I like Carol Lay’s work a lot. I’ve always enjoyed the clever, biting wit she employs in her weekly comic strip and her clean angular cartoon style that that seems oh so simple but you know requires a good deal of effort to achieve.
I’m kind of ambivalent about her latest graphic novel, The Big Skinny, however. It’s full of good common sense advice and the sort of graceful, funny cartooning I’ve come to expect from her, but it’s also a bit smug and self-righteous at times, so assured that it’s advice is the best that it doesn’t really attempt to win you over as much as it does knock you down.
Skinny is part memoir, part how-to diet guide and part cookbook. For the first half of the book, Lay chronicles her own struggles with weight loss, detailing how her feelings of inadequacy and neglect led to her frequently binging on unhealthy, fattening food. It makes for a surprisingly moving section and Lay is able to win a good deal of reader sympathy; no doubt a lot of people had similar food issues as Lay at some point in their lives.
The second half of the book is about how she managed to take off the weight and keep it off, and she offers plentiful advice to those who seek to follow a similar path. She discusses calorie counting and how to keep track of amounts while traveling or when you simply aren’t around a calculator, ways to find fulfilling activities outside of food, and healthy alternatives to the fattening food we tend consume without thinking. (Lay’s stories of her friends snack habits are the most frightening — and, honestly, my favorite — sections in the book).
It’s here that she starts to edge towards diet zealotry. Lay speaks as one of the converted; food was ruining her life and it wasn’t until she took complete control of her eating habits that she was able to turn her life around. It’s not too surprising therefore that she, for example, takes a hard line approach towards alcohol, meat and dairy products, more or less banning them from her house and not so subtly encouraging readers to do the same. She does so in a friendly, easygoing manner, but there’s still a bit of a “my way is the best” attitude that, though genial, pervades the book and sets my back teeth on edge.
In general her advice is sensible — assuming you’re a single, childless person who lives in a large urban area and works at home in a relatively low-stress field. Let’s face it, 21st century America is not a place designed to encourage us to eat wisely or well. There are a number of very large barriers in our way to effective weight loss beyond mere apathy and sloth, and it would have been nice if Lay had made more of an effort to effectively acknowledge that.
Still, it’s hard to chastise Lay for offering what is basically smart advice. We are, as the nightly news constantly reminds us, by and large a nation of overweight people who have junk food thrown in our faces on a regular basis. That Lay wants to offer a healthier option is admirable, especially when it’s presented in such a breezy and informative (if passively-aggressive stern) fashion.
Certainly I’ll give her credit for this much: She had me thinking about what and how much I eat in greater detail and with more care than I ever had before. That alone is probably worthy of merit. I don’t know if I’m ready to start hitting the treadmill and throwing away my ice cream, but she’s got me thinking about it. That’s more than those SlimFast commercials ever did.
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