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May 11, 2016

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad

13-ways-of-looking-at-a-fat-girlI wasn’t expecting to struggle with Mona Awad’s debut, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. The day I bought it, I met up with two friends who both happened to be in the middle of the book and they said it was great. It’s been receiving rave reviews. But as I began to read it, I couldn’t help but find it unsettling, and not just in the ways it was intended to unsettle. Part of the problem is entirely my own—I’ve had a hard time reading most of the books I’ve picked up in the last couple of weeks. Part of the problem too was with the book’s design, the unfinishedness of its stark design and its lack of heft. Was lack of heft the problem? Ironic. I did keep thinking that I’d read a version of this book a long time ago, and it had been called A Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Was I being chick-lit-ist? But then Awad’s Elizabeth is definitely no “chick.” There’s nothing pink about this book. The only shoe you’d put on this cover would be an army boot, but maybe that was the trouble—Elizabeth the teen goth all in black, maudlin and sad. A bit like the actual cover then, rough outlines, scrawled. Maybe that was the problem too.

My problem with 13 Ways of Looking Like a Fat Girl was one that interested me, which is vastly different from most books I have a problem with. The problem I have with most books is that they don’t interest me at all, but this wasn’t the case here. It was totally bizarre. Here I was getting hung about a book because its protagonist was so unlikeable—which says way more about me than that protagonist. What kind of a reader am I? Only the kind of reader who usually considers herself above such critical assessments. Unlikeable, piffle. But I couldn’t shake it here. Elizabeth, I wanted to say to the girl, cheer the fuck up. It can’t all be that bad. Wash off all that unfortunate eye makeup and go out into the sunshine.

Part of my problem with 13 Ways of Looking Like a Fat Girl was personal. In general terms, to be a woman is to be afflicted with a mild case of body dysmorphia, and this inability to grasp one’s own bodily reality for me hasn’t been aided by the three times I’ve lost about 30 pounds in the last 20 years (only once through trying really hard; there was also the time I moved to Japan and the other when I stopped breastfeeding) or the two times I’ve gained 30 pounds in pregnancy, not to mention the other times I’ve gained 30 pounds without any real explanation (except for that one time, which was all down to moving to England, eating a lot of sausage [not a metaphor, you sick dog] and being in love). So you see, I know what it is not to know one’s own body. And so the stories that were fixed in Elizabeth’s perspective unnerved me then. Was she really fat? How fat? And did it even matter? Of course it did. But it doesn’t too. So my unsettlement here is a testament to Awad’s achievement of giving her reader such a feeling of the claustrophobia one can experience living inside a body. Some of it was just all too familiar.

Some of it really was that Elizabeth was also kind of annoying though. Which would be fine, except I think that what I mean by complaining that the character is unlikeable is actually that her lack of evolution is just not very interesting, from a literary point of view. Although it is interesting that so much remains stable for her even as she loses weight—this is quite deliberate on Awad’s part. The novel’s epigraph is from Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle (I think?): “There was always that shadowy twin, thin when I was fat, fat when I was thin.” At any size, really, the song remains the same.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And while it is also to Awad’s credit that this is not a heartwarming story about a woman’s struggle overcome adversity and finally accept herself (blech), I wanted something more for the character than what was written. As a kind of stand-in for actual evolution, Awad has Elizabeth changing her name as the book progresses, employing the various possibilities inherent in a name like that. But that literary strategy seemed kind of facile, because I didn’t know Elizabeth well enough to understand what it was she was striving for with her new names, what each one meant.

There is a dawning awareness though. The reader sees this in the story “Caribbean Therapy,” in which Elizabeth goes to a really terrible nail technician, incredulous of the woman’s reality—that here is a fat woman who loves and is loved and is happy. And then in the story “Additionelle,” with its stunning, awful, claustrophobic ending. That she’s trying and trying but not getting any closer to the person she is trying to be, to become. And finally in the last story, “Beyond the Sea,” in which she’s coming to realize the futility of her struggle, that we get one life and why should it be such a struggle, unless you’re Karl Ove Knausgård of course. (I think about this a lot, actually. Not about not being Karl Ove Knausgård, I mean, but that I am 36 years old and I refuse to to spend the next forty years of my life fighting, trying to be less, losing, and then losing again. I refuse to be 70 years old and hating myself because I’m fat. For that matter, I refuse to be 36 years old and hating myself for being fat. And am I fat? How fat? No. I refuse to engage. I’d rather eat a croissant. I’d rather take a walk.)

And then the ending of this story, the final line of the book: “As I watch her [a woman peddling on a stationary exercise machine]… I feel dangerously close to a knowledge that is probably ours for the taking, a knowledge that I know could change everything.” And it was here that I wanted to cheer: Yes, yes, take it, Elizabeth. Because that knowledge is right there. Everything I wanted from this book, for this character, summed up in a line. And it’s a credit to Awad too that all possibilities are wide open right here.

Being happy and fat (and what is fat? how fat? etc. etc.) is not a given, but that knowledge that is ours for the taking seems very much of this moment. Just this morning I read Kaye Toal’s article, “I Promise You Don’t Have to Lose Weight to Be Happy” AND Dr. Yoni Friedoff on how liking the life you’re living is the best way to have a heathy weight, AND just yesterday, Lindy West on how to be a happy fat woman. There are very few ways in which I can say that right now is a glorious time to be living as a woman inside a body, but with such zeitgeist this may be one of them. And it feels good.

I hope that Mona Awad’s character gets the memo too.

One thought on “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad”

  1. I think that I want to re-read this book again in a few years, because I feel like it was working on multiple levels.

    I read Yoni Friedhoff’s The Diet Fix, and it is one of the best books about weight management that I have ever read in my life.

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