Fighting the voice that keeps you down
You could be forgiven for thinking that Skinny, the title of Donna Cooner’s debut novel, represents a goal for main character Ever Davies. But Skinny is a character, and not a nice one. She’s the voice in Ever’s head telling her that, at 15 years old and 302 pounds, she’s not worthy of love or even tolerance. Ever ultimately has gastric-bypass surgery and loses a significant amount of weight, but her life doesn’t truly show improvement until she’s able to turn down the volume on the voice in her head, which she imagines belonging to a “goth Tinker Bell.”
Author Donna Cooner knows a thing or two about that voice. When we speak by phone she makes it clear that honesty is vital to shutting it down. “In doing publicity for the book, some people have asked, ‘What can we NOT ask you?’ I think with teens I want them to be able to ask questions. A lot of the time weight is something that we just don’t discuss, unless you’re rude or bullying. To actually have a conversation where you’re [free to ask] ‘What’s it like to be this heavy?’ or ‘What’s it like to go through the surgery and lose weight suddenly—how does that make you feel?’ I’m hoping it will open up a conversation where young people are more comfortable asking those kinds of questions.”
Cooner is well suited to answer many of them. She had gastric-bypass surgery as an adult 10 years ago, lost more than 100 pounds and has maintained a stable weight since then. But it wasn’t a magic bullet by any means, even where her own negative self-talk is concerned.
There’s a scene in Skinny where Ever suffers a crushing embarrassment in front of her classmates. It’s based on a real-life experience, a very public humiliation, that Cooner had at Colorado State University, where she works as a professor of education. But while Ever’s experience is the catalyst for her to have surgery, Cooner’s embarrassing incident happened after she lost weight. “It didn’t matter how far I’d come personally, professionally, weight-wise—I still have that voice that kicks in,” she says. Reliving the story with friends some time later, she was able to laugh about it, and her friends recommended she capture the moment in writing.
“It didn’t matter how far I’d come personally, professionally, weight-wise—I still have that voice that kicks in.”
Although Skinny is her debut novel, Cooner wrote some picture books and scripts for PBS while working as a kindergarten teacher. The daughter of a teacher and school secretary, she says, “I was immersed in schools for as long as I can remember. I swore I would never be a teacher.” Famous last words: Her current job description boils down to “teaching teachers how to teach,” along with overseeing the certification process. The writing required for tenure in her job put picture books on the back burner for a while. “When I achieved tenure I decided I wanted to go back to my passion for children’s literature. At that time my mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and I started journaling about some issues with childhood, and [what came up] wasn’t picture book material.” Enter Skinny.
The book explains gastric-bypass surgery, in which the stomach is reshaped into a pouch that can hold roughly three tablespoons of food, and some of its aftereffects, which can include vitamin deficiency and the scary-sounding “dumping syndrome,” in detail. It also looks closely at the psychology of making such a big change so quickly, by giving Ever a fast friendship with her stepsister’s best friend Whitney. Whitney's interest in Ever is insincere; in fact, she's only interested in giving Ever a makeover, which will show off her own skills as an artist. Whitney isn't mean, just shallow. The character was inspired “by a group of people I encountered through the surgery who were fascinated with the change aspect, not me.” With makeovers such a pop culture staple, that fascination with big changes is more common than ever.
Despite the amount of media attention paid to the rise of obesity and possible avenues of treatment, talking publicly about her own experience has been unusual. “I didn’t know when I wrote such a personal story that it would become so public. That’s been a bit of an adjustment,” says Cooner. It’s less the struggle with weight than the internal critique that was hard to lay bare. Ever isn’t always an easy character to root for, particularly when she’s cruel to potential friends out of a fierce sense of self-protection. “I struggled to make her a little more likable in the beginning, because she was so immersed in her head,” she says. To that end, despite one or two instances of teasing by others, the emphasis here is pointedly on Ever’s cruelty to herself.
One source of consolation in Ever’s life is the family’s dog, Roxanne, a chocolate lab referred to as a “goat dog” for her tendency to eat anything and everything in her path. Cooner’s author bio describes her as living in Fort Collins, Colorado, with a goat dog named Roxanne. Coincidence? I had to ask. “The dog is actually lying on the floor right beside me, and she’s in trouble because she got into the pantry this afternoon and ate three bags of different kinds of spices,” she laughs. “She’s the ‘goat dog’ of the book, but she’s a very real dog with very real issues.”
Cooner’s weight-loss journey has included some significant achievements above and beyond those found on the scale. Way above and beyond. “I went out and climbed a ‘fourteener’“—that’s a 14,000-foot mountain peak, for the uninitiated—”here in Colorado the year after I had the surgery.” There are more than 50 such peaks in the state, and she has friends who have scaled a dozen or so, notching their climbing gear as they go. She’s happy to note, “I’ve done one! It was a triumph to be able to climb that far and that high after being almost unable to walk down the street,” she says.
Ever also finds that her weight loss leads to personal victories. She’s a Broadway junkie with a gift for singing, and part of her success after losing weight involves auditioning for the school musical. Given the popularity of Amber Riley, the plus-size 26-year-old who plays Mercedes on “Glee” with sexy confidence, I ask Cooner why Ever couldn’t do the same. Isn’t losing the weight, then getting the part and getting the guy a little retrograde? Cooner points out, “Ever isn’t skinny at the end of the book. She becomes healthier and more confident. I think health is an argument” for her choices. “It’s okay to want to get better at something. It doesn’t mean you’re not good as you are, but it’s okay to want to be healthier.”
That’s another area where Ever’s story and Cooner’s overlap. She says having the surgery “was a good decision for me, but I’m not a skinny person. It wasn’t a magic wand. Obesity is a chronic problem. I’m going to continue to struggle with it and want to be healthier.”
Early responses to the book have indicated that Cooner was onto something when she took her struggle public. Readers with weight issues connect very directly with Ever, but one mother wrote to say she’d given the book to her son, who had tried out for sports with no success because his confidence was low, noting she “wanted him to understand the voice in his head.”
That’s just the kind of response Cooner was hoping for. She’s quick to clarify that her experiences are hers alone, both because no two people have the exact same results with gastric-bypass surgery and because she wants the work to speak to a much larger audience, “not just to people who are struggling with weight or body issues.” She mentions a statistic she encountered online estimating that we give ourselves between 300 and 400 self-assessments over the course of a day, and that 80 percent of them are negative. If there’s one thing she is most eager for readers to take away from Skinny, it’s a renewed determination to “struggle with that inner critical voice. Recognize it, and know what harm you’re doing to yourself. When you get to a point where you’re ruling out potential for friends, for activities, for dreams, that’s just so sad. Fight that voice that’s keeping you from being the best person you can possibly be.”