13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
I won a copy of Mona Awad’s novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl from Dolce Bellezza. It has sad parts, as you’d expect, but what I didn’t expect is that it’s comprised of 13 different chapters, snapshots from throughout the girl’s life, complete with different iterations of her name (Elizabeth) until they add up to a complete picture, much the way the poem from which the novel takes its name works (Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird).
In the first chapter the fat girl is high-school aged, sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant after school, hatching fantasies with her friend Mel. She isn’t even named until eight pages in, when she and Mel escape to the bathroom to giggle and re-do their make-up, and Mel calls her “Lizzie.”
In the second chapter, the guy who tells the story can’t even remember the fat girl’s name. “Liz, Liza? Eliza? Something –za maybe.” His girlfriend think she might be seventeen, but he’s not sure and she is not taking his calls after he had sex with her and left her a note saying it was a mistake. At almost the end of the story, he overhears her tell another man that “most people call me Lizzie.”
In the third chapter, Lizzie wants to transform herself into her skinny friend China, who is occasionally kind enough to draw on her eyelids to make “smoky eyes” but isn’t all that interested in spending half a day helping her friend pick out an outfit and find a pose for a full-body photo that makes her look less like a person who can be summed up with the one word “fat.”
In the fourth chapter, Lizzie begins a sexual relationship with a male co-worker, Archibald, mostly because she’s so surprised and pleased that he finds her sexually attractive.
In my favorite chapter, five, we find out nine pages in that Lizzie likes to be called Beth now and she has gotten serious about losing weight after meeting a man called Tom. She is telling Mel about a friend at work that she goes to lunch with and kind of hates because of the way the girl (she nicknames her “Itsy-bitsy”) can eat everything and still have “stick legs” and “aggressively jutting clavicles.” This is how the chapter opens:
“So I’m eating scones with the girl I hate. The scones are her idea. She says eating one of them is like getting fucked. Not vanilla-style either, the kind with whips. She’s eating the scones and I’m watching, sipping black tea with milk but no sugar. Actually, she hasn’t quite started yet. She’s still spreading clotted cream on each half of the split scone, then homemade jam on top of that. As she does this, she warns me she might make groaning noises. Just so, you know, I know. That’s fine, I shrug, feeling little bits of me catch fire. I’ve got the teacup in my hand, my finger crooked in the little handle that’s too small for it, so the circulation’s getting cut off. I watch her bite into the scone with her little bunny teeth. I watch gobs of clotted cream catch in either corner of her lips. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, starts to make what must be the groaning noises. I pour myself more tea and cup it in both hands like it’s warming them even though it’s gone cold.”
As any starving woman would, Beth thinks about the scone episode more than once after it is over. She says “all afternoon I have the waking dream where she gets so fat on scones, she explodes.” Later, when she is lying awake in bed, she replays the scene and imagines saying “Listen, you little skank! Not all of us can eat scones and have it turn into more taut littleness! Some of us are forced to eat spring mix in the half-dark of our low-ceilinged studio apartments and still expand inexplicably. Some of us expand at the mere contemplation of what you shovel so carelessly, so dancingly into your smug little mouth.”
The sixth chapter takes place in that portal of hell for a fat girl, the clothing store dressing room. Beth is trying on clothes under the supervision of a super-helpful store clerk named Trixie to whom “even the apocalypse is cute. Scorched earth. Galloping black horses foaming at the mouth. The shadow of the scythe-wielding dealer of Fate bearing down on her. All super cute.”
In the seventh chapter, Elizabeth, now thinner and using the complete version of her name, has to deal with her still-fat mother’s excitement over her weight loss, and her attempts to dress up Elizabeth’s new figure, sometimes in her own vintage outfits. She is also thinking about the effect of her weight loss on her father; Elizabeth thinks that “my father has always felt that being fat was a choice. When I was in college I would sometimes meet him for lunch or coffee, and he would stare at my extra flesh like it was some weird piece of clothing I was wearing just to annoy him.” The part of the chapter that rang most true to me is the scene in which Elizabeth’s mother is watching her pack to go home: “All the satiny strappy shoes I’ll never wear again. Clothes that will ring wrong against my skin in terms of texture, in terms of color, the minute she isn’t there to tap her toes and clap for me, like the sight of me is music, is the song she loves best.”
The eighth chapter is the story of how Elizabeth goes to the local cleaner’s after her mother’s death and finds out that the dress she has left there has “an attractively scooped neckline. Sleeves and hemline a length and cut you would call kind. Buttons in back like discreetly sealed lips. Good give in the fabric. Double lined. The sort of dress that looks like nothing but a sad dark sack on the hanger, but on the body it’s a different story. Takes extremely well to accessories. My mother loved this sort of dress. At whatever weight she was—thin, fat, middling—she owned an iteration.” Elizabeth also remembers all the times her mother went to pick up the dress and found out that it was too worn to repair. Like picking out a receptacle for her ashes, the task of shopping to find another all-purpose dress was always “to retrieve the least offensive of the ill-fitting options.”
Chapter Nine is told from Tom’s point of view. He calls her “Beth,” although she reminds him that she wants to be called “Elizabeth” now. The chapter is permeated with his wistfulness about her struggles with her weight. “Even though he himself has borne witness to her transformation over the past three years, he is still getting used to the severely pared-down point of her chin, the now visible web of bones in her throat, how all the once-soft edges of her have suddenly grown knife sharp. How they seem pointed at him in perpetual, quiet accusation.” He thinks of “his Beth” as separate from “the new her….looking pared down and stiff, clad in tight-fitting, sharply cut dresses of every shade.”
In the tenth chapter, Elizabeth lives every formerly fat girl’s dream. She tries on the kind of dress she’s always wanted to wear. She says “I didn’t know it was a von Furstenberg then. I only knew it was precisely the sort of dress I dreamed of wearing when I used to eat muffins in the dark and watch Audrey Hepburn movies.” It doesn’t fit and she can’t afford it, which is a problem because she can’t get it off. The chapter ends with her thinking “maybe, if I wait long enough, if I’m patient, I’ll just ooze out. First the fat, then maybe we’ll find a way to coax out the organs. Some organs I won’t even need, like my appendix.”
Chapter Eleven is about Elizabeth’s fascination with a full-figured woman who works at a nail salon. She goes there during her lunch hour to avoid eating and hear the stories of what the woman bakes and how happy her life is, fat and all. When she gets back to work, she has to “inspect my own facial hollows and angles. It’s a relief to see they’re all still there. That I didn’t get fat by proxy.” When Tom calls her Elizabeth in this chapter, she thinks “I told you I go by Liz now. Why can he never get it right?”
In the twelfth chapter, Elizabeth returns to the plus-size store where she had to shop when she was fatter and looks through the clothes, thinking “only when you look more closely, observe the generous cuts, the longer hemlines, three-quarter-length sleeves, do you see how they give themselves away as clothes for those with something to hide.” She watches the other customers “pawing through the racks, presumably hunting for The Least of All Evils: a black cardigan without rhinestone jetties or webs of pearl across the front; a stretchy unadorned V- or scoop neck.” She tries on a dress like one she wore for an occasion when nothing else would fit, thinking that “the space between where I ended and the dress began would be miles and miles and miles. But even in the dark, I feel how it’s closer than I thought. Dangerously close.”
Finally, in chapter thirteen, Elizabeth starts to feel like all the time she spends at the gym and denying herself food has been a waste of her energy, imagining herself as “some woman walking for the sake of walking. With actual friends. She’s happy.” She wants to tell her dieting friend “that while we’ve been sitting here, there’s this angry, hungry maw in me that is fathoms deep.” She does not, though, because “even though Ruth’s only a hair thinner than I am, she’s way on the other side of the fat girl spectrum, looking at me from the safe, slightly smug distance of her own control and conviction.” Elizabeth helps her neighbor, the newest incarnation of “Itsy-bitsy,” rescue her cat, symbolically named Toffee. She thinks about where fat goes after we lose it and remembers telling Mel “I think it even comes out in our breath.” She considers varying her workout “so that it always feels like I’m getting somewhere” but ends by feeling “dangerously close to a knowledge that is probably always ours for the taking, a knowledge that I know could change everything.”
The thirteenth chapter is a nice wrap-up to this little character study, a perfect ending for someone who, at any size, still thinks of herself as a fat girl. It does not strike me as a realistic ending, though. The slide from hungry and angry to fat again doesn’t take very long, and it starts with a psychological flick of a switch. Unlike the blackbird, who is perched on a limb while the afternoon is passing almost unnoticed (“It was snowing/and it was going to snow”), Elizabeth is defiantly either one or the other, either fat or thin, no matter what in-between-weight she might happen to be at any particular moment in time.