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Big Brother

May 13, 2013

When I asked Harper Collins for an advance copy of Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver, I thought it might have something to do with the post-1984 world, but this novel is only obliquely about who is watching you. It’s about how we look at someone’s body size and jump to conclusions. It’s about how we think so much about food and enjoy it so little. It’s about an ascetic who finds out that her brother has become a glutton, and the lengths she will go to in order to “help” him lose 170 pounds.

Dieting is something I know about. My first experience of it was at six months old, when a pediatrician told my mother I was too fat and that she must start me on low-fat milk. When I was a child, my eating was continually commented on and restricted. At the age of 12, I started skipping lunch. Here are the ages at which I succeeded in losing a significant amount of weight, 50 pounds or more: 15, 19, 29, 37, 50.

During the past year, I gained back 70 of the most recent 80 pounds I had lost. I see people look at me and assume that I’m weak-willed and probably not very smart, when I am actually one of the most strong-willed people you will ever meet, and I’ve read and thought about most of the books about eating and dieting that have been published in my lifetime. Many of them were from the library, but here’s a sample of the ones I found when I looked around my house:  photo-33
Fat Is a Feminist Issue I and II, Susie Orbach. On Eating, Susie Orbach. The Beck Diet Solution, Judith Beck. Weight Watchers’ Complete Food Companion. The Philosopher’s Diet, Richard Watson. The Joy Diet, Martha Beck. The Four Day Win, Martha Beck. The Stress-Eating Cure, Rachael and Richard Heller. The Secret Is Out, Lisa Davis and Bradley MacDonald. 100 Days of Weight Loss, Linda Spangle. The New Me Diet, Jade and Keoni Teta. Also many books about eating, like Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Critser’s Fat Land, and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

Only rarely am I not thinking about how to control my eating, which evidently puts me in the majority according to the New York Times (I found the article from this humorous overview at Most adults move up and down what I call the spectrum of food thoughts over their lifetimes, from “trying not to eat” to “eating when hungry.” The middle part takes the most thought, as my chart shows:  photo-34

Because staying in the middle takes so much thought, there are people who slide off on either side, giving up by either trying to eliminate the need for eating entirely or eating everything without regard for the future.

Big Brother is the first novel I’ve ever read that goes clear from one end to the other of the spectrum of food thoughts. The protagonist, a woman named Pandora, starts out by realizing “I’d come to squander an appalling proportion of my mental time on empty vows to cut down to one meal a day, or on fruitless self-castigation over a second stuffed pepper at lunch. Surely on some unconscious, high-frequency level, other people could hear the squeal of this humiliating hamster wheel in my head, a piercing shrill that emitted from every other woman I passed in the aisles of Hy-Vee.”

This is an issue that Lionel Shriver has evidently spent a good bit of her time pondering.  In the linked article, she sounds very much like her character Pandora, who worries on the morning after her brother Edison’s arrival because “no one…had addressed my brother’s dimensions head-on. I myself had not once alluded to Edison’s weight to his face, and as a consequence felt slightly insane. That is, I pick him up at the airport and he is so—he is so FAT that I look straight at him and don’t recognize my own brother, and now we’re all acting as if this is totally ordinary. The decorousness, the conversational looking the other way, made me feel a fraud and a liar, and the diplomacy felt complicit.”

Shriver does get some things right about the desire to get fat, but always insists that the longing for a grand gesture must be mixed with an impulse towards suicide: “his appetite for Cinnabons and suicide alike, his insistence on building his life along such drastic lines that thinking big had manifested itself in his proportions.” In order to make Pandora seem more sympathetic she gives her an even more ascetic husband who “did experience Edison’s overeating as a form of assault.” Whenever I started to pull away from the story, Pandora would say something so full of insight that I would be pulled right back in:
“Confronting a photograph of oneself is always a fraught business, for one’s own image doesn’t merely evoke the trivial fretting of ‘I had no idea my nose was so big.’ This sounds idiotic, but every time I see a picture of myself I am shocked to have been seen. I do not, under ordinary circumstances, feel seen. When I walk down the street, my experience is of looking. Manifest to myself in the ethereal privacy of my head, I grow alarmed when presented evidence of my public body. This is quite a different matter from whatever dissatisfaction I may harbor over the heft of my ass. It is more a matter of having an ass, any ass, that other people can ogle, criticize, or grasp, and being staggered that to others this formation, whatever its shape, has something to do with me.”
I would suggest that people who get very fat are even more prone to this kind of thinking than thinner people are; there’s a sense that you must get very big to be regarded at all. As Edison himself observes, later, about being fat, “when you walk down the street, it’s all people see. You big as a house, but in any meaningful way you’re invisible.”

Pandora believes that a person who thinks too much about food has to find a way to stop, like an alcoholic reaches a point where he has to go to AA. When Pandora gets Edison to admit that nothing besides eating gives him pleasure, she “wondered if that wasn’t the answer to the mystery, countrywide. It wasn’t that eating was so great—it wasn’t—but that nothing was great. Eating being merely okay still put it head and shoulders above everything else that was decidedly less than okay. In which case I was surrounded by millions of people incapable of deriving pleasure from anything whatsoever besides a jelly doughnut.”
This strikes me as a privileged point of view–lots of things give me pleasure, but few of them are available for less than $2, the price of a jelly doughnut at the local Tim Horton’s.

Because of her privileged position, Pandora can afford to put herself and Edison on a liquid-only diet for months, and even rent an apartment where they won’t be confronted with the need to prepare or socialize over food. When she has lost all the extra weight she can afford to lose, though, Pandora panics when she has to learn how to eat again, and says
“I wasn’t alone in this hysteria. You could see the same frenzy all over the Internet: diatribes about sugar, clever tips about using tiny plates or drinking lots of water, profiles on celebrities who claim to have ‘eighty meals a day,’ the charts listing the glycemic index of parsnips and potatoes. You could see it in the accelerating demand for extra-wide caskets, roller coasters reinforced with I-beams, and elevators redesigned to carry twice the load. You could see it in burgeoning retail sales for ‘bountiful’ apparel, in the return of the corset. You could see it in the market for airline seat-belt extenders….”
Have any of you ever seen anyone ask for a seat-belt extender? I’ve seen (and been among) a number of people who quietly pretend to fasten it, rather than single themselves out any further.

There’s a surprising reversal at the end of the novel, a might-have-been scenario that the author says is written out of pain and guilt over what she failed to do for her own brother. I think she should feel less guilt; losing weight isn’t just about “becoming more attractive or less prone to diabetes” but about finding ways to control yourself, and other adults can’t help you with that. The fictional brother “proved it possible to reverse the most nefarious of misfortunes: those that you’ve authored yourself.” Shriver’s real brother evidently did not reverse them, and I don’t think there’s much she or anyone could have done to help that process along.

I’m not suggesting that she couldn’t have tried, or that the discouraging studies mean that no one should work on ways to take off weight that makes them physically unable to do things they want to do. Anyone who is fighting to keep their weight from going out of control always has to spend a lot of time somewhere on the spectrum of food thoughts, weighing, planning, and selecting, People who have been fat can’t quit eating entirely for the rest of their lives, nor can those people ever eat when hungry again, because they’re almost always hungry. The hardest thing to do is not to go overboard, to enjoy a measured amount of food day in and day out without having to demonize it.

Shriver’s novel shows extreme behavior on either end of the spectrum, the places where people stray so far from being able to enjoy human interaction over food that they isolate themselves. It’s a warning sign for an individual to want to eat alone. The novel is trying to show that it’s a warning sign for a society, too. How many of us eat alone, before or after occasions for eating with other people? Our stacks of diet books tell us to “eat just a little before” so we can keep control when faced with party food, but how many of us keep better control over our desire for food when other people are watching?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2013 9:50 am

    One thing the book doesn’t seem to address, or if it does I’ve missed it in your review, is the idea of a disordered relationship with food. Maybe I’m only looking at weight through my own lens of experience but to me, size or lack of size is a symptom of that relationship with food as well as perhaps an attempt at camouflage (which I think the book does somewhat address, yes?).

    My own relationship with food is all about control, and when I feel out of control elsewhere well then I don’t eat. I don’t even notice I don’t eat, it’s not on purpose but more of a side effect. That’s pretty typical for people with my kind of background.

    I think size is also about hiding, hiding on purpose – not sure the book addressed this idea of hiding because it sounded as though Edison experienced being ignored as a side effect. Part of that hiding can also be a way of ensuring you (generic person of size) aren’t viewed as a sexual being – again an on purpose kind of camouflage. In the same way, when I’ve been at the worst point of my relationship with food, I’ve gotten skinny to the point of asexual. Not saying you (specific you) are trying to hide your sexual side, just sharing what I’ve seen elsewhere.

  2. May 13, 2013 9:57 am

    Fat is a Feminist Issue certainly addresses the topic of getting fat as a way of avoiding being seen as a sexual object.
    But you’re right, this novel is not about “disordered” eating, which we could argue is what happens over a span of time as someone tries to find a place on the spectrum between not eating and overeating.
    Also, as you and I have observed before, disordered lack of eating gets more attention than disordered eating, because it can’t be blamed on lack of control or willpower.

    • May 13, 2013 11:16 am

      That’s a good point about disordered lack of eating vs. disordered overeating. A really good friend of mine here in the KC area pretty much had to point blank tell me she also had an eating disorder. I felt stupid for not already realizing that.

  3. Gwen Bailey permalink
    May 13, 2013 1:06 pm

    So very fundamentally true. And society sends us signals–in the entertainment field, for example, women must be rail thin, but there are 4 restaurants on every street intersection. In my life, I’ve been slender and muscular, and I have been fat. I used to never think about food at all, and now it is one of my favorite pastimes. My children, however, are thin–one almost dangerously so, but she eats quite a bit. It’s a jumbled mess. And everyone wants to give you advice–when to eat, how often, what you should eat, how you should prepare it, why you can’t have dessert or why you should have dessert. I’m so confused!

    • May 14, 2013 10:32 am

      I like to stand in the checkout line at the grocery store and do a mental ratio of how many recipes there are on the front page of the “women’s” magazines compared to how many articles there are about weight loss.

  4. May 13, 2013 4:46 pm

    “I would suggest that people who get very fat are even more prone to this kind of thinking than thinner people are.” Actually, I’m often hyper aware of others’ (perhaps non-existent) gaze upon me as I walk around in my skin. And it’s not directly related to weight (that’s a different issue). I don’t know what word you want to put after the “self- ” hyphen but I’ve always felt “on stage” in public and do not like that feeling. I think it’s all in my head and maybe I’ve got a mental illnes that hasn’t been named yet but it’s one of the reasons I dodge down sidestreets when I take walks – fewer gawkers.

    Now, what they’re actually SEEING, I don’t know. I don’t consider myself “fat” but I am constantly overaware of what I’m eating, and what I should and shouldn’t be eating. It’s a constant battle with weight-creep. I lost about 15 needed pounds about 2 years ago and it’s slowly, slowly creeping back and I’m trying to keep the wolves at bay without going back on WW and just simply trying to eat as well as possible MOST of the time (alcohol right now seems to be my downfall, something I’m also addressing) but I swear, I am constantly doing mental calculations of what I’ve eaten each day and how I can do better tomorrow – an endless cycle that takes up two many brain cells. I try to be active when possible but I’m not a runner and because of my knees, am limited by what exercise I can do. Plus, all my favorite things to do are all sedentary – reading, writing, etc.

    I really, really hate work conversations about weight and despise when someone (not a friend) at work will comment on my weight (it doesn’t matter if it’s said as a compliment either) because it’s none of their damn business. I’m not going to have that conversation.

    I don’t think we’ll move past this weight obsession as a culture until science can convince us all that while there are health problems that stem from being very overweight, some people are just bigger (or smaller) than others and we just have to deal with it and shut the hell up about ourselves and every one else. And stop putting babies on diets!

    • May 14, 2013 10:41 am

      The way all the thinking about what you can and can’t eat takes up too many brain cells is a main theme of this novel, and one of the things I liked best about it.
      As I advise some writers to do, I often dress for and play a role when I go out in public. As you observe, it doesn’t feel like “me” people see when they deal with the physical, so they might as well deal with someone bolder who dares to go where I’ve never gone before. That’s why I like bright colors and bold patterns–especially red, as Lemming has observed.
      I was born back in the days when if a baby was born with ambiguous genitalia or some kind of disability, the doctor would often decide which gender it would “be” or whether the baby was going to survive (as in the novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter). I think we’ve come a long way since then; I doubt anyone today would put a baby on a diet at 6 months.

  5. May 13, 2013 5:59 pm

    What you say about assumptions is spot-on. Most fat people I know think a lot about what they eat and often have extraordinary amounts of self-control and extremely strong wills. And they don’t necessarily eat that much more than thinner people–people’s bodies react differently to different foods in different amounts, and it’s not always easy to figure out the right foods in the right amounts. That NYT article you link to illustrated that really well, I think. And then there are the assumptions surrounding the health of fat people vs thin people.

    The business of being seen is interesting to me. I’m often self-conscious about eating something purely for pleasure when I’m in public. My feeling is that being fat doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have treats, but I do wonder what people think when they see me having (or buying) ice cream or pie or whatever. Mostly I don’t care and do it anyway, but when I hear people close to me talking about other people’s weight, I wonder what thoughts they secretly harbor about mine.

    • May 14, 2013 10:47 am

      I’ll wager a guess that most fat people you know have gone up and down the scale at least twice in their lives and started the process of throwing their metabolisms out of whack.
      My experience is that the people who make the most comments about seeing someone who is overweight eating something calorie-laden in public are the ones who have recently gone down the scale, or who are having trouble staying where they want to be on the scale.

  6. May 14, 2013 3:36 pm

    What an interesting review! The Uk also has a big problem with people being judged because of their size. It seems to be one of the only areas where people think it is OK to have prejudice and hate.I look forward to reading this one. Hopefully I’ll love it as much as We Need to Talk About Kevin

    • May 15, 2013 8:31 am

      If we think it’s okay to be hateful about someone being fat, it’s because we think it’s a choice. It might be a good next step to ask ourselves why someone would make such a choice.

      • May 15, 2013 5:04 pm

        Reminds me so much of something I read recently about the charge that people who recover incest memories are making them up. Who would want to be a recovering incest victim?

        • May 16, 2013 9:58 am

          I was being a little facetious, thinking of the “homosexuality is a choice” arguments–and you bring up another tough way to have to live that is not a matter of choice–but I do think that being fat can be a choice, to some extent. Not a conscious one, usually, but as Edj3 points out, perhaps a protective one.

  7. May 14, 2013 4:01 pm

    There sounds so much more here than your average book that might approach the issue. I’ve not heard of a seat-belt extender on planes, though whether that’s because we don’t have them or that people don’t ask I don’t know, I suppose it’s likely the latter. With the amount of cruel jokes and staring already I guess no one is going to want to bring more attention to themselves.

    • May 15, 2013 8:35 am

      To fly anywhere from central Ohio, a person usually has to get on a very small plane–if it’s a United flight, we get United Express, which sometimes doesn’t have a jetway; we walk out onto the tarmac and climb up the stairs. Those are the kinds of planes where the seats are narrow and the belts shorter.

  8. May 15, 2013 12:40 pm

    Shriver seems to be a writer who is really good at picking out the hot-button issues and then writing a good novel about it. Gotta appreciate her for that reason alone, she gets a conversation going!

    • May 16, 2013 9:54 am

      Yes, she does seem to pick the issues that are coming along and get her novel published before interest in those issues has crested, an interesting talent for a novelist. I’d say she does it better than Jodi Picoult, whose sense of timing is also great but whose writing is not as good.

  9. joyweesemoll permalink
    May 18, 2013 12:53 pm

    Added this one to the list — thanks for pointing me over here since I’ve been so neglectful with my blog reading lately.

    I have a Big Brother of my own, but I made no attempt to pull him along on my weight loss journey. We talk about weight, gingerly, because it seems artificial not to, but I’m so sure that each one of has to forge his or her own path that I can’t imagine giving much advice to my brother beyond a book title or two.

    I’ve read or looked at all of the books on your stack of diet books and many more.

    I’m firmly in the middle on the spectrum of food thoughts, now. My weight loss came when I finally developed the skills and habits to get and stay in that middle area. Judith Beck was the author that helped me the most with that (although I found the format in her second book easier to follow than The Beck Diet Solution).If I’m going to maintain my weight loss, I’m convinced I’ll have to stay at that middle point for the rest of my life. The good news is that it got easier over time. It takes less than two minutes to plan my meals for the day, mostly a repeat of the day before with minor variations. I modify my meals with the seasons and allow for special occasions, but more rarely than I would like.

    My current favorite book is Thin For Life by Anne Fletcher. She used data from the National Weight Loss Control Registry mentioned in the NYTimes article to see what people who have successfully lost weight and maintained the loss did.

    I think one thing that doesn’t get much play in all this discussion are the benefits beyond weight loss of bucking the forces in society that have us rewarding ourselves with food and eating 24/7. I enjoy subverting the food industrial complex by shopping at Farmers Markets, growing some of my own food, and refusing to consume highly processed foods. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from my new sense of competency — whether I’m washing greens or making a salad dressing on the fly from ingredients in my fridge and pantry. There’s a lot of intellectual stimulation, too, since there are so many things to learn about biology, psychology, and society and their roles in weight and health.

    • May 20, 2013 7:27 am

      I like your attitude–what usually works best for me is some kind of intellectual engagement with what I’m doing, and “subverting the food industrial complex” might be something to think about. I’ll have to look for the Fletcher book.
      As you say, each one of us has to forge her own path. My own brother has always been thin, but luckily he’s seen enough of the kinds of influencing my parents tried that he steers clear.


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