Book Review: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad
Updated: Feb 26, 2019
I love a good love story. I love an intelligent, empathetic, assertive hero with abs who I want to fall in love with. I love a bold, plucky heroine with heart who goes for what she wants. I love seeing two people put down the shields they put up to protect themselves so they can be vulnerable enough for true love. I love seeing pride ditched for truth and expectations ditched for passion. I love romance, even when it does resemble fantasy more than real life.
But I also think that in order to appreciate the fantastical happily ever afters of a good romance, we need to know what life is like on the other side. What happens in real life when there isn't a clean line between "in love" and "not in love"? What happens when love doesn't show up? What happens when vulnerability and passion don't win? So in this blog, I begin with my first book review, not of a romance, but of some contemporary literature that really hit home with me. Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Look at a Fat Girl tore out my heart and didn't bother putting it back.
I mean that in a good way.
In 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Awad tells the story of Lizzy, a girl who never stops seeing herself as fat, even when she's finally skinny. Through Lizzy's eyes, we see what it is like to grow up fat, to have fat friends, for men to objectify your fat, to struggle with diets and extreme exercise routines in an effort to lose your fat, and to never quite make it out of the mindset of the fat girl.
Spoiler alert: if you read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, you aren't likely to go away feeling happy or satisfied, and Awad's book has received mixed reviews, I think because of exactly this. It is deeply disturbing to watch Lizzy's progress. Though we see Lizzy change through the book--making new friends, living in multiple states, dating, marrying, divorcing, losing one parent, building a relationship with an estranged parent, fighting tooth-and-nail to stick to a difficult diet and exercise routine, and even changing what she calls herself multiple times--there is one thing that never changes with Lizzy:
Throughout the book, no matter what Lizzy does, she is always a fat girl.
And as a fat girl, Lizzy never learns to be fully happy or satisfied. Even when she is at her skinniest and her husband's friends think she's hot and she can buy skinny clothes, she still feels the weight of being fat on her shoulders. She can't eat whatever she wants; she has to count every bite instead. She can't stop craving food; she has to wait for every meal. She can't skip a workout on a treadmill; she has to fight for every minute. She can't ever fit into that designer dress she wants.
She can't be anything but a fat girl. She can be a skinny fat girl. She can be a married fat girl. She can be a slutty fat girl or a fat girl in smaller clothes. She can be a fat girl binge eating fast food or a fat girl counting calories. But no matter what, she's a fat girl, and that fundamental quality about her makes it impossible for her to have a happy ending.
It would be tempting, I think, to say that the fact that Lizzy never does get beyond that identity makes Awad's book something of a slice of life. A slice of the life of a fat girl. Except, there is a chronology to this book and a journey. We see Lizzy as a teen, Lizzy as a young adult, Lizzy as a middle-aged woman. We see Lizzy lose her mom. We see Lizzy lose weight. Lizzy doesn't stay static in this book. The the reader will never see Lizzy make "the right change" doesn't mean there isn't a journey. It means Lizzy is a deeply flawed character, and the book is showing us that flaw in (at least) thirteen different ways.
So while some readers may have a hard time with that lack of happy ending, and some may see Lizzy as a character who fails to break through her plateau because of a lack of confidence or some other character glitch, what I saw was the portrayal of something innate within Lizzy that she could not change and her journey as she learned to cope with that. What Awad shows us so incredibly subtly and yet so brilliantly in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is that the fat girl is fat not because of her weight, diet, exercise routine, etc., but because she never can break through to that place where people feel satisfied with themselves.
Basically, this is a book about a fat girl, not a book about a girl who was fat once and got over it. So if the book leaves you feeling deeply dissatisfied, then it did its job. You aren't supposed to be sated or quenched by this book. You're supposed to walk away feeling hungry. If you do so, then you may understand a bit more about what it is like to be a fat girl.
There's a reason romance is not the same as contemporary literature. Those types of books serve very different purposes. If you want a book with a happy ending right now, then Awad's book probably isn't for you. But if you were a fat girl, are a fat girl, know a fat girl, or worry about becoming a fat girl, this is worth the heartache to read. Pick it up today.
(And hey, if you need that happy ending later...you can always come back to romance. Maybe read my novella, he made pasta, which is not, actually, about a fat girl, but about a girl who does find satisfaction with a guy who feeds he carbs. But that's a different story!)