13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
It’s not easy being a fat girl. It’s hard to find clothes, and airplane seats, and everybody seems to have an opinion on your girth. Especially yourself.
Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a collection of 13 short stories presented as a novel (the title and format cribbed from Wallace Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird), telling the story of Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth from her teenage years to adulthood and her ongoing struggle with her weight.
Each story explores Lizzie’s self-loathing at her body, mostly from her own first person point of view, but occasionally as viewed by someone else in her life. These stories are dark, and not just because the character is part of Toronto’s Goth scene in the earlier part of the book (Awad actually places her characters at a Goth concert that I promoted in 1997, leading me to believe that at least some of the material is auto-biographical, because I distinctly remember the two girls she bases Lizzie and her friend Mel, on)… Awad seems to find the worst traits of her characters and magnifies them to make nobody, least of all Lizzie, sympathetic.
As she matures and loses weight, Lizzie renames Beth, then Elizabeth. She struggles to stay thin, to the detriment of many relationships, and her personal style changes from Goth to something more indie and then finally to someone who shows up to work BBQs in too-tight designer dresses. She counts every calorie eaten and burned and begins to realize that it won’t actually change much.
While I found Awad’s writing sumptuously beautiful – gal can turn a phrase like nobody’s business – I wanted a better ending than what she gave readers. Of course, life seldom has perfect storybook endings, and in that respect, Awad is far more honest about her subject than many. But like so many other reviewers, I wanted some form of redemption for Lizzie – some self-acceptance or self-compassion, a way of using the death of her mother as a catalyst for positive change instead of just becoming the living embodiment of her. But by the end, Lizzie is still drowning in her loathing – both of herself and of other women, and you just want to find her and give her a hug and maybe some cheese.
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a very concise picture of how western society views women’s bodies, what we all do to win approval for how we look – especially from men, and the attitudes we develop when we care too much about appearances. The cover wittily shows the word “fat” as partially erased, reflecting how Lizzie has erased her personality along with her body fat. Almost every other review I’ve come across mentions how Lizzie is such a terrible person for the things she does and how she treats people, and how she lets herself be treated, and I think that’s a concise assessment.
If losing weight and staying thin means counting every calorie and fighting over gym equipment and generally being miserable, then finding some way to love yourself, stretch marks and all, seems like a much better goal for the fat girls of the world.
This is an important work, one that all women, of all sizes, should read. But the moral taken away should really be one of love yourself, love your life, accept who you are, and stop fucking trying so hard, it’s not worth it.