13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
Published by Penguin, 2016
Procured from my local library
*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.
I first heard of Mona Awad’s book on NPR. Based on the title, I thought 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl would be 13 short stories. Instead, it’s a novel (sort of) told in 13 chapters (sort of). If I hadn’t read that Awad is a graduate of an MFA program, I could have guessed it. Coming out of an MFA program myself, I understand how difficult it is to workshop sections of a novel, so instead we all tend toward short stories. 13 Ways of Looking reads like 13 connected yet separate short stories.
The cover is interesting, as it suggests the only way to see a fat girl is to erase her. The eraser marks target the word “FAT,” but we all know that women are taught to erase themselves by taking up less space, physically and vocally. When you erase the fat and leave the girl, you’re still not getting much person.
In the first story, readers are immediately exposed to the amount of comparison that fat women do to one another. I am well aware of how this works, as I published a short story called “Fat Woman Socializing” after realizing how much I compared myself to other fat women in the past (a habit I have since squashed after a lot of hard, purposeful work to change my thought patterns). At this point, the main character, Elizabeth, and her friend Mel are teenagers; comparing comes naturally to adolescents. Yet, Elizabeth keeps up the comparing well into adulthood, and she’s never kind.
Much of the book is told in first person by Elizabeth, but there are point of view switches, such as in the second story in which a man only calls “the fat girl” when he’s drunk and been rejected by his skinny girlfriend. Later, Elizabeth’s husband narrates a story. These two voices are the only that suggest Elizabeth has a life beyond her weight. Drunk guy mentions she bakes, and her husband notes that she used to listen to music in the dark. Beyond that, Awad’s portrayal of a fat woman severely disappointed me. Elizabeth changes her name — Beth, Lizzie, Liz, Elizabeth — in an effort to become someone else. She barely gets through high school, but later we’re told she has a college degree. Hoping for some positivity here, I was crushed when I read that Elizabeth spends her adult years temping. But what does she do at this temp job? What are her passions away from work? She doesn’t even describe her love of baking or music, so readers are left without any indication of who this character is. She’s fat or she’s not fat; that’s it.
Awad also fails to consider differences in preferences, like all fat women are the same, as seen when Elizabeth’s husband observes the secretaries at his office:
[A co-worker] brings in a Tupperware container full of [butter tartlets] and offers some to the fat secretaries, all of whom snatch greedy handfuls and say they’re just scrumptious.
The husband suggests the women are fat and greedy, but I hold Awad responsible for suggesting that all secretaries are fat, and all fat people are greedy. It’s as if the author wants readers to confirm their stereotypes about fat people so they feel vindicated.
But the book is about Elizabeth, and readers never learn if she is an introvert or extrovert. In fact, she feels very human when another girl in high school puts eye makeup on her, which she then refuses to wash off (it’s still smeared on her eyes over a week later). In the same story, she ventures into online dating and vies for the attention of a quadriplegic who is 47. The scene in which her friend with the eye makeup realizes Elizabeth has been dating this man is offensive to both fat women and people with disabilities:
“And are you ever actually going to meet this guy? Are you really going to fly to fucking Irvine or wherever he lives? How is he going to pick you up from the airport? Do you even want this guy to fuck you? Can he even fuck you?
Awad’s characters suggest that a relationship that doesn’t end in sex is pointless, that people can’t love each other without sex. In fact, every part of this book weighs characters on their ability to 1) have sex and 2) get the partner to acknowledge in public that they had sex with a fat woman. Awad creates suspicious readers so that when someone does want to have sex or a relationship with Elizabeth, we immediately write them off as a pervert with a fat fetish.
True to fat fiction form, Elizabeth loses a ton of weight. Whereas the romance novels would have her finally get the attention of her hot boss on whom she’s been crushing for years, Elizabeth never changes — because she never had a personality in the first place. Awad reminds readers incessantly that Elizabeth eats almost nothing, works out obsessively, and that she’s still temping. By the end of the book, Elizabeth’s way of thinking has changed somewhat, though that’s a stretch to argue as she never had a “way of thinking” beforehand, as in readers never experience why she so abhors her fat body. We learn to hate our bodies when society tells us to; we’re not born hating ourselves. Imagine how bold and unself-conscious you were at a very young age, that is, until you heard your mom criticize her wobbly arms or your aunt lambaste her butt or the first time someone told you to hold your tummy in. No, Elizabeth, in the end, decides that size Large is still “fat girl,” but she’s not militant about changing.
That’s not the end, though; Elizabeth gets in some last jabs. When she returns as an adult to the store where she used to by clothes as a fat teen, she remembers the sales woman who works there. She thinks the woman’s “jewelry is still aggressively cheerful, still screams, I’m trying to make the best of things.” The assumption is that the woman is trying to cheer herself up because she’s so miserable with her fat, dreary life. Perhaps Elizabeth is the kind of character who would have these thoughts, but since she’s such a blank nothingness of a person, the thoughts can only come from Awad. Perhaps Awad’s experiences mirror Elizabeth’s own, but this isn’t a memoir. Fiction writers are responsible for the messages their characters send out.
A potential positive, one obvious way the author implies that weight loss is not the answer is by using the adjectives “lose” or “losing” without the noun “weight.” Therefore, Elizabeth is losing. I felt this tactic was clumsy and a last attempt to show readers she’s on the side of the fat girl, though if she were, her character would be well-rounded in more ways that one.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. It’s demeaning, inaccurate, and full of flat stereotypes. If you are fat like me, you’ll come out of it angry, but you’ll first need to feel depressed for 212 pages.