Q&A: Talking Body Image Secrets With Author Diana Spechler

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“My least favorite feeling in the world is feeling too fat to be seen. I want to lock myself up until I’m thin again.” That’s a typical comment on the website Body Confessions, recently launched by novelist Diana Spechler.

Spechler, whose new book Skinny comes out on April 26, created the site to give people a place to voice the true depths of their feelings about their bodies, anonymously to strangers. So far, thousands of people have responded — from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia — and the results, which are sometimes disturbing and sometimes inspiring, offer a fascinating glimpse into women’s (yes, it’s mostly women) attitudes about their bodies. (Or about other women’s bodies: “Sometimes when I see a woman fatter than me, I’m glad she’s making me look better.”)

Healthland spoke with Spechler about her own struggles with body image and her experience researching Skinny, which is set in a weight-loss camp.

Q: Tell me about the genesis of Body Confessions.

A: Five or six years ago, I decided to write a book that took place at a weight-loss camp. What always happens to me when I’m writing anything new is that there are conscious reasons and unconscious reasons for my doing it.

The conscious reason was [my thinking about how] everyone around me has body issues — I can’t think of a single person I know who is healthy about eating. And weight-loss camps are these microcosms of how we relate to eating and to our bodies, so it was a great place to study all my questions: what is wrong with us? Why are we obsessed with our bodies? Why can’t we stop eating? Why can’t we lose weight as a country?

So I decided to write the book and realized that I’d need to work at a weight-loss camp to do it. So I did — I applied to all these camps to teach creative writing. This guy hired me, and I spent the summer there, and it was amazing.

Q: Did you tell them that you had an ulterior motive?

I didn’t tell my employer. I was undercover. I asked all my nonfiction friends if it was O.K., if it wasn’t unethical, and they said it was O.K. I didn’t want to tell people, so they would act differently.

It was like the story had written itself: I showed up and was told, “You’re going to teach water aerobics, not creative writing.” So I became this fitness guru in my mind. I kept telling my agent, “This thing is writing itself.” But then I got home and I couldn’t write. I was blocked. The unconscious reason [for wanting to write this book] was why: I have body image issues. I’ve had them forever.

I was going to have to really open a vein and tap into my real motivation for writing this. And I didn’t want to look — I didn’t want to attribute my own behavior to my characters. But everything I was writing felt really flat. In the end, the writing trumped the need to hide. The whole thing came out. I kept saying to myself, “I don’t have to publish this,” and that allowed me to write freely. I wound up writing a pretty graphic book about body disorders. It was so freeing. And I felt better and not burdened because I had gotten my secrets out.

I don’t want to say I was cured, but I got much better. I have a better handle on my hunger and satiety than I’ve ever had before in my life. I feel so relieved, so much better. And I wanted to give that back to the world. I wanted other people to be able to confess anonymously (because in attributing my own issues to the characters, I was doing it anonymously).

The way I set up the site, no one can comment [on other people’s contributions]. So everyone can have the benefit of writing without having anyone say, “That’s gross.” You know how the Internet becomes a—hole nation when there’s a comment section. So the only feature that I decided to add was a button that you can click that says “Been There” — just something supportive.

Q: What has the response been like?

A: It’s been 99% really positive. The confessions just come in a steady stream and now there are thousands, which shows that there’s a need for this.

But there has been some controversy on [eating disorder] recovery blogs because of two things: Some people think [Body Confessions] is triggering, meaning that it makes people fall back into their eating disorder. The other [criticism] is that it’s not good to focus on negative thoughts, and that focusing on negative body image perpetuates it.

So, regarding the first complaint, I feel that if there’s something that is making you feel bad, you should not do it. Just don’t do it. There are thousands of other websites out there.

The other concern I totally disagree with because there are so many deceptive messages out there that come from the food industry and government: how we should look at food and our bodies. If we sit around and say we love everything about our bodies and the way we eat, we’re lying to ourselves. If we say, “Oh, we love our bodies because they work and they allow me to walk around,” sure, there’s an element of our brains that feels that way, but there is also a large part that can have negative thoughts. So it’s almost like the morality police come in and tell you you can’t have these thoughts. Frankly, that’s far more triggering in my opinion — hiding things, keeping things in.

I’ll give you an example. We’ve all heard women say things like: “Oh, my God, I’ve eaten half a jar of peanut butter because of my PMS,” and that’s socially acceptable, sort of cute even. But you would never meet someone at a party or walk into work and say, “I just binged at an all you can eat buffet and I feel terrible about myself.” It’s too dark. And hiding it compounds our shame.

The food lobby tells us: eat whatever you want and then go to the gym. If you can’t do that, go for a walk every day. That’s ridiculous. If you’re on the elliptical machine for half an hour, you’ve burned half a cookie.

There’s a dysfunctional relationship between the food industry and the diet industry: there’s advertising for food everywhere, food in gas stations, work meetings, the movies. Then we gain weight because we eat when we aren’t hungry, just because everything is around us. Then there’s the diet industry to be, like, “Take this pill, take this potion, go for a walk to get some exercise.” It won’t work.

Q: Has the site met your expectations?

A: I didn’t know what to expect because I thought that the things that were really interesting to me wouldn’t necessarily be interesting to other people. I wondered if anyone was going to post. One thing I expected was a more even split of men and women. It’s a lot more women. I don’t know why I thought that men would write, when obviously women are so much more targeted in body image issues. [As for] the content, I guess I don’t know if I was surprised, but I was simultaneously pleased, because people are writing, and distraught to see how much pain is around these issues.

Q: Where do you envision Body Confessions going from here?

A: So far, this is the plan and I just hope to find more and more people to find out about it and use it. I want to change the dialogue in this country: I don’t want people to have to lie about this. There’s an obesity epidemic, girls are getting eating disorders younger and younger, obesity is starting younger.

Something is very, very wrong and I think that [we need] voices that are combating dishonest voices that say, “Take the stairs instead of the elevator” or “Use your willpower and don’t eat that cookie.” These messages are not true. And they are hurting us, and hurting women. My sort-of lofty goal is to change that. People focus on these positive messages, but I have thousands of confessions that say otherwise.

Q: What advice would you like to see out there instead?

We need honesty to combat all the deceptiveness. For example, there’s a great book called The End of Overeating — and other similar books — that talk about how as a society, we had to work to make smoking uncool, to undo the damage of “cool” smoking imagery (i.e., the Marlboro Man), and how we need to somehow do the same with industrialized food. If we can make people think “Yuck” instead of “Yum” when they see fast food, that’s a step. But it’s only a small step. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t have great answers, but I do think that if we can shift the national dialogue in certain ways, like the one I mentioned, and keep focusing on nutrition education for children and families, we’re on the right track. Or at least on a better track.