Chloé Hilliard is a rising star in comedy, a semifinalist on season 8 of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” who has appeared on “The Tonight Show,” Comedy Central and on stages across the country. She often draws material from her life, playing up her Amazonian size—she’s six-one—and her roots in 1980s and ’90s Brooklyn. So I expected F*ck Your Diet: And Other Things My Thighs Tell Me, her new collection of personal essays, to be like an extended set: riffs on her childhood growing up black in a Hasidic neighborhood or on her on-again-off-again veganism.
What I didn’t know was that Hilliard has a degree in journalism from NYU and spent a decade working as a culture writer for publications like The Source, VIBE and The Village Voice. Her skills as a reporter are on fantastic display in this book. One early chapter describes the humiliations of the President’s Challenge fitness test in elementary school, before launching into a searing indictment of President Reagan—“the latest in a long line of fragile white men in the Oval Office who used propaganda to get Americans to accomplish the physical feats they themselves could not”—who promoted the ordeal while slicing funding for school meals and other services that could have actually improved children’s health. When she writes about an abusive relationship, a serious chapter that spares no hilarious detail of the dude’s unfathomable trashiness, she places her story in the larger context of intimate partner violence and its prevalence in communities of color. Her account of almost dying from a misdiagnosed MRSA infection delves into the history and ongoing legacy of scientific racism in medicine.
In other words, this book is more than just memoir. This is a personal story that illustrates how the most intimate aspects of existence—the way our bodies look, the way we feel about and feed them, the quality of our lives—are shaped by history and public policy, by capitalism and by the environments we live in. “What changed my life,” Hilliard writes with fierce dignity, “was the realization that my issue with weight wasn’t entirely my fault.”
But don’t worry. This book is still funny. In fact, it’s frequently hysterical. Hilliard is a sharp observer: media culture, office culture, the culture of improv comedy and the stand-up circuit all come under her lacerating gaze. (If you’ve ever worked in places that reward sycophantic drudgery over talent, skill and effort, you will appreciate her unforgettable takedown of the short-lived Lifetime magazine.)
In the end, what distinguishes Hilliard’s essays is her preference for messy honesty over neat conclusions. “This isn’t a self-help book,” she writes. “I don’t have any answers.” Instead, this is a record of a life in progress, of a woman who is still dealing with some shit. “I hope I’ve given you reason to reexamine the things you thought made you undesirable and unworthy,” she concludes. She’s done more than that—she’s given us a chance to laugh them off the stage.