In 2007 I began reading an excellent blog called Shapely Prose. I don’t remember exactly how I discovered it – likely a link from another blog, something like that – but it was, for the 3+ years that it ran, one of my favourites. The contributors were sassy, smart, feminist; the founder, Kate Harding, was and is one of the best writers out there, writing on topics that were new to me at that time, topics like fat acceptance and fat politics, as well as feminism, and everything in between. (Note: She also seems like a super cool woman, and I am still mad that I couldn’t get to her reading in Toronto last fall BUT I DIGRESS)
One of the first posts I think I ever read on Shapely Prose was this one by Harding, The Fantasy of Being Thin, and it was a massive lightbulb moment for me. I encourage you to read it, because not only is it an excellent piece of writing, it’s an important one. Even if you are someone who has never struggled to lose weight, it can really do a lot to help you understand what (can) go on in the minds of your fat friends, fat family members. It blew me away all those years ago, because I could relate – oh my god could I ever relate! That was actually me circa 1994 thinking “if only I could lose 25, 30, 40 pounds, watch out I will be unstoppable!” And I did lose that much weight. And guess what? Like the lady says, I was still me. Pretty great, but not the superwoman I fully expected to be once I dropped 4 or 6 sizes, you know?
This post was on my mind the entire way through Mona Awad’s excellent 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, because Lizzie’s story is in a lot of ways this fantasy of being thin. She starts out a fat girl, and, spoiler alert, when she does get thin through an excruciating regimen of diet and exercise and sacrifice, she is still the same person: Lizzie, from Mississauga. Somewhat awkward, often difficult, unmotivated. Go figure.
And if you read Kate Harding’s Fantasy post, you’ll understand where this excruciating regimen of self-punishment can come from, and how the roots of this fantasy take hold. When society tells you from day one that thin is the only way to be, and you’re not thin, and there are hundreds of ads and commercials and billboards screaming at you daily that all you have to do is try harder, fatso, and you too can live out your fabulous life as a thin, worthwhile person, well it’s no wonder so many of us buy into that fantasy. It’s a hard cycle to break.
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is Lizzie’s journey from fat teenager in suburbia, to thin, almost-30-year old woman, and along the way we get to meet her friends, her parents, her early love interests, and the others who shape her outlook on life, her self-worth. There is Mel, her friend and sometimes competitor – for attention, for guys. There is her mother – herself fat, and only proud of Lizzie once she starts losing weight. And there is Tom, her boyfriend then husband, who got together with fat girl Lizzie, but becomes increasingly distanced from intense, over-achieving, weight-loss Lizzie:
“I did this for you, you know, she always tells him.
Did you? he wants to say.
Because he doesn’t remember ever asking for kumquats or hybrid cardio machines, but who knows? Maybe all this time, all the little ways he looked at her and didn’t look at her, all the things he said or didn’t say or didn’t say enough added up to this awful request without his knowledge or consent, like those ransom notes made from letters cut from different magazines.”
Lizzie’s relationships with family and friends, while not particularly healthy to begin with, become strained and more difficult, as her relationships with food and exercise become more and more disordered. As the story progresses, as she herself begins to disappear, the miracles that are supposed to accompany thinness don’t occur, life goes on. And when that life is one you’ve been keeping on hold until you were a certain size, a certain weight, there is always the feeling that there is more to do, more to lose, another size to drop.
Awad does a great job of getting the mindset of this fat girl turned thin, the mindset that never allows you to feel you’ve accomplished enough. The mindset that has you waiting and waiting for the amazing life you were promised, once you became thin enough, once you become acceptable enough to society.
As Harding says:
“The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely — and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous. It keeps you from being not only who you are, but who you actually could be, if you worked with what you’ve got. And that person trapped inside you really might be cooler than you are right now.
She’s just not thin.”
I loved this book. I love Mona Awad for giving a voice to the expertly flawed character of Lizzie (Elizabeth, Liz, Beth) who I adored in all her funny, sassy, complicated, and sometimes ridiculous glory, and I will be recommending this book to everyone I know, fat or not, girl or not.
You’ve been warned.