No Pain, No Shame

Review: Whitney Way Thore, 'I Do It with the Lights On: And 10 More Discoveries on the Road to a Blissfully Shame-Free Life'

Whitney Thore
Whitney Way Thore / AP
August 14, 2016

Whitney Way Thore is fat. Don’t worry: I’m not fat-shaming her. Thore tells us in her new memoir, I Do it With the Lights On, that fat is her second favorite F word (feminism being the first, of course). Two years ago she was living with her parents making $8.50 an hour as a small-town radio personality. Now she has a book deal and stars in her own reality show on TLC, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, and she got it all for being fat—fat and a really good dancer.

Maybe you remember her "Fat Girl Dancing" video, which went viral in 2014. Thore danced a modified "Talk Dirty to Me" with her childhood friend Todd. Within two weeks the video had over 6 million views and Thore was on a mini press tour: a surprise flash mob on the Steve Harvey Show—"‘You’ve got good energy. Real good energy"—and appearances on the Today Show, Huffington Post Live, Inside Edition, CNN Headline News, and Right This Minute.

It is not surprising that TLC saw reality gold. After all, this is the network that just released season two of My Big Life, a show that chronicles the experiences of abnormally tall women. Thore interviews well, laughs and smiles easily, what she does is visual, and she has a positive message that resonates with the type of crowd that spends their time sitting and watching television. What seems a tad unfair to me in the cosmic world of YouTube attention whoredom is that the viral video is terrible. There are about 45 seconds of quality dancing and then over two minutes of mistakes and Thore whining at her sheepish friend.

If you have a successful reality show at some point you get a book deal too. What a relief it must have been at Ballantine Books that Thore is not an idiot. In fact, I bet she is the only reality star to take delight in the bad grammar of her negative commenters, but that doesn’t mean she wrote everything in this volume. When on the acknowledgements page she thanks her "project manager" Rennie Dyball and says, "I could never have done this with without you (like, literally, I’d still be on chapter one)," it’s probably, like, a literal statement. (Quick trivia: Rennie Dyball is best known for co-writing A Famous Dog’s Life: The Story of Gidget, America’s Most Beloved Chihuahua.)

Thore’s memoir is divided into 11 chapters, with each chapter title representing a lesson learned during that period of her life. Chapter Eight, "Being Fetishized Isn’t Flattering," taught me about how difficult dating can be for obese women who want normal sexual relationships and find themselves being pursued by "Feeders." "I would start talking to a guy who seemed cool," Thore writes, "only to have him skip straight from his favorite color to his desire to strap me to a bed and force-feed me ice cream."

But I am not eating everything Thore is feeding me. In chapter two, "I Wasn’t a Fat Kid—But I Graduated Kindergarten With Body-Image Issues," Thore recounts being "indoctrinated into the diet culture" when her mother lied about chocolate milk at the grocery store "‘that’s just white milk in a brown container.’" Thore’s mother was following the advice of her pediatrician who wanted to limit chocolate milk and ice cream because Thore was slightly on the larger side of average. This is not a diet. This is teaching a child what treats are—delicious and occasional. Thore’s mother didn’t have to lie. She just had to say no.

Thore’s childhood is upper-middle-class standard fare: lots of toys, expensive extracurricular activities, doting parents, straight A’s, membership on the student council, luxury first car, prom princess, a bit of bullying, bulimia, and an Adderall addiction. "Baby Beluga ... she’s a whale of a tale," fifth-grade boys would chant at the 100-pound child; after a summer of intense swimming and a growth spurt the chant was replaced by "Whitney Thore is a whore / She lies down and asks for more." Thore reflects, "I was happy to swap being fat for practically anything else. I’d finally gotten a taste of what it was like to be one of the thin pretty girls I’d always envied, and I made up my mind that I would sacrifice anything to make sure it stayed that way."

Thore’s freshman year of college was a disaster. She gained a hundred pounds and almost flunked out. Thore says depression and the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, were the main causes, but I’m going to suggest it had a lot to do with not taking Adderall or purging anymore. In college she had no Adderall source and became paranoid that throwing up would include tossing her birth control: "I knew I’d rather be fat than pregnant, so I stopped throwing up my food." (Let’s not spend too much time contemplating whether hormonal birth control exacerbated Thore’s situation: I’m just going to say it probably did.)

Thore admits that PCOS, which makes her less sensitive to insulin, is not the only cause of her weight gain, yet she never tells us what these other causes are. I’m going to put my money on binge eating, because you can’t approach 400 pounds without eating too much. In a memoir whose title comes from revelations during casual sex on an air mattress, doesn’t it seem odd that Thore won’t talk much about eating, too? The only exception is when Thore writes about indulging in some cake; though she only admits to cutting two small slices, "it was so good that when I stopped chewing, I realized I’d eaten half of my roommates cake." Terrified to be seen as a fatty, she smashed the remaining cake on the floor and claimed it was a drunken accident.

It’s curious that Thore doesn’t discuss this aspect of her current shame-free life. You have to wonder how much she’s really thought about shame, which doesn’t make us feel good, but is a heck of a great motivator. (If you doubt me, just make a list of people who seem to live their lives without shame: Axl Rose, Hillary Clinton, Mel Gibson, Donald Trump.) Obese people who are reading Thore’s book to learn about self-love deserve honest stories. Part of that story is shame, and it doesn’t feel good.

Eventually Thore gets it together to graduate college, and then goes to Korea to teach English. After three semi-miserable years she comes home to focus on weight loss. Chapter seven, "Losing 100 Pounds Didn’t Make Me Happy," didn’t make me happy to be reviewing this book. Thore complains, Thore whines, Thore acts like a martyr at the temple of austerity, yet she loses 100 pounds in a little over 10 months. Two pounds a week is great sustainable weight loss, especially for someone with metabolic issues. But for Thore it was not enough; she tells her trainer, "‘I don’t want to be one of those people who took an entire YEAR to lose 100 pounds!’" What kind of person did she want to be? On the cover of Women’s World boasting a weight loss of 200 pounds in a year? Weight loss isn’t a race. It’s about improving one’s quality and—I guess—quantity of life. Thore couldn’t have the perfect weight loss journey, so she’s settled with being the perfect fat woman.

Within a year Thore gains all the weight back. Eventually, she gets a job on a local radio morning show making minimum wage. On air Thore’s weight was played up as a joke. Notable is "Torture Tuesday," when the intern is punished with a "Fat Girl Message." I am not going to quote the YouTube comments on the station’s livecam here, but I guess this is a thing some men find rather exciting. A local photographer who is a fan of Thore on the show offers two free photo sessions, the second with a boudoir theme. Thore loves a particular photo of her bare back; it was "the first time in my entire twenty-nine years that I wouldn’t cringe when I looked at a photo of my body ... I proudly shared [it] on Facebook." A nasty comment from an Internet troll pushes Thore to shame the shamer, the incident that led to her shame-free life, the dance video, and now this book.

In her concluding paragraph, Thore advises us that "the road to shame-free bliss happens largely in the dark. You have to advance toward a light you can’t see but trust that you’ll ultimately get there." So I guess the trick to living a shame-free life is believing you live a shame-free life. Don’t feel bad sitting on the couch all day or eating a large pizza. If you want to feel good, then don’t feel bad. And if you need a little help numbing up those brain cells, just turn on another reality show on TLC. My Big Fat Fabulous Life is just about guaranteed to make you feel better about yourself.

Published under: Book reviews