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Book Reviews   |    
Wacky Chicks: Life Lessons From Fearlessly Inappropriate and Fabulously Eccentric Women ? On Blondes ? Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World
Reviewed by Kathleen Biebel, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2004; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.8.947
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by Simon Doonan; New York, Simon & Schuster, 2003, 243 pages, $24 • by Joanna Pitman; New York, Bloomsbury, 2003, 292 pages, $24.95 • by Greg Critser; Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, 232 pages, $24

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What do a book about eccentric women, a book about our society's obsession with blonde hair, and a book about the fattening of a nation have in common? They all explore how the culture we live in prescribes our perceptions about what is deviant and what is desirable, particularly in relation to individuals' social and physical personification. We are constantly bombarded with predetermined images of beauty that bear little resemblance to the reality of most Americans. Wacky Chicks: Life Lessons From Fearlessly Inappropriate and Fabulously Eccentric Women, On Blondes, and Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World take on these images, dispel myths, and educate the reader about the history behind these phenomena. These books in turn chronicle the lives of a strong and unique group of women, the social value of being blonde, and the move toward an unhealthy and overweight society.

Wacky Chicks is a fun and lighthearted book by Simon Doonan, a social commentator and humor writer who writes a weekly column in the New York Observer. According to Doonan, a wacky chick can be described by the acronym BRUNCH: "belligerent, resilient, uninhibited, naughty, creative, and hilarious." She is a woman with no fear who always seems to be having the most fun. She has a unique sense of style and fashion and a genuine verve for life. She is her own boss. She is the woman many of us want to be, who seemingly lives without social convention and answers only to her own rules. In short, a wacky chick is a woman to be reckoned with.

By Doonan's own admission, his fascination with wacky chicks stems from the fact that he was raised by one. His mother, Martha "Betty" Doonan, was an eccentric woman who often shared her unique advice for life with her son. Life lessons included "short people are better balanced emotionally than tall people," "not everybody is beautiful—make the best of what you've got and don't get fat," and "seamed stockings, always."

Doonan introduces us to 16 wacky chicks, each one of whom is more eccentric and outrageous than the last. The mother of all wacky chicks is Spider Fawke, a six-foot-tall, 48-year-old insect collector and clothing designer who lives with 38 lizards and a four-inch tarantula in a 600-square-foot apartment. Some wacky chicks you may be familiar with—Amy Sedaris, writer and star of the Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy, who lives in an apartment with a forest motif, including a liquor cabinet carved out of a tree trunk, which was designed for her pet rabbit, Tattle-tail. Brigid Berlin, Andy Warhol muse and pug lover, is another wacky chick. But a majority of the wacky chicks are women you've never heard of. They are women with larger-than-life personalities who, in Doonan's opinion, are the epitome of feminism. They offer advice on fashion and style, beauty, dating, and finding your inner wacky chick. They are chock-full of attitude and unconventional wisdom; they dare to be different, and they love every minute of it.

Doonan is clearly a wacky chick wannabee. His unabashed admiration for these women comes through loud and clear, as he applauds their life choices and their wardrobe choices: "Wacky chicks are entertainingly diverse—socioeconomically and personality-wise—but they have one thing in common: they are all blowing a giant raspberry at society's expectations. And, most important, they're getting away with it."

In On Blondes, Joanna Pitman informs us early on that while only one in 20 women in America are naturally blonde, one in three American women dye their hair blonde. Pitman presents a history of the world as seen though the eyes of blondes and tackles the age-old question of why Americans are so obsessed with blondes.

Although the subject matter may seem light, Pitman, a writer for the London Times, is quite serious in her presentation. She pinpoints the origin of the obsession with blondes to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and fertility, who was depicted with long, flowing locks of golden blonde hair. Prostitutes of the time routinely bleached their naturally darker hair in an effort to more closely match Aphrodite's image. Eve, often identified as Adam's temptress and cause of his eventual downfall, covered herself in shame with her blonde tresses. Princess Diana, as well as her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, were both known to have lightened their hair as they aged in an effort, Pitman hypothesizes, to hold on to the power of being blonde.

Throughout history, blonde has never been just a color; it has been a sign of beauty, status, and power: "Every age has restyled blonde hair in its own image and invested it with its own preoccupations. Blondeness became a prejudice in the Dark Ages, an obsession in the Renaissance, a mystique in Elizabethan England, a mythical fear in the 19th century, an ideology in the 1930s, and a sexual invitation in the 1950s." Women have gone to great lengths to attain blondeness. Romans would rub pigeon dung in their hair, and Renaissance women would wash their hair with horse urine. Other strategies have included applying white wine, olive oil, ivy bark, soap flakes, saffron, and, of course, hydrogen peroxide.

In researching her book, Pitman bleached her own hair and lived as a blonde for four months. Her observations are the same as those echoed throughout On Blondes: she received more attention and got preferential treatment, and strangers smiled at her, leading her to feel younger, more positive, and even glamorous: "After a while I wondered whether I could afford not to be blonde."

Pitman's book is informative and full of attention-grabbing tidbits about famous blondes. For example, Marilyn Monroe would not appear in any film in which there was another blonde actress. However, Pitman does fall prey to vast generalizations about the power of blondes. By her account, the rise and fall of many historical figures can be linked to the hue of their hair. Although On Blondes is not one of those books that stays with you once you put it down, it is an interesting read that leaves you wondering, Do blondes really have more fun?

The cover of Greg Critser's first book, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, really says it all: a chubby baby clutching a slice of pizza, wearing a donut as a bracelet and a hat made of ice cream, and being spoon-fed dessert. Despite the title of this book, Americans have actually become the second-fattest people in the world—second to South Sea Islanders. Critser, a journalist for USA Today and Harpers who writes frequently about health issues, examines the obesity epidemic in America. Any doubt about the prevalence of the problem is dispelled by some startling statistics: "About 60 percent of Americans are overweight—overweight enough to begin experiencing health problems as a direct result of that weight. About 20 percent of us are obese—so fat that our lives are likely to be cut short by excess fat. More than five million Americans now meet the definition of morbid obesity."

The rise in obesity is framed as a confluence of social, political, and economic trends. Critser starts with the negative effects of agricultural policies of the 1970s, which were developed to increase overseas exports and protect American farmers. These policies contributed to the overuse of palm oil, a highly saturated plant fat, and high-fructose corn syrup, which is cheaper than sugar and converts directly to fat, and led to the widespread use of these products in processed foods. Other social trends tracked include the increase in fast food consumption and the introduction of "supersized" portions, the growth of convenience and snack foods containing large amounts of fats and sugars, the decline in physical activity and corresponding increase in sedentary lifestyles in America, and the increase in obesity-related conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and arthritis, as well as the economic cost they impart: "The majority of new cases (of diabetes) are a direct result of excess weight. That boils down to one in every ten dollars devoted to health care. In terms of federal resources, diabetes alone commands one in every four Medicare dollars."

Unfortunately, Critser spends less time mapping how we can get out from under the burden of fat. Attention is given to a few innovative school- and hospital-based programs, but only six pages are devoted to possible systemic change at the national level. Discussion of how individuals can change their own habits is scarce, leaving the reader with the impression that change has little to do with individual responsibility and more to do with external interventions. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that effective weight loss will always involve some amount of self-control, whether about eating, exercising, or lifestyle choices. But even with this weakness, Fat Land is a thorough and thoughtful history of the circumstances, policies, and phenomena that have led us to become an incredibly fat nation.

Each of these books warrants recommendation, but for different reasons. Wacky Chicks is easily the most fun to read—truly a laugh-out-loud experience. On Blondes allows the reader to learn the most about the least; on completion of the book, you will know more than you ever thought possible about the history of blondes. Fat Land is hands down the most disturbing of the three books and has the distinction of being the only one that makes you feel sick to your stomach; read at your own risk.

Dr. Biebel is a research instructor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mental Health Services Research in Worcester.

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