Kim Brittingham’s Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large is due from Random House this coming spring. A native Philadelphian, Kim recently took some time to talk with us about her work, our culture’s obsession with body image, and the future of the written word.
Let’s start with your book. Read My Hips is due in the spring from Random House. Can you tell us what it’s about and what inspired you to write it?
Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large is a collection of stories about my body image and how it’s changed throughout my life. Body image is a complex, multi-layered issue and it touches nearly every American female alive today. I don’t think there’s a woman anywhere in the Western world who won’t identify with Read My Hips. It’s about food, dieting, self-esteem, the influence of the media and pop culture, the longing for acceptance, the desire to be desired; Read My Hips covers a lot of territory. Strangely enough, I didn’t set out to write a book on this subject. When I met my agent, I’d written a completely different memoir and that’s what I expected to sell. But I had also published some body image-related essays online–on iVillage, for example—and those pieces always drew a huge reader response. Most of the attention was positive and usually in the vein of, “Oh my god, it’s like you’re writing about my life.” My agent suggested I narrow the focus of my book to body image, and that’s how Read My Hips came about.
Why do you think our culture is so obsessed with thinness? Is it all because of the media, or is there something else at work?
I’m not sure why we’re obsessed with thinness. There are several theories out there. I think a large part of it has to do with corporate interests wanting the biggest possible share of our paycheck. It’s funny. We complain about having to pay so much in taxes, but we let corporations con us out of the biggest portion of our earnings. As long as people with something to sell can keep us convinced that we can’t be happy without their product, they’ll continue to get richer and we’ll continue throwing money after the dream they’ve painted for us. The quest for weight loss is pitched to us as this holy thing, this pursuit more virtuous than any other and, if you pay attention, you’ll find the message everywhere. We’re seduced into obsessing about the size and shape of our bodies; we’re even frightened into it, so we can be led like a bunch of sheep. It’s been working for decades now.
How did you come to accept and love your own shape? Do you have any advice for people who may be struggling with who they are as opposed to what they’re “supposed” to look like?
For me, self-acceptance didn’t happen overnight. It was a gradual process. It started with some tentative “dares”, almost. At a time when I felt my life couldn’t begin until I was thin “enough,” I dared myself to imagine living life as a fat girl and still having a thrilling, satisfying life. I used to think that wasn’t possible. I thought I had to whittle and sculpt my body into some fantasy goddess shape before I could begin living in the role of the goddess. Instead, I let myself imagine living life as a goddess who also just happened to be fat. Over time, as I lost more and more inhibitions about my body, I felt less self-conscious. I was left only with embarrassment about individual body parts, but eventually I shed those too. The last to go was my shame over my legs. This past summer was the first time in years I romped around in short dresses and didn’t care what anybody else thought. It was liberating! It’s hard to give advice about this because the process is so individual, but I will say this: whatever you think you’ll achieve by changing your shape, imagine yourself having it without having to alter your body to get it. In other words, if you’re thinking, “Oh, if only I were thin, I’d pursue my dream of acting on the stage,” then try on a daydream of yourself acting in your current body. Imagine yourself being enthralled by it; imagine being successful at it. If you think changing your shape will bring you love, imagine finding love in the body you’ve got. The fact is, your dreams are entirely possible. The size and shape of your body doesn’t need to be part of the equation. Daring to imagine is a powerful first stepand it’s entirely safe. It happens in the privacy of your mind, so you can explore freely, go wherever you want to go, without limits.
You grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. Did that have an effect on you as a writer? Is there anything you’d describe as a Philadelphia sensibility that creeps up in your work?
I don’t see Philadelphia creeping up in my work, but it does creep up in my accent occasionally. Like when I ask for a glass of “wooder.”
Your presence on the internet is quite strong. How did your writing for the web contribute to writing and eventually publishing Read My Hips?
Writing for the web made all the difference in getting Read My Hips published. Without the internet, I don’t know what kind of writer I’d be today. I might still be hoarding spiral notebooks filled with Duran Duran fan fiction in my filing cabinet. My first essay was published by Fresh Yarn, which only exists online. That encouraged me to keep writing. I was further encouraged by complete strangers who found my essays and blogs and sent the world’s most supportive e-mails. My agent found my work on the internet and reached out to represent me. And because readers’ comments were visible in a lot of cases, it enabled my agent to see what subject matter I wrote about most affectingly. It all paved the way to selling Read My Hips to Random House.
Where do you see the web fitting into the larger culture of reading and writing—or within the larger context of the publishing industry? Do you see writing for the web as a good place for burgeoning writers to begin?
The web is a great place for writers. These days, you don’t have to fight so hard to get accepted into journals or sell your work to magazines. You can start your own blog; network with other writers; access more information than you’ll ever be able to digest in a lifetime – all for free. You don’t even need to publish a book to say what you want to say. You just write it and put it out there. I think the web has brought a lot of “closet writers” out into the open, and it’s a good thing. Communication is enriching and healthy. I’m not sure how reading will continue to change because of the internet; I just know that it will. My friends are all starting to buy Kindles now and there’s no denying they allow for amazing portability of reading material. I’m not one to stand in the way of progress and I wouldn’t try – but I have to admit, I love books. I’m already feeling nostalgic about them. I love the way they feel in my hands, I love turning the pages with my fingers, I love the smell of the ink and paper. But I do believe they’re going the way of the vinyl album. I still own some of those, too.
Do you have any plans for a follow-up to Read My Hips?
Right now, I’m developing a one-woman stage show based on Read My Hips, so stay tuned for that. I’m also in the process of writing the proposal for book number two, which has nothing to do with bodies; nevertheless, the subject matter is something almost everyone can relate to. Stay tuned for that, too!
About The Author
Marc Schuster is the editor of Small Press Reviews and the Associate Fiction Editor of Philadelphia Stories. His novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, was published by PS Books in 2009, and a new edition is forthcoming from The Permanent Press.