When Being a “Fat Girl” is About More than Just Appearances

A lifetime of self-hatred that refuses to heal. Friendships based around jealousy or pity, hating or needing each friend because of how wide or narrow you look when standing next to her. All culminating in a life lived in willing captivity, sacrificing any guise of fun in the name of an unattainable goal, a gerbil running around its wheel. It all feels like a recipe for dystopia, the vibe waxing hopeless, an underlying melancholy saturating each sentence. Yet, Mona Awad’s novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is not the tale of one girl’s gaping unhappiness but of her lifelong quest to construct an alternative happiness, valid despite its unconventionality. The novel forms a clear dichotomy between skinny and fat, Lizzie’s search for happiness skittering around the divide; her various interactions all focus on the other person’s body, her comfort in each relationship contingent upon their weight. It seems that an intense inferiority manifests when she is around the thin, while a begrudging sense of familiarity and home arises around the fat, yet it is not so simple. Happiness for Lizzie is about finding fellow “fat girls” – girls of various sizes who are steeped in insecurity, a by-product of a lifetime of struggling with their weight. She feels profound discomfort around the securely thin, girls untouched by an insidious obsession with weight, a discomfort which only worsens around the securely fat, girls whose self-confidence Lizzie cannot fathom. Comfort is found only in those who, like her, are wracked with guilt about their bodies. This is because no matter her weight, Lizzie is a “fat girl”, and her fatness is her defining feature, her only stagnant trait. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl argues that for Lizzie happiness is found not through conventional means, such as family or love, but in surrounding herself with fellow “fat girls”.

Lizzie’s version of happiness may be unconventional; it doesn’t revolve around having a family, close friendships, or a meaningful job but rather in finding fellow “fat girls” who share her history, pain, and goals. This term is independent of weight itself, as is realized throughout the novel; Lizzie’s fatness is inherent, inextricable from who she is. It is her only consistent feature; throughout the novel her taste in music, aspirations, friends, appearance and even name continually changes yet her underlying “fat girl” persona is constant. Despite her best efforts, others see Lizzie as fat even when she has shed the weight; for example, when peers commend Tom on his beautiful wife, he can only lament the “stooped-over way she carries herself like her thinness was punched in the gut, the air of heaviness around her that will never leave” (141). His friend Brindy’s daughter similarly asks upon seeing Lizzie “didn’t you used to be really f-”, her mother interrupting the rude query, proving that her missing girth is somehow still visible (141). Even Lizzie herself still sees the phantom fat on her limbs. When revisiting Additionelle, Lizzie tries on a dress in a fit of nostalgia, expecting to “be swimming in it”, however, “even in the dark, I feel how it’s closer than I thought. Dangerously close” (188). She thought she had lost the fat girl persona along with the weight, but her insecurities remain, filling the lack of bulk and weighing her down so that she’s “closer than [she] thought” to the girl she used to be. Dangerously close. Lizzie’s defining character trait is that she is a “fat girl”, a characteristic that cannot be shed along with the pounds, and thus her version of happiness can only be realized through surrounding herself with other “fat girls”.

Even when Lizzie finds relationships that seem destined for happiness, they quickly corrode; various close relationships, such as with her colleague, husband, and friends all eventually decay as these people fail to understand Lizzie’s obsession with weight. Her dislike for the fundamentally secure first manifests in the chapter “The Girl I Hate”, depicting the tiny, peppy girl whose taut figure and outspoken adoration of food fills Lizzie with rage. This girl – code name “Itsy Bitsy” – treats Lizzie with an eager affection, and yet when Lizzie meets with her old friend Mel she does nothing but rant about Itsy Bitsy’s ability to eat gluttonously yet remain slender, and her offhand comment calling Lizzie “salady” (77). Itsy Bitsy’s genuine worry about Lizzie’s fat-free diet enrages her, as the notion that Itsy Bitsy does not consider weight when she eats, that food and body are separate concepts for her, is inconceivable. It is not only Itsy Bitsy’s bitty frame but also her inability to understand Lizzie’s weight-related trauma that leaves Lizzie reeling from every disheartening encounter; “she’s actually really nice aside from this” Lizzie admits (77). Even years later, when Lizzie – now going by the more elegant epithet Elizabeth – is thin and married, beautiful by anyone’s evaluation, she still cannot happily fit in with other skinny people though she is superficially one with them. At a barbecue with friends, her obsession with food leaks out of her every action; she brings jicama and fennel batons for a vegetable platter and a vegan burger for her dinner, calorie counting commencing as soon as she enters. Her discomfort is palpable; for example, she refuses to let Brindy, an ex-stipper whose innate confidence stymies any chance of a friendship between them, see her eat. Lizzie’s fatness, therefore, is not merely external but rather her defining characteristic; regardless of the number on her scale she sees herself as a “fat girl”, and is weighed down by a keen sadness when surrounded by those not branded as the same. Lizzie’s marriage slowly breaks down for similar reasons; Lizzie’s obsession with her body eclipses any connection her and Tom once had, her husband’s inability to understand this obsession rendering them incompatible. Her distaste is not reserved for the happily slender, however; Lizzie’s dependence on other fat girls culminates in her fascination with Cassie, a behemoth manicurist who effervesces with sweetness. “That Cassie is even fatter than I remember sates me in ways I cannot explain”, Lizzie admits, frequenting the nail salon with alarming alacrity (156). Yet a picture of Cassie’s husband sours Lizzie’s affections; the man is handsome and in Lizzie’s mind more than any fat girl deserves. She searches for a reason this Casanova could have chosen Cassie, “waiting for any latent sign of his freakdom to surface…but no” (161). She asks probing questions such as “are you happy” (177) and makes jabs at Cassie’s weight, remarking “must make you hungry though, this combination” (178), hoping her bright vivacity might waver. She cannot see Cassie as a kindred spirit as her self-confidence prevents her from being a “fat girl”, and thus Lizzie no longer extracts happiness from their sessions together, instead trying to peg Cassie with the shame she thinks every fat girl should wear with the extra pounds. Though Lizzie has many opportunities for conventional happiness and meaningful relationships, she is cannot be truly happy when surrounded by people who are not fellow “fat girls”.

In the same way that Lizzie’s friends who don’t grapple with weight bring her sadness, she finds immense pleasure in those who share her struggles. She visits the plus-sized store Additionelle long after she needs it, sieving through the shelves for the least of the gaudy ensembles and reminiscing about all her past purchases, rhinestones trying to distract from the unflattering cuts. Finding herself in a store pandering to the insecure, surrounded by plus-sized customers Lizzie feels oddly at home; “I make my way through these racks, among these women, not one of them anymore, and yet one of them still and it’s as though I never left” (183). It is only when immersed in “fat girl” culture that Lizzie finds peace. Despite grappling with a lifestyle constantly in flux, Lizzie eventually settles down in the Beyond the Sea complex, her substitute for a regular, happy life and the closest she will come to the effortless comfort that people like Tom and Cassie have always known. She lives in a gated community filled exclusively with “fat girls”, women of various sizes locked in constant battle with their weights, the people who truly understand her nuanced relationship with her body. Lizzie can appreciate the ostensible sadness in her lifestyle as well as its superfluity, as it feels like “the joke’s on us” (199), yet she continues to surround herself with exercise addicts on lifelong diets because living amongst fellow “fat girls” is the closest she’s ever had to a home.

Lizzie represents a prototypical “fat girl”; no matter her weight, she is perpetually insecure about her body to the point that it dominates her life. She derives only sadness from relationships that may seem promising, but the other person’s inability to understand Lizzie’s obsession with body image ruins any chance at intimacy. She feels comfortable only in the presence of other “fat girls”, surrounded by a culture which understands her constant war with weight. Though Lizzie’s ultimate destination – a gated community whose sole goal is to shave off those last few pounds – may seem hellish, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl offers an unconventional means to happiness, which Lizzie finds when united with those who understand her plight, when surrounded by fellow “fat girls”.

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