by Mona Award
Like the Wallace Stevens poem from which it draws its title, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is about perspective, but it’s also about obsession. How many hours, days—years even—do women spend obsessing about what they look like? Through Lizzie, we see how easily a woman’s life can be consumed by being a fat girl and by the desire not to be one. But this book is not a confessional or a hard-luck story of victimhood. It is, at its heart, (and that’s what makes it so strong) a fascinating, sympathetic, and authentic look at a character who is profoundly human.
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl deals with the subject of body image in a big way, but it also plays with form in an interesting way. Categorized simply as fiction rather than stories or a novel, the 13 chapters/stories are linked, obviously, by their shared characters, and they move forward in chronological order, but they could stand alone as well. There is space between each one, whether in time or in a change in perspective, and each chapter is titled after a way Lizzie thinks others see her.
The book opens with “When We Went Against the Universe,” where Lizzie is a teenager whose whole life is determined by her size and we’re a little jarringly thrown into her world of sex and insecurity. From there it’s “Your Biggest Fan,” “Full Body,” and “If That’s All There Is,” where it’s apparent that Lizzie’s size is something she’s constantly aware of, and that she thinks about other women is in terms of their size as well. When she meets the girlfriend of the man she’d been sleeping with in a confrontation that lands him in the hospital, she reminds herself that
Britta is another country, another sort of terrain, strange and distant from me. That she is bigger than I am. Older. Sadder. More beyond saving. That body-wise, spirit-wise, I’m just a room compared to her sad house.
The remaining nine chapters continue to show Lizzie’s relationships with others, expanding to include her mother, her husband, and coworkers, while also moving through her transformation as she starts to lose weight. Interestingly, she finds that even after the weight is lost, the identity associated with being a fat girl lingers.
In an interview with Tin House, Awad said of the public discourse on body image, “I think what we need to do a whole lot more of is listen to each other. And tell stories—on the page, on the screen, in music, in visual art. Art is quite good at cutting to the quick and the chase.” And that’s what she does here, and what makes this book so effective: it is one woman’s story, beautifully told. Awad’s talent is so pointed and the insights are so spot-on, that this is a book easy to devour. Raw, darkly funny, and conversational, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl will get people talking.