Charla Muller gave her husband an extraordinary gift for his 40th birthday: intimacy every day for a full year. In 2008, she published 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy, a chronicle of how the experience led them to reprioritize their lives and make time for each other. Muller and Page Leggett, who have been friends for more than 20 years, sat down at Dean & Deluca for a chat about Muller’s new memoir.
Page Leggett: Congratulations on the publication of your second memoir. I know we're supposed to talk about your new book, Pretty Takes Practice. But response to that first book inspired this one, right? Talk about how the reaction in the blogosphere to your appearances on national TV, including Oprah and The Today Show, led you to transform yourself.
Charla Muller: I thought I knew what reactions to expect given the subject matter of my book. But it was impossible to prepare for that kind of exposure, and I mean that word literally. I was exposed in a lot of ways. I was surprised by how much people cared what I looked like. I was really amazed by the feedback. It was less about the book and more about me. But appearance was a part of this process from the beginning. Even before I signed the book contract, my publisher asked for a picture of me. They wanted to be sure I wasn’t too beautiful. There was never a danger of that! (Laughs.) They wanted to be sure people could relate to my story.
PL: Are you glad you went through it?
CM: Hmmm. Well, I was forced to develop a point of view about a few things, including weight. That was something I had always shied away from. Your friends and family perceive you through a lens of love, so when strangers start to comment on your appearance, it can be hard to hear – especially when there’s a note of cruelty to it. But I guess I’m grateful for the experience. It was worth it to go through that ugliness to get here.
PL: You talk a lot in the book about Charlotte – a "Pretty City," you call it – and how living here has shaped your ideas about appearance. Is that true? How has living here made you different than you might be if you had stayed in your hometown of Asheville?
CM: I’m not sure it would be different in Asheville. I think there’s a certain Southern sensibility that exists in Charlotte, Asheville, Atlanta, Birmingham ... But having access is certainly nice. As Charlotte has grown, we’ve gotten access to more pretty providers and products to make us pretty. And I say that quasi-tongue-in-cheek.
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PL: Your memoir isn't a primer on beauty routines, but you do talk about some of your own. If you had time for just one, what would it be?
CM: I’d color my hair. My roots are horrendous.
PL: I think a lot of women will relate to your juggling children, friends, spouse, job and sometimes overwhelming volunteer commitments – and feeling the pressure to look good while doing it all. Where do you think that pressure comes from? Is it external? Internal? Maternal?
CM: Oh, gosh! All of the above. All three are so inextricably linked; it’s hard to determine if one is more prevalent. But do I think that if I showed up to a dinner party in my scrubby scrubs my friends would love me any less? No.
PL: You mention in the book a bit of wisdom Fannie Flagg gave you about not paying attention to the haters. ("Dawlin, someone will always hate you.") Do you agree?
CM: Yes, I think it’s true. I think we should make an effort to be nice to everyone. But don’t knock yourself out for the people who are never going to like you anyway. But Fannie’s edict has helped me a lot. It’s helped me care less.
PL: The haters – they were all anonymous and on social media, right?
CM: For the most part, yes. You know, we didn’t grow up in the era of social media. Maybe my children will be more thick-skinned [than I am]. But social media makes it very easy to be mean. There’s anonymity to it and almost a gang mentality. I had to readjust a bit.
PL: Did that experience of reading nasty things keep you off social media for a while?
CM: Yes. I had to quit reading reviews on amazon. And I’ve told friends: ‘For Pete’s sake, don’t Google me.’
PL: Are you going to read the reviews this time?
CM: Oh, I think I’ll have to. But I’m hoping I can sort of softly land on a new pillow. (Laughs.) I think I’m a little more prepared this time.
PL: Lest anyone think your book espouses pretty over other attributes, I want to be clear that you say pretty alone doesn't suffice. Someone even tells you: Women had better have interests – like a book club and a spiritual life. (The chapter is titled "Looks Fade; Be Interesting.") Talk about how pretty is more than skin-deep.
CM: I think pretty – or beauty, or whatever you call it – is a byproduct of authenticity and intention. That’s why you hear so many women in their 40s talk about loving being in their 40s – they’re getting to a place of authenticity. And intention – being intentional about how you look – is important. As we get older, I think we learn to be at peace with what we’re not. And that’s just as important as being at peace with what we are.
PL: But you lost 60 pounds! Is there anything you’ve had to just accept about yourself?
CM: Oh, gosh yes. I’m short. I have to deal with that. I can be obnoxious after a couple of glasses of wine
PL: What do you say to your daughter (and son) about appearance? How do you let them know it matters without placing too much emphasis on it? As you say in the book, "It's not about rocking it in a bikini, but feeling great in your own skin."
CM: I’m sure that, despite my best efforts, I’m in my daughter’s head more than I’m in my son’s. But speaking of appearance, I’ll tell you something that happened recently. Our son was being confirmed at church. In talking to the confirmation class about how to dress for the occasion, our minister said, “God wants your best.” And, sometimes your best is just rolling out of bed and making it to church. That is sometimes the best you can do. And that’s OK. But there are occasions that call for getting spiffed up. I try to pick my battles. My kids were never the ones who needed to wear cute smocked outfits every day.
PL: You devote an entire chapter to weight and your own weight loss. There’s a funny line in the book that reads, “ carrying extra weight is like losing one of your five senses – it heightens all the others. So in addition to my incredible sense of smell, I have an amplified sense of humor, an intensified ability to see the absurd and an above-average ability to laugh at myself.” Did you lose part of yourself when you lost the weight?
CM: Probably – and I’m not even aware of it. But I’d like to think: Not entirely.
PL: How has losing weight changed you on the inside?
CM: I’m not sure it did. But there are things that are more fun now. There are a lot of things that are easier. Losing weight doesn’t solve all your problems. It doesn’t land you your dream job or get you the guy. My life was pretty great before my weight loss; losing weight was never an endgame for me. If it had been, I might have a different answer to your question.
PL: You don’t seem any different to me. You were happy before the weight loss, and you seem equally happy now.
CM: I don’t think I’m any happier. There are just things that are easier and more fun. I feel more bionic now. (Laughs.) There’s not a whole lot I miss about those 60 pounds.
PL: The subtitle of your book is “A Southern Woman’s Search for the Real Meaning of Beauty.” Did you find the real meaning of beauty?
CM: I didn’t. I think it’s a journey and that everyone has to land on that for herself. I think beauty is a worthwhile endeavor to explore. It’s certainly not the most important thing. But how we look informs how we feel about ourselves. Pretty has tentacles into other aspects of our lives, you know?
PL: Do you think the meaning of beauty differs in the South from elsewhere in the country? How?
CM: I think the South may have different standards for external beauty. But I think – and I hope – the internal characteristics of beauty are universal.
PL: If women could take just one message from your book, what would it be?
CM: Pretty comes in all shapes and sizes. Put in the work, and find it for yourself. And it does take work. Consider the internal work of sorting through who you are and who you want to be.