Carol Lay on The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude

Carol Lay on The Big Skinny

Recent estimates indicate that one in four Americans are medically obese. Carol Lay, cartoonist of the weekly strip WayLay, was once among them, but four years ago, she made a decision to shed the pounds and take control of her body.

After coming down to her ideal weight, and maintaining it for three years, she had to share her story with the world. The Big Skinny: How I Changed my Fattitude is the result, a full-length graphic memoir and diet book about learning to control the need for food.

The Big Skinny ships in early January from Random House’s Villard Books.

Carol Lay was gracious enough to answer some questions about the book, controlling food consumption and what foods she still has trouble denying. Plus, with the holidays swarming on us, she’s got plenty of good advice for even the skinny among us.

Newsarama: Carol, big picture, what is The Big Skinny: How I Changed my Fattitude?

Carol Lay: It is a memoir/how-to/graphic four-color book in which I detail why I got fat, how that affected me, how I got out of denial, and how I succeeded in changing my habits and attitudes about food and myself. It includes a lot of the latest research on obesity, relevant psychological tips, nutrition basics, and many useful tools like simplified calorie charts, sample recipes, and menu plans to help beginners get started. I wrap much of the information in stories that are easily digestible and illustrated in ways to help the reader visualize a positive approach to America’s big fat problem.

There’s more to losing weight and successfully keeping it off than watching calories and exercising daily. A positive attitude and self-knowledge play a big role in keeping me out of the denial that leads back to bulky. In telling my story, I hope that readers will identify with certain behaviors or feelings, learn from my experience, and, through colorful comics panels, get the big picture on what it takes to make positive changes that lead to healthful lifelong habits.

NRAMA: There are about ninety billion diet, exercise and healthy lifestyle books in the world. When did you decide it was time for you to jump into that ocean?

CL: I’ve read all ninety billion and mine is better. Okay, I only read about a dozen, but of those none detailed the approach I use, which is the only way that worked for me. One book told me I could eat as much of anything I wanted as long as I ate it in the proper order. Another was an in-my-face vegan manifesto disguised as a diet book. A very good one told me how my body works, but suggested simply cutting back. However, chronic overeaters like me don’t know how to cut back. We know how to kid ourselves into thinking we’re eating less while we actually eat more.

What happened when I finally lost my excess bulk was that I wanted to tell everyone how I did it because it’s what no one wants to hear, i.e. count calories and exercise daily. Sounds like a drag, doesn’t it? Well, I thought so, too, when I started, but it worked. And I knew it would work and would continue working as long as I stuck to it. When I started I weighed 158.5 pounds. I slowly and steadily lost 35 pounds over about a year and a half. What started as a discipline turned into a habit. My tastes changed as I learned to enjoy a wider variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. I lost my appetite for sweets and fats. Dairy? Fooey – clogs me up. But everyone is different and you don’t have to give up dairy or meat to learn new habits and get some control over the idiot stomach.

As for doing this as a graphic memoir, information is digested and retained more easily when it comes in story form, and visuals impact our brains better than words alone. Comics are the beautiful hybrid, combining illustrations and story for a double dose of retention in the brain. I had a lot of fun doing this. I felt compelled to share my experience with others who have similar weight issues in the hope that I can help someone.

NRAMA: Beyond being a comic, how does The Big Skinny stand out from the considerable competition in this area?

CL: I was obese when I was 19, reaching 206 pounds before my mom sent me to a doctor who put me on diet pills. I shed 40 pounds pretty quickly, but then I was addicted to speed for a few years. Over the next 28 years or so I yoyo-ed between 140 and 160, but I was often at the larger size. And I was unhappy. Not because I was fat; I was fat because I was unhappy, but the two states feed on each other. One day I looked at a photo of myself and made a decision to change. At the same time I started taking a good look at myself so I could root out the underlying causes of my self-defeating behavior. This part was necessary for me to finally make a whole-body change. I needed to understand where I’d been in order to see what wasn’t working for me any longer.

This is what I put in the book that makes it different. I tell my story, a personal journey – sometimes funny, sometimes kind of sad, but always honest – as it relates to changing this aspect of my life.

And the graphic aspect of this book really makes it stand out. The information is accessible, immediate and entertaining. The color is gorgeous – I’m very happy with how it turned out.

NRAMA: During your research into the causes of obesity, did you expect to find some of the anthropological causes?

CL: I didn’t anticipate anything, really, when I started this book. Since 2002 I’d been collecting the latest information on weight loss and obesity, much of it culled from The New York Times science and health sections or television shows such as Nova and 60 Minutes. Sometimes web searches took me to obscure medical journals or chat forums on bulletin boards. At times, it seemed as if the latest science shaped certain chapters and I’m grateful that the information came in just at the right time.

The fact I learned that dismayed me the most was that I, having been obese at one time, need to consume 15% fewer calories than I’d have been able to if I’d never become that fat in the first place (in order to maintain the status quo). That doesn’t make me happy, but I accept it and use the fact to help inform my decisions.

NRAMA: I found the storytelling very engaging, but was it difficult for you to find visual representations of your experiences?

CL: Sometimes I had to work to find the right visual metaphor, but that’s what I do – I’ve been drawing comic stories and illustrating for editorial pieces for over 30 years. I had a steady gig with the Wall Street Journal for four years that helped me develop that ability to come up with images for abstract ideas. Many of the ideas in this book are not abstract, though, and those were fun to illustrate in a straight-ahead comics fashion. Or sometimes the point I was making needed to be presented in way that would make it possible to illustrate, such as the start of the chapter on nutrition. I initially wrote of a balanced diet being like a full orchestra, but using music doesn’t work so well for comics so I switched to painting with a full box of oils. That concept lent itself more easily to the application of color as a metaphor for good or poor nutrition.

One thing that would have made the drawing easier: “Before” photos. But no one took any that I know of. I was at UCLA, studying and eating all the time, when cameras were not ubiquitous like they are now.

And I didn’t have much to go on for the farmhouse sequence. I had an exterior shot of the house (later bought by Jonas Salk, I learned recently), so I focused on the action, which helped keep me out of pointless detail. I like pointless detail on occasion, but my deadlines demanded that I maintain a certain simplicity and consistency of line.

NRAMA: What’s the biggest misconception you come across when people with less-than-healthy eating habits talk to you?

CL: I was talking to a very intelligent woman at a party the other night who didn’t like her thickening waistline and couldn’t understand how it kept growing, but stated that she wasn’t about to give up on her pet foods. I have nothing to offer a person like that because in order to change, a person has to want to change. I just nodded politely and kept my nose out of her business.

As far as friends go who are overweight or obese, all I can do is tell them what works for me and I do that only if they ask. If the pain of being obese doesn’t inspire change, they’ll continue on their addicted path with harmful foods. I know several people with diabetes, one of whom lost a foot to the disease. Sometimes it seems like we’re a little insane when we put food ahead of our life and limbs.

I read an article recently that told how Americans give a “health halo” to foods that are labeled as being, for example, heart-healthy or free of trans-fats. They tend to estimate lower calories for these supposedly healthy foods in ways that don’t make sense. It’s something like the phenomenon I wrote about called “calorie compensation.” Our brains don’t want us to lose weight – it might think we are being starved – so it gives bogus credit for more calories burned during exercise or fewer calories for a pile of food. Awareness is key to weight loss because too many mechanisms in our famine-resistant bodies want to keep us chunky.

NRAMA: When did you decide to include recipes as a feature of the book?

CL: Truthfully, I wrote that section into my proposal because I saw that it’s a common feature in other diet books. The thing is, I eat simple meals like steamed veggies with fish or tofu – meals that would make most people run straight to McDonald’s – so I needed to expand my skills in that area. As a result I tried a few new foods, lots of great new recipes, changed some old favorites so they were just as tasty but not as nasty, and ended up with a good variety of entrees, sides, snacks and desserts. Some are exotic and lovely such as the Stuffed Chile Rellenos or the Eggplant with Tomato-Mint Sauce and Goat Cheese Cheese. A few are almost idiotic, such as a peanut butter and jam sandwich, but I point out it’s not how to make it, but with how much stuff. With a lot of variety in the section, I think I found a good balance between taste, ease of preparation, and portion control. And it is by no means mandatory – the recipes serve as examples on variety and how to make your own favorites in a healthy way.

NRAMA: Favorite guilty food pleasure, Carol?

CL: I can’t resist my homemade peach pie. Or my maple pecan pie with French vanilla soy ice cream. Or apple pie a la mode. Basically, any kind of really good pie.

NRAMA: Well, who doesn’t like pie? You said in the book that you’ve kept the weight off for three years. Though I loathe asking a woman about her weight, in the aftermath of finishing The Big Skinny (and all those months at the drawing table!), are you still maintaining your ideal?

CL: Yes. At 5’ 9” my ideal weight is 125 and that’s what I weigh today, close to four years after I first reached that goal. The reason is that I changed my habits for good. I eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, beans, grains, and maybe a little animal protein every day. By knowing how calorific foods are, I can guesstimate numbers when I’m on the road, or just say No when offered a lovely piece of pie. I made a decision and a choice. I choose to eat healthy so I can stay slim because I like this far better than being a chub. I have more energy; I don’t have any of the family killers like high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes; and I like what I eat. A lot of people want to keep eating burgers, burritos and pizza and can’t imagine life without their comfort foods. I used to like those foods, too, but now they make me feel bad. My life is better and not just because I’m a small size. Working on the mind-body relationship and emotional/historical context in regard to my weight taught me a lot about myself and showed me how I could make improvements. I’m a much happier person now.

NRAMA: What’s next for you after The Big Skinny?

CL: When I was in New York I talked with my editor, Jill Schwartzman, about what might be next. She pointed me in a certain direction that thrills me because it’s something I want to do anyway, and I’d be the luckiest gal around to be able to put it in a book with pictures. I’d rather not go into detail because I do believe in jinxes, I do I do. So let’s just say I’ll focus on a book that doesn’t have anything to do with food.

That said, I might let go of my weekly strip because I found working on The Big Skinny to be very demanding. I’d rather not shift focus from on project to another, even though I’d miss doing the strip. We’ll see how that works out in a few months.

So, if readers would like to see a sample chapter of The Big Skinny, they can go to www.thebigskinnybook.com. My weekly strips are archived at www.waylay.com, and some obscure comics and a more general revue of my work exists at www.carollay.com.

The Big Skinny ships in early January. More information, including a sample chapter, can be found at the links above.

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