In 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Lizzie confronts two sides of seeing -- how she sees herself, and how others see her -- and how neither gets it right.
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat GirlPublisher: Penguin
Author: Mona Awad
Publication date: 2016-02
At the beginning of 13 Ways of Looking at a Far Girl, Lizzie is a girl lost. With her friend Mel, she sits at a McDonald's contemplating the possibility of seducing some shabby looking businessmen nearby. One looks more approachable than the others, maybe more pathetic, and so he becomes their target.
Both Lizzie, whose story this book centers around, and Mel joke-but-don't-joke about being fat. This is how they'll get validation in the first section of the book, titled "How We Went Against the Universe," by seducing this man. It's an unsettling open to the story, not necessarily because you are worried the teenage girls will go through with it, or because they think they will, but because it sets up a troubling relationship to the world around them. "Later on," Lizzie tells us, "Mel will climb into cars and taxis with men she barely knows while I watch from the sidewalk." Lizzie, too, will have her scary sexual encounters in the future, all of them starting, perhaps, with moments like that day at McDonald's.
Mona Awad's book is excellent at capturing the long view. Despite the title, this story is never really about being fat, or not about just being fat. The operative word in the title is not "Fat" or "Girl" but "Looking". Lizzie's troubles, her struggles to find acceptance and self-acceptance, come from problems with looking. In that opening story, Lizzie and Mel don't want to gain sexual experience; they want to be seen. But they exist in a world where they seem to think that sexual attention is the only kind worth receiving.
Lizzie gets an online boyfriend in "Full Body", but can't bring herself to send him a picture. When she asks her stylish, seemingly cooler friend China to help her, Lizzie's new friend lets her down. Sure, China can help her with her eye make-up, but Lizzie's disappointment comes when China loses her enthusiasm for the project, when she has her own problems to worry and when, in the end, the person in the pictures is still her.
Lizzie, however, is not merely a character acted upon by the world around her. She is a force, and not always a good one. She lets China sweat it out during a class presentation, hoping the girl will fail, but it's when China asks her for help we learn something about Lizzie:
All the eyes have left her briefly and are on me, waiting. I let the question hang there in the ugly room. I let her hang there all on her own for a breath, before I open my mouth.
Here Lizzie is punishing China, but she's also detaching herself. There are no people in the quote above, just eyes, eyes looking at her. It's not the attention she wants, but it is attention, and that leaves China alone, so Lizzie clings to the moment.
The tension here is not about whether or not Lizzie will lose weight; she does. The question is whether or not she'll figure out how to see and be seen. She is a girl and then a woman who is uncomfortable with herself. She shifts her name around -- Lizzie, Beth, Elizabeth, and so on -- and she seems to reject any and all ways those closest to her view her body.
We don't see the hard road to thinness she has paved for herself, but we do see glimpses of the self-denial. We see her buying small cuts of fish at the open market. We see her measuring out food carefully, fighting with others over scheduled times on the exercise bike at the gym, and ordering designer salads and health drinks as a performance of her self-control.
Awad, however, never lets Lizzie off the hook. She lets Lizzie find a long-term relationship in a man named Tom, but Lizzie cannot accept that he loves her as she is. After she has lost that relationship, she returns to clothing shops she used to shop at to try on the same clothes and feel thin, to pity the larger women around her. She befriends the skinny girl at work who eats whatever she wants largely just to insult her behind her back.
Lizzie is, in other words, an anti-hero, the kind of anti-hero women aren't often allowed to be in literature, film, or television. She's complex, yes, but sometimes she is deeply unlikeable. But Awad's great structural accomplishment in this book is how she collides Lizzie's skewed vision of herself with other skewed visions in her world. Her sick and obese mother gawks at her and tries to live vicariously through her in the chapter, "My Mother's Idea of Sexy". Tom may love Lizzie, but he also reduces the body she used to have to a porn fetish.
A co-worker, in the chapter "If That's All There Is", objectifies Lizzie at every turn, luring her into the kind of empty sexual relationship the teenage Lizzie flirted with back in that fast food restaurant. We get a section from the perspective of Tom here, and while his frustrations with an increasingly closed-off Lizzie may be understandable on one level, his solution comes purely from the world of clueless men he's surround by, men who have no idea of the world Lizzie has had to walk through. The narrator, another man, in "Your Biggest Fan", wants young Lizzie as a muse, as a helpless sounding board for his bad music.
And so while Lizzie / Beth / Elizabeth struggles to find herself, which really means just seeing herself in some way, we see the way the world tries her at every turn. Lizzie returns, more than once, to fitting room mirrors, and the clothes never fit the way she wants. They never feel right, and even if they did, the person looking back at her is all wrong.
It's unclear if Lizzie ever shakes off the look the mirror returns, but that's the point. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is not labeled a novel, nor is it labeled a story collection. In fact, it doesn't really work as either. But its somewhat unclassifiable genre, too, is the point. The word "fiction" looms large on the cover of this book, because, in the end, that's what it's about: the fiction of looking. It's about a deeply image and weight obsessed culture, of course, of which Lizzie is both participant and victim.
But it's more than that. It's about themes far more isolating and yet universal. All of the "ways of looking" here are forms of fiction. How we see others. How we see ourselves. How one influences the other. No one gets it quite right. Lizzie fights through and indulges in both fictive gazes, judging others and herself while becoming increasingly isolated. She begins the book as a charming, melancholy character, but all that charm gets consumed under the bitterness of broken relationships.
Awad's striking story ends with Lizzie feeling "dangerously close" to a "knowledge that I know I could know everything." As she thinks this she watches not herself but another woman on a bike at the gym, pedaling in place. She is offering a look that can't be returned. It's a stationary moment of possibility, a moment when maybe she is on the verge of truly seeing. It's not a guarantee, it's just the possibility of change, of agency, before she re-enters the world around her and sees herself reflected, again, in all its mirrors.