Conversing with and about our culture involves all aspects of it – from our own histories and magazine advertisements to shopping and celebrity culture. This also includes books, of which the authors of this blog are extraordinarily fond. We owe a special debt to this book, Ada’s Rules, because listening to NPR interviews with Alice Randall regarding the book and its themes helped us decide to make this blog conversational, to establish a dialogue about these issues with ourselves and with our readers. We wrote separate reviews on the book without ever having discussed its contents or our reactions because we want to show that the way we ingest and relate to pop culture – especially pop culture regarding weight – is individual, and that’s important to recognize as we continue to try to understand each other and these issues.
Ada’s Rules: a book with 53 rules for dieting. I know what you are thinking. “53 rules?!” I am willing to bet a lot of you know these rules: get 8 hours of sleep, walk 30 minutes a day, drink 8 glasses of water a day etc. However, this isn’t a typical diet book;it’s a novel that gives the reader a peek inside the cultural background of black women.
Ada is a very likable character and her epiphany into why she wants to lose weight is so relatable. Many weight loss journeys start off with what I like to call “destination weight loss,” meaning a high school reunion, wedding, vacation, or – in her case - a college reunion. Having worked in the weight loss industry, I saw this a lot, and when I began the book, I was a bit weary of plotlines that focused on a destination weight loss.
This book surprised me, though. It gave me a peek inside my own culture. ( I’m biracial; more on that in our next post.) For example, Ada explains her reasoning for being a big woman in the first place: “She admired great big women. When she was small, she had coveted their authority, their beauty, and their significance.” After carefully reading these word,s I realized how big black woman tend also to be the trend of black representation of woman in media in general. Even my family has/had a large matriarch who represented to me more to love, more wisdom, and one hell of a cook.
Another highlight of the book to me was when Ada ran into her friend Inez Whitfield at the grocery store. Inez is described as rich and wise, and the things she says to Ada really stick in my head: “These food companies work together to keep you hungry, and probably they’re in it together with the health companies trying to keep us all sick.” My inner conspiracy theorist went nuts when I read that line. I am not sold on that thought by Inez entirely on its own but with another instance when Ada’s doctor says she shouldn’t blame herself entirely for being overweight. Dr Angel states, “It’s genes and stress and corn syrup in everything. And food pornography, everywhere we look, creating appetite. Man wasn’t built for this much prosperity.” This line seems so appropriate and is certainly in line with today’s overindulgence.
This book makes me seriously want to examine my culture further to understand my weight. Why do I crave the foods that I crave? Why don’t I want to be size zero? Why do I want to lose weight in the first place? Ada’s original motivation (the college reunion) for losing seemed weak, but the way she went about it was strong, a lifestyle change, not so much a diet.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, especially the cultural aspect of the book. I look forward to finding the answers to these questions in my own life, and I just may use some of Ada’s Rules in my weight loss journey.
What do you get when you mix a novel, cultural exposé, racial commentary, humor, recipes, relationship (and sex) advice, and a diet book? No, it’s not a special episode of Oprah featuring Paula Deen and Dr. Ruth.
It’s Ada’s Rules, a “Sexy Skinny Novel” by African-American fiction writer Alice Randall. In it, Ada Howard, an overweight, fifty-year-old preacher’s wife, embarks on a mid-life crisis – with positive results. After receiving a notice for her twenty-fifth college reunion and facing the prospect of seeing her first love Matt Mason again, Ada sets rules for herself to begin a process of “healthing,” which includes losing weight, exercising, eliminating stress, and getting her love life back on track. Ada’s fifty-three rules appear at the beginning of the book and as chapter headings, with each chapter (presumably) depicting how Ada implements the rules in her own life. Beginning with a weight of 220, Ada ends the novel at 150 and happy with herself and her relationships.
Both Randall and Ada make the claim that Ada’s Rules isn’t a diet how-to book that will lead any reader to health, happiness, and a small waistline. Instead, it’s a portrait of one woman’s journey to a healthier life by employing general wellness principles. Some of the principles are obvious: walk 30 minutes a day, eat less, don’t eat an entire slice of diet hell known as a slice of Cheesecake Factory cheesecake. Some is enlightening and inspiring: Ada misses cooking, so she creates several bath “recipes”with candles and scents, a few edible treats, music, and a book.
In the sense that it’s a diet book, Randall’s greatest triumph is integrating every aspect of Ada’s weight loss attempts into all areas of her life; this calls attention to the difficult reality that weight loss and fitness are part of a life transformation. This change affects every relationship: husband, job, kids, parents, in-laws, friends, and even enemies. Ada is bold in her lifestyle change, making adjustments and permitting herself to force others to allow her to make these changes. Her big and beautiful mother-in-law, who used to make pies and cakes for their meetings, switched to a healthier treat for their visits; her daughters began eating better; everyone she knew threw her a birthday party that accommodated her “healthing” goals. Even though Ada’s Rules is not a scientifically based, nutritionist diet book, its attention to “diet-life integration” is much more real and pertinent for readers.
Two other relationships feel the effects of Ada’s transformation: her husband Lucius (“Preach”) and the-man-that-got-away Matt Mason. The college reunion in itself was not the main catalyst for Ada’s transformation; she knew she’d face Matt Mason, whom she had never slept with but now considers, who had known and loved her when she was skinnier, who was educated and liked slim women. At least, he did. Matt Mason’s sudden appreciation for the larger female form is a bit unbelievable, a little too easy to swallow and a lot too convenient for the storyline. Preach’s appreciation for the fullness of his woman is persistent throughout, and since the Howards’ marriage seems to be on the rocks, Ada’s changing physique plays a crucial role in how she relates to these men.
In making it clear that body type and physique are determining factors in relationships and in sex, Alice Randall uses Ada’s story to make social commentary. More specifically, she makes racial and ethnic commentary about weight and body image in different cultures. To become healthier, Ada seeks to clear her life of “blutter” or “black clutter,” the elements of her cultural reality that praise large women even at the risk of ill health and diabetes. In a memorable lunch scene, Ada scolds her friends for judging her light order of a scallops appetizer and a small salad without dressing: “I see no reason in the world I need to order food I can’t afford to eat, from a caloric perspective, to prove to white people I don’t know that I can afford to order anything I want, from an economic perspective.” Randall rightly calls attention to the fact that America’s weight problem is not simply the product of fast food, laziness, and the media; there are also racial and cultural factors that we need to recognize and confront in order for us to overcome them.
Structurally, the book is not without flaws: the narration is largely focused on Ada’s point of view but sometimes slips into Preach’s or her mother Bird’s, with an uncomfortable, jarring effect. Plot points that define chapters are highlighted, then unrealistically discarded and never brought up again. For instance, Ada despairs and “falls off the wagon” after a death in the book, but once the chapter ends, she apparently never thinks about the death again. Sectioning the novel into chapters according to Ada’s rules often appears forced and choppy.
Nevertheless, Randall’s success in highlighting cultural factors that impede weight loss is her greatest success. In no way does Randall advocate obesity; instead, she promotes healthy living without turning to the kind of aestheticism that often motivates weight loss efforts. The body – and appreciation of it – is prominent in her novel. Ada never hates her body, she relishes making it better: “Me and my body got to find a new way to roll. My new body dance is going to be a three-beat waltz. Sizing, sexing, primping….Sizing is eating and exercising and binding it in. Sexing is feeling all the pleasure the body can bring. Primping is decorating and celebrating the body. It’s putting the shine on healthing, and that makes the pretty.”
After all is said and done, Ada’s Rules may not be the best novel and certainly isn’t a diet guide everyone can live by. But, refreshingly, Ada’s rules are actually less about hating one’s body and triumphing over it than learning to appreciate it for what it can do and how one can make it even better. That’s a message weight loss cultures – of any race – would do well to embrace.
NOTE: Our next post will be a follow-up conversation about our own experiences with race and culture, as well as how those elements have influenced our own struggles with weight and body image. Stay tuned!
Black Women and Fat – Alice Randall’s op-ed that caught a lot of attention when she remarked, “Many black women are fat because we want to be.”
The Politics of Fat in Black and White – Take a look/listen to Alice Randall’s interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”
We hope you enjoyed our first attempt at a book review. Let us know in the comments, by email, or (best) on our Facebook page if you have any suggestions for other reviews!