When I put down 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, I felt like Mona Awad had exposed something deep and true and uncomfortable. By turns when reading I was amused, disgusted, pitying.
The book is a series of interconnected stories about Elizabeth, a woman on a quest to lose weight. We follow her from her teenage years up through her twenties, getting snapshots of where she is on her journey. She’s never happy with herself, always afraid to have her picture taken, always obsessing over every morsel consumed or piece of clothing worn. When she does start to lose weight, she still can’t see anything but a fat girl.
Through black humor, sometimes surreal descriptive power, and biting nastiness, Awad examines women’s relationships with their bodies. I completely agree with the blurb, which says, in part:
Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform. As caustically funny as it is heartbreaking.
I think Elizabeth comes off as “lovably difficult” because of her obsession with her body image. Most women will get it–get precisely where she’s coming from, why she’s so worried and angry and compulsive and mean, constantly judging herself and other women. Even if this doesn’t reflect everyone’s personal experience completely, we can all understand it at least in part. The twisted relationship with food and enjoyment, the competition and joylessness, the never feeling quite good enough. Most people will find something that rings true.
Most of the stories are told through Elizabeth’s eyes, her view of herself and her struggle with weight and her perception of herself. She even goes so far as to constantly change the name she’d like to be called (Lizzie, Beth, Liz, etc.). But even when the point of view is from those close to Elizabeth, mostly men, the focus is squarely on her body and how they perceive it, how it does or doesn’t measure up in their eyes. Elizabeth as person inside that body barely even registers. And that is pretty heartbreaking.
Not an easy read, but one with lots going on and really fantastic use of language. Awad strikes a deep chord, and does it with humor and incisiveness.