greedy. I wasn’t shooting for a teen-model BMI of 17. My aspirations were for single-digit clothing sizes, bony fingers, a hollow around the cheeks. I’d had that, at brief and glorious periods over the years. Surely I could have it again, or so I’d reasoned a million times, right before starting each new (soon-to-be-failed) diet.

Diet experts would also insist that dieting was futile. Depending on which study you read, 50 to 90 percent of an individual’s weight was genetically predetermined. Or you could see it this way: As an egg in your mother’s ovary, you were already a size twelve. Now, you might be able to diet your way down to an eight, or even a stretch-fabric six. But you’d never be a two, no matter how bad you wanted it. If you were to stop dieting and eat "normally" (have what you crave when hungry, stop when full), your body would automatically assume its preprogrammed shape, its true size, with virtually no struggle or anxiety on your part.

I had no idea what my true size was. I’d been yo-yo dieting (sometimes so-so dieting; always oh-no dieting) for thirty years. My metabolism and eating had always been erratic. My body hadn’t had the chance to automatically assume its preprogrammed shape. My parents were both naturally slim. My sister was small, my brother athletically built. My grandparents on both sides were either slender or athletic. And yet I was a chubby kid. An anomaly? Or perhaps, had I not been a prepubescent diet cycler, I might have burned off my baby fat naturally—and, just as naturally, grown into a slim adult. Slimness might have been my destiny, but only if I was able to let it happen.

On the other hand, it might have been my destiny to be a blimp.

Only one way to find out. I would have to give up dieting. Logically, it made sense. If dieting made you fat and was futile, not dieting should make you thin, effortlessly.

I’d been listing all the reasons for "Why I Should Diet" in my head for thirty years. At forty-one, perhaps the time had come to make a new list, headed "Why I Shouldn’t Diet."

I fantasized about the change, both emotional and physical, about the freedom in reach. I painted a mental picture of what a diet-free life would look like—me, in a sundress, running braless, barefoot, through a field of wildflowers. The idea became a hunger. Not a fleeting craving, but a deep, visceral yearning that, I realized, had always been rattling the cage inside.

I would need a plan. (I might be able to stop the diet cycle, but I would never be able to give up planning.) What would be the opposite of chronic dieting? Regular dieting was about the physical, eating and exercise. The Not Diet would be mental, emotional, concentrating on interior conversations, bad memories, the wiring of my brain. The goal of chronic dieting was to shed pounds. The goal of the Not Diet was to shed light on my self-destructive habits and patterns.

The Not Diet (aka The Last One) would be strict but doable:

1. Forget everything I already knew about dieting. That wouldn’t be easy. It’d be like tearing out the seams of a dress and wearing it anyway. Trying to be perfect hadn’t worked for me, either, so rule number two was…

2. Screw perfectionism. My wobbly first baby step toward screwing perfectionism was to sit down and eat a bowl of ice cream… Okay. Done. And boy, was that delicious. Much easier than I’d thought! I feel confident that I can succeed at imperfectionism. I should call my mother right away and tell her that I’ve found something I am really good at. Then again, talking (inside my head, or through the lips) about eating hadn’t served me well. Ergo, rule number three:

3. Shut the hell up. I’d stop the running mental commentary about food, what I see in the mirror, all the things I’m doing/not doing right, comparing myself to other women. I’d silence my mind regarding weight. That’d be tough. Often I didn’t even realize I was tallying calories until half an hour had gone by. I resolved to fill my mind with productive thoughts, like getting to the big bottom of my bad body image. Which dovetails nicely into the final rule of my plan, the whopper:

4. Do the emotional heavy lifting. Dieting thus far had been a physical endeavor—and a chronic failure. Perhaps what had been missing all along was the emotional regime, a systematic approach to body image bone picking. Skeleton sweeping. I latched on to the idea that each extra pound I carried on my frame represented a past hurt, an emotional injury that took the physical form of belly fat. If I could let go of the shame, embarrassment, anger, and insult from the past (forgive, forget, what ever worked), my body would release the weight. Into the wind. Like magic!

As I already mentioned, I’m nothing if not optimistic.

"Diets don’t have to be forever," I said to my sister, Alison. "I’ve got to stop, or I’ll be dieting until I’m too old to feed myself. Knock wood that I should live so long."

The late summer afternoon was sunny and clear. Maggie, Lucy, and I had escaped the Brooklyn heat to spend the day at Alison’s home on the balmy North Shore of Long Island.

"Speaking of diets, are you eating bread today?" asked Alison. "I made sandwiches."

Alison could eat bread. Great baskets of it. Except for one fluky, chunky year in high school, she had always been petite. In childhood photos, her legs look like flamingos’, stalk thin with knob knees. At five foot three, Alison was small all over. Her feet were a tiny size six, her fingers short. She wore a size two dress. The only big part of her was her thick, curly black hair that pillowed on her bony, narrow shoulders.

Although I was the little sister (fifteen months younger), I’d always been her physical superior—stronger, faster, healthier, bigger. Out of the womb, I was inches longer, pounds heavier. Now, I was larger by three inches, four dress sizes, four shoe sizes, and three bra cups. Alison was a pint; I was a pitcher. When we were toddlers, I was considered the pretty sister, and she was the smart one. Now she was both. And I was … I was just glad to be here!

If not large, Alison had largesse. Generous as always, she’d laid out a beautiful spread of sandwiches, quiches, and salads for her visitors from the city. Despite our closeness in age and her diminutive size, Alison treated me like a protective big sister would. During the teen years, she’d thrown herself between Mom in full rant and me crying in the corner countless times. Mom’s screechy response to her was always, "There’s only one mother in this family, and it’s not you!" Alison, a mother now, had two daughters (like me; like our mother, Judy). Our four girls, the cousins, were outside while Alison and I talked in the kitchen.

I took a tuna sandwich off the platter. Including the bread. "I’ve been toying with an idea. Batting it around like a cat with a hair scrunchie," I said. "What would happen if I were to stop dieting? Besides the earth crashing into the sun."

"You mean give up?" she asked.

"I mean stop walking the walk," I said. "Stop talking the talk, thinking the thoughts. I’ll probably need a lobotomy."

She nodded. "There’s your answer."

"Get a lobotomy?"

"You’ll never stop wanting to be thinner," she said. "Every woman wants to be thinner. It’s part of the human female condition."

"Okay, yes. That’s a given. But I’ve been going about that quest—thinking about it—the wrong way. What if I did the opposite of what I’ve been doing all along? Stopped dieting. Stopped obsessing. Go cold turkey on broiled chicken."

"You’ll gain," she warned.

"Or maybe, if I purged my bad habits, the bad body image, and the bad memories, the extra weight would disappear."

"Purge the bad memories?"

I said, "Get to the root of my body image problem, and thereby expunge it."

"So you’re going to talk to Mom?" she asked, shuddering. "Give me advance warning so I can be five states away."

I’d never had the big talk with Judy about the emotional damage her fatphobia caused me. We avoided that conversation. It seemed pointless, given how much water was under the bridge. We got along famously now, had since my mid-twenties. We enjoyed each other’s company and actually looked forward to seeing each other, which we did often. Both my parents were heroic when Glenn was sick and after he died, for which I would always be grateful. There hadn’t been a good reason for Mom and me to rehash our ugly past. Maybe our relationship hadn’t been strong enough to handle a major confrontation until now.

"Why do you want to do this?" asked Alison.

"I’ve spent the first half of my life dieting, vacillating between hating myself, depriving myself, and disappointing myself," I said. "I don’t want the second half to be more of the same. Anything else would be an improvement. I think it’s possible to let go of the obsession without letting yourself go, in terms of weight."

Alison nodded. She saw the logic. "Not dieting, and getting thin in the process," she said. "It’s worth a try."

"I’ve got nothing to lose," I said. Except the self-loathing— and the excess weight.

Excerpted from Thin is the New Happy by Valerie Frankel

Copyright © 2008 by Valerie Frankel.

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher

Reading Group Guide

"Post-Script to Thin Is the New Happy"

It's been eight months since the hardcover publication of Thin Is the New Happy. Eight fabulous months of bathing in the warmth of acknowledgement and camaraderie. Along with dozens of kvell-worthy reviews (TITHN was my nineteenth book—and the first to be reviewed in the New York Times), I received hundreds of emails from readers who found themselves in my story, got it, totally related to my experiences. Some had fatphobic mothers and found comfort in knowing they weren't alone. Some were fatphobic mothers who were desperate to get a grip on themselves or turn their daughters into, well, me. Fellow diet addicts vowed to try the not-diet. The word "hope" came up a lot, as in, "You give me hope I can conquer my own body image demons." My fondest hope is that all of the women who wrote to me have managed to stop the insanity of dieting and have silenced their inner bitches once and for all.

Of course, you can't please all the women, all the time. Some readers found my story to be puny, banal, "ordinary" (to that reviewer, I ask, "Is it ordinary to become a widow at 35?"). One angry emailer called me an "East coast snob." I am guilty of being a New Yorker. Re: snob? I'll take "vaguely misanthropic." But snob? I've seen too many of the real thing to accept that hit. An amazon reviewer accused me of "self-loathing," and said I was desperately in need of intensive psychotherapy. Hmmm, my self-loathing was kinda the point of writing the book. I'm much better now, or didn't she read that far?

Several emailers said they liked the book, but hated my "liberal views." (To put the book release in a historical perspective, TITNH came out in September 2008, only two months before the presidential election. My blog entries during that time were exuberantly Democratic.) A reviewer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune called me a "potty mouthed narcissist," a phrase author Jennifer Lancaster said I should feel proud of, and put on the cover of the paperback edition.

The New York Post's Page Six gossip column covered TITNH, giving it several paragraphs in an item titled, "Mag Editor Dopes to Stay Thin" about my cocaine use in the early 1990s at Mademoiselle. Ancient history to some, breaking news to others. The Page Six item was picked up by American websites galore, including New York magazine, the Huffington Post, Jezebel, and jossip. The blog entries caught the eye of producers at Entertainment Tonight and The Tyra Banks Show. (Tyra, despite what you might've heard, is not-a-bitch. The day I taped her show, she was friendly and smiley, and agreed with the not-diet philosophy completely. I liked her.) TITNH was suddenly abuzz.

Surreally, the story of my lifelong struggle with body image jumped across the Atlantic Ocean. Two London newspapers—The Daily Mail and the Observer—ran excerpts, and reprinted my naked photos along with the text. One morning, I received an urgent email from a British TV producer asking for permission to show my nudie pix on his program, a British version of The View, as a launch point for the hosts to chat about body image. By the time I replied ("er, okay, I guess"), they'd already broadcast a slideshow of quivering, unclothed me, and had a hearty discussion about my "bravery."

Attention memoirists: If you wish to get publicity for your book, display your naked flesh like wallpaper in a foreign country.

Soon after my exposure in England, TITNH began a march across Europe. The Irish Examiner ran a feature article on me (I'm telling you: surreal), as did the premiere women's magazine in Slovakia (be nice). I was interviewed on Scottish and Spanish radio. Italy, land of curvy beauties, will be publishing a translation of the book this year. From Europe, TITNH traveled to other continents. It was excerpted in two Australian and one South African women's magazines. If New Zealand falls in line, my insecurities, dirty secrets, and self-acceptance strategies will be revealed to the entire English-speaking world.

It's official: I am now incapable of embarrassment.

I'm recounting the wild fire of media attention for TITNH not to brag (although, damn, that was exciting!) but to marvel at how profoundly bad body image affects the lives of women all over the globe. My (puny, banal, ordinary, self-loathing) story rang distinct and distant bells from Dublin to Johannesburg. As I mentioned in TITHN, my dream as a writer has always been to make an impact on readers near and far, for my ideas and experiences to touch women's lives. Thanks to TITNH, I've reached people and been accepted into sympathetic hearts and expansive minds. Not surprisingly, TITNH was the first time I'd really put myself out there in print, complete honesty, no holding back about my deepest insecurities.

If I had any pre-publication doubts, they are gone.

As gratifying as it has been to connect with readers down the block and across the planet, the book release has caused some trouble here at home. At store signings, book fairs, clubs, and events, one of the most commonly asked questions is: "Has your mother read the book, and what does she think of it?"

My mom has not read a word of the book, nor any of the reviews. You'll recall, when I asked her to read the manuscript, she said she wanted nothing to do with it. Judy has kept her word. My father hasn't read the book, either, although, late one night, after my mom went to bed, Dad read a few of the reviews I'd linked on my website. "It seems you've struck a cord with a lot of women," he said. That was the sum total of his remarks.

My parents' usual questions about my book releases ("How's it doing?" "Getting any reviews?") went unasked. They pretend TITNH doesn't exist. That has been a challenge for Mom, especially when the ladies of Short Hills approach her at the Kings supermarket to say, "How could Valerie do that to you?"

"My friends are outraged on my behalf," said Mom at the time. "You have no idea how hard this is for me."

After an initial flare of resentment ("Since you haven't read the book, you have no idea how hard you made my entire adolescence," I thought), the guilt settled in. I didn't intent to embarrass Judy to her friends, or hold her up as a bad parent. As I said repeatedly in TITNH, Judy was a fine mother, except for her obsession about weight. She freely admits she was obsessed. To some extent, she's proud of it. Many of her friends treated their daughters the same way. My great sin was writing about it. I exposed the suburban secret abuse of fatphobic mothers, called them to the empty table, and that was a break from the unspoken rules of discretion and dignity.

Judy feels betrayed. I am sorry about that. According to my friends, my mom's portrayal in TITNH was fair. Another generational divide? Mom took her pain like a trooper and kept her trap shut. I come from the heart-on-sleeve, flapping lips era, although—it took thirty years of mustering courage to confront Mom about her treatment of me and write about it.

It would be selfish of me to expect my parents to read TITNH and enjoy its success. I hope they approve of the lifestyle changes I've made because of writing it. My mom should be happy/relieved that my weight has been acceptable (by her standards).

Typically, she doesn't express joy when she gets what she wants, only displeasure when she doesn't. Last Christmas in Vermont, we went bowling. When Judy got a gutter ball, she'd return to the bench flustered and frustrated, visibly upset. When she hit some pins, she was silent and stonefaced. Judy did not do a victory dance. She refused to allow herself the smallest celebration.

Maggie and Lucy noticed the oddness. We talked about it after. The three of us decided, "Life is short. Opportunities are rare. Do a friggin' victory dance."

Anyway, all the while, post-book release, Mom and I keep up a relationship. We visited, called. Avoiding the subject of TITNH, especially when it really took off, was a strain. Eventually, though, the media swirl died down. Mom and I moved on to other projects and concerns. The flurry of outrage on her behalf from friends slowed to a trickle and then stopped. TITNH was put in box on high shelf, in the back of the closet of her mind. For Judy, it's as if TITNH never happened.

But the book—and the history of our relationship described in it—did happen. I agree, it is easier to pretend that there's nothing seething between us. This is the how she wants it. What else can I do? I comply. We continue onward, paying visits, making calls. We'll never get closer, but we won't splinter apart, either.

Another popular Q during Q&A sessions at events: "What do your daughters think of the book?"

Maggie, now 13, and Lucy, 10, heard me read the introduction and naked photo chapters at the Barnes & Noble Tribeca event (you can watch the video at I've told them all about the teenage years chapter, and they feel sorry for me that I was loser in junior high. But that's it. I haven't let Maggie and Lucy read TITNH. The chapters about my recreational snorting, smoking, and drinking, as well as all that indiscriminant fucking, are not appropriate reading material for kids their age—especially not with their own mother as protagonist. I haven't let Maggie read any of my chick lit novels either—way too much graphic sex. Maggie has read my series of young adult novels. Indeed, I wrote the Fringe Girl books for Maggie and Lucy. As for TITNH, perhaps they can read it when they turn sixteen, if they still want to. Or seventeen. Maybe thirty. I'll play it by ear.

The positive changes on Maggie and Lucy's lives have nothing to do with the book itself. They like it that I'm more relaxed and happy since I stopped dieting and started workout regularly. Maggie and Lucy often jog with me now (Steve is still a hold-out, but we're wearing him down). Since I've stopped wasting time on a weight obsession, I have more energy and time for spend on them. I set out to beat body image for their sake, and we all enjoy the subtle shift in tone at home. Subtle, but seismic.

Next Q: "How goes it with Steve?"

In other words, how did my husband handle the invasion of privacy on the page? Luckily, Steve is completely at ease being written about. Glenn was, too. Both my husbands understood that, being married to a writer, they'd have to be willing to be recorded. Steve, remember, is an opera singer, and has performed the "Major General's song" from Pirates of Penzance (the fastest, tongue-twisterest song in the English language) on stage hundreds times before audiences of thousands. He plays the French horn, universally acknowledged to be the most terrifying of all orchestral instruments. As a performer, Steve knows no fear. In terms of sheer courageousness, being written about is a trifle compared to playing a tricky horn solo in the pit at Carnegie Hall's City Center (which Steve has done many, many times). It he were a banker or a lawyer, Steve might feel differently to be so exposed in print. But, as a creative type, he understands that my work is often to process our relationship for the benefit of others. It helps, too, that a lot of what I write about him—especially articles about our sex life—are complimentary. The women in his opera company, readers of women's magazines, are convinced Steve is some kind of sex god/romantic hero. And they'd be right.

Also, since our lives are small—meaning, we're not ferocious social animals, and our friendship circles are ancient and tight—it's easy to forget that millions of people have read about our libidinous life in magazines, and that tens of thousands of book fans know he once asked me to "lose the belly" (the comment which, without fail, elicits gasps at readings). I often tell aspiring authors to write as if no one will ever read a word. I take my own advice. Abstractly, I know that people do read my stuff. But I walk through the day obliviously and anonymously. Hardly anyone ever stops me on the street to talk about a book, review, or ad for an event. The one time I got the distinct vibe people read my work was when my naked photo essay ran in Self. Even then, I assumed they just looked at the pictures.

I could write a million words—I have written over a million words—and yet, it's as if no one had ever seen them. A philosophical conundrum: If you write a joke in the forest where no one can reads it, is it still funny? My point is that it's hard to feel exposed, or for Steve to feel violated, when you live in a vacuum.

FYI: Steve's adoption of Maggie and Lucy, which took years to get rolling, is a done deal. As of February 14, 2008 (yes, Valentine's Day), Steve became Maggie and Lucy's legal father. Steve's own father, Martelle, died days before our scheduled-months-in-advance court date. He went up to Maine for the funeral, and then had to get back to Brooklyn in a major blizzard that blasted the entire northeast. His plane cancelled, he had to travel by train. When the train tracks were flooded, he had to get on a bus. It took twenty hours to cover the 450 miles. Steve made it home with (literally) minutes to spare. We ran to Brooklyn family court, met up with Barry M. Katz, Esq., our lawyer. Barry gave us heart-shaped chocolates and a bottle of champagne. Steve, the girls, and I were shown into the judge's chambers—a smiling woman in black robes; it was her first adoption ruling, she told us—and we exited the building twenty minutes later a family in every sense of the word. We celebrated by having sushi. We repeated the tradition on Valentine's Day 2009, and plan to mark Adoption Day with raw fish and rice forever after.

In terms of my believing that Steve wants me, despite my belly flab, I do. He does. I'm over the hump (as it were), or "bump" (if I may)? It really was a simple matter of talking my insecurities to death. If my insecurities arise, zombie-like, I kill them again by talking more, which makes Steve cover his ears and run out of the room.

Another point of curiosity from readers: "Do X., Y., and Z. know about the book?"

I don't believe so. If any of them have heard about the book, and were able to read the relevant chapters—lips moving, finger tracing the lines—I can't imagine they'd feel anything but rage, given what I know of their current emotional state of mind (more on that in a minute). I haven't been sued. That's a good thing.

How do I know with absolute certainty that X., Y., and Z. have not matured emotionally since high school? Shortly after the release of TITNH, I received an E-vite for my twenty-fifth high school reunion. On the invitee list, I saw dozens of names I didn't recognize, a few people I would love to see, several I was curious about, and a few I dreaded facing. Yes, X., Y., and Z. were on the list, and they'd all RSVPed "yes."

The reunion was to take place at a Zagat-rated restaurant in Millburn, New Jersey, owned by a former classmate. A small, intimate space. There would be no avoiding my enemies. Despite having written through the pain, I was surprised how terrified the idea of seeing those guys made me. I didn't want fear to rule my life. Hadn't I just written a book about conquering my demons? Then again, just because I'd faced my fears didn't mean I was suddenly psyched to hang out with assholes.

My pal Judy, also a writer, also a graduate of Millburn High School, said, "You're not wimping out. Neither one of us looks back on those years fondly." And then, she cut to the truth. "It's not your obligation as a writer to show up," she said. "You don't have to experience everything, and write about everything."

Steve was on tour and wouldn't be available to watch the kids. My parents were out of town, too. It could stay at their place in Short Hills, but I'd have to leave Maggie and Lucy alone while I was at the reunion. I had an article due that Monday, and needed the weekend to finish. One of our cats was sick and needed two daily doses of medicine. My excuses piled up nice and neat.

I didn't go. Maybe I was a wimp. It was just too awkward. I hadn't only condemned X., Y., and Z. I'd trashed the entire school. It'd be hypocritical to go back there, looking for redemption or acceptance or a night of gagging down memory lane. What sealed my decision: A few days before the reunion, I got an email from P., a mensch, now a world-renown oncologist, one of our class's big success stories. He bugged me to change my mind. I replied that I'd love to see him, but hardly anyone else. He said, "Come on, Val. Don't you want to see what losers they've all become?"

No, actually. I didn't care that the star-of-the-football-team was a never-married manager at Kmart. Or that the hottest-girl-in-school was a bloated, wrung-out mother of six. I took zero pleasure in other's squandered potential, hard luck, and failure. My life, like all of theirs, had seen its ups and downs. At that moment in time, I was doing well. I could look back to the 1980s when I was a fat pariah, and see how far I'd come. Unlike P., though, I wasn't compelled to prove it to anyone else.

I wound up making a series of dinner plans with former classmates I truly wished to re-connect with. Those evenings were intimate, profound, and fun. The recaps of these woman's lives—marriages, divorces, career shifts, deaths, children, heartbreaks, soul mates, transformations—was fascinating and enlightening. One woman, K., rejected the advice of a popular recovery memoir and described her own post-divorce survival plan: "Eat, drink, fuck," she said. "Pray? No thanks. Cocktails do down a lot easier. Love? I'm good with just the fucking right now."

I got the full reunion post-mortem, too. Judging by the way they acted—and dressed—I was told X., Y., and Z. still think it's 1983. Y. followed Z. around like dutiful middle-age henchboy. X. was an aging burned-out shell of the thug he used to be. Z. was loud, obnoxious, rude, and drunk—the epitome of high school hero reliving his glory days. He'd flirted with all the women—the pencil-thin ones. Since Z. loomed so large in my memory, I was surprised to hear how short he was, around five foot six. My dinner dates claimed they'd towered over him in their heels.

He was just some guy. My findings exactly when I spoke to him on the phone for TITNH. I was glad to have avoided him at the reunion. Not just him, but the whole night of trying to place names and faces, and pretending like I had the faintest glimmer of nostalgia for my teenage years. I had, have, none. What I do have is a healthy perspective about my past. It's over, thank God. My glory days are now, and yet to come.

One last thing: The reunion brought with it a wave of Facebook friend requests from former classmates—including Z. (!!!). He wrote, "Hey, Val. I was sorry you didn't make it to the reunion." Just further confirmation of his cluelessness. Like I wrote in TITNH, despite his tormenting me constantly, one some level Z. believed that we were friends. How wrong he was! I ignored the request. Later, I heard he'd posted several narcissistic, practically masturbatory photographs of himself in a bathing suit on his Facebook page, which I would have liked to sneer at.

I'll finish up my postscript with the most emailed and asked question from readers and book club members: "Are you still not dieting?"

I am a devotee of not-dieting. I haven't dieted since the day I started to write TITNH, nearly three years ago. In all honesty, my weight has fluctuated within a small range. I can't say how many pounds up and down since I don't weigh myself (a HUGE relief, meanwhile). If I had to guess, I'd say I've gone up maybe seven pounds max. But then my fabulous clothes start to feel tight, and it breaks my heart not to wear a favorite jacket or pair of pants. Instead of getting depressed, I just increase my workouts. I jog longer, and/or add an extra gym visit to the week. I cut back on sugar—if I'd been having frozen yogurt every night, I limit it to every other night, for example. A couple of weeks later, my clothes fit again, and I'm extra happy because, although my size fluctuated slightly, my mood remained the same. I have become an emotionally stable woman, at least about weight.

One radio interviewer suggested that I've traded one obsession (weight) for another (exercise). I do workout a lot. I count my workouts in a nifty little pocket calendar they dole out for free at New Balance. The first year, when I wrote TITNH, I counted 198 workouts, including yoga sessions. The next year, I increased to four times per week, or 208 workouts. That December, I had some catching up to do, and exercised nearly every day, welcoming 2009 practically on a stretcher. But I made my goal. This year, I'm shooting for 220—eighteen or nineteen workouts per month. As of mid-April, I'm on pace to do it. If I don't make it? I'll strive to get there in 2010. Or the year after that.

I feel a sense of accomplishment checking off the boxes in my New Balance calendar. I thrill in getting dressed. If the Inner Bitch breaks through my defenses, I silence her but quick. Weight is no long a convenient distraction from life's real problems. I've set myself new and healthy goals to meet, like hitting 220 workouts.

Does this mean my life is perfect? I wish! I'm still plenty neurotic about other bêtes—money, my husband's beer consumption, epidemic brattiness among the neighborhood kids, my shaky professional standing, the rudeness of cell-phoning assholes in movie theaters, my own shallowness and impatience as a mother, wife, and human being (all of which I'll contend with in my next memoir for St. Martin's, It's Hard Not to Hate You). But, as of this writing on May 1, 2009—and, I firmly believe, the rest of my life, however long it might be—I've got body image beat.

Moving along . . .


I read widely, jumping genres, fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, pretty much anything I can get my hands on. I love so many books, it's impossible to make a list. Instead, I'll recommend some of my favorite authors:

Christopher Moore, especially Fool, You Suck and A Dirty Job. Many readers of Thin Is the New Happy have commented on my sense of humor. Moore's books make me LOFL (I put in the f for fucking). So, if you are looking for amusing, ribald, and clever novels—sex, foul language, supernatural beings, and chock-o-block human emotions—get Moore.

Lindsey Davis. For historical mystery fans, I love Davis' sleuth series set in ancient Rome. Her MC, Marcus Falco, is as sexy, charming, and fearless as the best romance novel hero, plus he's always wearing a toga or tunic for easy access. This series is EIGHTEEN novels strong. I've read 'em all. loved 'em all. I once corresponded with Davis (slavishly devoted fan drivel), and she was very nice.

Jonathan Kellerman. In a psychological thriller, what better MC than a shrink? Alex Delaware, Kellerman's finest creation, is smart, sympathetic, and erudite, with a voyeuristic dark side that I, for one, find humanizing and appealing. Everything I know of Los Angeles comes from Kellerman novels. Which means LA is populated exclusively with serial murders, sexual predators, and killer cultists. Never a dull moment.

Stephanie Laurens. For regency romance (and, honestly, is there any other kind???), I get all the twitching, throbbing, heavy breathing satisfaction I can stand from Laurens. She supplies ruched nipples, quivering thighs, and shattering climaxes galore, as well as period details and a hoof-clomping, canter-paced plots.

Christopher Buckley. The modern satirist extraordinaire. His most famous novel is Thank You for Smoking but I also recommend Boomsday and Supreme Courtship. Buckley has the rare gift of clairvoyance. His novels come out and then, soon after, real world events unfold uncannily as he'd portrayed them in his books.

Mark Bittman. What, you don't sit down and read cookbooks? What's wrong with you? The New York Times columnist is my foodie idol. In How To Cook Everything, he make any recipe seem easy, even the really freaking hard ones. No wonder he calls himself "The Minimalist." I can't cook without him. I feel like I know him. I wish I could meet him! Mark Bittman, if you're reading this, CALL ME!

John Twelve Hawkes. In the sci-fi fantasy category, I love the intense, serious, and creepy Dark River series, about a secret society of sword-wielding Harlequins who live off the grid and thwart the machinations of their ancient enemies. The MCs go on trips to hell-like other worlds, such as the land of the hungry ghosts where everyone is starving, but there is nothing to eat (a.k.a. my nightmare). Twelve Hawkes (not his real name) lives off the grid himself. His location and identity are mysteries to all but his agent. Knowing that adds a sharp edge of paranoia to his already disturbing vision of our future.

1. A show of hands: Is anyone on a diet right now? Who has been on a diet during the past year? What kind of success have you had trying to lose weight?

2.Valerie Frankel begins her book by sharing a series of dieting metaphors. A drug addiction. A gambling addiction. The five stages of grief. Do you have any of your own you'd like to add?

4. Did you find the author's tales of chronic dieting humorous or sad? Empowering or self-defeating? Discuss the issues of beauty, body-image, and self-acceptance that are raised in Thin Is the New Happy. Does the book cover these issues in a unique way? How are they typically discussed—and portrayed—in mainstream American culture?

5. Valerie decided to tackle her dieting obsession once and for all around the time her daughters were reaching puberty. In what ways do you think Valerie's attitudes about her own body changed once she became a mother? Do you think weight is different issue for children than it is for adults? How?

6. In her "postscript," the author mentions that her mother, Judy, never read Thin Is the New Happy. Judy's friends did, however—and were outraged on her behalf. What do you think of Valerie's portrayal of Judy in this memoir? Was it fair and balanced? Did Judy emerge as a sympathetic character…or a bad mother? And what do you think of Judy now?

7. "I am a connoisseur of insult and criticism," writes the author. "My ears prick up to catch the slightest intonations, the smallest hint of negativity, even in a seemingly benign comment." Another show of hands: Who in the group can recall at least one episode of childhood taunting?

(Some of you may want to share your stories.) How can "innocent" teasing have a lifelong effect on one's sense of self?

8. Take a moment to talk about the men, past and present, in Valerie's life. How did they view her? Were they able to see her for who she is on the inside? Also, how did you react when her husband told her: "I adore every inch of your body. And it'd be even better if you could get rid of the stomach." In what ways did this one remark unleash a lifetime of bad feelings Valerie had about her weight? How would you feel in her shoes—or his?

9. Having read the author Q&A in this Gold guide, do you agree with Stacy London that bad body image is a symptom, not a disease? Which was it for Valerie? Why?

10. Valerie decided that, with this book, she would finally tell the "naked truth" about her weight obsession. With this in mind, have a look at one of Valerie's nude Self magazine photographs (go to: What do you think, now that you've seen it? Does it make you think any differently about the author's journey? How?

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Thin Is the New Happy 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Shannonc512 More than 1 year ago
This book is inspiring, touching, and possibly life-changing. I just finished it five minutes ago and had to come on here and give it a review (which I rarely do). I would recommend this to ANYONE, young or old, male or female, any race, size, or class, who has ever had issues with body image. You won't be disappointed (and here I thought this would be another rah-rah fitness book that would leave me thinking "Yeah right, won't work for me."). It's amazing how much it made me realize that my body issues are completely emotional (not physical), and that there ARE ways to begin dealing with them and having a better self-image. I'm going to keep this one handy for many years to come, to give me a boost when I need it.
Kimmie_H More than 1 year ago
This book was very good. It makes you think a different way about having bad body images about yourself and how to can overcome that by being confident about your body. I know I've had those times when I've felt bad and started to eat but now this book has given me a great outlook to use on my daily life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the author's writing style, and the book was a good story. But, the thing that bothered me, from a fat person's perspective, is that when the author was at her fatest, she wasn't fat. She obsessed about it, and it consumed her, but by most people's standard, she wasn't fat. At her nonpregnant heaviest, she was a size 10 and ran 3 times a week. Sure, she had to work through some emotional baggage, and I understand that, but the book should be touted as a "working through your baggage book", not a "helping me cope with getting thin book". But maybe that was my misconception.
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Stephen Quint More than 1 year ago
Insightful and funny.
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thebrilliantdance More than 1 year ago
I read this book over a week long vacation abroad, and was really dissapointed when I finished the book 3 days before my vacation was over. What was I going to do for the rest of the time? At times I found myself laughing out loud and other times I was literally crying by the poolside. This is really a great read that will take you up and down with her story!
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PBWriter36 More than 1 year ago
I felt like I could have written this book, as if it were my very own story. Valerie Frankel captured the essence of a life long battle with weight and her mother's constant disapproval. Then, when she decided not to battle any longer, forgive her fat instigators and let go, she actually lost weight without dieting.
alexcross4me More than 1 year ago
I can relate to the author's emotions and ways of thinking in this book. It was a big eye opener for me to read parts and think, "oh my gosh, I do that too!". She has a great style of writing combined with teachable moments. It was a bit of a downer to read that the author was never really "that" big, like another reviewer commented. Even at her heaviest, she was still smaller and running more than me. However, that is a perfect example of our own body perceptions. We never think we are good enough or small enough. Size 4 or 14, we all want to look better.
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