How could I resist a satiric novel about dieting titled Dietland and featuring a picture of a hand-grenade cupcake with sprinkles and a cherry on its cover? This new novel by Sarai Walker is delightful reading for anyone who has ever tried a reducing diet, and practically required for anyone who, like me, has tried lots of them including one with terrible-tasting pre-packaged food like the “Baptist diet” in the novel.
I read Dietland on the plane and in the airport on the way back from Walker Percy weekend. To fly anywhere from where I live, we have to drive an hour to the airport, get on a plane to a big connector airport, and then get on another plane to our actual destination. So getting to Baton Rouge required four flights, two there and two back. As usual, I pulled the seat belt across my lap as far as it would go and held it during the entire flight. Only once in my last few years of flying (4 or 5 times a year) has a flight attendant noticed and brought me a seat belt extender. I don’t ask for one because it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing enough for me to have to try to squeeze my hips into the narrow airline seat when we’re seated in a row where Ron can’t lift the armrest between his seat and mine, as we were when we flew standby on our first trip of the morning, to avoid missing our connection because our first flight had been delayed.
So the struggles of Plum, the heroine of Dietland, were intimately familiar to me. The places she avoids going include “parties, clubs, bars, beaches, amusement parks, airplanes.” She doesn’t mention theaters or baseball games, places I go with trepidation because I might not be able to fit in the seat, but she does say that one time on an airplane “a man asked to be moved because he said I spilled into his seat. I couldn’t always buckle the seat belt around me and it was embarrassing if I had to ask for an extension. The flight attendants weren’t always nice about it.”
On the “Baptist diet,” she describes her hopeful state at the beginning:
“At breakfast and lunch, I drank a foamy peach shake from a can. At dinner, I microwaved my designated meal, then peeled back the silver plastic to reveal beef stew, its chunks of meat and peas floating in a lukewarm bath of brown gravy, or a turkey meatball, like a crusty planet surrounded by red rings of pasta. The meals were small, merely a scoop or two of food, and they seemed to lack a connection to actual foodstuffs; I thought it was possible the “food” was constructed of other elements, like paper and Styrofoam, but I didn’t care, as long as eating it led to thinness.”
After a month of being hungry all the time and going to bed right after work and dinner, “since being awake was torturous,” she gives in and starts eating food again, as almost everyone does.
Plum goes through all the options:
“In college I joined Waist Watchers, since they held meetings right on campus. When I became disillusioned with their program I followed the diet plans outlined in books and magazines. I took diet pills, including one that was later recalled by the FDA after several people died. I took a supplement from a company in Mexico, but gave it up after it caused violent stomach pains. For all of my junior year, I drank a chocolate diet shake for breakfast and lunch….once I had cycled through every diet I could find, I went back to Waist Watchers.”
She has spent years on the “Waist Watchers” plan and is still fat, so she has decided to get surgery to reduce the size of her stomach.
Plum’s job is responding by email to girls who write to a magazine’s advice column about their adolescent problems. She has to keep her job in order to keep the health insurance that will make her weight-loss surgery possible. But work is getting weird for Plum. A girl has been following her, and gives her a book entitled Adventures in Dietland, which is about the secrets of the “Baptist diet” that Plum tried. Increasingly, she is pulled into a world of militant feminists who try to get her to think and talk about her reasons for wanting weight-loss surgery.
The satire centers on the activism of a group that calls itself “Jennifer,” a common name that could belong to almost any modern woman. The first mention of Jennifer is when they manage to get the CEO of Empire Media, circulated in many of the countries of the former British empire, to stop printing photos of topless women and begin printing photos of naked men instead:
“When the cocks started appearing on page three, there were immediate protests from media watchdog groups, from parents and government ministers, who claimed the photos were indecent. Many newsagents began to keep the Daily Sun behind the counter, lest anyone be offended. Some of them refused to sell it at all or even touch it. The circulation dropped by half during the first week. In media surveys, men said they were too embarrassed to read the paper. ‘I’m not gay,’ said a man who was interviewed. The CEO knew cocks were bad for business. Breasts she could get away with. Women knew their place, but with men it wasn’t as simple.”
One of the militant feminists is the daughter of the woman who sold the “Baptist diet” and she feels she needs to atone for the sins of the mother and the inheritance she’s gotten from the money spent by thousands of people as desperate as Plum. She asks Plum to do several tasks in return for a check that will cover the cost of her weight-loss surgery, should she still decide to have it. One of these tasks is to “confront people who made rude comments or stared at me.” This is where the satire starts getting exaggerated. Plum does stand up for herself, and it happens in several fictional instances where she can walk away feeling good about her efforts, when in real life I think she would only be further humiliated.
The new Plum is an angry feminist who doesn’t let anyone else’s opinion about her looks ruin her day. She stomps around in combat boots, begins to cook and eat what she wants, and gives up the idea of weight reduction surgery. She also starts shoplifting from a store identified as V— S—, which is more of the exaggerated satire, possibly understandable in the narrative because when she tries to enter the store she is “bodychecked…at the entrance” by a salesgirl and has to explain “I’m shopping for a normal-sized person. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve come in here.” Finally she substitutes sending feminist theory to the girls who write to her former magazine for shoplifting lingerie, “becoming a different type of outlaw,” as she puts it.
In the end, although Plum is happier with herself and could go to parties, clubs, bars and beaches if she wants to, she still can’t go to amusement parks or on airplanes. Maybe if enough women became like Plum they could agitate for bigger seats on amusement park rides and airplanes. It seems unlikely to me. But the reforms that the group called Jennifer demand in this fictional world are amazing and provocative, so maybe the idea that a few more women could see the folly of continuing to live in Dietland isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds to me, still pretty entrenched after a lifetime of trying to fit in.
One of the questions that reading Dietland will make you ask yourself is what, exactly, you’ve been trying to fit into.