June 11, 2008
As a young woman, romance writer Pat Ballard nearly died trying to starve her body into a socially-approved size. In her new book 10 Steps to Loving Your Body (No Matter What Size You Are) she provides the steps she created to heal the emotional damage of years of dieting and encourages readers to join her in celebrating diversity, positive body image and self-esteem and health at every size.
Now, the accomplished and acclaimed “Queen of Rubenesque Romances” takes the time to share with The-F-Word readers how she weathered the long and tortuous road of disordered eating to become a diet survivor — and how you can, too.
You are the proclaimed “Queen of Rubenesque Romances.” What makes your “rubenesque” romance novels different from the garden variety romance novel?
The main difference in my romance novels is that the heroine is, as I call them, Big Beautiful Heroines. I use caps on this title to bring attention to it. My heroines are either happy with themselves when they go into the book, or they are happy with themselves by the time the book is over. My heroines will never lose weight.
I use my romance novels to try to educate and encourage women in the fact that larger women can be just as sexy and worthy of love as the smaller sized women. That’s why I call them “Motivational romance novels.” They’re meant to motivate, encourage, uplift and make women proud to have their big beautiful bodies. But I don’t get “preachy.”
Romance novels are hardly the hotbed of hefty heroines. How do women respond to the idea of a plus-size protagonist who gets the guy without losing a pound?
I’ve gotten many, many emails from women, and several men, thanking me for writing novels with larger heroines. I think women who are ready to accept themselves really enjoy romance novels where the heroines are happy in their larger bodies and losing weight isn’t required.
On the other hand, I think there are still a lot of plus-size women who are living in denial, believing that their size is only temporary, so they would rather read romance novels with the smaller heroines and fantasize that it’s really them.
On your website, you write that you always said you wanted to write a book, but it wasn’t until your sisters got tired of hearing your procrastinations and gave you a notebook did you do it. Has the process of writing been healing for you? In what ways?
That first novella that I wrote didn’t address size issues at all. Only after I rewrote it several years later and “fattened” up the heroine did it become His Brother’s Child. I dedicated that book to my two sisters.
After I had been “diet-free” for several years, I was still trying to decide what kind of book I wanted to write, when one day, the proverbial light bulb went off. Write romance novels with Big Beautiful Heroines! What I try to have in each book is an “anti-fat” person who represents things and feelings that society around us projects. That is my “nasty” person, who, most of the time gets won over, but not always. So, in working through those negatives with my heroines, I do work through a lot of issues that we’re surrounded with. But I would say the most healing process that my writing has been for me is to finally get to follow my dream and, in the process, help others feel better about themselves.
You’ve stated before that you were a plump and happy child until the age of 11, the age when you began your first diet and later, an eating disorder. What happened? Why the transformation?
I was 11 years old when I saw my first height/weight chart in a women’s magazine. It was the first time in my life that I had ever felt like I wasn’t quite “good enough.” I needed to do something to become better than I was. Because I was a naturally plump child, it was hard for me to lose weight. I didn’t eat that much in the first place. I had a slow metabolism so I could stay plump on less fuel. As an example, my younger sister was tall and slim. My parents used to say about her, “She eats so much it makes her skinny to carry it.” And then they’d say about me, “Patricia doesn’t eat that much at all, she’s just fat like her mother’s side of the family.” (My parents never suggested that I diet. In fact, they were always against it.)
So for me to lose any weight, I had to be hungry all the time. As we all know, yo-yo dieting only slows down our metabolism more, so each time I would diet, then gain, then diet again it would be harder and harder for me to lose. Pretty soon, I was doing drastic things to lose weight. I did the “forced throwing up” thing after I felt like I’d eaten too much. Now, I never binged. “Eating too much” for me might be having dessert at Sunday’s dinner. I didn’t really like making myself throw up, though, so, basically, I would eat very little during the week, then on Friday night I’d take laxatives, and spend Saturdays “getting rid of all the bad stuff.”
This went on until I had totally destroyed my health. I was physically and mentally at the end. I was to the point of considering suicide. Thankfully, I had loving parents, who, when they found out how very sick I was, helped me regain my health. This was in my late teens. So, I became very aware of nutrition, vitamins, healthy eating, etc. But… I kept dieting. I just tried to eat a little more healthily while I starved myself! This went on for another 13 years.
How would you characterize your life now versus when you were dieting and disordered?
When I was dieting, everything I did was centered around food and/or thinking about food. What can I eat? What can’t I eat? Did that make me gain a pound? If I eat this will it make me gain a pound? I firmly believe that at least seventy percent of my mental energy was spent on thinking about my diet. And that is perfectly normal. When we’re constantly hungry, we constantly think of food. Period.
After I stopped dieting to lose weight, I was amazed at how much more mental time I had to think about my “real” life. My son, my husband, my goals, my job, etc. I rediscovered how exciting life really was when I had the energy to live it to its fullest!
Recovering from an eating disorder is certainly admirable and no easy task, but you’ve also become a very vocal proponent of fat acceptance. How did you make the transition from being an active dieter to an ardent anti-dieter?
The last diet I went on was Weight Watchers. This was supposed to be a very healthy diet. Yet, I was miserable the entire nine months that I was on the diet. I lost sixty pounds in those nine months. The entire time I was losing the weight, I kept asking myself key questions. Why am I doing this to myself just because some misguided society says I’m supposed to look a certain way? If the “average housewife” needs 2000 calories to perform her duties each day, why do I have to perform those same duties, plus have a full-time job, on half or less than half of those calories just to look a certain way? Am I willing to spend the rest of my life hungry just to be a certain size?
After I had answered all those questions with a determined “NO!” a slow rebellion started to grow in me. Even as a child, I hated double standards. And this just seemed like a double standard to me. I was being punished for inheriting a gene that made me hold on to more body fat than others. I remember the day that it finally dawned on me. My mind and my heart is the real me. The body is just the package that I’m wrapped in and the vehicle that carries me around.
The transaction was fairly easy after that. I determined to dress my package as well as I could on any given day, and to enjoy the day, just as I was. And I made up my mind that anyone who didn’t like my package could stay far, far away from me. I also made up my mind that I would never stand by quietly and listen to fat-bashing in my presence. I’ve had very few remarks made to me about my size, but if I heard any remark being made about someone else, or “fat people” in general that was said in a demeaning way, then I would let it be known how I felt about it. I tried to do it in a professional way, but I did it. And the more I did it, the easier it became.
Your new book describes the steps you took in healing the emotional damage of dieting and anorexia and bulimia. What inspired you to write this book now?
When I stopped dieting, I wasn’t aware of anything, anywhere “out there,” that agreed with me. So I wrote what I titled “The 10 Commandments of Self-Love.” These steps were to help me remember on a daily basis what my goal was. Years later, after I wrote several of my romance novels, and started making public appearances, I would print out the “commandments” on decorative printer paper and use them as handouts. I was handing them out at the Southern Festival of Books, in 2004, and the representative of the publisher that I was with, at the time, was watching as people would stop and start reading the “commandments” and discussing them with a friend. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Pat, you know this needs to be a book.”
At that moment, again, the proverbial “light bulb” went off in my head, and I knew he was right. I’ve dedicated the 10 Steps To Loving Your Body (No Matter What Size You Are) to him.
Commandment number 9 in your maxi-manifesto is “Stop apologizing for your size.” How do women apologize for their size and why do we do this?
In any place where two or more women are together, if you listen for just a few minutes, you’re going to hear something like this. “I’ve gained 10 pounds! It took me 10 minutes just to get into these jeans!” Or, “I’ve got to get back on my diet. My hips are getting huge!” Or, “This dress makes me look so fat.” Or any other number of ways women put themselves down. I firmly believe when we do this, we’re apologizing for who we are. Whether it’s our size or just who we are in general. We’re saying to the world that we believe we’re “less than.”
I think there are two reasons women do this. One is to have the other person negate our statement, and in doing so pay us a compliment and tell us how good we look. In other words, I know a few women who put themselves down just to “fish” out a compliment. But mostly, I believe women put themselves down because they honestly have bought into the brainwashing that they really are “less than.”
There are those cynics who would read your 10 Steps to Loving your Body and think, “Huh, easier said than done.” What would you say to these readers?
Initially, they would be correct. Initially, it is easier said than done. After all, most of us have spent years being brainwashed by the media, T.V., newspapers, movies, doctors, family and ourselves into believing that we have to look a certain way. We have to be a certain size to be healthy, we have to be a certain size to even be accepted in some circles. So, yes, it’s easier said than done.
That’s why I say in my book that we have to stop the “stinking thinking” and relearn how to think about our bodies. We have to retrain our subconscious minds to think kind, positive, loving thoughts about the body that we’re in, right now. It won’t happen overnight for most. But it can and will happen if we stop the negative thoughts and start the positive ones.
In your book you write, “If we change the way we think about ourselves, then we change the way we feel about ourselves. The way we see ourselves. Our lives will start to be different because we will see them differently.” What is one small thing every woman can do today, at this moment, to begin the process of changing the way they view themselves and their bodies?
One “small’ thing that we can do right now, that can turn into one of the “biggest” things we’ve ever done is to stop saying and thinking negative things about ourselves. Every time you start to say or think some “put-down” about yourself, just say “NO!” Then replace the thought with a positive one. Do this until the negative thoughts stop. For instance, if you start to think, “I look so fat in this outfit.” Stop the thought in its tracks. Instead, say or think, “This outfit fits me really well.” Or “This color brings out the color of my eyes, or my hair.”
Right now, think of something good about you.