13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (9780143128489, p/b, £10.99) is published by Penguin Books and available from Turnaround on 10 March 2016. Visit our website to order a copy.
I am a fat girl. Wait, no, I was a fat girl. Or maybe I still am… It’s hard to figure out where exactly I stand these days.
By way of context: Growing up, I was pretty much always a good 20 pounds overweight, although it’s safe to say I didn’t really care all that much about it at the time. But then I finished my MA and started working in central London; suddenly my weight felt really apparent amongst the stylish, stick-thin media types. I felt massive in comparison.
So I did that thing that modern women are wont to do: I went on a diet. I became obsessed with counting steps and counting calories, exacerbating the fact that I was already a control freak. That’s where the fat-girl / thin-girl paradox began. Over the next few years, the more weight I lost and the more in-shape I became, the more I felt desperate to look thinner. It is a major consequence to my paying constant attention to my body. It is never, “Oh cool, I’ve lost a stone” but always “I neeeeed to lose another 5 kilos”. I talk about “tightening it up” almost daily. Even at a healthy BMI and a UK size 8 (on a good day, anyway!), I have a hard time describing my physical self as something other than fat.
Coming out of the holidays and trying to shed my Christmas weight, I’ve again become the worst form of my calorie-fixated self. Perhaps then this was the best possible moment for me to read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad.
Pitched as “A darkly funny, deeply resonant and exquisitely written literary debut… the story of one woman’s journey from fat adolescence to an ex-fat adulthood, as she seeks love and acceptance from everyone except herself”, the book perfectly captures the relatively unknown internal hell that can come with losing weight, particularly for those who have at any point felt defined by their size.
Protagonist Elizabeth – known throughout as Lizzie, Beth, Elizabeth and Liz, her preferred pet-name changing throughout the various stages of her identity crisis – starts out as an overweight teenager whose appearance certainly gets to her, but it’s not until later, after losing heaps of weight, that her self-image begins to dominate her entire life (fixating so much that she makes me seem totally zen about my own weight issues!).
It sounds tragic, and it is at times – particularly as Liz’s desperation begins to affect her relationships, grinding her down more and more throughout the story. But I think this dark element is what gives the book its depth and makes it all the more real. Without getting too personal, my own weight loss (or rather, the fixations and nervousness that came with it) has affected my relationships, albeit thankfully in fairly small ways. To me, the book highlights that we are our own worst critics, and the things we will say to ourselves can be beyond horrible. Awad does a stellar job at tackling the inner demons that can pick away at one’s sense of self-worth, particularly if that self-worth is wrapped up in conforming to society’s impossible body standards.
Darkness aside, 13 Ways… is also hilarious and provided a great outlet to make me laugh at just how ridiculous I – and all dieters – can be when it comes to our own appearances. Awad’s snarky tone is spot-on, skewering the cultural bullshit that makes us go insane over a number on a scale. She does this while also remaining sensitive to the fact that we tend to be unable to avoid buying into said bullshit, even when we know it is just that. Awad uses Liz to represent a group that are, frankly, treated like dirt in the public eye, and perfectly illustrates how the assault on value permeates into one’s own self-image, mutating into an unshakeable monster that can rule your life.
While I want to pretend like I was getting wayyyyy too personal with the above, I actually feel pretty assured that this feeling is almost universal and I am hardly alone in being a bit preoccupied with my size. For that reason, I think that 13 Ways… will appeal to a wide range of readers. The majority of folks living a modern, Western lifestyle (probably most of the readers of this blog) will mostly likely be able to find themselves within the pages. It’s a bit sad, but also kind of heart-warming, that I feel so sure it will hit close to home for so many people.
But I can also tell that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The structure – a series of vignettes spread out over the course of several years in different settings – can feel a bit disjointed in spite of Awad’s well-written prose, and I wasn’t very sure if I felt satisfied with the resolution at the end. With those minor comments aside, I really did love the book.
All in all, I think that 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a very necessary book. It offers up an entertaining story while also working as effective social commentary. Although I originally picked it up as a “quick palate cleanser” to read in between some proper literature, dahling, I was left pleasantly surprised and far more affected than I could have expected. It struck a chord and has stuck with me (obviously). Although 13 Ways… can be uncomfortable at times, it starts an important conversation that far too many people are afraid to have.