No woman picks up a book with the word “fat” in the title because she’s confident about her body. I am no exception. Yet, when I first heard about Mona Awad’s book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, I knew I wanted to read it.
To understand my reaction, I feel I must give you a bit of backstory. First, in case you missed it, there has been a movement in the blogosphere recently to stop using the word “fat” as if it meant something bad or dirty. This is undoubtedly a positive thing. Whenever I see a book or article to this effect, my first reaction is always enthusiastic agreement. Anyone with half a brain knows there are worse things than being fat. For instance, there’s being a gossip, or a liar, or a hypocrite.
Let me repeat that last one… being a hypocrite is far worse than being fat.
I want to concentrate on that for a moment, because my second reaction to the “fat is not a bad word” movement is more subtle. It’s to tell myself I relate to the articles that advocate this because I’m “chubby” or “curvy.” However, I tell myself I’m not anywhere near the weight of the target readership for something like this. I refuse to classify myself as fat. I’ve been telling myself for years I could lose the extra pudge anytime I wanted. Therefore, this word, whether bad or not, did not apply to me.
In January, I decided to put my theory to the test. Just like thousands of other women with New Year’s resolutions, I dusted off my sneakers, bought some kale, and started an endless Google search for fitness secrets.
If there’s anything as cliché as joining a gym in January, it’s fizzling out by February. When I started I had visions of being firm, fit, and wearing a bikini by June. Then I summoned my courage to step on the scale for the first time in almost four years. Only then did I realize I had been in denial.
The number was a good 25 pounds higher than anticipated. At the rate I was going, it would take me over a year to reach my goal weight, which was a number somewhere in the upper range of a “normal” BMI for my height.*
Around this time I saw 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl advertised. I wanted to read it, but part of me was scared. As much as my gym-sore body needed encouragement, I didn’t want too much encouragement. I didn’t want to read yet another story about the beauty of women of all sizes. I didn’t feel beautiful, and I didn’t think I deserved to feel beautiful.
As quickly as I used to cast off the word “fat,” I now used it to define myself daily. I clung to that word. I used it while I packed my gym bag. I used it while I bypassed the chip aisle at the grocery store. I used it as I gripped the handlebars on the treadmill and willed myself through another mile. As dangerous as I knew my line of thinking was, I felt the best way to stay motivated was to be hard on myself.
However, what I did want after a month of living on quinoa and steamed broccoli (besides a gigantic soft pretzel) was someone to bitch to. Someone who would understand my frustration at the number on the scale and my anger that there were still people in the world eating pizza. Lizzie understood.
13 Way of Looking at a Fat Girl is Lizzie’s story. Told through a series of vignettes, Awad creates snapshots of Lizzie’s life from high school through middle-age. We are never told how much she weighs or what size she wears, just that she feels fat. Her high school friends are thinner than she is and date cuter guys. The sales clerks avert their eyes when attempting to compliment the outfits she tries on. Her father is ashamed of her. Her mother pushes her to wear girlier clothes in an effort to make her more attractive.
Whether the vignette is told through Lizzie’s point of view or someone else’s, we know she is not a happy person. In the beginning she is merely insecure and embarrassed about her weight. Then fast-forward through high school, college, and a series of emotionally abusive relationships, and the girl that emerges is an angry person.
She’s started to lose weight, but it’s a struggle. She puts off visiting her long-distance boyfriend so she can be as thin as possible by the trip. She resents every naturally skinny girl she sees. She hates her tiny coworker who spends lunchtime scarfing pastries while Lizzie orders a salad. Is the annoyance justified? No. Is it relatable? Absolutely.
Lizzie is every girl who has struggled with her weight. The 13 glimpses of her life are not the inspirational stories featured in fitness magazines. Instead, readers are privy to her ugliest thoughts. The shame of being caught licking dressing from the bottom of the salad. The disbelief that anyone, even her boyfriend, might find her attractive. The bitterness she feels when surrounded by thinner women, and the relief upon seeing an old friend who’s gained even more weight than she has. The hypocrisy of judging other women’s bodies, even as she struggles with her own self-image.
In the end, 13 Ways was much scarier than I anticipated. It gave a voice to every shallow thought I’d been guilty of since stepping on the scale, and it helped me come to a conclusion. I was being spiteful about women who I perceived as being more beautiful than me.
Visiting the gym often left me irritated. I saw women with hips and thighs and butts and calf muscles I envied. I saw these women texting, or talking to their workout buddies, or doing some trendy stretching exercise where they barely broke a sweat, and I resented them. I didn’t know their lives, but I felt they weren’t working has hard as I was, and they certainly didn’t appreciate the good things they so easily had.
Likewise, I felt my “skinny” friends just didn’t understand me. I listened to their plans for beach vacations and how they couldn’t wait for shorts and tank top weather. Meanwhile I haven’t donned either of these things in years. Instead of assessing the insecurity behind my wardrobe choices, I planned my vacation for the fall, and silently willed my friends to stop talking.
I don’t confess these things because I’m proud of them, but because I feel they need to be said. For every girl lying on the beach this summer in a string bikini, there will be another girl desperately clinging to a treadmill and willing the summer to pass quickly, because she’s sick of pretending she’s not roasting when covering her arm flab with a cardigan in July.
I was Lizzie. Not because of my weight, but because of the way I let it control my thoughts. We talk about positive self-image and loving our bodies all the time, because it’s more important to be healthy than to be thin. What we don’t talk enough about is how the mental and emotional struggle involved with weight loss is often more difficult than becoming physically fit.
The problem wasn’t with my body. It was with the way I was perceiving it in relation to others. Doing this not only made me insecure, it made me judgmental.
In the end, Awad didn’t give me inspiration. She gave me the truth. Changing a mindset is much harder than cooking with kale. I can’t beg repentance for negative thoughts by performing deep lunges. I can’t turn to Google to remedy my obsession with another woman’s waistline, much less my own.
I can, however, accept I am not the only one struggling. In fact, the woman I see at the gym whose waist I wish I had is probably also struggling. Perfection is not attainable, and the elusiveness of it is something even “skinny” girls grapple with. The only thing universal about women’s bodies is the way we are pressured to always push for something better instead of appreciating the many good things we already are.
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a journey toward body positivity, but it won’t coach you on how to get there. Instead, the work is up to you after closing the last page. I know I am not at the end of my story yet, but I’m learning to enjoy the journey. No matter the number on the scale, I’m doing my best to stay healthy, and when you are doing that no label should make you feel bad about who you are.
*BMI is not always an accurate assessment of a healthy weight. There are plenty of very fit people with high BMIs, as factors such as muscle mass or the genetic build of one’s body are not configured into it. Personally, I am using BMI here to assure you the weight I was aiming for was not impossibly low. However, I try to keep other factors in mind when making weight-loss goals, and I encourage you to do so as well.
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