I requested Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl because I wanted to be the kind of person who could read a book about body image and body size and not have it be a fraught experience. Alas. I am not that kind of person (yet) (ever). So my review here is coloured (aren’t all reviews?) by my experience hating-learning-and-now-force-loving my body (“Force-loving” your body is my term for my practice of aggressively defending my body’s right to do whatever it wants, even while I have niggling doubts. Like I can force body postivity on myself with a combination of determined repetition “soft bodies are beautiful!” and strategic disavowal “diets are tools of the capitalist patriarchy!” and yet somehow am always left wondering about the why I’m running 5km at 5am: where lies the border between enjoying an active body and policing it?).
The book, the book. So probably it has 13 chapters. That would make sense with the title. It follows Elizabeth/Liz/Lizzie/Beth over her lifetime of hating her body. Born to a fat mom, Lizzie grows up fat. The first chapters are her as a teenager experiencing a fat body in a world that it still very okay with fat prejudice. In fact, part of the project of the novel seems to be exposing just how pervasive this prejudice is, and the societally sanctioned cruelities that accompany. As Lizzie ages she experiences different sizes of body and the way her body is read and interpreted by others. That her own internalized sense of self is at odds with how other people see her should be no surprise to anyone who has experienced an eating disorder or body dysmorphia. Or you know, has been a person in the world at all, really.
It has some fabulously rendered scenes made sharp for this reader by poignant details balanced against and occasionally undercutting, but often perpetuating, stereotypes about how women treat themselves and one another. The relationships between groups of women and food is explored with nuance: not just the dynamics of a social gathering, but the ways friendships are made (and broken) by body size and the (innumerable) activities that surround keeping a body just so. Lizzie’s frequent inability to see past how other women are presenting themselves in relation to food, and how she allows (all) her relationships to be shaped by what, how and who is eating is as sad as it is familiar.
So if you’re a person who has experienced a fraught relationship with body or food I’d suggest reading this one for the moments of recognizing yourself and feeling understood and seen. But more if you’re a person who has an untroubled relationship with food or body (who *are* you and how did you get to be this way?!) I’d urge you to read this one as it offers a – if only from one, fictional perspective – view into a life led in body distress. And might lend you some tools – and empathy – for encountering bodies differently.