Fat Girl Walking: Book Review and Interview

Fat Girl WalkingBy Laurie Fundukian

 

Brittany Gibbons is a woman who speaks her mind, and her mind is hilarious. She has decided to make people uncomfortable and change the societal mandate that fat women need to be hidden and put in their place. Agree with her or not, there is no denying that she is a terrific writer with a unique voice. She has built a career, relationship, and family, all while being fat, which I think she would like to not be her first identifier some day, but knows that day has not arrived just yet–but she’s workin’ on it. I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her book and life, and she is very funny, down to earth, and smart. When I asked her who her heroes were, telling her that her husband couldn’t be one, she replied: “I wouldn’t say him. He’s great, but… I’d say Gilda Radner and Lucille Ball.” Gibbons is a gifted storyteller, and her humor always shines through, even when recounting some painful times in her life, such as a mental breakdown she had in college. She certainly has the funny bone and the “before her time” label in common with her two heroes. They were pioneers, and Brittany, who calls herself an “accidental activist,” is a pioneer and hero for women, too.

Gibbons was raised in Ohio and was a heavy child, about which she writes: “Being an overweight child in the 1980s is nothing like it is now. We weren’t tagged like animals and targeted on billboards or news stories about GMOs and high-fructose corn syrup. We flew under the radar with no real concern about athleticism or portion size…. Fat was a normal body shape for me, and after seeing my parents in their underwear, I knew thin was just not going to be in the cards.”

Gibbons found her voice when she started blogging and discovered she had a knack for it, though her career goals were not mapped out early on. She first went to college at Ohio State University with her then-boyfriend (now husband, Andy, who she profiles deeply in the book, as they met as teens and are still together), and they ended up living together, but his plans changed and he moved before she graduated. She found herself slipping into depression, which resulted in her not going to class or dealing with the outside world. It ended with her parents and Andy rescuing her and bringing her home, where she tried jobs such as working with kids at a camp, before eventually marrying Andy and having three kids.

Gibbons inherited both weight issues and mental-health issues from her mother. She explains in the book that her mother “had all the makings of a slender woman, long fingers and small hips, but due to severe bouts of depression, spent most of her youth and adulthood at varying degrees of obesity. When she was stressed or upset, we ate more. When she was happy and upbeat, we ate more expensive food. I walked away from this combination with the pale porcelain skin of an Irish woman, a mental state that self-medicated with food, and the thighs of Hulk Hogan. I was fat because it was really easy for me to be fat.”

Her first blog was called Curvy Girl, but after a couple of years and some revelations, she realized that the title, in itself, was doing the very thing to skinny women that she hated to have done to overweight women–alienating them for a specific body type. Now she sees herself as writing for women, period, though she certainly still stands up for the curvy women. Her blog is now called Brittanyherself, and she is also quite the engaging Twitter follow. People also know her for a Ted Talk, during which she makes a call for acceptance of all female bodies and, to put her money where her mouth is, strips down to her underwear. She wants people to stop being shocked and disgusted by women’s bodies if they’re not skinny models, and has mentioned that when she forces herself to do things like that, or wear a bikini in Times Square as part of a Good Morning America segment, she gets closer to confidence and acceptance. Watch her Ted Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBrKgUR_iyQ. Interestingly enough, she told me that she never has been able to watch it.

She is also known for the sex challenge she took on with her husband, about which she spoke on several television shows. They had sex every day for a whole year, which is not an easy feat, especially with young children. She covers it in the book, but I asked her what happened when the year ended. She said that “the quantity definitely went down, but the quality was there and we had developed more intimacy.” Brittany mentioned that the questions she gets the most at speaking engagements are about sex, mostly, “what did you do when you had your period?!” And also some random ones such as what Hogwarts house she thinks she would be in.

Gibbons did not write about food a lot in the book. When I asked about this, she told me that she didn’t want to be cliché and write about what people would expect a fat girl to talk about, which is food. She pointed out that she does mention a penchant for Oreos and Pepsi, and it just adds fuel to the fire–the people who want to play her doctor focus in on that. When she got nasty comments, she just said, “see?” She just knew some people would fixate on those unhealthy food choices and make comments about it on social media. And yes, she is aware that Pepsi and Oreos are bad for you. The book is about so much more than just being overweight and trying to change perceptions of that–there really is something in it for everyone, be it her family’s bankruptcy due to a job loss (a cautionary tale about how young people got excited about living grown-up lives and then things took a turn), or the story of her college breakdown, or the horrors of childbirth and thereafter. The way she lays it all out about having babies may scare some, while others will find it refreshingly honest. This all gave the book so much more depth that I think the title may be a bit misleading. But being comfortable in your skin can mean many things, I’m sure. The point is, the book is not just about weight, is very little about dieting (though she chronicles her mishaps and trials with diet pills), and is more about the ups and downs of being a woman in today’s world.

I chided Gibbons for not being an example for my college writing students, because she did not graduate college (“yet,” I said) but is a natural writer. Normally, good writers are readers, so I asked her what she reads, which is mostly nonfiction. She took a foray into fiction recently with The Girl on the Train, which I reviewed earlier this year for Thrive. She had this to say about it: “It was strange. The whole time, I was thinking that it wasn’t real, because I normally read stories that are true.” This is a woman who is based in reality, not fiction, and that’s how she approaches things.

I told her that she seems to be on top of the world these days, what with the book, blog, and other successes, so I asked if she ever has bouts of depression or anxiety like she did in college, even with her support system and sense of self overcoming all of that, and she said she does. But she knows her triggers, and has a good doctor who helps her keep in tune. A writer tends to keep late hours, and book tours can be busy, all of which she acknowledges can lead to anxiety, but the difference now is that she knows what to do and does it. All in all, she is a woman who seems to really know herself and doesn’t put up with much bull. I did ask her about health, because though I respect her stance on being yourself and not beating yourself up, I think she is young and healthy and the effects of being overweight haven’t hit her yet (the bad knees, bad back, diabetes risk, etc.) In fact, there is a funny part in her book that compares people who act like they are doctors to “douche bag guys” who wear t-shirts during spring break that say “Part-time Gynecologist.” She only had this to say: “It is important to respect your body in any form, and that will lead to feeling healthier and happier.”

She is proud that her book doesn’t end like most books about weight issues, where the writer has lost 100 pounds and everything is now great. Brittany told me that she actually weighs more now than when she began writing it, and the only thing she has in common with the writers of the other books is that she is still successful regardless. These days, she is still blogging, thinking about future books, and running a summer camp for adults that is becoming very popular in Ohio. I asked her if she will stay in Ohio, now that she has traveled and experienced some fame, and she said yes, because “it’s a kinder and nicer place, and I love the Midwest.” The summer camp (http://www.campthrowback.com/) in Ohio, run by Brittany and Andy, is taking reservations for summer 2016–looks like a blast. While speaking and conducting book signings, Brittany is happy to see women bringing their daughters and is interested in helping women globally. She recognizes that the little things we allow as women add up to big issues and she’s in the trenches working on that. But it’s not just women she cares about. On June 26, the day that the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal, she reminded her Twitter fans that she is ordained and can perform weddings. I asked her if anyone has taken her up on it, and she said one reader has. She was invited to the reception–she was honored and had a good time. The ordination started off as a joke with her friends, but in what seems like her style, she went for it, just as she does with the honesty in her book. Here’s an excerpt from the book that shows that spirit off.

My fitness and body aspirations at thirty are different from my aspirations at twenty. At twenty, I just assumed I’d work out until I was so tiny, people became concerned for my health and I’d roll my eyes at them from my Victoria’s Secret bras and Abercrombie jeans. Now I just want to maintain my current weight so I don’t need to buy new clothes. When you look at weight loss, it’s often clothing driven. Weddings, vacations, and high school reunions, all things you are supposed to be thin for. But what if you have a gorgeous wedding dress in your current size, loads of flattering bathing suits, and a killer pair of jeans? Starving myself has suddenly become a moot point. I have options; I’m no longer a fashion pariah. So where does that leave my weight? Well, unless I’m sitting atop you, what I weigh is really none of your business.

I like to put good food in my mouth, and while I am aware of the calories I ingest, instead of cutting them I make them count. I have a full-on love affair with food, appreciating the different cultures and processes within it. In fact, I take entire vacations around eating. It’s how I remember where I’ve been; I’ve either eaten, thrown up, or started my period without the proper supplies there.

Beignets with my best friend in New Orleans. Too much rum on the beaches of Playa del Carmen on our second honeymoon. Orlando, Florida, the city of emergency men’s tube sock maxi-pads.

You see, these flabby parts aren’t problem areas; they’re parts of a scrapbook.