Growing up in the suburban hell of Misery Saga (a.k.a. Mississauga), Lizzie has never liked the way she looks–even though her best friend Mel says she’s the pretty one. She starts dating guys online, but she’s afraid to send pictures, even when her skinny friend China does her makeup: she knows no one would want her if they could really see her. So she starts to lose. With punishing drive, she counts almonds consumed, miles logged, pounds dropped. She fights her way into coveted dresses. She grows up and gets thin, navigating double-edged validation from her mother, her friends, her husband, her reflection in the mirror. But no matter how much she loses, will she ever see herself as anything other than a fat girl?
In her brilliant, hilarious, and at times shocking debut, Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform. As caustically funny as it is heartbreaking, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl introduces a vital new voice in fiction.
I’ve included a few spoilers in this review, but mostly they’re thematic rather than details about the specific plot. Proceed at own risk.
My relationships with both weight and food have been complicated and mountainous for as long as I can remember, so when I heard about 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, I couldn’t have been more excited to read it. Whether you struggle with your weight or not, I’m sure you’re familiar with the obsession our culture has with physical appearance. The way we view our bodies and reduce their value to the hypothetical sexual desires of others is quite ridiculous. I couldn’t wait to see what Mona Awad had to say about the issue.
First and foremost, this book is well-written. There were several one-liners that, as a writer, I felt almost jealous that I hadn’t come up with them myself, namely this golden nugget:
“My wide slash of bared stomach feels like an emergency no one is attending to.”
I mean, how great is that?
Aside from the well-crafted language, the pacing was good. I liked that this was more a collection of vignettes from Elizabeth’s life, rather than a straightforward narrative. Much like a struggle with weight, it was unpredictable and confusing. In that way, the organization was a real strength.
Mainly what I had a problem with was this hopeless despondency we are left with at the end. Everything our protagonist does to lose weight, she does for other people. She isn’t trying to be happy, boost her health, or feel good about herself. She just wants strangers to approve of her appearance, for men she has no interest in to find her sexually desirable. She has no real friendships, no real career, and she lets the only successful relationship she has fall apart, all because she has entered indentured servitude to her Gazelle and her food scale.
I understand what it’s like to be a slave to the calorie, I really do. I understand what it’s like to have a metabolism that seems almost sentient in its attempts to screw you over. It isn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination, and Awad definitely captures the frustration, guilt, and self-loathing that comes with the territory, even though I think there are a lot of things this book gets wrong about being a “fat girl”–mainly, the weird sexual aspect of the story. I’m not squeamish when it comes to sexual themes in literature, but that element in this particular book was just bizarre and felt rather forced.
I was hoping for a more uplifting message, one in which Beth/Elizabeth/Lizzie/Liz learned to appreciate herself and embrace being healthy, because when she is thin she is definitely not healthy, physically or mentally. Instead we are left to assume she spends the rest of her life alone, punishing herself for not being someone else’s idea of perfect. She even begins to dehumanize other people who are overweight to make herself feel better! That’s a very damaging idea, and really one I found off-putting.
I wish I could recommend this book, because as I said before it is quite well-written and the topic is both relevant and important, but the underlying message is just too disturbing to pass along.
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.