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Jewcy Talks to “Guru” Guru Wendy Shanker

Author and comedienne Wendy Shanker made her audience laugh, cry, and above all, praise her talent with The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, which was released by Bloomsbury USA in the spring of 2004 and has been subsequently released in eight languages around the globe. Ms. Magazine called Shanker “A woman to watch: fierce, funny, media savvy,” and she’s headed back to the spotlight with her newest book, Are You My Guru?.

“Turns out, the story of my body had a sequel. Here it is,” she writes in the introduction. I sat down with Wendy to discuss this “body, part two” that she’s about to release.

The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life came out in 2004, after you had been struggling with Wegener’s Disease for five years. Did you work on these two books simultaneously, or did the idea to chronicle your health struggles come later?

I wrote the first book, the first book got published, and it was just as it got published that I really got sick. So the timing was unfortunate, but I was determined not to let the two things get confused. I actually didn’t think that this [Are You My Guru?] was a book.

What exactly prompted you to write “the sequel to your body’s story”?

It never occurred to me that this was something people would want to hear about until after I wrote an article that came out a couple of years ago in Self magazine. I wrote an article about having an autoimmune disease, and it got a big response. I was like, “Huh, I guess people are interested in this stuff.” It wasn’t something I really planned on writing; I didn’t plan on documenting what was going on. The whole thing was so stressful and frustrating that I thought, “Let’s just get this over with.” But now looking back at it, I can say, “Okay, there’s that arc that’s interesting.” What I’m finding is that people relate to it.

If writing the article in Self prompted you to write the book, what prompted you to write the article?

I was talking to somebody about how weird it is to have an autoimmune disease, because it’s not like cancer or pneumonia, or something where something outside of you goes wrong and you get sick. When you have an autoimmune disease, what’s wrong with you is you. It’s a very strange feeling, that somehow it’s your fault that you’re not well… It felt like autoimmune disease was like a mean girl. It was so insidious and making you feel bad. It’s not your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s not like there’s someone you can punch in the face and say, “Stop torturing me,” because you’re torturing yourself.

Then there’s this idea that is really prevalent right now, that comes from The Secret and new-age thinking and wellness, which is that you can think yourself healthy and you can think yourself sick. So there’s this idea that somehow, the only reason to be sick is because you don’t want to be healthy, and if you wanted it badly enough, you could be healthy. It kind of reminded me of how I felt about weight loss, like if I wanted it badly enough, I could be thin. Except I did want it really badly and I wasn’t thin, and I did want it really badly and I wasn’t healthy. That struck the interest of a friend of mine that’s an editor over there [at Self] and she said, “Let’s talk about that.” So that’s where it came from.

You mention that being fat and being sick have a lot of similarities. What are the major ones that you’ve noticed?

First thing was that somehow, you could prevent it or you could change it. And if you’re not changing it, you’re doing something wrong. The other similarity is this idea that your body is doing something you don’t want it to do. You want it to be one way, and yet you’re another way. You do all these things that don’t work, try to make it different, and they still don’t work, and then things get worse. You’re just lost between, “Wait, what’s really happening to me physically, and what’s happening to me emotionally?” and you get really confused about what those two things are.

How similar did you find it to be to write about being fat and being sick?

The Fat Girl’s Guide was like this low, rumbling guide that when it came out just [exploded]. I was writing from my perspective about my personal story, and also about why we are in this situation. Why are we in a situation where women all think they’re fat? So the book was written from those two perspectives. The new book, Are You My Guru? I think is much more personal. I definitely feel like I’m speaking on behalf of women with chronic illnesses, and on behalf of people who have explored a lot of alternative medicine and wellness, but it’s really a personal story about how I feel about the situation that I’m in. I do feel that they both address this idea of responsibility and that if you change your mind, you can change your body-my feeling about both of those things is not necessarily. You can definitely change your mind, but I don’t know if that leads to physiological change. Just like if you change your body, I don’t know if your brain, your mind and your heart will follow. So that’s sort of the cross-over.

What I think is useful about the two books and why someone who was interested in the first one would be interested in the second one if they’re not thinking about autoimmune and chronic and body stuff, I think they’re both about body image. They’re both empowering women to feel good about the choices that they make about their bodies. The idea is that you know your body better than anybody else ever could, and you might not realize that, but you are the expert on you. And when you want to change something about yourself, you find the other experts to work with you, but you come with the most expertise possible about you from head to toe. I hope that’s what people will take away from it. It’s really hard to stay very secure and confident about knowing what your body does and what your body’s been through. So I think and hope that people-especially women-will connect to that, no matter where you’re coming from.

You make a lot of reference to Madonna throughout the book, seeing her as an example of what you could be. How did this idolizing of Madonna come to be?

It came from a few places. Part of it was about trying to internalize the Madonna attitude in thinking about my health and my body. With all that she represents in terms of strength ad confidence and defiance and sexual power and self-empowerment, to try to bring some of that attitude to me and my health and finding practitioners to help me with my health. I think, “What would Madonna do in this situation? I don’t think she’d let that man talk to her that way. I don’t think she’d let that woman say those things to her.” It just felt like I could look to Madonna for tips.

Also, I went to a couple of concerts where I was at a real emotional crossroads and somehow through her music, she gave me clarification. So there was literally, I’m an insane Madonna fan, and I thought, maybe if I just pay attention, when in doubt, Madonna will lead the way.

Some people are dismayed by the way that she switches from yoga to Kabbalah to disco, but to me, that’s very interesting. To me, it’s like she tries this and goes in one direction with it, the yoga stuff, and then she switches gears and goes spiritual with Kabbalah and then she switches gears and goes to Africa. To me, that makes sense in terms of these evolutionary steps in your personality. In all these areas that she’s explored, she finds something to pull out and take with her. That felt, to me, very similar to my journey. It’s like, okay, I’m going to go to the Chinese medicine guy and take this away from my experience with him, then I’m going to go to the Indian medicine guy and take this away from that, and then I’m going to go to the rabbi and talk to him. So that sort of piecing together of different areas of life is a very Madonna thing to do. And that’s how she became sort of a motif.

You wrote, “I’m a believer, but I prefer not to put a label on it.” Do you think studying other spiritual paths has taken away from your Judaism?

I actually think it’s a very Jewish way to think, even though all the things that I’m pursuing aren’t Jewish things. There’s Buddhism and there’s Hinduism and there’s Zen, and as religious or spiritual practices, they’re different from Judaism, but I think that the nature of questioning and wondering and asking and trying to assimilate these different pieces, and having the kind of intellectual process of taking something in and dismissing it and trying the next one and dismissing it, I think that’s a very Jewish way to go. I think what I’m doing is a study. It’s a study of all these different physical and spiritual areas, but to me, the quest for answers fits a Jewish model. Also, the disagreement seems kind of Jewish to me. To be like, nope, get in a fight about it and move on to the next thing. And to me, that’s kind of the nature of my people, to disagree. And the patching together, a little piece of this and a little piece of that, it makes life a kugel. Everyone’s got a little of a different one, and everybody’s is their favorite. So I think it fits. And people who say only Jews can think about Jewish things? It doesn’t make sense to me. Like, people are mad that Madonna studies Kaballah. What’s to be mad about? So she studies Kabballah. I study Buddhism. So what? Buddha doesn’t care. It’s just opening your mind. I think it’s interesting that there are so many Jewish people who are into Buddhism, and so many Jewish people who are interested in yoga. Clearly, there’s something that calls out to Jewish people in those spiritual paths, and I think it is that yearning and that curiosity, I think that just kind of fits the mold.

Did your experiences with every imaginable type of healing, including many varied spiritual and religious ones, change or morph your religious beliefs or feelings about being a Jew?

I think it’s pushed me toward Judaism. I think by looking at all these other practices, it made me go back to my practice and ask, “What are the equivalents?” Meditation, for example. Well, Judaism has meditation. Actually, meditation was part of Jewish culture for a long time. My dad lays tefillin every day. To me, that’s not much different than sitting down and meditating for twenty minutes, he just does tefillin for twenty minutes. I think I ended up looking for equivalent things, and I ended up appreciating the custom ritual of Judaism more, and the meaning of prayer more, definitely, and could I take prayer and feel a little bit more sense of ownership from it in a Jewish perspective, which I do. … So I think if anything, I feel more strongly about Judaism and more proud about Judaism and I wouldn’t identify as anything else besides Jewish, but I do love having these other spiritual arenas in my life. I’m fascinated by it on an intellectual and emotional level. I don’t think it takes away from Judaism; I think it adds to it.

What do you think is the significance of finally “getting it” about faith with the Rabbi’s final call, and not through other means?

I like that it happened with the rabbi, because one thing I talk about in this book is that in order to get some of the spiritual “download,” it has to come to you in a language that you understand. So, I had a lot of great epiphany moments, and I hope they keep coming, because every time I get one it’s pretty awesome, but I really like that that particular one came out of an interaction with a rabbi, because I’m Jewish! So it’s cool if I was in a church and I had a great moment, or if I was in a meeting with a Tibetan nun and had a great moment, like that’s really awesome, but this is mine. Even if the rabbi who I talked about in the book is a Lubavitcher, very Orthodox, very observant Jew, and probably considers my Judaism different from his Judaism-I know I consider his Judaism different from mine-like, hello! Same blood, same shtetl, same family tree, same tribe. So I like that it came from him, because I did feel a sense of ownership about it. And it was also really nice because my dad is such a believer and that is his faith, so it was a nice connecting thing with my dad, who just was like, “Why are you going to all these other crazy people, just go to the rabbi!”

I think that’s really great for people that are looking and wondering and feeling disenchanted with Judaism, which a lot of my friends do, to say “You can find it here. It’s in here. You just have to find the right people to help you figure it out.” …There is also a sense to me where I can borrow other people’s things: I can borrow yoga and meditation and acupressure, but the one that I own and the one that’s mine is Jewish… So I was kind of psyched.

Do you think being a Jew has influenced your outlook on weight, illness and life in general?

I do. The thing, to me, is that there’s such an intense emotional component to Judaism and to being Jewish. I think with each step of Jewish practice, and each step of self-assessment around Judaism, it embraces the emotional part of all that decision making. It’s bigger than just a rulebook. Also, if you look at Judaism as a religion that’s genetic, your body literally is a representation of Judaism. If you’re born with that bloodline in you, it’s hard to separate out your body from your mind and your spirit. This is literally a Jewish body. I feel like there’s a Jewish struggle with weight. There’s a predisposition of a lot of Jewish women to be overweight, and so, in a way, overweight feels Jewish to me. And there are all kinds of diseases, Ashkenazi genetically-linked diseases, and breast cancer, and tays-sachs disease… I feel like your physical body is a symbol of Judaism in a way, so when you’re trying to fix it or change it or heal it, you’re also trying to fix or change or heal Judaism a little bit.

And there’s a physical look that’s Jewish. It’s a stereotyped look, but I can look at somebody and say, “Hmm, I think that’s a Jew.” The funny thing is that a lot of Jewish girls complain about their noses being too big, and I always really liked my nose. Then, when I got sick with this disease, one of the problems that occurred was I lost the cartilage in my face, literally the bone that makes your nose a triangle, so my nose was flat. So last summer, I had surgery where they took a rib out of my ribcage and used it to make a nose for my face. And having that happen to my nose? I took it personally. I was a Jewish girl who didn’t want a nose job. And that felt awesome, because I’m not gonna feel bad about my nose: I’m Jewish and it’s great! And then I had to have a nose job anyway! So even that somehow felt like it was involved in my Judaism. As my doctor said, “It’s gonna look like a little goyische nose.” And it does. So you know, so it’s another way this Wegeners took another little cut out of my Judaism too.

In Are You My Guru?, you writes, “Jewish people prefer to go to Jewish doctors. Occasionally we’ll make an exception for an Indian guy in an emergency room… It’s a ghetto mentality based on the (not altogether) unjustified conviction that everyone wants to see us dead, combined with the deep-seated Jewish belief that somehow we are “chosen” above all others, plus some residual “Are you really going to leave your life in the hands of someone who was WASPy enough to be a cheerleader in high school?” doubt. We thrive on fatalism.” Talk to me about Jews and healthcare.

I think Judaism and health is such a funny thing. I feel like Jews have a certain ownership feeling around health-maybe not health, but sickness. Like, “We own sickness. We got it.” We get the bad sicknesses, our whole life is “Oh God, please don’t let that happen to me,” and then it does, and what are we going to do about it? We’ve got to find the guy to fix it, and the guy is inevitably a Jewish guy. So I think that there’s a funny sense of possession that Jewish people have around sickness. And I joke about it, but avoiding that big horrible thing is kind of like the Woody Allen part of our culture. It’s hypochondria and waiting for the worst to happen. Jewish people get worried because if things are going well, that means something bad is going to happen. So I feel like it’s kind of Jewish to be sick. It’s Jewish to try to get well, it’s Jewish for someone to try to fix you, it’s Jewish to try to fix other people.

You reference some statistics in your book, including one that says one in nine women of childbearing age is diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, whereas one in 69 women under 50 is diagnosed with breast cancer. The public doesn’t seem to hear nearly as much about autoimmune diseases, especially relative to the rate of diagnosis. What do you think is the reason for that?

I would never take away from the progress that we’ve made in advanced research on all these other diseases, but I think part of the problem is that autoimmune is really vague, and there are so many different manifestations of it. Two people have the same disease and it works out completely different ways, and so it’s really mysterious. It’s a little easier to go, “Boobs! We’ve got to fix breast cancer! Breasts, we know what they are, we know where they are, we know what happens, let’s fix this.” Autoimmune is kind of all over the place. Diabetes is an autoimmune disease, but so is Hashimoto’s Syndrome.

The other part [of the problem] is that it’s difficult to diagnose, and often a lot of the initial symptoms are really vague stuff like, “I’m tired, I’m sore, I don’t feel good,” and it’s hard to make a determination from that. Doctors say, “Well, get some more sleep. Eat a better diet. Exercise.” It’s hard for them to realize that maybe there’s something more serious going on here.

To me, there is an epidemic amount of autoimmune disease happening. There are 50 million people in the United States with autoimmune diseases, over 30 million of them are women and a lot of them are young women, women going through puberty, child-bearing age, menopause. You see some connection between hormonal fluctuations and evidence of some kinds of these diseases, like Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and things like that. You’re much more likely to end up with something like this than breast cancer and ovarian cancer. So I think just having more awareness and more definition and more connecting the dots between all these things so that we understand what it is, why your body is designed to protect you from harm, but every once in a while, it misreads the signals and it harms itself. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

It’s just hard to pinpoint, and somehow it feels like it’s your fault. It didn’t come from this outside place: your body screwed up. Your body is hurting your body. It’s kind of hard to detach from that and say, “Okay, there is a system misfire and let’s go back in and fix it, as opposed to, “This is a virus that you got from blank, let’s go in and kill the virus.” It’s a little less pristine, but it’s all over the place, so I think the more awareness, the more we do to change it and make it better.

Have you observed progress when it comes to autoimmune diseases?

Yes. I see major progress in terms of research; I see major progress in terms of identifying. A few years ago, people were like, “Lupus?” And now people are saying, “Yeah, Lady Gaga’s aunt had lupus.” Thank you Lady Gaga for, in addition to all the other cooky great things you do, helping raise awareness of this disease that affects millions of women.

Do you try to change people’s minds about the notion that autoimmune disease is their fault, when there are no environmental or physical changes they could have made to keep themselves healthy?

Yeah. Because that’s the change I had to make. I was coming from a place of, “I’m sick, I’m trying to get better, I’m not getting better, ergo, I am doing something wrong,” to “I’m sick, I’m trying to get better, I’m not getting better, what are the other options out there that I can bring into the picture so that I can stop blaming myself?” Because, what a waste! What a waste of time, what a waste of energy, blaming yourself… Instead of blaming my body and being mad and frustrated with my body, I can step back and say, “Hey body, thanks for doing such a good job with processing all that chemo-therapy drug that I’m putting into you right now. I appreciate it. You really took a hit on that one and I can tell.” Instead of seeing what’s wrong, [it’s important] to be able to see what’s right, and then say, okay, how can I help things along, what can I do to support my system? I do believe that a positive outlook helps things, but I don’t believe that happy people are healthy people and sad people are sick people. Stuff happens. So to take the fault and blame out of it and put the respect, admiration and problem-solving into it is a lot better use of your energy, especially when you don’t have very much because you’re not feeling well.

Do you hope to increase awareness about autoimmune disorders with Are You My Guru?

Yes. Absolutely. It’s to encourage people and assure people and help people continue in this way of thinking, that your body is inherently wise, that you know it really well and that if you could just trust yourself to make good decisions, you will make them. That’s the hope: to trust yourself, to believe in yourself. That’s all in there. Your job isn’t to fix everything, but it’s to be in the pursuit of trying to get it right.

Did you ever set out to be an author, or have things just fallen into place?

It was just very lucky that that’s the format that [The Fat Girl’s Guide and Are You My Guru?] came out in. I encourage people who are thinking about writing books to do so, but also, I do think that there are a million great venues and a million Web sites: you can really express yourself in so many different formats. I’m very lucky not only to have been able to write and publish a book but to write and publish two. That’s pretty good. But I love that there’s all these different ways that people can express themselves and reach a huge audience and get feedback from that audience. I’m grateful to have the chance that people can not only read this, but let me know what they think about it. I’m excited to hear what they think.

What’s next? The ‘Wendy Shanker Show,’ like you mentioned as a dream in your book?

My hope is really to talk to as many people as I can talk to. The one thing that I realized in the process of trying to deal with the Wegener’s was this mystical element of stress that people are talking about. I was always like, “That’s an imaginary thing, stress.” Now I know that stress is not an imaginary thing and it really affects my system significantly. So I’m trying to find low stress ways for me to be able to express myself and connect with people in ways that don’t involve throwing cups of coffee across the room and stuff-which I used to really enjoy; it sucks that I can’t do that anymore. If that’s creating a TV show, that would be awesome. If that’s getting to travel around and talk to people in groups, going to seminars and teaching classes, all that stuff would be welcome. I’m just open to seeing what comes next, but I know I have to take really good care of myself.

So of course people are like, “So what’s the next book?” I hope there is no next book. I just want to have the most boring, uninspiring, stable life, not-book-worthy life that I can imagine. That would be great.

“I feel like I had started on the wrong foot: the goyishe foot. Why hadn’t I called in the Jewish cavalry to tell me who all the Best Guys were? When the whole thing started, I had no idea how many Best Guys would need to get involved.”

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