(sorta) book review: read my hips by kim brittingham
Kim Brittingham begins Read My Hips by talking about a photo of herself taken when she was fifteen.
When she saw this particular picture, she was so revolted by the way she looked, in particular the size of her hips, that in a pre-Photoshop solution to body hatred, she used a black marker to drew herself a whole new shape.
Then, fuelled by self-disgust, she put herself on a strict new diet and exercise regime, which took up a huge amount of time and started an obsession with food and weight that continued for many years as she yo-yo-ed between skinny and not-so-skinny, peaking at 310 pounds.
In 2008, looking through a box of photos, she found her “fat picture”. She wiped off the black marker with a cloth and was surprised to find… she looked fine. Perfectly proportioned.
She just hadn’t been able to see it at the time.
Boy, do I relate. I hated every photo of me taken in my teens and early twenties… until years later.
I was thin, too. But I couldn’t see it, either.
At the time the above photo was taken, I was obsessed with the size of my hips. (If someone had told me that tapered jeans, calf-length skirts and flat shoes were making them look out of proportion when they weren’t, it would have helped a lot. Still: how fat could I have been and still fitted into a UK 12 (US 8)?)
I didn’t diet as a teen, but I had short-lived fads: I read my mum’s Weight Watchers books (she joined to lose 10 pounds) and tried to follow Rosemary Conley for a day, until I realised her exercise regime was punishing and she didn’t even allow for margarine. (I’m still not convinced that she doesn’t hate women.) I did step aerobics every week but always had a bag of Maltesers afterwards. My weight stayed more or less the same.
Then I went to university and lost my puppy fat: my face slimmed down as if by magic. A year later, I got a chronic illness and had to drop out of uni. Without regular access to alcohol, I dropped two dress sizes. Was I happy with how I looked?
Hmm. Let’s just say that when this next photo was taken, most of my clothing was UK 10 (US 6)… and I thought my thighs were unforgivably huge:
I was delusional.
When I actually started to put on weight in my late twenties, it took me a while to realise it. I’m still surprised by it, the fact that my body doesn’t look the way I expect it to when I look in the mirror.
I hate my stomach, my thighs, and my hips. But what’s new?
I’ve felt the same way about my body since puberty. Like its this lumbering beast I’m forced to drag around. The thing that keeps my brain going. A side effect of my mind.
I’m much fatter now, but I’m only marginally more disgusted with my body than I was at 13 or 15 or 24. I’ve always thought I should be ashamed of how I looked.
But what if I shouldn’t? What if none of us should, no matter how much we weigh?
That’s the bold message Kim Brittingham wants us to take from her book. Read My Hips (subtitle: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large) is a call to arms — actually, a call to accept our arms, flabby bits and all.
She wants us to wake up to our conditioning, to the messages enforced by the media and everyone around us, and to realise that we can love ourselves regardless.
She also has some great (and alarming) insights into the diet industry, not least from her time working at “Edie Jejeune”, a weight loss company that sounds similar to Jenny Craig, and which was much (much!) more concerned with the bottom line than the size of its clients bottoms (thighs, hips, bums…) and even less bothered about their psychological well being.
Brittingham invites us to understand that the diet industry is just that: an industry, a conveyor belt. If it worked, it wouldn’t be an effective business model. (Luckily for those in the business, it fails at least 90% of the time.)
Brittingham’s anger is justifiable and her passion is really well communicated (there were times when I found myself shouting “Yeah!” and “Damn right, too!” as I read) but I felt a hint of bitterness creeping in to some of her stories. Although she was certainly jerked about by a website who changed their stance on covering dieting in order to get advertising and she was treated horribly by a PR firm who discriminated against her because of her size (despite loving her writing) these anecdotes felt more about score-settling than storytelling.
I’m of the (possibly outdated) belief that the best memoirs make the author look as bad as anyone else, because we all need to own our roles in stuff that happens to us, because a little self-deprecation is endearing, and because it’s more fair to the people you’re writing about (however mean they are) as they can’t answer back.
But on the whole, I found this an interesting read, and think it’s a very important one. It presented me with a point a view that is out of the ordinary, so different from anything I’ve heard before.
Yes, we can
It really made me think about things like how often I and other women say we “can’t wear” something. What we really mean is we think we’d look too unattractive if we did. And what that really means is we’re worried other people will think we’re too unattractive. End result: we don’t do the things we want to do because of what other people might possibly think or say about us.
The idea of wearing something or doing something and not caring about what other people think is something I understand in theory, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really grasped the reality of it.
And I don’t think this is an individual neurosis. I think it’s something we’re encouraged to feel. Even thin women are constantly monitored by society and in the media, to make sure they don’t transgress aesthetically, by sweating or not plucking their eyebrows or gaining a few pounds.
But the more people who question this status quo, the better.
In case you’re twitching with panic at the thought of this fat woman encouraging us all to sit around stuffing our faces, laughing as we watch the weigh pile on, that’s really not the point.
The point is that as women, we talk about food and weight so much (seriously, everywhere, all the time). This book is an escape from the same inane chatter. It’s not about losing weight. It’s not about not losing weight. It’s about loving yourself either way. And it’s about choosing for yourself, not letting society dictate how much you weigh or what you’re “allowed” to do because of it.
I want some more
I’m not a fan of the idea, often seen in TV shows and films, that someone can let go of long-held hang-ups or deep buried emotions just by changing something superficial, so I was a bit wary of the bits of the book where it seemed like Brittingham was suggesting this was possible. (One where she channels Marilyn Monroe’s sexuality and confidence and people stop to notice her for the first time, and one where she takes a sexy photo of herself, to appreciate her curves.)
But she goes on to talk about self-acceptance as a long process, and it becomes clear that these anecdotes are just two of the many suggestions Brittingham has for overcoming self-hatred. As hard as it was for me to read some parts of this book, to accept how much I relate to them, I feel more confident that I can get there one day, with people like Brittingham leading the way.
There are a lot of books about self-acceptance, whatever your weight. But a lot of those books seem end with the author losing weight, or encouraging the reader to, as if self-acceptance was a schtick, not a goal in itself.
What Brittingham preaches is truly radical, in both senses of the word.
(Shorter) book review: Keris Stainton writes fast, funny, feminist YA romantic comedy fiction, and her latest book Jessie ♥ NYC is so makes-you-want-to-go-to-New-York yearny, I would have hated it if I didn’t enjoy it so much. Yes, she’s my friend and putting me in the acknowledgements didn’t hurt her chances of me talking it up, but I’d recommend it anyway. (I paid for my own copy and everything.)
Thanks to Three Rivers Press for my review copy of Read My Hips and to my overdraft for Jessie ♥ NYC.
ETA: Sorry! Forgot to mention: comments are still broken. More about that in my next post, but I have a solution, just need to implement it. It’s gonna take some time/energy…