Body Image, Beauty Mags And The Biggest Loser: An Interview With Valerie FrankelWomen feel terrible about their bodies. After over a year at Jezebel, I know this is an incontrovertible fact. And yes, there are the blessed few out there who are free from self-loathing, but they are few and far between and I know this because I read your comments. Anytime we post something even remotely pertaining to weight, there are electronic reams of stories about calorie cutting and size shifting and pound comparing and well, pain. I bought Valerie Frankel's memoir Thin Is The New Happy because of a review that Rachel Kramer Bussel wrote of the book on Amazon. "As someone who has struggled with my weight, dieted, and mainly, worried about my appearance, I've read plenty of weight loss memoirs, and will continue to do so, I'm sure," Bussel wrote. "I can safely say that while Frankel's overall message (don't diet, eat what you want) isn't new, her approach, humor, frankness and willingness to dig deep are something unexpected."While I feared pat and tired "love your body" platitudes, I decided to read the book anyway. And just as Rachel said, it was full of humor and honesty and emotional depth, and it made me want to interview Frankel (who conveniently lives a ten minute walk from my apartment). The main reason Frankel decided to finally tackle what she calls her "dieting addiction" once and for all was because her two daughters, Maggie and Lucy, were reaching puberty. "It's my goal to instill this happiness and comfort in my daughters' skin so that they're never distracted from their real goals with this shit," Frankel told me. "The decades I have lost on negative thoughts and negative behaviors with the self-loathing, it's just a waste of time." More insight from Valerie on body image, lady mags, mothers and daughters below. Jezebel: You worked at Mademoiselle and wrote about both positive and negative experiences you've had with women's magazines. At Jezebel we seem to love and hate women's magazines in equal measures, and I wonder if it's possible to consume that sort of media in a way that's not destructive. Valerie Frankel: As awful as it was at the beginning (see Dodai's earlier post about the coked-out calorie counting), once the original editor who hired me left, working at Mademoiselle was really was awesome at the end. It was amazing and that's why it probably didn't last. I think of my daughters reading women's magazines, I try to teach them to be a little cynical about the way the material is presented, to be a little savvy about the relationship between editorial and advertising. And they learn that because of living with me and my having been in this business so long. That being said [my daughter] Maggie loves all of it. Teen Vogue and Seventeen, the number of teen titles is dwindling daily but she loves it all and wants it all. And she probably reads the way that most people read it, for the fashion and the beauty. She did say this one crazy thing she wanted to take swim lessons because she read in one of the teen magazines that guys consider girls who swim, 'hot.' This is why you want to take swim? She said it wasn't, but it was part of the package. And in terms of my consuming women's magazines, I'm sort of aged out of a large portion of them. I don't read them for fashion and beauty. It's going to sound dowdy and ridiculous but at this point I really do read them for the recipes. Jezebel: In the book, you do an experiment where you count the number of negative thoughts you had about your body in a single day. I wanted to try that experiment before I met with you, but I was too scared. Valerie Frankel: I started writing this book when I was 41, and now I'm 43, and I definitely felt like in the process of writing the book I had to reach a certain level of maturity to deal with this stuff. It was also having kids of a certain age and not wanting them to make the same mistakes, and I didn't want to make the same mistakes my mother made [Frankel's mother criticized her weight endlessly]. Jezebel: I know you wrote a lot about being teased mercilessly about your weight in middle school, and I wonder if things are worse for girls your daughters' age because the ideal has become smaller and smaller since you were a tween. Valerie Frankel: As the nation gets fatter, the ideal standard gets smaller, because it becomes that much more impossible to attain. There are the girls for whatever reason are the targets, and I still see that in my daughters' school. And it seems to be established pretty early, I was a target in the seventh grade, and it stuck, even regardless of what my weight was in any given year. I wrote about it in the book. My parents forced me to go on optifast, which is this experimental liquid protein diet, and I did lose weight. I was officially underweight, but I don't think anyone ever saw me with any kind of perspective. I was still the target, the fat girl. There were fat girls at my school who became full-blown anorexics, like walking skeletons, scary ass shit. And they had been targets about being fat, and then when they lost all that weight they were targets for being skeletal and too thin. That's just the way it was forever. Jezebel: You talked earlier about having to reach a certain level of maturity before being able to work on your body image. How long did that process of purging the negativity take? Valerie Frankel: The writing process was a full year, and it's been a year since then. I would say I feel stronger all the time, and more conscious. You go in and out, and sometimes I feel like I'm losing control of it again, but then I wrest control back. Because I did a shitload of work. Emotional work, and my goals were emotional. Just reframing it that way. My goals were not about losing weight or running a certain distance, they were wholly emotional. Jezebel: Sometimes I watch the Biggest Loser and it seems like with that show and most of the other weight loss shown in pop culture, it's all about image. They never address any of the emotional stuff. Valerie Frankel I watch it too! They never focus on it on The Biggest Loser except for this one episode. Did you see the one, with Jillian's mother who is a shrink? It was such a crazy episode. Jillian's mother is a shrink who deals with eating issues and body image, and her mother came on and did little sessions, which of course were taped. And one guy went on and admitted that he had been abused sexually and physically and probably verbally, and hello! It was way too intense. They never did it again. My theory was to get to the root of everything about body image for me, and get square on that, and move forward. And I think it's great and everyone should do it. It really works. Jezebel: I have to be honest, when I first read about your book I thought it was just going to be another book about weight loss touting the same superficial "love yourself" message that is never helpful. I mean, obviously if just telling people to love themselves worked, the dieting industry would be out of business. But your book wasn't like that. Valerie Frankel:There's nothing about dieting in it. It's not about food, it's about body image. This is a true memoir, it's not a real time memoir that are so popular now, like "my year of losing weight" or something. It's about everything, the present and the past and melding the two. Just in terms of the writing of this book as a discovery process, I knew that body image had been a major theme of my life, but I was shocked when in the course of writing I discovered that it had influenced every major decision in my life. Marriages and career, and parenting, and just everything. I mean everything. Everything I wore, everything I did. Just everything. And that alone was such a shock, and made me want to live the rest of my life differently. Jezebel: How did the thought process go? Valerie Frankel: I went back for the earlier chapters, I took a deep breath and plunged into those painful things from my past. Despite the fact that I had been a writer for 25 years and have probably written millions of words, have never written about the mother stuff, or the junior high stuff. And it was interesting to hear the reaction of friends. They were all 'I can't believe you were such a loser in junior high.' It was so this part of my past that I suppressed, and all the mother stuff. I mean, my old friends who were there, they knew. But my mother and I have such a close relationship despite this one area. It just seemed so weird, so many people were like, how can you even talk to her? But it's complicated. Jezebel: Mother daughter relationships always are. Valerie Frankel:It made me think about my fiction too. A lot of the mother daughter relationships I've written about have kind of been one-dimensional because I hadn't been able to deal with the anger part of it. I had to unlock it. I'm working on a novel now and I'm finding it much easier to go to those dark places. I had written comedy for so many years and I wondered, why? It also helped me get to those dark places that I had suppressed when my husband died [Frankel's first husband died of cancer in November 2000]. I don't know if you have anyone close to you who died, but it's very difficult to let yourself think in terms of anything being insincere about the relationship or the relationship having any flaws. It's like as soon as somebody died, everything has to be wrapped in this sort of golden glow. I idealized that marriage for a long time because I couldn't go there. Not just writing about, but thinking about, things I just had not allowed myself to deal with. And it was crazy, just typing and crying and everything built on itself. Jezebel: Anytime we bring up issues of weight at Jezebel I read the comments from our readers and they're always so deeply sad. There is a lot of self-loathing there, and I just wish there is a way we could all — myself included — discuss these issues without being so hard on ourselves. Valerie Frankel: I think in this culture it's impossible to not care about your weight. But you have to understand, one of the key themes in the book, and it was a major, light bulb moment for me, is that weight is a distraction from the real problems, and what really matters in your life. It's a convenient distraction. It's not going to go away. You think about your weight instead of your abusive boyfriend or your job that's not going anywhere or that you don't know what you want to do with your life. And I realized it through a lot of really bad times in my life, obsessing about weight was a way to not deal with other issues. Jezebel: It sounds like it was almost a comfort for you. Valerie Frankel: It is a comfort. I wasn't an emotional eater, I was an emotional dieter. Like dieting itself was the addiction I thought that if I went cold turkey on dieting, I would just be lost in a store. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. And I think when all that stuff goes away, when you stop dieting and stop obsessing, you create an emotional vacuum and something has to rush into it. It can be positive things. I think you can strengthen your relationships or get somewhere in your career or write that novel or run the marathon or whatever your real goals are if you just stop obsessing about your weight. And you might gain five pounds, but you'll have written a novel. My bad self-image hasn't affected too much of the trajectory of my life overall, but I just would have been a lot happier for a long time. I would love it if my daughters' generation of girls weren't distracted from their goals by thinking about this shit. Just think of what you all can do if you don't have this one thing. Thin Is The New Happy Valerie Frankel's Palace Of Love [Valerie Frankel Official Website] Earlier: The Last Days Of Mademoiselle: Cocaine, Cigarettes & Calorie Counts