- 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
In 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Mona Awad examines the body as a public object, a prison, a prize, and most interestingly as a passport to freedom or the pursuit of it. Billed as a novel, the book is structured as thirteen interconnected stories that trace the life of of a girl—from overweight, teenaged Lizzie, struggling to find her place, to thin Elizabeth, who has achieved weight loss but whose relationships are colored by her history.
The opening story, "When We Went Against the Universe," introduces us to Lizzie and her friend, Mel, two bored teens who flirt with the idea of approaching a group of businessmen eating at McDonald's. Awad illustrates the restlessness of youth that results after the girls "[have] exhausted every topic of conversation," eaten random desserts, and eventually consider prostituting themselves. Awad capitalizes on readers' unease by deftly presenting the girls' debate as juvenile, commonplace, and blind to any number of horrific ramifications. Many of the book's sections are linked by the idea that the female body has a price; it can be negotiated, manipulated, resized, renamed. In understanding sex as a power play, the girls acknowledge their once private invisible bodies are now public commodities.
Awad is not afraid to explore fat as a fetish—the stereotypical belief that heavy women are more sexually available to male desires, more adventurous. Inherent in the perception of the fat female body as free is the counter idea that more traditionally accepted female bodies are restrained or inhibited, harder to dominate, and ironically the object of fewer fantasies. Awad shows the female body caught in a battle it cannot win. Lizzie's fat body is not respected in "Your Biggest Fan," while an arduously maintained thin body will not satisfy Lizzie's husband's imagination in "She'll Do Anything."
Although the narrator's pursuit of a thin body is treated as both a journey and a destination, Awad highlights in multiple stories the impermanence of bodily states. In "Full Body," a once able-bodied man is rendered quadriplegic, while over the course of the book the narrator shape-shifts from heavy to thin, and her mother is transformed from a woman who fills muumuus to a pile of ash filling [End Page 181] an urn. Such juxtapositions speak to the illusion of control and make Lizzie's consuming struggle against herself even more heartbreaking.
Embedded in the fabric of many sections is the mathematics of the body. Lizzie is preoccupied with calories consumed, time spent exercising at x intensity for x minutes. She applies herself to what she hopes are foolproof equations for conquering the flesh. In "Beyond the Sea," Lizzie reveals she is signed up for the 7:00-7:30 am slot on the Lifecycle machine at her gym. Because of a mostly nonverbal competition with another exerciser she sometimes begins her workout at 7:02 am. Despite meticulous detail keeping, Lizzie wonders if she is actually changing her body, or if her strenuous efforts are futile. She diagnoses problems in the habits of her fellow gymgoers, mentally noting their trouble areas. The business of the body naturally involves the mind, and in several stories the mind is portrayed as a co-conspirator. The mind tricks women into perceiving a difference and miming the motions of progress. Haunting to both narrator and reader alike is the harsh reality that effort does not guarantee results, and that perhaps the flesh is doomed despite changes in habits and mindset. Womankind, Awad implies, is spinning her wheels in pursuit of a mythical state.
What helps the book transcend superficiality is its unflinching willingness to intimately examine the often harrowing physical and emotional states of shaping a body. Awad delves into the doom-like regret of overdoing bodily activities—eating, exercising, displaying one's self for public consumption. She familiarizes the reader with the body's delicate equilibrium and its ability to damage a mother-daughter dynamic and decimate a marriage. Whereas other books...