Shadow Giller: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

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

25716567What 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)

Rosemary and Reading Glasses

The Paperback Princess

Pickle Me This

I’ve Read This

Dolce Bellezza

Mona Awad on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers talking about body image, self-acceptance, and how her personal struggle informed her novel.

The Globe & Mail 

“…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.”

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54 thoughts on “Shadow Giller: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

  1. AYearOfBooksBlog says:

    All always, a great review Naomi – I enjoyed this book and think that, sadly, many women will be able to relate to the feelings of Elizabeth who kept reinventing herself in both name and body yet remained trapped within her body image of her teenaged self.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! Even if not as extreme as Elizabeth’s case, every woman will surely recognize parts of themselves, or others, in this book. Thanks, Susan!

  2. Jessica Fraser says:

    HEY!!! I usually don’t have time to read everything you put out… but this title caught my eye – and I started reading – and couldn’t stop! You’re such a good writer! I was “consumed” by YOUR ink!… not saying I’ll read the book or anything… still working on one / year.. and the pile beside my bed monstrous… so pathetic!!?!?! Thanks for sharing!

    ________________________________

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Jess!! Thanks for taking the time to comment, and I’m glad you liked my review. 🙂
      The good news? You *have* a monstrous pile of books beside your bed! 🙂

  3. susanosborne55 says:

    It sounds a powerful book, Naomi. The passage you quote from the husband’s point of view is heart rending. Sadly, I think the portrayal of women judging each other is an accurate one as is Elizabeth’s inability to be at ease with her body. There’s so much money being made from female unhappiness about their bodies, and it seems to have crept into the male psyche, too. That’s not the kind of equality we were hoping for.

  4. Poppy Peacock says:

    Intrigued and want to read it but already expecting, like you, I’ll find it flawed… hard to know for sure without reading it but sounds like apromising premise but slightly missed opportunity in execution.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s hard to say – I’m thinking she executed it exactly the way she wanted to. And maybe the reason it hurts to read is because the pain is so real. Her readers might have felt better about it overall if there was more hope and positivity, but that might not be the book she wanted to write. The good thing is for anyone who’s on the fence, it’s quick to read, and you’d probably know early on in whether or not to keep going.
      I’m looking forward to see what she writes about next!

  5. Sarah's Book Shelves says:

    I haven’t read this one, but did just read Jennifer Weiner’s memoir, Hungry Heart, which dealt with weight and body image. That passage you shared from Elizabeth’s husband really got me. How sad.

    • Naomi says:

      It might be interesting to compare her real-life experiences with the novel!

      There are so many painful passages in this book, but for some reason their relationship got to me the most -it seemed like such a waste of a good thing. Very sad.

  6. Bellezza says:

    I know just what you mean; I wanted to like her more, too! But, while I do not struggle with weight, I did less how the times I obsess about myself are not edifying, even if our heroine did not. After all, maybe the reader has the most to learn. I look forward to your knights on the Gilles prize, and thank you for linking to my review.

  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I have to say that I don’t feel a strong urge to read this book. No doubt it deals with important issues, but I have enough anxiety already trying to figure out how to ensure that my children grow up with enough self-esteem so that they like themselves and not be influenced too much by what others think of them. I don’t think I would have much patience with a character who doesn’t seem to learn anything about herself. (Although Bellezza has a good point when she says that it is the reader who has the most to learn….)

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t have an urge to read this either, and was not thrilled to see it on the list. Which means, of course, that I ended up liking it so much more than I thought I would. I can see why she’s on the list, and I’m glad to have read it!
      But… it is sad and worrisome and frustrating.

  8. FictionFan says:

    It saddens me a lot that women, and increasingly men too, define themselves so much by how they look. The strange thing about it is that, as a woman of… ahem… a certain age, I’m always astonished by how great young people look in general these days. When I was a kid, not too long after post-war rationing stopped, people here in the UK at any rate were still suffering the after-effects – often small in height, bad skin, bad teeth, even bow-legs were still not uncommon. Now I look at these gorgeously tall, straight, teenagers, glowing with health and strength, and wish they could see themselves as I see them!

    • Naomi says:

      I love this comment, FF!
      If only we knew how fortunate we are… (those of us who aren’t too busy worrying about war and famine and earthquakes)

      • annelogan17 says:

        I love this comment to FF! I really liked your review Naomi, it’s so fascinating reading the same book as others and reading their opinions on it. I was sad that Elizabeth didn’t learn more by the end of the book too, I have a never-ending hope for characters i get attached to 🙂

      • Naomi says:

        That’s one of the things I love most about blogging – what one person gets out of a book might be completely different than another. Or it could be exactly the same. Fun!

  9. Amanda says:

    My goodness I’m so afraid sometimes of raising my daughter. I don’t know that I’ll read this one but I really adored Dietland which was kind of similar. That was similar in issues – but Plum does really get into her own head about why she’s unhappy and how she feels about her body. I definitely recommend it. The passage you shared from the husband above makes me so sad!

    • Naomi says:

      I’ve heard that Dietland offers s a little more hope. Maybe it would be a good one to read after reading this one. Thanks for the suggestion!

  10. The Paperback Princess says:

    Your review is making me wonder if I missed something major when I read it. I just really couldn’t get over the idea that she was somehow less than because she was big. She NEVER found any comfort or strength in her own skin and continued to punish herself for being less than perfect. And it’s kind of dangerous to have those books out there because millions of women (and men) already feel that way.

    I was listening to a podcast with Roxane Gay yesterday and she talked about the book she has coming out, Hunger, about body image. She said that there are no books from the inside, about battling with one’s body when it’s still big. That really struck me. 13 Ways is not that book either.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree that the book felt hopeless – it was one of the things that I think will turn people off of it. However, after I heard what Awad said about her book (right after I had read it and was still trying to figure out how I felt about it), it made more sense to me and I could see what she was doing. I think we are *supposed* to be repulsed and shocked by her continuing inability to like herself, so we can see the ramifications of poor body image and how deeply it can run. Maybe it would give some people comfort, knowing that they’re not the only ones who feel this way? Or maybe by shocking them, it will wake them up to see that it’s no way to live? I don’t know… just wondering out loud…
      I’ll be watching for people’s reactions to Hunger! (i.e. I hope you’re planning to read that one!)

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I do! It was your review, and Eva’s, that had me holding back on this book. But, now I’m glad I read it. I can see the frustration of it, but also the value.

  11. The Cue Card says:

    It sounds like this character is quite over the top – with a one-track mind. Did she ever seek a therapist of some sort? I think the author opens an interesting discussion up especially for young people crushed by image; I can see where it can become a cyclical problem. I would hope if people can look more outwardly beyond themselves at times it would help them. I think this book would get tiresome to me.

    • Naomi says:

      She doesn’t ever seek a therapist, and I don’t remember anyone suggesting it to her, either. That was one of the frustrating things for me. Although, she seemed so far gone that someone suggesting it to her probably would have just made her angry. Her husband was probably terrified to mention it.

  12. buriedinprint says:

    Something I think she does brilliantly in this book is set the scenes in the individual stories. The other day, sitting in a cafe, I saw two women sitting down at a table nearby and even though it’s been a couple of months since I read this, and I didn’t even take any notes from the book let alone write a review, my mind slipped back into “that story”, wondering if they worked together and if other aspects of that story were true for either of those two women. The first story and the last story also stood out for me in this way, but I remember marvelling at her scenic style all the way through. Mind you, I agree, that it doesn’t necessarily build a character in the same way for us as readers, and I completely understand your craving to see her through her husband’s eyes for instance. *nods* We do miss that. But, then, SHE can’t see herself that way either. Hmmm. Great discussion here, Naomi!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, you’re right – I’m glad you mentioned it – each chapter was well set-up and, for myself, I kind of looked at it as interconnected short stories (very interconnected!). I can definitely see why it made the list.

      As for her relationship with her husband: I hadn’t thought about it that way! Maybe even *she* couldn’t see what it was about her that he fell in love with. That’s also terribly sad.

      • buriedinprint says:

        I know, right? I actually didn’t think about it either, until I started to write the comment. But now that makes me want to reread because I think that might actually be the entire point and it would have infused all the other relationships and chapters as well!

  13. Grab the Lapels says:

    There! I finally got to your book review 🙂 I’m not sure why I was thinking that this book was nonfiction; I might be confusing it with another book. There are so many works of fiction and nonfiction on fat issues.

    • Naomi says:

      There are a lot of books about this kind of thing – it’s hard to know which ones to read. But if you’re looking for fiction, this is a good one to go with!

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t think you’re the only one. Be sure to check out the reviews at Rosemary and Reading Glasses and The Paperback Princess.
      I just went over and read your review, and I can see your point. For me, I guess that fell under lack of character growth. The book was very focused on one thing – body image. I think this makes it a hit or miss kind of book. But I do think the writing was good, and I’m curious to see what she comes up with next. Something completely different maybe?
      Thanks for adding your link!

  14. cleopatralovesbooks says:

    What an interesting book although I see what you mean about it being a bit of a problem understanding why her husband chose her – there must have been something? The bit about her relationship with her mother made me smile, my dear Mum despite now suffering from dementia still makes comments about my weight every time she sees me, and that’s despite me being far smaller than she ever was – over the years I learnt to laugh about it but I have been careful never to do the same to my daughter.

    • Naomi says:

      Awad writes about a topic that seems to elicit strong reactions from people, but I still recommend it. (Maybe even more so because of the reactions!)

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