*The Big Skinny — Recommended

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.

The Big Skinny cover
The Big Skinny
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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.)

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22 Responses to “*The Big Skinny — Recommended”

  1. Joshua Macy Says:

    One thing: exercise is good for you, but the best evidence is that exercise does not help you lose weight. More people would probably stick to their exercise regime if they realized that, though maybe fewer people would start one.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Source, please? Because that goes against most of what everyone has been told.

  3. Joshua Macy Says:

    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1914857-2,00.html

    http://health.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-exercise-ess.html?scp=3&sq=gina%20kolata%20exercise&st=cse

    http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2009/08/12/does-exercise-promote-weight-loss-no/

    My understanding is that none of this is very controversial among health experts, but there’s a certain reluctance to be up front about it because moderate exercise is good for you and nobody wants to discourage people from exercising even if they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I think that underestimates the harm it does to people who give up on exercise after they don’t see the kind of improvement they shouldn’t have been expecting any way.

  4. Richard J. Marcej Says:

    It’s always difficult when it comes to weight loss/maintenance, since everyone’s individual bodies are so different, that not every type of diet or exercise will work the same on everyone.

    But I believe that a combination of exercise and a healthy diet will always bring about positive results for everyone. One without the other, is only half the job.

    Hey, and it’ great to see a new collected work from Carol Lay!
    I’ve been a fan of her work since first reading the collected “Strip Joint”.

  5. Chip Mosher Says:

    Brilliant Graphic Novel. Brilliant. While I didn’t think the subject matter would grab me, I couldn’t put this down. Carol Lay is a genius. I wish more comics were this compelling of a read.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Wow, those articles make a lot of sense, especially the idea of over-compensating since working out makes you hungrier. So then we’re left with “eat less/eat healthier” as the best way to lose weight — but that’s so hard! :)

    Richard, yes, it is wonderful to see more Lay, no matter the subject, but this isn’t a collection but an original work.

  7. Joshua Macy Says:

    Tell me about it. I’ve lost 44 pounds since the beginning of February, but I had to almost completely change my diet. I’ve been pretty careful not to starve myself, or do anything that I couldn’t foresee maintaining long-term, but some of it was a real sacrifice of things that I liked to eat/took comfort from.

  8. Rivkah Says:

    “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.”

    HA! I would be far from saying that makes it easier. “Frequent, small meals,” yes! But “work out” no! I’ve always found that having a place to work away from home makes me more active in the form of walking or biking to where I’m going, but when I have to stay in, I find I have little excuse to get out because honestly, I hate exercise for exercise’s sake.

    Best thing I ever did for my health was get rid of my car so that anywhere I need to go? I have to either walk or bike there. Haven’t budged more than a pound or two from 126 in three years, and before that, I was scarily underweight! (few people realize exercise can help you gain weight, too, because really, it just stabilizes your weight).

    Sounds like Carol has a lot of the same, good, sensible advice I learned growing up, though, because my mother went through diet after diet, and I got to learn from her mistakes (and successes), too. The more color, the more snacking, the fewer big meals: the better! There’s also a lot of good, fascinating books out there, too, and nutrition in general is a fascinating course in chemistry. :) It’s even neater seeing what you eat and knowing the “why” instead of just the “what”. And after a while, once you’ve trained your body to eat the right kinds of foods (I wonder if she covers preparation, too? Because I could debate people blue about reasons not to eat vegetables raw.), your body, in most cases, starts to crave them naturally. Honestly, I can’t a good 99.9% of sweet things put out by the American market place because they taste so cloyingly sweet, I feel my stomach wanting to heave it all back out.

    Doesn’t stop me from baking though! ;)

    As for “proper” weight: it really does depend on your height. Rather you should be looking at your body mass index (there are calculators online if you google them), and while there’s no “ideal” BMI, the standard is anything over 30 is obese, and anything under 18 is anorexic/underweight. Many people are naturally slimmer than others and many people naturally heavier. And then there’s muscle mass. Which weights WAY heavier than fat and way most body builders fall in the “obese” range.

    What’s important (and it sounds like Carol makes this distinction) is being HEALTHY. If you hit a weight and that’s where it stays at while keeping a healthy diet and a steady stream of light exercise (agreed with the first responder about avoiding too much exercise), that’s generally going to be your ideal and you shouldn’t worry your head about losing or gaining another five pounds, because once you’ve hit equilibrium (so to speak), more than likely, you’ll have to end up seriously harming your health in order to go those extra few pounds.

    Colorful foods good! :D

  9. Rivkah Says:

    Oh, and some notes on the preview pages on her website: 1) Caffeine can prevent the absorptions of many essential nutrients, so it’s best to NOT drink it with a meal. Refined sugar is more quickly absorbed by the body, so even though it may be the same amount of calories as say brown sugar or honey, the latter take less time to break down and therefore get used more thoroughly (and leaving you less hungry less quickly), and 3) RAW VEGGIES NO! For something like carrots, eating them raw, the body absorbs less than one percent of the Vitamin A / Carotene, while steaming them bumps it up to 19 percent. Boiling them leaches the nutrients into the water. And microwaving just about kills them entirely. 4) Rats in a lab given the same amount of calories but food sources of different densities (one group got a “soft, mushy” source, and the other group got a harder, crunchy source) that the rats given the slightly more difficult to chew food maintained a healthier weight, while the rats given the mushy, textureless food rapidly became overweight.

  10. Strip News 8-14-9 | Strip News | ArtPatient.com | ArtPatient.com Says:

    [...] Grandville and Precocious Curmudgeon looked at Asterios Polyp. Comics Worth Reading recommends The Big Skinny. Optical Sloth reviewed Folk #1-4 and Tempo Lush with Delicate Axiom, among [...]

  11. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Aug. 14, 2009: Waiting for Eve Says:

    [...] [Review] The Big Skinny Link: Johanna Draper Carlson [...]

  12. Hsifeng Says:

    This sounds way better than the last weight-loss memoir you reviewed! :)

    Also, just curious, is that blue panel in the top-left corner of the cover pic supposed to be a “before” pic or a “in between” pic? I mean, she doesn’t look fat in it (a bit wider than she does in the red dress, but not fat).

    Johanna Says:

    “…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?…”

    Freeze it? You’re right, some advice on food preservation – or at least a reminder to go look up food preservation methods – would be useful in those books!

    Rivkah Says:

    “…Haven’t budged more than a pound or two from 126 in three years, and before that, I was scarily underweight! (few people realize exercise can help you gain weight, too, because really, it just stabilizes your weight)…”

    Glad to know you’re feeling better now! :) Also, it can help one gain weight because of muscle being denser than fat, right?

    Rivkah Says:

    “…and while there’s no ‘ideal’ BMI, the standard is anything over 30 is obese, and anything under 18 is anorexic/underweight…”

    Good points! Also, the standard is that anything between 25 and 30 is overweight and not obese. Aren’t those people who say that everyone who’s overweight is obese (and say it in English instead of a language that doesn’t have separate words for “overweight” and “obese”) annoying? I mean, one of them once called me obese when I was 5 pounds overweight, WTF?

    As for “anorexic/underweight,” from what I’ve heard anything under 18 is “underweight” and “anorexia” just means “no appetite” instead of a specific weight range. Like if there’s food available and you’re not doing anything to go get and eat it, you’re already anorexic even if you haven’t lost much weight yet. Gaining : The Truth about Life after Eating Disorders by Aimee Liu has some stuff on the roots of anorexia nervosa (thinking “I’m fat” when one isn’t, thinking “at least I can control what I eat” when one has little control over the rest of her or his life, etc.). On the other end of the range, “Animal anorexias” by N Mrosovsky and DF Sherry in Science, 22 February 1980, Vol. 207. no. 4433, pp. 837 – 842, counts even not eating during hibernation as a non-nervosa form of anorexia.

  13. Strip News 8-14-9 | Strip News | ArtPatient Says:

    […] Grandville and Precocious Curmudgeon looked at Asterios Polyp. Comics Worth Reading recommends The Big Skinny. Optical Sloth reviewed Folk #1-4 and Tempo Lush with Delicate Axiom, among […]

  14. Matt Nugent Says:

    Its great to see the diversity of comics really burgeoning. This along with other works (esp the brilliant Cancer Vixen, a great work which i am so glad got a mention in the tagline) are really showing that women are taking to the form in a way that is pushing its boundaries in a way that other iniatives (the dc minx line? shudder) are lacking. Kudoes for all involved

  15. Barry Deutsch Says:

    I have to admit, I hated what I read of this book. It’s not healthy, and there’s no evidence that Lay’s weight-loss plan will work for most people over the long term.

    But the cartooning looks really nice.

  16. Johanna Says:

    I’m glad they’re having that debate at your site, not mine, because I don’t want to get into the whole fat acceptance/”too thin” debate. I appreciated this book because I’m about 10 pounds over where I’d like to be, and I’d rather be reminded to be more active and eat healthier (I eat out a lot, and eat portions that are too big) than have to get a whole new wardrobe. :)

  17. kelly Says:

    I’m with Barry – this book is a nightmare…especially for people with eating disorders. It’s full of triggers and really dangerous stuff – especially for young people. But I left my huge “real” comment over on his site not yours Johanna – I understand why you might not appreciate it over here. :)

  18. Rivkah Says:

    Hsifeng: I have to admit that reading and seeing more of this book makes me want to make an actual comic book on nutrition and health. As soon as I saw the obsession with counting calories on all the preview pages, I did an about-face. Not only does every person has vastly different caloric needs based on both physical and mental activity (and level of STRESS), but also so does the QUALITY of calories supplied. Honestly, our own bodies tell us better how much we need to eat, what we need to eat, and when, you just have to train them and teach them right.

    What really needs to be out there is a book not on dieting on weight but on NUTRITION and HEALTH. I was raised on Adelle Davis’s “Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit”, and while many of her oddball ideas are currently outdated (or downright dangerous), a lot of her explanations of how the essential nutrients in the body work and interact are phenomenally current, and I’m always amazed when there’s a “new” study put out echoing exactly the things she was saying back in the seventies. A modern take on her method of presentation told in comic format would just … I’d die happy. I mean, I look at people who are obese and I actually see that they are STARVING, because once you know the chemistry it’s easy to point: most fat is water retention which is caused by an inefficient supply of protein which in turn prevents the blood from drawing waste out of cells and depositing it in the urine. No enough protein, too many overrefined sugars, and even if you’re getting exactly the daily recommended allowance of calories that day … you could very very easily still fall into the obese range from water retention alone (not to mention all those sugars get turned into fat if you get overstimulating your pancreas etc…). There’s SO MUCH fascinating chemistry involved in nutrition that could be wonderfully laid out and easily remembered in a visual format.

    Hmm.

    I want to make comic off of this. Now if only there were some good nutritionists out there who used nutrition for health instead of losing weight.

    Btw: My weight loss (I was 114 at 5’7″) was because of stress. I was eating perfectly those two years, but I was also in a horrific relationship (bad enough, I’m already writing a book about THAT) and depending on the amount of stress in your daily life … your caloric need can practically DOUBLE.

    Not to mention our brains use 20% of the energy our body produces. So heck, just thinking a lot increases your caloric need.

    Calories are GOOD. Calories are energy. A life spent obsessing over them instead of paying attention to what your body is telling you is not.

  19. Rivkah Says:

    I should probably read my posts before posting them. Oops. Sorry for all the typos. This is why I’m not an editor. :D

  20. Hsifeng Says:

    Johanna Says:

    “I’m glad they’re having that debate at your site, not mine, because I don’t want to get into the whole fat acceptance/’too thin’ debate…”

    I took a look over there and it was an average acceptance/”too thin” debate, not a fat acceptance/”too thin” debate (turns out that Lay is 5’9″ and started the book at only 160 lbs, so she was not fat in the first place). Meanwhile, I still totally understand preferring the debate to be on someone else’s site instead of yours.

    Rivkah Says:

    “Hsifeng: I have to admit that reading and seeing more of this book makes me want to make an actual comic book on nutrition and health…”

    That would be a cool book!

    Rivkah Says:

    “…I mean, I look at people who are obese and I actually see that they are STARVING…”

    This is why there’s more kinds of malnourisment than only undernourishment, right?

    Rivkah Says:

    “There’s SO MUCH fascinating chemistry involved in nutrition that could be wonderfully laid out and easily remembered in a visual format.

    “Hmm…”

    “I want to make comic off of this. Now if only there were some good nutritionists out there who used nutrition for health instead of losing weight.”

    Maybe you could team up with Larry Gonick? You bring the science (like you’re bringing here!), he brings the connections it takes to get a comic book released in the books-in-general market…

    Rivkah Says:

    “…Btw: My weight loss (I was 114 at 5’7″) was because of stress. I was eating perfectly those two years, but I was also in a horrific relationship (bad enough, I’m already writing a book about THAT)…”

    Ouch! Glad to know you’re out of that now!

    Rivkah Says:

    “and depending on the amount of stress in your daily life … your caloric need can practically DOUBLE.

    “Not to mention our brains use 20% of the energy our body produces. So heck, just thinking a lot increases your caloric need.

    “Calories are GOOD. Calories are energy. A life spent obsessing over them instead of paying attention to what your body is telling you is not.”

    Great points!

    At the same time, I’d nitpick over “paying attention to what your body is telling you” because that’s good but not exactly enough. Some individuals inherit instincts about what’s good to eat and what’s not. Others, like human beings and kea birds, not so much. Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma : A Natural History of Four Meals, includes some stuff on how some cultures eventually come up with healthy culinary traditions and some waffle between orthorexia and junk food. Judy Diamond and Alan B. Bond, in Kea, Bird of Paradox : The Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot, include some stuff on how kea chicks inherit instincts for eating anything (because everything in their habitat used to be edible) and fed pre-chewed food by their parents (which means they’re not taught what is food) so now you got kea fledglings roaming rubbish dumps biting into batteries, tissues, rubber bands, flames, etc. (and the ones who live to adulthood eat cars).

  21. Mireille Says:

    Having read the book now myself, I have to say that I did enjoy it overall even though there’s clear calorie obsession (something that can get you into real trouble mentally) and some slight missinformation about fruit/vegetables/why opt for several small meals a day.
    What I did find kinda funny, or interresting, was that looking at her sample daily menus, they were decidedly low carb. It was more like reading a menu of a maintenance-phase Atkins dieter. :D

    Besides the calorie hoopla, I think it’s an ok book. Most of her advice is pretty good and she does advocate learning about nutrition and not going on quick fix diets but making changes you can live with for the rest of your life. As with anything, it’s always a good idea to get to know something before judging it. :)

  22. Not My Bag » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] memoir, such as the best-known Fun Home or Persepolis or those combined with advice, such as The Big Skinny. Not My [...]

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