Book Review: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

13 ways of looking at a fat girl / the paper trail diary

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad, via Penguin Random House, out now.

[I received this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review; this did not affect my opinion of the book whatsoever.]

I knew from the minute I heard about this book that it would be an intense, triggering read for me. It’s about a girl named Lizzie (I am calling her this because throughout her life she goes through almost all the variations of the name Elizabeth) who grows up overweight, something I can identify with. Lizzie’s story is told through 13 stories at different points in her life – mostly from her point of view, but there are a couple from men in her life – and they all have to do with her weight in one way or another. The book is heartbreaking and at times hard to read but well-written; Canada has certainly found a new star to shine in Mona Awad. I was hesitant and excited to read it, not quite sure what I was about to encounter, as writing about plus-size women can be very sensitive, and as one, I think it still has to be. I am not one to openly talk about my size proudly at all because I’m not totally proud of it, nor do I feel like defining it, but I am happy for others who feel that way; it’s just a place I haven’t got to yet, like Lizzie. I enjoy reading books such as Dumplin’ and am hurt when I hear about how the author who wrote my 2015 favourite book has a questionable next book on the way. As 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl has been picking up a lot of great press for being ground-breaking and well-written, I also want to share what it’s like for someone like me to read something like this. Imagine some of the worst things you’ve thought about yourself, things you really hope people around you don’t think, laid out in text for the world to read. Horrible words and descriptions of body parts that you don’t want to repeat. While I work to not define myself by my body, but by all the things I can do and enjoy, this book shows someone whose entire life is defined by hers.

So here are 13 things I thought about while reading this book. Some of it’s going to get real!

  1. I hate to say this, but I feel like I have to, as it sort of matters in context to me. I’m curious if Mona was ever overweight, because she certainly isn’t now. I don’t care which way she looks, I’m just curious in the sense of can you really get into that character’s head if you haven’t felt the things overweight people feel? Should I be offended or impressed? Is this an immature thought? Some part of me still thinks ‘skinny girls will never understand.’ Or did she do a lot of research asking people questions? I’m biased, but I feel like it isn’t really like just getting into any character’s head. This character’s head is completely focused on her body. I don’t really think Mona got anything wrong but I’m just curious. Who or what inspired her to write this? And I’m curious about how skinny girls will perceive this book differently from overweight girls. (I really hate saying fat girl, which is just all over the book, obviously.)
  2. The first thing she says is ‘We went against the universe at the McDonalds.’ I thought that was pretty funny and true. Going to McDonalds is basically just a big middle finger to everyone else, and they know it.
  3. “Never will this man or any man call me beautiful for a long, long time.” I felt this way too. Society tells us that men won’t think we’re beautiful unless we’re skinny. At least other parts in the book go on to fight this theory from both sides. But of course it’s men who really ‘inspire’ Lizzie to lose weight.
  4. There’s a story told from the point of view of some musician alcoholic guy who uses Lizzie’s admiration of him to feel better about himself. But he calls her ‘the fat girl.’ You know, the fat girl will do anything for him, the fat girl is always excited for him to come over. “Some People can’t even be bothered to throw an extra Pop-Tart into the toaster when you come over. The fat girl, on the other hand, has lit all of her vanilla-fig scented candles in anticipation of your arrival.” It implies skinny girls have the power to say no, while fat girls just feel lucky you’re paying attention to them. Or maybe that’s just what he thinks. And I’m assuming that his ‘some people’ girl is skinny purely because he doesn’t call her fat.
  5. “Mel will join me on her breaks and we’ll eat. Never the doughnuts because we agree that a fat girl eating a doughnut is too sad a thing. But we eat everything else.” *sigh*
  6. There’s a story about a coworker of hers who offers to do sexual things to her. He’s constantly talking about how grateful he is to her. My first reaction is to not believe him, to think it’s a joke, but that’s more of me inserting my life/issues with society, ha!
  7. Another story details her lunch hours with another coworker, who is a skinny girl who can put away an incredible amount of food. I thought this was funny in a dark way because if a skinny girl around me ever says ‘I’m so fat’ out loud I immediately want to smack her or run away. This story really does show what goes on for an overweight girl when something like that happens.
  8. In almost every story, you see what Liz wants to say to people but never does. She always says the opposite of what she wants. It’s confusing, frustrating and disheartening. It doesn’t always tie into her body but it’s a pattern she’s got herself into, as you see more and more how she becomes less of a version of who she used to be when she starts to lose weight. Throughout the book you see ways in which she is both attached to her body and completely detached.
  9. The story about spending time with her mother, who is not acknowledging her diabetes, is so tough to read. Same goes for the story in which Liz goes to a nail salon and demands to only have her nails done by the overweight staffer. She’s never been totally favourable to people who look like her, because she didn’t like the way she looked, but now that she’s skinny she can be even more brutal about the way they look (but she doesn’t say anything out loud). She just assumes nothing can be good for overweight people. She’s shocked to hear that the nail artist is happily married. She worked so hard to not be like who she looks down upon, but she’s not where she thought she’d be. The weight will always be there, like her husband at one point calls it ‘an air of heaviness around her.’
  10. I wanted to throw the book at the wall repeatedly for multiple reasons during the story told by her husband, who loved the former version of Lizzie and misses that body.
  11. I wonder if the way Lizzie is eating – or not eating – is classified as anorexia or some other sort of eating disorder. It gets disturbing, and personally I can’t understand that level of control but I know that it’s all too real.
  12. The writing in this is not subtle, when Tom, her husband, describes what they do on her cheat day. “It’s the only night when her smirk goes slack, the noose of restraint loosened enough for her features to soften, her beauty at last unbuckling its belt. She is never more expansive and easygoing in conversation than when she’s snatching chips from the basket with quick fingers. He’s learned not to look at the fingers. If he does, she’ll stop.”
  13. A lot of Lizzie’s thoughts pertain to clothes, which I get. There isn’t much for us out there. And she repeatedly slams Addition Elle, a plus-size clothing store. Though it’s uncomfortable when she still goes in there once she’s skinny, she’s not wrong when she describes the kinds of clothes that are there. Animal prints, rhinestones, clothes that are meant to disguise. BS clothing that only plus-size women are told to wear.

I’m still processing a lot of the book – there are so many ways Lizzie contradicts herself or doesn’t quite say everything. And at the same time she gets so much right, it’s freaky. I wish there had been more stories from her younger days – she didn’t even quite realize how desirable she was then, and I would have wanted to read more about what she was like in school. Some of the later stories got a little bit repetitive (even though that’s reality). I think it’s a pretty good book, though I don’t think it’s as funny as a lot of people have been saying. I mostly enjoyed Mona’s writing style. I can’t quite fully put my finger on how I feel yet besides a bit blue, but these thoughts are getting me there.

These are not things I usually write or read about, so know that I’m still a bit tender! I wanted to be able to give you guys context to my review. *wipes brow*

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