Early in THE WEIGHT OF IT, Amy Wilensky walks by her sister and fails to recognize her. That's because Alison has lost nearly 200 pounds. When Amy and Alison were children, they were sometimes mistaken for twins, but Alison began to gain weight while Amy stayed small. Alison became morbidly obese in her teen years and underwent gastric surgery in her twenties.
As Amy remembers the transformations her sibling has undergone, she asserts that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." In so many ways, vibrant Alison has always been just her younger sister to Amy, no matter what her size. Indeed, her exuberant sister's weight is one of the last ways Amy would describe her. However, the world --- and Alison herself --- placed much more emphasis on Alison's obesity or thinness. These reactions unavoidably flavored the sisters' relationship.
The story about the two sisters is part of a more encompassing view as the author puts her sister's situation in perspective by describing obesity in our society. She notes dispassionately that around sixty million Americans are considered morbidly obese. They are discriminated against in the workplace. These people are often ignored, teased, put-down, joked about and belittled --- treatment likely to affect their mental well-being. Why, Amy wonders, are people so afraid of and cruel to heavy people?
The physical struggles of being overweight are often obvious: airplane and movie seats may be too small, it's hard to find nice clothes, and most sports and other activities might be impossible. Other physical problems are more hidden, such as aches from standing or walking, breathing difficulties, and stress on the heart. Noting that "low body weight is one of the most reliable indicators of longevity," Wilensky graphically describes the health dangers obese people face. While the author details the suffering of the obese, she adds that she does not pity them; she simply feels that thinner people have an easier life.
Amy meditates not only on the ways in which drastic weight gain and loss affect identity, but also possible social benefits to obesity (Alison says she would have had to be friends with people she didn't like in high school if she hadn't been heavy). The author unflinchingly describes compulsive overeating and cites scientific reasons behind it.
While the universal implications of obesity are thought provoking, the author always draws us back to Alison, personalizing the weight issue. She courageously describes her own childhood jealousy over Alison's new clothes (a frequent necessity as she grew larger) and other admitted pettiness. It's evident that Alison sometimes irritates Amy. However, Amy also proudly celebrates Alison's colorful personality, artistic nature, pleasure in her new body, popularity and more. Deep down at the heart, her book portrays the best and the worst of love between sisters who share a unique perspective and profound differences.
The author chose to write the story because of weight. However, the "weight" Wilensky speaks of isn't always evaluated on scales; she suggests that what is unsaid weighs heavily. Her story is not always pretty or nice or even kind, but it's rock-hard truthful. Beautifully written and engrossing, you're likely to remember this story long after you finish the book.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 24, 2011