Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

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Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

Dietland by Sarai Walker

published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. (2015)


*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.


Dietland is a book unlike any I’ve read before. When I read the end acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised that Walker claimed Fight Club was an inspiration to her. The novel begins with Plum, a fat woman who can’t say “fat” who works as a ghostwriter for a huge media corporation. Plum’s job is to respond to emails sent by teen girls who write in to the magazine Daisy Chain with their various teen girl issues. The woman who runs the column, the gorgeous Kitty, hired Plum to write back to thousands of messages that don’t make it to the pages of the magazine. Plum is told to work from home (it’s suggested her “look” doesn’t fit in the media world). People laugh at and make fun of Plum, but she ignores them. Every day she heads to a cafe to sit and respond to emails. She does nothing else.

Until one day she notices a girl in colorful tights is following her. And everything goes insane. The girl points her to a feminist organization run by Verena Baptist.

Verena’s mother, Eulayla Baptist, had been a powerhouse in the diet industry (perhaps like Jenny Craig). Plum had been on The Baptist Plan when she was a teen. It was her dream to be thin, and Eulayla was the dream weaver. When Eulayla died, though, daughter Verena wrote a tell-all memoir about how awful dieting was for Eulayla: the fridge was padlocked, a cook was hired so she wouldn’t see food, she stopped going to restaurants and church and seeing friends. Eventually, she had her stomach stapled to save her diet industry.

Yet, Eulayla gave fat women thin promises packed in tiny low-calorie dinners and shakes that tasted like cardboard. And Verena shut down the diet industry her mother had created, leaving women and girls like Plum pissed.

This part of the book is interesting. It shows how women like Plum and millions of others put their faith in a diet and a spokeswoman who promise thinness, which means happiness. The employees who run the meet-ups and weigh-ins make promises and keep the dream alive. When Verena crushes the dream, women feel out of control of their lives. The feel like they’ll never be happy. Author Sarai Walker captures both sides of the dieting industry. I understand and relate to Plum’s dreams. I understand and relate to Verena’s work to expose the horrors of dieting industries. It’s also worth nothing that several real-life diet companies are not-so-subtly hinted at: Weight Watchers, Nutri-System, Slim Fast.

When Plum meets Verena in the present, about 15 years later, she’s still mad at Verena. Plum has bariatric surgery scheduled in a few months, but Verena says she’ll give Plum $20,000 to do the new Baptist Plan, which will change her life and mind about the surgery. Verena sets up difficult, sometimes humiliating tasks for Plum to teach her (sort of like V for Vendetta).

Unlike other books with fat women, readers know Plum weighs 304lbs. Bravo, I say. Authors claim they don’t give their characters a specific weight so readers can imagine themselves as the main character, but not every reader is a fat woman, nor should only fat women read books about fat women. Plus, we have this tendency to say:

I’m fat, but I’m not THAT fat.

Having an idea of what is “too fat” is basically setting up a cut-off mark for how acceptably fat a person can be. Some women say 200lbs. I used to say 400lbs, back before I thought more about weight and society. We’re saying we accept fat, but “Day-um! Not that much fat!” Don’t do that.

Dietland gets you thinking, a lot. At first, I didn’t like that Verena is thin and always has been. What does she have to say to fat women that is valid? But all women are attacked by a patriarchy. Things start happening around the globe; rapists are dropped from a plane, abusers are thrown off bridges, the media changes pictures of nude women to nude men in the same poses after family members are held hostage. The attacks seem in response to forcing women to be “fuckable,” either through sexual assault or images that perpetuate “fuckability.”

motorcycle

Verena thinks locally: she doesn’t help Plum see that fat is fine, she helps Plum see that all women are under attack. When Verena shows Plum how to be “fuckable” because that’s what Plum thought she wanted, Plum learns that being “fuckable” is exhausting: waxing, make-up, clothes shopping, tummy tucking underwear, push-up bras, hair and nail appointments, etc. When I read the pages in which Plum was getting made over, I was exhausted myself! Women can’t only be thin, the must behave, be sexy, be agreeable. Plum learns that thin women aren’t better off:

Because I’m fat I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman…then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. Those guys I went on blind dates with treated me like I was subhuman. If I were thin and pretty, they would have shown me a different side, a fake one, but since I look like this, I know what they’re truly like.

While the story is told from Plum’s point of view, the story isn’t totally about her. What she does is a larger message that ties into these feminist/terrorist acts around the globe. For instance, clothes. Plum had been buying small clothes for her post-bariatric surgery body. Fat is temporary, she thinks, and that’s why fat women keep old clothes they used to fit into and won’t buy new clothes. Eventually, she buys bright clothes and doesn’t apologize (fat women are told to wear black).

Most of us struggle with clothes. Why? Is it because we’re trying to look like someone else in the mirror? We worry about the number on the size tag? The message is your body is not on its way to Thin Town and this is a temporary stop in Fatville. You’re life is now; the body you have is the one you live in now.

Dietland reads like a feminist fat-activist companion novel to Fight Club and gets you thinking. Truth be told, I quit wearing make-up after reading Dietland when I confessed to myself it takes time to put on and runs in my eyes by mid-afternoon.

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46 responses »

  1. Congratulations on a passionate review of what sounds like a passionate book. I think by the end of the year your ‘Fat Fiction’ series will have raised some really powerful arguments. It seems to me most of the (western) world is being bullied into believing they are fat – 2 of my 20 workmates (guys) have had their stomachs stapled. Everyone around me, my daughters, women friends, me, we all muck around with our diets, our clothes and to what end? Good on you for making this an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Bill. I’m to the point where I don’t engage in conversations about food restriction. I also point out to the person who’s talking obsessively about food that they have better things to think about and offer the world. This is hard to do, as I am a fat woman, but I have to admit the spaces I inhabit are much more peaceful places. And the stomach stapling…very scary stuff. I used to have a friend who said she had her insides cut up so the world would like her. I felt so sad in that moment. I’m not sure if it’s my personality or where I go or what, but I don’t have people make fun of my for my size. It may be because I’m not bothered with my size. I try to make smarter food choices so that my body feels good, and I do some physical activity that isn’t “working out” (when you’re working out, you hate it; when you do something physical that you love, it’s awesome). I do have the honor of a very supportive husband, which can make all the difference, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a brilliant read. Having had high metabolism all my life when I developed a thyroid issue with hormonal weight gain i was completely lost and suddenly…..people were very mean! I never knew that people were that horrible. Now, 6 years later with the hormones and thyroid under control people are a different kind of mean and I’m sick and tired of it. I need to read this book. Great review as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to admit that some of the revenge scenes got me very excited…I try to be an even-tempered person, but I am a justice seeking weirdo–in Hillbilly Elegy, he calls this hillbilly justice, which is my kind of justice.

      Like

  3. YASSSS. This is exactly how I hoped you feel about this book! I loved it for all the reasons you mention. I read this last spring and looking back, since then I’ve been a lot more accepting of my body the way it currently looks. I’ve bough new clothes – something I totally always resisted doing. Dietland was the asskick I didn’t know I needed. This review was awesome – will totally get others to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I quit wearing make-up, as I mentioned. I used to wear it early in the semester to give myself a bit of a polished, yet performative look. It wasn’t about being “pretty.” However, I have very sensitive eyes and terrible allergies, so the make-up gets into my eyes and then I can’t rub them for fear of looking like a raccoon! Then I read Dietland and was like, “Never mind, make-up. We can’t hang.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A book that changes how you behave is clearly pretty powerful! I’ve never worn much make-up – too lazy and a lot of it irritates me – and it has the weird side-effect that, when I do, I get zillions of “Wow” You’re looking great tonight!” compliments. It’s always made me laugh, ‘cos basically they’re saying “you look so much better when you don’t look like you…”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes!!! Gaaaaah. I’ve also been very focused on women’s clothing hobbles them. In the U.S., at least, most women’s clothing has ZERO pockets. If you do get pockets, they’re frequently sewn shut so they stick out a bit and “make your thighs look fat.” And then purses. Purses render 50% of my hands useless. I’ve officially gone back to the 1990s tiny backpack. IT’S CHANGED MY WORLD. Granted, this time around I can’t have one shaped like a teddy bear, but you know, progress.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve heard lots of great things about this book, and it sounds as though you agree with them all! Maybe I should get my book club to read this book with me…
    Make-up. I am proud to say that I have never worn make-up, not even at my wedding. And at this point, I’m pretty sure I’d feel like some kind of intruder if I put it on. But who am I kidding? I don’t even know *how* to out it on! I like what FF says about how when people compliment you when you’re looking different than usual, it’s really like an insult to how you usually look.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This book looks like it fit your requirements much better than 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl! Yay! This book sounds fascinating! Society’s standards of “beauty” really must change. Now that I have a daughter of my own, I worry about all the media and advertising that fill young girl’s heads with impossible standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh wow, great review! This book sounds really interesting. I gave up on makeup a long time ago; I’ve never liked wearing it (especially lipstick), and although I will put on mascara and the occasional coverup, that’s about it! Add the no makeup look to crazy, curly hair that can’t be tamed unless I spend hours straightening it, I almost always look like I just rolled out of bed and that I don’t care. I’m OK with this look, as I refuse to spend hours making myself look better. People don’t know how to respond when I say that I just don’t really care. After years of being made fun of for my hair, I’ve made my peace with it and its amazing when other people try to force their expectations of beauty onto me by commenting on the state of my lack of makeup or my frizzy hair.
    I really am looking forward to reading this book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Melanie, great review! I thought about you the other day. The program for Adelaide Writers’ Week has just been released and Lindy West is one of the visiting authors! Very excited to hear her speak about fatness and feminism next month.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes Yes Yes Yes!! I need to read this book immediately. Like, yesterday immediately. There are so many things happening here. I think it’s so important that we dissect not only what the diet industry has done, but media in general. The reason we have “woman hate” is because we are taught through society that we can’t all get what we want, and we all have to sacrifice and climb for it. Yet, mostly no one really wants what we are taught to like. But what if we really just listened to ourselves? Did what mattered to us? Stopped the hate?

    Great review! I cannot wait to read this. You sold me and I am sooo amped.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Meet the Writer: Susan Stinson | Grab the Lapels

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