Few genres of literature so clearly communicate the anxieties of their epoch like diet books, a form that combines science-flavored woo with instructions on how to become a living embodiment of a society’s values and aspirations. In this new SELF series, JP Brammer will be revisiting popular diet books and unpacking what they tell us about a particular time in American culture. For his debut installment, he’s tackling Skinny Bitch, a vegan manifesto masquerading as a weight-loss manual.
The year is 2005. Our great country has been beset by calamities. The Iraq War is in full swing under President George W. Bush. Hurricane Katrina has devastated much of the Gulf Coast. Maroon 5. Facing debacle after debacle, a weary, traumatized nation has but one thing on its mind: becoming a skinny bitch.
I was a mere child the year Skinny Bitch, a “no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous” was published. But I was already an aspiring cultural commentator, regularly watching America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, and Fashion Police, among other classic staples of television, while offering searing insights to my mom on our couch. I did not have friends and we lived on a ranch.
This is all to say that I am a student of the cartoonish made-for-TV cruelty of early-to-mid 2000s pop culture ephemera, an era defined by Tyra Banks performing Jigsaw-esque torture scenarios on aspiring models. Yes, with the United States facing threats both within and without, our tastemakers decided to focus on body aesthetics or, more specifically, on pursuing a brutal thinness that all but demanded asceticism from its adherents. The diet books of the time reflect this.
Written by former models Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, Skinny Bitch is a slim, bitchy volume that promises to bully you into being thin. Despite lackluster initial sales, it eventually became a bestseller in England and then in the US in 2007, after Victoria Beckham was spotted carrying it in Los Angeles. Reading it now, it’s easy to see why: It captures its time in amber, perfectly encapsulating the goal set for women in that era. In 2005, the aspirational woman was fun, flirty, fashionable, and, above all, skinny.
She was also unabashedly mean. If the 2010s were dominated by “le epic bacon” humor and BuzzFeed-esque “so I did a thing” voice, then Skinny Bitch captures the voice of the mid-2000s, which sounds like a drill sergeant wearing Juicy Couture screaming at you to go ahead and jump off a cliff because you put dressing on your salad. (Indeed, that is the entire concept of The Biggest Loser, a show that came out around the same time.)
But Skinny Bitch is not a television show. It has been granted the freedom of imagination that the blank page provides, meaning it can be as utterly ridiculous as it wants to be. And, make no mistake, it wants to be. This book all but accuses fat people of being the Taliban. The only road to redemption, it says, is veganism, because this whole affair is really about promoting the vegan lifestyle. Weirdly, though, it doesn’t say that upfront. Rather, it slowly cuts everything out of your kitchen that isn’t vegan, including coffee, meat, cheese, and even aspirin. Aside from “vegan cookies” and “vegan pizza,” the word vegan is not uttered as an identity until chapter six. For all its bluster, Skinny Bitch is on a covert mission.