- Posted by Johanna on August 13, 2009 at 8:27 am
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: by Carol Lay
- PUBLISHER: Villard; $18 US
I very much enjoyed Carol Lay‘s comic strip WayLay (even though the collections are long out of print, having been published by now-defunct Kitchen Sink), so I was thrilled to hear that she had a new book coming out. The Big Skinny, or How I Changed My Fattitude, wasn’t at all what I expected. Oh, it’s still got her sense of humor and her entertaining drawing style, but it’s a full-color memoir/how-to/diet book/healthy lifestyle advice/cookbook. And it’s terrific.
As in her strips, her voice here is amusingly down-to-earth. Unlike some other diet manuals in comic form, she doesn’t mess around with quick fixes or fad diets or promises that don’t work. Lay’s advice is simple and accurate: to lose weight, eat fewer, healthy calories and exercise more.
First, though, we see what brought her to that well-earned wisdom. She shows us a teen who didn’t fit in, a mother who tried to fix the fat problem with diet pills, the effect of broken relationships, and the determination it takes to work out and eat right. It all adds up to her taking control and making the decision to reach, and maintain, the weight she wanted. There is nothing unique about her story — many readers have similar backgrounds or experiences or temptations. That’s what makes the book work so well: if you could see yourself where she was, you can be where she is now if you’re willing to take the same responsibility for yourself.
The chapters are short and punchy, illustrating particular significant incidents, expressing elements of Lay’s philosophy, or covering short topics, such as managing emotional triggers or misleading nutrition labels or different ways to be active. The section on the need for willpower is one of the most amusing, with George Clooney showing up with fat-heavy McDonald’s food.
Lay makes clear that this is not wish fulfillment, that keeping the weight she wants means big tradeoffs:
Maintenance will always be part of my routine because I am a born eater who had overweight parents. But I like the compliments I get, my energy, and the way my clothes fit. And all that is worth far more to me than eating whatever I want.
It’s especially great reading this in comic format, because you can see the changes in her figure as she talks of different points in her life. And due to her streamlined style, the sizes aren’t exaggerated into sexualized comic book women or ridiculous fatties to laugh at. She’s drawn as a person, not a symbol.
Her history shows that she was a normal kid who felt isolated in a family of seven people. The dinner dishes she lists are both nostalgic and vaguely repulsive in their reliance on frying and mayonnaise. And her mother’s search for a quick fix taught her to be honest with herself and realize that things weren’t going to change externally until they did internally.
She tackles the whole wide range of what food means to us: tough decisions between temporary indulgence and long-term health, comfort and feelings of love, addiction, and the influence of genetics, family, and friends. Some of the tips are simple to remember, such as eating more colors, since foods rich in nutrients tend not to be white or beige. She also discusses how to handle vacations, holidays, and work “food pushers”.
Lay uses creative images to make sure lessons stick with the reader, drawing herself as made of fruits and vegetables or showing her and housemate Derek throwing pies at each other. Even when the pictures aren’t as fantasy-based, when she’s drawing different people who struggle with weight or illustrating a vacation trip, the images are helpful and reinforce her points with plenty of variety. It’s especially helpful when she’s demonstrating ways to work out at home with no extra equipment.
Some may find this book a bit too math-heavy in its emphasis on calorie counting; for those readers, Lay tries to make it easier by showing how she taught Derek about it and by including her calorie charts and visual portion size approximations. Others have criticized Lay’s maintenance weight of 125 pounds (size 2 or 4) as too low. To that I can only say, this is her story. She portrays herself as happy and healthy and staying there for several years. (I suspect living in Los Angeles does affect what she sees as a normal, desirable size.) She doesn’t say everyone should target that size, but they should reach a point where they are active and satisfied.
She can sound a little hectoring, hammering home her points, but some need the repetition to be convinced. Also, the book works best if you don’t read the whole thing at once. Sample a few chapters, think about what they say, and see if you can apply the lessons to your life.
Lay does have the advantage of being an artist working at home, which makes it easier for her to find time to work out and eat more frequent small meals. Those who work outside the home, without access to their kitchen stocked with healthy foods and fruits and vegetables, will have a harder time with portions and timing. There is a small section about what happens when those around you don’t support your weight-loss goals, but no discussion of how to proceed when you’re cooking for others or having to negotiate within a family. Lay also takes advantage of her urban California environment, which means plenty of places to get organic food, soy substitutes, and the like to support her vegan-influenced choices.
The book includes sample meal plans, a menu template, plenty of single-serving recipes, and cooking tips to make more healthy food. Like many books on healthy diets, the portion sizes don’t take economics into account. By that I mean, when you’re eating that half-piece of wheat toast, the writer isn’t paying attention to how much of the rest of that loaf is going to go bad before you eat it. A recipe that calls for a slice of avocado sounds good… but what do you do with the rest of the fruit? That’s a problem shared by most books of this genre, though.
Overall, I loved this book because I could really relate to it. It’s like sitting down with a friend and laughing about how hard it is to stay fit while swapping tips and new, healthy dishes to try. I appreciated the encouragement. Greg McElhatton also enjoyed it, and Tim O’Shea interviewed Carol Lay about creating the book. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)