On the “Books, Books and More Books” section of Susan Orlean’s website, you can find information about her acclaimed nonfiction works, her children’s book, and the cookbook she co-wrote with Cooper Gillespie, who is her dog. What you cannot find is anything about Susan Orlean’s diet book. In 1999, Orlean published The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won’t Tell You!) with fellow New Yorker writer Patricia Marx. After I discovered The Skinny during a late-night Google fugue, I got a bit obsessed with it—so I was delighted when Orlean agreed to an interview about her long-lost oddity.
At first The Skinny struck me as something I wasn’t supposed to know about. The book sold poorly upon its release and soon went out of print, and it was easy to imagine that came as some relief—at least to Orlean, who had used a pseudo-pseudonym (Susan Sistrom, her married name at the time) and appeared alongside Marx in the author photo as a petite, black-and-white blur.
In the late ’90s, Orlean was already viewed as a serious writer: The Skinny came out just three months after The Orchid Thief, which became a best-seller, the inspiration for Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, and a new classic of contemporary narrative nonfiction. Marx has long written humor and style pieces for The New Yorker (her new book, Home Colleging, is in a similar vein), so the book seemed like less of an oddball entry on her backlist. But still, I snagged on this: What had compelled two female writers for the toniest magazine in America to employ their time and talent in the service of amping up already-deafening cultural messaging about ideal bodies and psychotic intra-female rivalry?
My confusion only increased when my used copy of the book arrived, reeking of what I chose to believe were Virginia Slims. The Skinny has a chatty, girlfriend-to-girlfriend feel, only the girlfriend is not an erudite pro journalist; she’s of the arm-fat-punching, “HAHA, OH MY GOD, I HATE YOU! JUST KIDDING! LOVE YA, BITCH!” type. Some of Marx and Orlean’s advice sounds like something your friends probably told you in high school: Hungry? Smoke a cigarette instead of eating! And some of it sounds downright psychotic: Tempted by leftovers? Sprinkle ’em with bleach!
Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams reviewed The Skinny in 1999 and revisited the book after I tweeted about discovering it earlier this year. “I don’t think I’d co-write an advice book these days,” Orlean told her in an interview. “I think I’d prefer really sitting around with my friends gossiping about how we feel about how we look, and not committing it to print.” I had a few more questions for Orlean about the book, which she fielded gamely.
Slate: I was wondering if you could tell me what your recollections are of how you guys came to work on this.
Susan Orlean: I was out to dinner with Patty and we were saying, “We should really collaborate on something.” We were talking about how one topic that women know so much about is dieting. No matter whether you’re the most advanced feminist in the world or not, it’s just a subject that women tend to know an awful lot about. So we started talking about doing a book that would be a combination of humor and actually informational stuff that friends might discuss with each other. I was working on The Orchid Thief at the time, so my publisher didn’t want to publish another book before I finished one that I owed them, so we struck this compromise that I would use my then-married name—which would not be like a pseudonym, because it wasn’t a pseudonym, it was my name. In a sense it was suitable, since it was so different from anything else that I worked on.
I was reading The Orchid Thief when I discovered The Skinny, and I was like, “Oh my god, these things were produced by the same person at the same time?” How did that work for you?
It was a collaboration and Patty did a full 50 percent—frankly, I would say she probably did a little more than half, to be really fair. But I’ve always written humor, and that has such a totally different feel than some of the reporting that I do. I’ve never found them incompatible. It’s like, you play tennis and you go bowling. They’re very different muscles, but I think it’s entirely possible to possess them both. So it didn’t feel incompatible, and to some degree it was like a palate cleanser from working on The Orchid Thief.
Do you remember how the book was received when it came out? Did people know it was you, or did you care?
I didn’t care. It was almost instantly known that it was me. It just wasn’t hard to figure that out. The reaction when it came out, there was a little bit of confusion: Was this meant to be funny? Was it a parody, or was it real? That’s a hard balance to strike—to say, “Well, the funny parts are funny, and the real parts are real.”
I found a New York Times story where Amanda Hesser followed you and a group of other women on what you called a “Skinny Lunch,” and I couldn’t tell from the tone whether she was making fun of you or not.
When [that piece] first came out Patty and I thought it was really nasty and biting and critical. Reading it again, I’m a little bit less sure. Partly it was just funny, and people were speaking absolutely without filter, saying things that wouldn’t be especially politically correct—and these were very successful, accomplished women. Amanda’s piece, on second reading of it, I had that same feeling of, “Wait a minute—this is kind of jokey, and kind of mean and kind of just fly-on-the-wall and it’s just hard to tell how seriously to take this,” in that same way that the book had a little bit of a problem of, “Well, where do you draw the line? How much of this is meant to be just purely tongue-in-cheek and how much of it is real?”
If the book was published now, it would be one of those things that certain segments of the Internet, especially Twitter, would lose themselves over. I can see it being like, “Let’s write 500 think pieces about why this is a travesty!” It seems like the media landscape was so different now than it was then—or maybe things still got that kind of reaction, it was just at dinner parties.
Public discourse has been amped up for better and worse. “What does it mean to have two educated, progressive women writing a book about dieting?” That would be this great topic of debate and I think that’s exactly what happens on Twitter, in particular. Back then, it came out, there was Amanda’s piece, and I honestly don’t remember what other media we did. There certainly wasn’t a huge reaction and the book sort of floundered for a variety of reasons. But there wasn’t the kind of discussion that I think would happen today, for sure.
Why are people discomfited or confused by well-educated, intelligent, professional women having concerns about their looks and about dieting?
I think women are so hard on themselves and in the course of shrugging off societal pressure and judgment imposed by society and men and external forces, we’ve gotten mixed up about how it’s OK to feel about things like attractiveness. I can very comfortably say that I’m very clear about where I stand on gender issues, and at the same time I feel better when I like how I look. I mean, that’s a human impulse. We’ve made it really hard to know how to feel about it, and I think that’s another case of women just being so hard on themselves. Even smart women aren’t always quite sure if it’s OK to like pretty clothes. I think that this book came out of that. Patty and I were sort of laughing at ourselves saying, “Can you believe how much time we’ve spent worrying about how we look? Here we are, people for whom on one hand you think that shouldn’t be an issue, but on the other hand, come on, who are we kidding?”
Did you ever think, “What if this book is encouraging the vicious cycle?”
I don’t think we ever sat down and thought, “What if someone becomes a bulimic because they’ve read our book?” I don’t think we ever imagined that we were contributing in any truly pathological way. I think that somebody with a serious eating disorder would find the book really lame and levelheaded. 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.
How do you think your relationship with dieting and your appearance has changed since then?
To tell you the truth, it’s probably more or less the same. I probably haven’t varied much in what I weigh or look like over all these years. But there are different times when you think about it more or less. Your circumstances and your state of mind often have a lot to do with how preoccupied you are with how you look. If you’re single and you’re really eager to meet someone, you’re probably going to think about it a lot more. I’m married and I have a kid. I’m not meeting strangers and hoping they think I’m attractive—well, I guess I do hope they think I’m attractive. That’s human nature, of course. One thing that I didn’t think about that much 16 years ago was health—in terms of thinking, “It’s good to be healthy and active and stay at the right weight so you don’t, like, have a heart attack and die.” I don’t think 16 years ago I thought about it in terms of mortality, and I think as you get older that part of it gets added in.
The way we rank obsessions is really interesting. On the one hand, you’ve got dudes going deep into a jungle to get a flower, and they’re these heroic adventurers. And then there’s someone being like, “I want to lose 10 pounds.” Maybe neither of them are that healthy, but one of them’s a hero and one of them’s a sad woman.
Right. 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.”