If you were to guess which two people co-wrote a diet book titled The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (and Won’t Tell You), who would first come to mind? Susan Orlean and Patricia Marx? Wow! You’re really good at guessing games.
Long-story skinny, this semi-tongue-in-cheek guide was published in 1999, just a few months after Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. While The Orchid Thief was praised as “whimsical yet sophisticated,” The Skinny was received in a way that reflected the strange taboo of (smart! intelligent! writerly!) women talking about diets and attractiveness: It was mildly ridiculed, ignored, and then drifted from sight to become an out-of-print curiosity.
Rachael Maddux, at Slate, spoke to Orlean about the book, and it’s a fantastic interview about women and societal expectations. Orlean speaks about the original goals of The Skinny:
I think what we were trying to do — and you can definitely argue whether we succeeded or not — was to be honest about what we saw. We looked at all our friends, who were all very stable, progressive, intelligent successful people, and they all, across the board, would admit readily to thinking a lot about their weight. It was almost like talking about money. The truth is, everybody thinks about it.
But just because everyone does it doesn’t mean writing about diets was appreciated or considered appropriate, she continues:
That’s why I do feel that it’s sort of in its own way liberating to say to women, “You don’t need to feel guilty if you actually think about this stuff. It’s natural.” When does it ever end, that women aren’t made to feel bad about things that they think about and feel? I’d like to look great and make no effort. But then you feel guilty that you care about it, and then you feel bad that you care about feeling bad about it, and then you just think, “Wow, it never ends.”
So, that’s the truth about Skinny: Susan Orlean’s tips about being thin are actually coded arguments against unreasonable societal restraints on women.