There was always that shadowy twin, thin when I was fat, fat when I was thin, myself in silvery negative, with dark teeth and shining white pupils glowing in that black sunlight of another world. –Margaret Atwood
What Mona Awad does so well in this book is to put us inside the head of a woman with poor body image. Elizabeth is so preoccupied with the way she looks that there is no room in her head for anything or anyone else, leading to dire consequences in her daily life and relationships.
Easily read in a day or two, the book is made up of 13 vignettes taken from Elizabeth’s life as she experiences adolescence, college, internet relationships, shopping for clothes, marriage, the death of her mother, and more. In this time, she goes from fat to thin, from being worried about the way she looks to being completely obsessed with her weight and the food she consumes. (Her will power is actually quite impressive.)
The three parts I found most interesting:
1) Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother. In one of the stories, while Elizabeth is home visiting, her mother is so proud of Elizabeth’s new look (i.e. thin) that she shows her off to all her friends and colleagues. She even lays out the clothes she wants Elizabeth to wear.
2) Elizabeth’s relationship with other women. There are many occasions in the book where women are shown to criticize and belittle each other; the way they look and the food they’re eating. Elizabeth is also shown to hate other women simply because they seem to be effortlessly thin. She doesn’t like to have to eat out with one of her colleagues at lunch, because her tiny colleague eats a lot of food for lunch while she has only a salad. In another chapter, she becomes obsessed with getting her nails done with Cassie. She seems fascinated by Cassie’s large body and the fact that Cassie seems to be happy and at ease in her body. She can’t seem to understand how this might be possible.
3) Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband. The chapter where we see Elizabeth from her husband’s perspective is one of my favourites. Elizabeth’s obsession with food and weight causes a lot of tension in their home. You can feel the strain he’s under when he’s trying to answer her questions about meals or outfits; trying to choose words that won’t offend her or send her off on one of her bouts of depression. He misses the woman he fell in love with.
Every other Saturday night she permits herself two double margaritas and enchiladas verdes at the Blue Iguana, followed by a Brownie Bonanza at Ben & Jerry’s. Though it scares and saddens him a little to see her hunger let loose upon a small complimentary basket of tortilla chips, he too looks forward to these Saturday nights. It’s the only night when her smirk goes slack, the noose of restraint loosened enough for her features to soften, her beauty at last unbuckling its belt. She is never more expansive and easygoing in conversation than when she is snatching chips from the basket with quick fingers. He’s learned not to look at the fingers. If he does, she’ll stop…. What he does not relish is seeing the naked disappointment splayed across her face when the last chip has been eaten, the final spoon of ice cream swallowed, the knowledge that there is another two weeks of sprouts ahead dimming her features like a pre-storm sky. And then of course, on the way home, she’ll begin to feel sick. “I’m so full. I shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t even enjoy it. Do we have any Perrier at home?” She’ll spend the rest of the evening scowling and sucking back Perriers from the bottle, too full and sick for sex.
What I thought was lacking:
1) Perhaps because of the vignette-style of the book, I felt that there wasn’t enough depth to the story. Her relationships with her mother and husband were interesting, but we don’t get to know very much about them beyond the present. For example, it was hard for me to understand what her husband ever saw in her, because whatever it was, we don’t get to see it.
2) I wasn’t expecting anything miraculous, but I was hoping that by the end Elizabeth would have recognized that her weight is not what is making her unhappy; that she needs to explore other possibilities. Her negativity and self-loathing makes her hard to like, and yet I wanted to like her so badly; I wanted her to like herself. And I saw no hope there.
Despite these small issues I personally have with the book, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it because of all the important and insightful things it has to say about body image in our culture and how crippling it can be.
[As a mother of two daughters, I see the influence of the internet everyday; every time they watch a music video or those you-tube channels featuring beautiful young women who teach you how to pick out the perfect clothes, put on your makeup, or decorate your bedroom. My youngest especially finds them mesmerizing. Lately, she’s started saying things like “this makes me look fat” and “my hair looks so stupid”. Things I have always made a point of NEVER saying around my kids. (Although I do know that some of it is expected and unavoidable – even Anne of Green Gables worried about the colour of her hair and was a little too proud of her perfect nose.) And what about my son? Boys are exposed to all the same things; how do we prevent them from expecting the girls around them to look like the the ones on the internet? Or from suffering from negative body image themselves?]
At Between the Pages Halifax, Mona Awad said that what she wanted was to write a book showing the impact body image can have on someone’s life; how deep it can go, how penetrating it can be to every aspect of your life. In this, she has succeeded. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl almost crushed me with hopelessness for Elizabeth and for all those other women in the book who were slaves to food and to the gym. I believe in healthy living, but that is not what it should look like. This book is a plea to change the way we see and represent women; a plea to let women be themselves and to feel good about it.
Thank you to Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of the book for review!
Further Reading: There seems to be a wide variety of reactions elicited by this book from other bloggers. Here are the reviews I remember seeing around – if I missed your review, let me know and I’ll add you to the list!
Kim at Reading Matters (fellow shadow juror)
Mona Awad on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers talking about body image, self-acceptance, and how her personal struggle informed her novel.
“…the cultural demands on women to conform to a certain size are not only largely unachievable, but destined to leave them distracted, weak and miserable. Further, the necessity of thinness inevitably pits women against each other, forces them into isolation and makes them deeply lonely. With admirable nuance and obvious skill, Awad critiques this damaging world we’ve created for ourselves simply by showing it to us.”