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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

New and Notable: Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Out this week is Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, a novel composed of 13 interconnected vignettes which can also be read as standalone short stories. The stories chronicle, as the title implies, the life of "fat girl" Elizabeth as she struggles with self-hatred, body image, and her ever-fluctuating weight.

Having always considered herself overweight, Elizabeth, who at times goes by Lizzie, Beth, and Liz (her name changes almost as frequently as her dress size) devotes herself zealously to the project of losing weight. Years of meticulous calorie-calculating and interminable, sweaty hours at the gym yield the weight loss results she desires, but take a serious toll on her mental health and relationships. The "thin" Elizabeth can wear standard size clothes, but becomes listless, exhausted, and disinterested in anything but the all-consuming need to maintain a caloric deficit. Moreover, she is still as plagued by self-hatred as ever. 

In one story, Elizabeth and a friend wonder, as they sip stevia-sweetened beverages and split a gluten-free muffin, if perhaps their efforts are futile, if the weight loss industry a cruel joke, and "the joke's on us." The spectre of what they could have accomplished with the time they've spent tethered to the hamster-wheel of the treadmill looms heavy, and the question unanswered.

By showing us snippets of Elizabeth's life over time and her various sizes, Awad's novel cuts deep into the devastating effects of the diet and weight loss industry on women's self image, mental and physical health, and the repercussions that preoccupation with body size have on one's ability to flourish. Elizabeth's relationships are perpetually undercut and soured by her fraught relationship with her body image. Her romantic relationships are particularly telling, as she links her self-worth to her perceived "fuckability," causing her to tolerate shoddy treatment from undeserving partners, and sabotage potentially good relationships with others. Her friendships are equally problematic; constantly comparing herself to other women breeds jealousy, cruelty and contempt which hinders her from forming meaningful bonds with other women who are dealing with the same issues, and could otherwise be a supportive network.

Sadly, Elizabeth's plight is as heart-wrenching as it is relatable for countless women who have also absorbed the toxic cultural messages which equate body-size with desirability, and thereby happiness and fulfillment. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl does not shy away from confronting these difficult realities, which makes it painful to read at times, but Awad's prose makes it enjoyable despite its harsh content. Awad's depection of Elizabeth's complicated humanity is graceful and deft. Even readers who don't have issues with body image (if such a person exists!) will find something to relate to in Elizabeth. And for readers who do share in Elizabeth's struggle, this book will validate so many truths. To be seen, to be heard, to know that others feel as you feel, that none of this is your fault because this world is set up to turn a profit from your manufactured self-hate...this is powerful stuff.

Mona Awad will be at Librairie Drawn and Quarterly on Tuesday, March 8th at 7:00 p.m. to launch 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. Won't you join us?   

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