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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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12/29/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: Alternate Beauty"

Alternate Beauty
By Andrea Rains Waggener
Published by Bantam Dell, August 2005

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

I don't know when I've enjoyed a more satisfying read! Such a simple story; at least it starts out that way, with an overweight woman, Ronnie Tremayne, who dreams of being a fashion designer. But she has to settle for being a saleswoman in a plus-size boutique because she lacks confidence, thanks to a perfectionist Rich Bitch mother who starves herself to remain a perfect size 10, as well as the daily insults she and every other fat person has to endure from a society that equates thin with beautiful. It all comes to a head when Mommy Dearest informs Ronnie that her boss, an overweight woman herself, is thinking of letting her go because the customers at Luscious Landing Large Women's Clothing Boutique find her weight "disturbing". How can fat women find another fat woman disturbing? Poor Ronnie is only a size 28! Compared to some of the human hippos I've seen taking up two bus seats, she sounds positively girlish!

Nevertheless, this final blow to her fragile self-esteem causes Ronnie to go home that evening and pig out on leftover lasagna and fried rice. Afterwards, she lies in bed surrounded by comforting calories - Doritos, Oreos, Whoppers, Ritz crackers, peanut butter and guacamole--while she watches a videotaped episode of that day's "Oprah Winfry Show", where Ms. Winfry interviews the author of a self-esteem book called Connecting with Your Authentic Self. A woman in the audience stands up and announces she has just lost fifty pounds and is finally connecting with her authentic self, even finally loving herself, now that she's slender and happy. The rest of the audience bursts into applause, but Ms. Winfry, who has suffered from obesity herself in the past, interrupts with some much needed words of wisdom: "I don't want to diminish your accomplishment, but I also don't want people to get the wrong idea here. Happiness doesn't come only in size eight. In fact, there are a lot of pretty unhappy size eights out there. The key to happiness is loving yourself, and self-love comes from within. It took me most of my life to get that. All of you looking out there someplace for the key to happiness, you're looking in the wrong place. The key's in here." And she taps her own bosom.

This makes our plus-size heroine burst into tears and fling food at the TV screen before collapsing on the bed and moaning to her sympathetic cat, "Oprah's wrong. The key to happiness is living in a world where fat is beautiful." She then cries herself to sleep. But when she wakes up, Lo and behold! She finds herself in an alternate universe where fat is, indeed, beautiful. In that world, her fashionably thin and popular next door neighbor is ostracized for being thin, and Ronnie herself is considered a babe. When she walks down the streets of Seattle shaking her bountiful booty (Hey, you can't help jiggling when you're a size 28!), her auburn hair, which she considers her only attractive feature, shining in the sun, a bunch of construction workers start hooting, hollering and whistling at her like she's a hot mama. The Luscious Landing Boutique is an upscale clothing store for all the fashionable women in town, who are all plus-sized and proud of it. Her therapist friend, Alanna MacAuley, is counseling a gorgeous actress who's "a perfect three hundred pounds" but lonely as hell because men are afraid to ask her out and women are too jealous of her to be her friends! Even the commercials on TV glorify fatness the same way that we glorify thinness in this world; a L'Oreal commercial featuring a huge model with glossy red lips and double chins who tells you "I'm worth it!", a commercial for Fatfast (just two shakes a day in addition to your regular meals and you can put on at least two pounds a week!), a Baywatch where the babe's swimsuit could cover the entire cast in this world, a James Bond movie where the Bond Girl could smother two Bonds in this world, and an infomercial for a CD set that helps you act as your own eating coach "to help you get the rolls and lumps you've always wanted", complete with interviews with pretty, skinny women crying because they hate themselves.

Well, our heroine is in hog heaven! Now that she's beautiful and popular, she finally gets enough self-esteem to show her designs to her boss and get her help launching her own fashion line. Her Rich Bitch mother is so proud of her she invites Ronnie to all of her high class parties, where she gets to meet and mingle with the Beautiful People (who are all so fat, you hope that the floor of Mommy's mansion has been reinforced). She's also surrounded by hefty but handsome men who are all dying to take her out and take her to bed. Eventually all this attention starts going to Ronnie's auburn head; she breaks previous engagements with her old girlfriends for these huge hunks, completely ignores the nice, plump but non-famous fellow in the men's wear store next to her boutique who was her boyfriend in this world, but now isn't good enough for her in this new world, and even moves in with a famous photographer she's only known for a few days, who openly admits he can't wait to take her out and show her off. That runs up the first red flag, as she realizes that she has become a sex object, not a person.

More red flags follow when she notices that the slender girls in the local girl's club where she serves as a mentor are being overlooked in favor of the big beauties, and when she sees a skinny waitress being bullied by a fat senator's wife at one of Mommy Dearest's parties, she finds herself reluctant to intervene, where before she was willing to stand up for the underdog, no matter how much it weighed. She also overhears a conversation between two rotund guests at that party about an organization called the WWSP, which she later learns stands for World Wide Sweep Project, whose members want to purge society of thin people the same way that a certain skinny element in this world wants to purge fat people, or anybody perceived as fat. Remember the Russian ballerina who sued the Moscow Ballet, claiming she was fired because they thought she was getting too fat for the male dancers to lift her over their heads? What about airlines that charge overweight people double for taking up two seats? Not to mention the health club that rejected a fat woman for membership because they thought her obesity would clash with the club's healthy image.

Slowly but surely, Ronnie begins to see that being part of the In Crowd carries a hefty price tag. When she finds herself skimping instead of stuffing her face and losing enough weight to be noticeable, people in her new world begin treating her with the same contempt they treated her with in this world. Even her Rich Bitch mother starts criticizing her again, telling her she has no self control and urging her to eat!

The author, who has suffered from a weight problem herself, going from a size 8 to a size 26 during her adult life (she's currently a size 10), is all too familiar with the problems oversized women face in this society. I believe she wrote this story as a way of reassuring all women who hate their weight that they are beautiful, no matter how fat or thin they are. The key to happiness, as Oprah Winfrey said, is not being a perfect size whatever, but being happy with the skin you're in no matter what size it is. As long as you take care of your health and don't let your blood pressure or cholesterol go out of bounds, you can eat whatever you like, within reason, and still be attractive, even if it's only in your own eyes. Of course most women would prefer to be attractive in the eyes of their lovers, which is why the diet industry makes so much money off of us, because they know how desperate we are to be loved. So many men seem to prefer the fashion industry's concept of the Ideal Woman - tall, thin and blonde - that millions of otherwise sensible women try to shoehorn themselves into a size 10 or smaller in the mistaken belief that this will magically make them desirable. Hasn't anybody noticed that most of those petite beauties are unbelievably bitchy, because they never get enough to eat? Or are so wrapped up in themselves that they consider the men on their slender arms to be merely adornments for their beauty?

When I was a teenager at the height of the Women's Liberation Movement, I deliberately cut my long hair short and stopped wearing makeup so that I could be my own woman, not society's idea of a woman. Naturally this did not sit well with my traditional Puerto Rican mother, who was brought up to believe that marriage and motherhood were the only careers for women; how was I going to find a husband if I wasn't pretty? Well, I eventually did get married, and still am, to a man who was able to see my inner beauty when nobody else could, just like Jack Black's character in the movie "Shallow Hal". Which proves that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder; even if you don't consider yourself beautiful, somewhere out there is a person looking for someone just like you. Mind you, this is no reason to be complacent; you still have to make an effort to look good enough to attract this person! But the point that Ms. Waggener and I are trying to make is that you have to love yourself enough to believe that you deserve the love of others. Then it won't matter if you look like Paris Hilton or Roseanne Barr; your inner beauty will shine through whether you wear dresses big enough to cover a picnic table or small enough to cover a picnic basket.

When Ronnie loses enough weight to become a pariah - her rich boyfriend throws her out, her boss fires her, then adds insult to injury by using a hidden clause in their employment contract to steal the new fashion line Ronnie created for oversized women, because this time it's her lack of weight that's considered bad for their image! - she moves back in with Mommy Dearest and has to put up with her verbal barbs as she becomes so depressed she doesn't eat more than enough to keep her alive, thereby losing even more weight. That's when she finds out who her real friends are; the old girlfriends she didn't have time for before, as well as the nice, plump and non-famous fellow who thinks she is beautiful in both worlds, rally round her and help her get back what she lost, her self-esteem and her career as a designer. It's a long road back, but she makes it, with a little help from her friends. She even makes it back to this world eventually, but not before she has a revelation about beauty in all its forms, while she's still learning to love the newly slender body she's in, even as she's mourning for the loss of the big beauty she once was. This ambiguity about one's looks is all too familiar to me and every other woman struggling with her weight; do you believe the good friends who love you the way you are, or the self-appointed arbitrators of fashion, otherwise known as The Beautiful People, The In Crowd, The Cool Kids and other societal tags, who keep telling you you're just not good enough to be one of them? Why do you want to be one of them? Will it really change your life for the better? Or will you just get a whole new set of problems along with your new looks, like Ronnie did?

Thanks to this book, I find myself a lot more relaxed about my weight than I used to be. I even eat chocolate more often than I used to, but not as much as I did before, because I would rather be well-fed and happy than hungry and miserable. The bony beauties with prominent cheekbones who stare at me from the covers of those magazines I never read no longer have the power to intimidate me, because I know that one day they'll be out of style. Who even remembers Twiggy, the skeletal waif who was so popular during the 60's? Lightweight Kate Moss is also on her way out, thanks to that photo of her snorting coke that appeared on the cover of a British magazine. Full-figured models are gaining in popularity, and a popular actress even had to gain weight for her role in the movie version of "Bridget Jones' Diary". Who knows, if the pendulum swings back far enough it might even be sexy to be full-figured again! In the meantime, eat in moderation, exercise regularly, dress attractively in a manner befitting your age as well as your body type, and do read "Alternate Beauty". It will make you feel better about yourself while inspiring you to take better care of the body you have, instead of yearning to be a size you used to be or never were.

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