13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl #BookReview

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.

awad

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.

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46 thoughts on “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl #BookReview

  1. I’m intrigued to see if you find any positive representations. When you mentioned it before, I tried to think of some, and though I can think of a couple of fat male heroes whose fatness is merely one aspect of them, I couldn’t think of any fat women main characters at all, except for one crime series where the heroine, Ruth Galloway, is a little overweight and obsesses about it eternally, and has constant low self-esteem because of it. She drives me up the wall!

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    1. I couldn’t tell if the author had been a fat woman (she is not in her author photo) and was mad at herself, or if she’s never been fat and thus guessing how fat women feel….if it’s #1, write a memoir. If it’s #2, don’t.

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  2. I truly hope you’ll be successful in your search, because I can’t think of a single book with an overweight heroine who doesn’t try to lose weight. It’s rather depressing to think about that. (Actually, I might have to go back and check The Sugar Queen. It is a love story and the heroine eats too much because she’s unhappy, but I don’t remember her obsessing over eating too much or trying to lose weight to impress the guy.)

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    1. I’ll look that book up, TJ! Thanks! I’ve found 21 books total that I plan to read, and it’s all based on the descriptions. I’m really, really hoping that I find some winners. So far, I have 2 winners in the bag, but both books are ones I read before 2017. One was Shrill by Lindy West, which I read in 2016, but the other I read in 2014! That’s way too long between books, people!

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    1. You’re welcome! Have you read this book, too? I know a few blogger friends have, I just can’t remember who. I feel like if Elizabeth were a character who didn’t focus on weight, everyone would see how blank she is, but Awad threw in size and a bunch of blurbs call the book “witty.”

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  3. Thanks for this review!
    I read Dumplin’ in December, which is a YA novel (not sure if you’re into that), but I thought it was a great representation of a fat teen girl. She has multiple plotlines NOT related to her weight, there’s no weight loss plot, she has an interesting, complex personality, and she has two love interests!
    I’ve also heard good things about books by Susan Stinson, but haven’t read any yet. Have you?

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    1. Hi, Casey! Thanks for stopping by! I haven’t seen you in a while. I’ve heard about Dunplin’ and though I’m not into YA I added it because it sounds so positive. I hadn’t read any books by the author you mentioned
      What would you recommend?

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  4. I’m glad to read your review but sorry to hear this book is not worth the time. It was nominated for the Giller Prize (which is a major Canadian literary award) so I was pondering reading it but I think I’ll pass it by.

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  5. It’s so good that you’ve been so honest about this book and saved other people from the depression and anger of reading it. But how disappointing – grrrrr. By the way, I found the use of “losing” that you mention immediately reminiscent of eating-disordered friends I have – “I’ve lost”, they will say, so that doesn’t help at all or wouldn’t if I read this book. I commend you on your good start to this project.

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    1. Thank you so much, Liz! My list only has something like 22 books that I spent days searching for, so I’m still on the hunt! I almost wonder if this book is getting cookies for not being a romance while discussing fat women. Most books I found were romance novels about fat women being better at sex, which is also not what I’m looking for.

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      1. A Goodreads friend rated it highly, as did Roxane Gay, an author I follow. It’s one of those books that got a lot of press from the usual outlets when it came out and I think I was swayed by some of that initially to be interested. But obviously not enough to actually pick it up! 🙂

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        1. Yeah, I saw Roxane Gay’s review. I imagine her response to the book would be fairly complex given the relationship she has with her body, which she’s discussed in various online articles but will likely detail more in her forthcoming memoir, Hunger.

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  6. Excellent review! I remembered that I’m watching a tv show, it’s called This Is Us, and one of the main characters is a fat woman, but her “storyline” is focused on losing weight and falling in love, so… it might not be what you’re looking for!

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    1. Definitely not, and it seems like those are the kinds of books most people are writing, too! Very frustrating. I’ve spent HOURS compiling a list of books I’m going to read, which I will post tomorrow. Some of them lean more toward chick lit, but there are a number of serious works on there, too, which I’m excited about. I just used up most of my gift cards from the holidays buying any books not available at my library.

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  7. Well, this sounds pretty terrible. I really feel your line “Fiction writers are responsible for the messages their characters send out.” I so often see people make excuses for their works of fiction saying it’s fiction after all and it therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously. But it matters and it hurts when characters send out the wrong kind of message to readers.

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    1. And I don’t even care if Elizabeth was the most unlikable fat woman ever, but she should have some sense of personality that drives her to be unlikable. She had no personality, only an obsession with fat = bad, which is the wrong message to send.

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  8. I loved reading your perspective on this book. When it first came out I hadn’t planned on reading it – I had read a couple of blogger reviews that voiced the same frustration as you over the negativity. But then it made the Giller prize shortlist, and because I was on the shadow jury this year, I read it. I found the writing good and easy to read, so the book flew by, but at first I didn’t know what to think. It’s definitely not a feel-good book, and I completely agree that Elizabeth has no personality. That was actually my biggest beef about the book. But after hearing the author tell an interviewer what her purpose was in writing the book, it made more sense to me. I think we’re supposed to be disgusted with Elizabeth and her obsession with being fat. And angry at all the criticism women bestow on each other. And I think we’re supposed to see that losing weight is not the answer. I think she said her purpose was to show the deep and lasting impact poor body image can have on a person. Because I like a little hope at the end of the tunnel, the other thing I didn’t like about the book is that the character doesn’t ever seem to come to any positive realizations about her life.

    She did throw in that one character who seemed to show a positive representation of fat women – the manicurist. What did you think of her?

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    1. Maybe because I read a lot about fat activism I find it insulting that someone should learn that a fat woman, like the manicurist, could be happy. I also found it hard to believe that Elizabeth was interested in literally nothing other than finding someone who would sleep with her. That was a big one for me: though the author may want readers to see the deep misery a person can experience as a result of life-long body shame, she makes it seem like shame is ALL there is ALL the time. I would argue that an obsession to the extent that the author gave Elizabeth would result in an eating disorder, rather than disordered eating.

      Some of the other characters seemed a bit clownish, too, like the obese mother who puts Elizabeth in ridiculous, gaudy clothing and makes her go to a night club where the mother can watch Elizabeth dance. What is this supposed to show readers? Again, the author suggests fat women are gaudy when the clerk in the plus-size clothing store is said to be trying hard to look happy with her garish jewelry. If Awad wanted to go for satire, she should have gone “whole hog” instead of going part of the way and reinforcing stereotypes instead.

      I did listen to an interview she did on NPR, and one thing I remember Awad saying is that she never revealed Elizabeth’s weight so the book could be about any woman. After reading the book, I feel like almost no one could identify with Elizabeth. It’s difficult to hear what the author says about a book because it influences my thinking. However, I had to ask myself: if this book were about any other “difference”–race, age, nationality, language, gender, sexuality–would critics have praised the book as it reinforced stereotypes?

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      1. The whole time I was reading it I was thinking that Elizabeth must have some deeper problem – that she needed to get help. I kept waiting for a loved one to suggest this to her, but it never happened. It was hard to get a sense of what was really the case and what was only going on inside her head. I thought her perceptions of other people were often being exaggerated because of her own warped ideas.
        I think I also heard that the author had originally written it as a collection of short stories, but then changed it into chapters in one woman’s life. I wonder if this might explain somewhat the extreme focus on weight and sex and food.

        This whole book made me cringe, but my opinion is that it’s supposed to.

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  9. Oh no! This is a terrible way to start off your year of reading fat fiction. I wonder if this is an example of where representation has gone horribly wrong? The images I’ve seen of Awad are all fairly thin. This implies to me that fatness is something she doesn’t know intimately and is just trying to tell a story she does know, or she is angry at a former self. I get so sad when fiction makes assumptions about the masses. These implications drive anger. It sounds like Awad isn’t really being a fat activist, but is instead trying to “educate” people that “fat people are people too”. 😦

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    1. My main feeling was that she was trying to justify the feelings that people believe about fat women: we hate ourselves, we want to change, and we crave affection from anyone because we feel like we don’t deserve to have preferences.

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    1. I just read this in an article, and I think it fits well:

      “I see a lot of people co-opting body positivity and not really understanding how best to fight the stigma fat people face,” Bay says. “They end up reinforcing fat phobia.”

      This is exactly how I feel about Awad’s book. I’ve read a few interviews she did, and it didn’t sound like she put a lot of conscious thought into what the book would do. It’s more like, “I wanted to explore what it’s like in that dressing room.” In that way, it sounds like she’s playing with dolls.

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  10. LOVED this review! I was very disappointed with this one as well. There were a few parts in the book that I felt the author did well, but overall this book was a hot mess. Like Elizabeth, I used to be a fat girl, but lost a substantial amount of weight. I do think Awad did a good job of showing that weight loss does not solve your body image issues. This needs to be done internally. Like Elizabeth, I assumed losing weight would change the way I viewed myself, but it didn’t. Also like Elizabeth, I developed eating-disorder like tendencies. In these ways, the book was very relatable to me. HOWEVER it was also very problematic for the reasons you stated. I will eventually review this myself, but I doubt I could shed light on it like you did.

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