If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman

Carla de Guzman is a fat Filipina writer who is part of a collective that promotes stories by Filipino romance novels written in English. Her novel If the Dress Fits is set mainly in Manila where Martha, a fat, twenty-seven-year-old accountant navigates family members who comment on her weight and eating habits, hanging out with her (male) best friend, and coordinating events on the side. At work, she is assigned to a project whose contact person is a guy named Enzo, whom she knew and loved in college, where they slept together one time while drunk — and it is Martha’s only sexual experience. In a classic “twist” of the romance genre, Enzo is engaged to Martha’s nihilistic cousin Regina, and now Martha has been volunteered to coordinate the bridal shower and wedding. Meanwhile, Martha’s best friend, a thin, muscular man named Max, is right there. We can see where this is going.

De Guzman peppers her novel with Filipino words throughout, making it more immersive in the culture. Sometimes the word has an English equivalent, but other times the word refers to a ceremony or activity not done in English-speaking cultures. Also, we get culturally-specific body language, such as pointing with one’s lips instead of a finger. Specific Filipino dishes are served at family events. It also stands out that the family is led by the oldest person, and the younger generations, even those in their 60’s, follow suit. At no point did I forget that If the Dress Fits is set in the Philippines, to de Guzman’s credit.

Although the novel is predictable — old lover shows up, best friends with a guy who “gets” everything about her, a misunderstanding that leads to radio silence — de Guzman handles the trajectory in ways that surprised me now and again. While she heads into “Max is my pretend boyfriend so my family will stop asking me about my love life” territory, it doesn’t last long, pushing the story into different direction. I also assumed Martha would kiss Enzo and get caught by Max, or something like that, only to realize she doesn’t truly love Enzo, but that didn’t happen either. While they aren’t huge innovations, de Guzman avoided a completely predictable plot.

Now, to the part I was most interested in: how does de Guzman depict a fat character? The author herself is fat, and I’m almost positive it is her on the cover of the second printing (see below). I found Martha to be both honest and irritating. She describes eating fast food frequently and laments that it’s not what she actually wants, but a way to avoid facing her emotions. In other cases, she eats rich, cheesy pastries, but doesn’t regret doing so because the food is part of her culture and family tradition. So, we don’t get a straightforward relationship with food, which is realistic.

However, any time Martha moves her body, she uses both a negative adjective and a noun. Her thighs aren’t “thighs,” they’re “huge thighs.” Because negative self-talk is common with fat people — after all, we internalize what the world tells us despite our best efforts at vigilance — I kept reading, forgiving Martha for her hateful descriptions, even when for a hot minute I wanted to DNF. But then, I noticed I was getting bored with her self deprecation. Are people not aware that describing their own body, what they eat, and how they exercise as a form of punishment for being fat, all fall into a hum-drum, intellectually numbing category? Instead, what I prefer from writers is to describe the fat body in the way it interacts with the world. Tell me about chairs, booths, small spaces, low-to-the-ground couches, etc. The body does not inflict itself upon the world; it comes into contact with a world designed for small sizes, and that’s what I’m interested in.

Overall, I appreciated the cultural aspect of If the Dress Fits and the sex scenes, but Martha’s interior self-loathing was exhausting and repetitive.


  1. Was the fiction derailed by the self-loathing? I mean, was there a happy ending and did the protagonist feel like she deserved it, or was there a “penalty” for being fat?


    • I think the happiness was deserved because this guy had cared for her for so long that it felt natural, but self-loathing always brings me down when I read. People in fiction (and sure, some in real life) tend to hate a thing about themselves all the time. In my experience, it’s more that a person gets upset about something that happens and they move on, not some aspect about themselves they live with 24/7.


  2. You’re more patient than me – I think I would have given up fairly early on! Being inside the head of a character who is relentlessly down on themselves is just no fun.


    • I was thinking about this more and why it bothers me so much, and I think in part it is because I am surrounded by Gen Z all the time. That group just does not hate themselves. They have a challenging moment or project or whatever, but they I just don’t hear them saying, “I hate ___ about myself all the time.”


  3. I had a Filipino business partner and friend for a few years. The official language there is Tagalog, though there are other regional languages. I’ve been looking at Wikipedia, you’ll be interested to know they also have an official sign language, FSL. Good review, I enjoy your analyses of Fat writing.


    • There are so many sign languages out there, and interestingly American Sign Language is in weird pockets of the globe thanks to missionaries who want to bring a language to deaf people in countries that have no sign language. Also, Hawaii has its own sign language that is dying.


  4. A great review as always Melanie. Do you think that self-loathing is so natural to the author she didn’t know what she was doing? I’m assuming there’s no resolution to this issue at the end – no acceptance or anything else? – otherwise you would have said.

    I’ve only read one book by a Filipina and that’s a political novel by Merlinda Bobis who now lives in Australia. I regularly get big hits on it at certain times of the year and I suspect they are from the Philippines and that it’s a set novel there.

    I was hoping you might talk about some of the food dishes … I’ve only had a little Filipino food but I love Chicken Adobo. I try to make it myself but I don’t think I ever get the flavours exactly right! They also do an amazing over-the-top layered multicoloured dessert, called halo-halo (though I think they are famous for their pastries). See, I love talking about national cuisines.


    • I didn’t make too many notes about the food in particular because the dishes had names I did not recognize.

      I think there is a whole history of women who are fat who learned to hate themselves, something that is passed down not only by their mothers, who are also self-loathing, but in some cultures (Indian and other Asian cultures come to mind) everyone will tell a person they are getting fat. They think they’re being helpful. Joke’s on them, we know from science that shame does not motivate. I do think the cycle of body hating is calming down a bit. I never hear Gen Z young women talking about how fat they are. They just live their lives. Of course, that may depend on how rural the person is and their education level.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you are right about body issues calming down a bit. There’s been a lot of work done to recognise different body shapes in recent years, and I love that many clothes sellers are now showing clothes modelled by a diverse range of people – in shape, ethnicity, age. It’s great to see.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. The setting and cultural context sounds interesting here. I know that food and the sharing of food is a huge part of Filipino culture so it makes sense that the character would both embrace and reject food at different times.


    • I hadn’t thought about the importance of sharing food in Filipino culture, so you bring up an interesting point. How, then, do people diet and maintain their culture at the same time? And is dieting truly a concern in the Philippines, or is that Western intrusion? I remember reading that a smaller country, Fiji, I think, was not concerned with dieting at all until American TV shows arrived at the country.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A Filipina friend once told me that she legitimately considers food and eating together to be a love language and that stuck with me. From what I’ve seen of Filipino families and culture, it makes a lot of sense. I have no idea how that fits in with diet culture though, which I imagine the Philippines is certainly not immune from.


  6. I really love how adoringly that man is looking at his partner on the cover of the second book – adorable! And Guzman (if it is her) looks so happy.

    yes, I can see why negative self-talk is tiresome in books – and it is regardless of the author’s actual size, whether they be big or small. We all internalize society’s view of how our bodies should look, so it’s nice when a book forces us to go against that, rather than continue on its harmful messages.


  7. I was reading an article at work and thought of you but before I could copy the link and send it to you, some customer rudely interrupted me. Anyway, it was an article about doctors being concerned about people using a new diabetic drug for weight loss and the consequences that might have in the long run. One doctor was very blunt about how our culture tries to erase fat people. Driving them to take big risks to lose weight and fit in. It was so encouraging to hear that from a doctor of all people!


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