“I have lost and gained and lost again a total of 300 pounds, from prepubescence to my present age of twenty-six. My mother’s fluctuations were more vast and violent still. For as long as I can remember, one of us was always either rapidly shrinking or rapidly expanding.” These declarations belong to Mona Awad, whose essay “The Shrinking Woman: How Fad Diets Conquer Our Dignity, Not Our Fat” recounted her long, arduous relationship with food, dieting and body size. Aside from depicting the radical ups and downs of her and her mother’s weight-loss experiments in Montreal and Toronto, Awad’s essay, published in a 2005 issue of Maisonneuve Magazine, pointed to a reconsideration of what we know about the motives and doctrines of Jenny Craig, Dr. Atkins, and company: “The idea that a woman could never be safe from her flesh, even its ghost, is crucial to understanding why collective dieting is so successful. Thinness is discussed as a precarious condition, requiring eternal vigilance, and fatness is a state of abject alienation. Both turn your weight—whatever it is—into a position of weakness.”
Born in Montreal, Awad grew up in Mississauga and is currently a doctoral candidate in Denver. With 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, a brilliant and disturbing first novel composed of linked stories, she returns to the “abject alienation” she described in Maisonneuve. Like the essay, 13 Ways portrays a “rapidly shrinking or rapidly expanding” pair of women who are also a daughter and mother with a knotty relationship.
Awad has chosen an epigraph taken from Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood’s 1976 novel. But in contrast to irrepressible Joan Foster, the occasionally foolish, hapless and enraged protagonist of Atwood’s sharp-edged comedy, who had to lose 45 kilos to claim an inheritance, Awad’s protagonists some 40 years later are much darker and more troubling.
Awad traces a coming-of-age that goes awry. Narrated from varying points of view, the stories begin with high school circa the early 1990s. “When We Went Against the Universe” and “Full Body” feature discomfiting, darkly comic episodes set in “Misery Saga,” Ontario. Bitter suburban goths in Catholic school kilts who wear their angst on their sleeves, Liz and her friend Mel argue about which one is the bigger “whale” and fantasize about (and later go through with) illicit and degrading sex with older men. As bored, sharp-tongued, miserable and erratic as any teen rebel, Liz has not quite learned “the arts of starving [her]self” (but has discovered mirrors and self-evaluation: “I never look at my body if I can help it”). Instead, she forecasts an adulthood that is glorious and fated: “Later on I’m going to be really fucking beautiful. I’m going to grow into that nose and develop an eating disorder. I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.” As far as predictions go, she is about half right.
Temp jobs that follow a “useless degree in the humanities,” disastrous flings, growing cynicism, manic bouts of weight losses and gains, and the repeated phrase “How do I look?” set the mood of “If That’s All There Is” and “The Girl I Hate,” which describe her early twenties. Learning the categorizing ways of the world, she learns as well her place in it. Hatred and contempt directed both inward and outward cloud her outlook. For a short while she takes to calling herself Beth.
As friendships subside, men and mother remain. In “My Mother’s Idea of Sexy,” Liz, having slimmed down, visits her mother, now living in Seattle. Disdainful of her mother’s weight, clothing choices and desperation, she nevertheless agrees to nights out, where her mother shows her off to colleagues with the subtlety of a pimp and basks vicariously in the attention. Saying goodbye, her mother asks, “You’ll call when you get home?” Liz thinks, “‘Yes.’ I won’t. Not for a long time.” The next story, “Fit4U,” features a hungover Liz speaking to a woman “with hair and eye shadow out of John Waters” about a dress her mother dropped off for dry cleaning shortly before her death. Feeling her mother’s anger rising in her throat, Liz later pictures another version of her mother, one she rarely saw: “Happy. At ease in her flesh.” Their fraught relationship ended by death, Liz carries forward her mother’s fury and self-loathing.
Having reached a weight plateau due to “punishing concoctions of grain, bean curd, and sprout”), Liz (in “She’ll Do Anything”) feels her “once-soft edges … suddenly grown knife sharp.” She marries Tom but their relationship is mutually combative. Tom dislikes their suburban environment and dreads their banal lifestyle. Awad depicts Tom as baffled and annoyed by Liz’s coldness, inwardness and bodily obsessions, and unaware of how he contributes to her dilemmas.
Wearing a very tight cocktail dress to a barbecue where friends of her husband joke about a fat woman who agreed to any sexual act in exchange for attention, Liz is beside herself in fury. She is conscious of being surrounded by clothing stores, ads and the judgement of men, all of which remind her of the condemnation reserved for obese women—the figure she has been and fears becoming again.
In Lady Oracle, Joan’s realizations about self, social categories and womanhood are incisive and sobering. Despite them, however, the novel ends with her pondering “What’s next?” Her life is full of possibility. Awad’s heroine Liz is last glimpsed feeling “dangerously close to a knowledge” she believes “could change everything.” In the final story she battles with her sworn enemy—a slightly more skinny and obsessive doppelgänger—over a coveted piece of equipment at her condo’s fitness club. Fit within an inch of her life but divorced, solitary, adrift and perpetually fearful of the “angry, hungry maw in [her] that is fathoms deep,” Liz is far from successful. Although with self-regulation, sacrifice and a lot of rage she has grasped an elusive goal, her victory is undoubtedly Pyrrhic. For the time being she has attained the ideal magazine-cover body but, just over 30, she is also miserable, lost and lonely—critically examining herself in mirrors and measuring herself against impossible standards.
Knowledge that can “change everything” is what sympathetic readers will wish for Liz and the class of individuals like her. As Awad frames Liz’s individuality and our entrenched cultural norms, though, she does not nurture that hope. As long as our culture continues to promote a virtually unattainable female body type and stigmatize those who fall short of it, Awad suggests that nothing can change or be fixed.
That a writer of such skill and insight can arrive at that bleak conclusion is disheartening. Liz may be no more than ink on paper yet we yearn for her to be granted happiness.