It wouldn't be far off to say that reading Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is an emotional experience for anyone who looks in the mirror and doesn't like what they see. The book depicts what it's like to endure a mandated pursuit of thinness, unapologetically facing our toxic, body-image obsessed culture head-on. It's also a very accurate portrayal of how hating the way you look affects your psyche over time, making for an uncomfortable and at times disturbing read. Beautifully told, with a profoundly sensitive understanding of the subject matter, it's clear that all of the anticipation for this particular fiction debut was entirely warranted.
13 Ways is deceptively simple. It uses a series of stand-alone stories to follow Lizzie through her ongoing struggle (and later success) in losing weight. Told chronologically, over her stereotypically troubled teen years and then into her upright adulthood, we're privy to tiny snapshots of her day-to-day, artfully pieced together to sneakily drive home the book's larger social truths. Lizzie navigates the phases of her life – her relationships with lovers, partners, friends and family – all with her weight at front of mind. Together these instalments form a real narrative achievement – a firm statement on how we dictate a woman's worth based simply on her dress size.
Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Lizzie (then Beth, then Elizabeth) feels stifled by the expectations put upon her and the limited opportunities given to her. By default, she longs for the attention of men, seeking them out online but afraid to send along a full body photo because of her weight. As a skinnier friend does Lizzie's makeup and snaps some sexy pictures, we are hit with the critique that women are meant to see their worth by means of men's desire for them. In fact, the male gaze makes a weighted appearance in almost every one of these vignettes – the reader keenly aware that although it is important that Lizzie is wanted, what she wants herself is irrelevant. (One particularly off-putting sex act in the back of a cab gracefully underscores this idea.)
One of the more harrowing aspects of 13 Ways is how genuinely it highlights female cruelty as a byproduct of this obsessive journey to being thin. Young women judge, berate, and even loathe each other, becoming necessary competitors in a battle that doesn't benefit them beyond external approval. Lizzie picks hungrily at a salad while a hated "friend" gorges on a pizza, the pair all smiles and secret loathing. Office kitchens are characterized as minefields and passive aggressive fights erupt over scheduled treadmill time. There are backyard barbecues where loaded glances are exchanged, the covert war on food waged over a choice between dry white wine and a calorie-laden watermelon daiquiri.
One particularly painful story involves a slimmed down Lizzie purposefully and repeatedly booking manicures with a woman who weighs more than herself. The scenes of them together are complex and visceral – and altogether heartbreaking when Lizzie finally wonders out loud if the manicurist can actually be as happy as she claims. Because thinness promises a self-assuredness that Lizzie has yet to find, she is mesmerized by this woman's ability to achieve it without starving herself.
A single extended scene of Lizzie trying on a coveted dress reveals a great deal about the fear of fat, and the implications that fear has on our self-worth. A moment when Lizzie's partner covertly watches pornography becomes a terribly upsetting tableau, and also proof that as much as the status quo tries to dictate our lust, our base needs override it. The book also offers wisdom on the dynamics between a mother and a daughter, and how a relationship with (and aversion to) fat is passed down through generations.
The greatest strength of all of these depictions is their artful accuracy. Female relationships are certainly fraught with difficult and even ugly feelings, in large part due to the demanding cultural context in which they exist. Even the most devoted kind of love can involve bitterness and envy, and Awad is not afraid to expose the complex role self-image plays in how we interact with the world. While thinness is so often depicted as happiness, when it is achieved it often disappoints. In fact, "thin Lizzie" is almost entirely despondent and asexual, too preoccupied with calorie counting to truly enjoy life.
Perhaps 13 Ways' greatest victory is how easily so many people will relate – Awad is an incredibly skilled writer, with a rare ability to construct tiny moments of both acute empathy and astonishing depth. She can also deftly shift from one viewpoint to another, expertly unveiling how a culturally mandated hatred of fat affects all of us to varying degrees. This is a book twitching with heavy anxiety, with a feeling of doom as its backdrop and it's impossible not to be deeply affected by Awad's prose.
All of this gets at the core of 13 Ways' overall message – that the cultural demands on women to conform to a certain size are not only largely unachievable, but destined to leave them distracted, weak and miserable. Further, the necessity of thinness inevitably pits women against each other, forces them into isolation and makes them deeply lonely. With admirable nuance and obvious skill, Awad critiques this damaging world we've created for ourselves simply by showing it to us.