Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1871
Author: Mona Awad (b. 1979)
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Publisher: Penguin Books (New York). 224 pp.
Type of work: Short fiction, novel
Time: Late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries
Locales: Mississauga, Ontario, and other locations
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a collection of thirteen linked short stories that follow Elizabeth, a young woman who spends much of her life hating her body. Elizabeth goes from overweight to thin, but while her weight loss earns her the approval of others, she seems increasingly unhappy with herself.
Elizabeth March, a.k.a. Lizzie, a.k.a. Beth, a.k.a. Liz, a young woman whose self-esteem is irrevocably linked to her body sizeCourtesy of Penguin Random House
Mel, her high school friend
Her mother, who has her own complicated history of dieting and weight gain
Her father, an emotionally distant man who left the family when she was a small child
Tom, a man she meets online and later marries
China, a goth girl she befriends at her alternative high school
Itsy Bitsy, a coworker who constantly comments on her eating habits
Cassie, an overweight manicurist from whom she seeks validation
Rob, an aspiring musician who relies on her affections
Archibald, a coworker whom she briefly dates
Mona Awad tackles women’s difficult and complicated relationship with their bodies in an unflinching collection of stories that follows her protagonist, Elizabeth, from an awkward, chubby teenager to a thin but unhappy adult whose dieting obsession alienates her from her friends, her husband, and her sense of self. The title references a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1917), and the book is structured as a series of portraits of one woman at specific moments in her life. Told primarily from Elizabeth’s point of view, the stories cast an unsentimental eye on parent-child relationships, friendship, love, sex, eating, and self-image. Arranged in loose chronological order, the stories, some of which were first published individually, work together to form a chronicle of one young woman’s coming of age, her lifelong battle against her weight, and her hard-won but problematic transformation into a thin person.
In most weight-loss narratives, like those of the reality shows Awad references in the story “She’ll Do Anything,” the protagonist wins by losing. Having achieved the culturally approved body type, she can now expect love, success, and to live happily ever after. Awad deliberately subverts such expectations. Though Elizabeth loses a significant amount of weight, enough to no longer have to shop in the “fat girl” store she despises, she is never truly happy. Constantly hungry, fighting the urge to eat, exercising obsessively, and shopping for form-fitting designer dresses, Elizabeth has lost not only her weight but her true self. In an interview with Latria Graham for the Los Angeles Times, published online on March 9, 2016, Awad, who studied fairy tales as part of her postgraduate work, stated that she “wanted to complicate” the idea that “transformation resolves with a happy ending.”
Kirkus Reviews called 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl a “painfully raw—and bitingly funny—debut.” While Elizabeth’s weight-related dilemmas, such as her protracted battle with another woman over an exercise machine at the gym and her refusal to leave a store dressing room because she is stuck in a too-tight dress, have elements of comedy, they also ring true. Although the story collection was not written for a young-adult audience, Sarah Hill, reviewing the book for School Library Journal, praised Awad’s “shockingly accurate portrayal of [the] fat culture and female body shaming” that dominate so many young women’s lives and noted that many teen readers would identify with the protagonist. With an unsparing eye, Awad reveals not only the ways in which Elizabeth/Lizzie/Beth is oppressed by cultural beauty standards but also how she judges and sabotages herself and other women for fitting these standards (or not fitting them). There is no reassuring message of body positivity or feminist solidarity in these tales; Elizabeth is baited by other women for her weight, but when she becomes thin, she plays the same games with other women. As reviewer Sarah Begley pointed out in Time magazine, the women in these stories seem unable to stop “quietly torturing” each other with relentless criticism.
While Elizabeth’s principal victim is always herself, friends, coworkers, and even her mother are unflinchingly evaluated according to body shape, size, and appearance. In “When We Went against the Universe,” insecure teenage Lizzie compares herself with her bolder friend Mel: “I know I’m fatter,” Lizzie decides, and in her mind, this cancels out any other assets she may have. In “Full Body,” she is awestruck by the attentions of China, a thin and stylish goth girl. When China makes up Lizzie’s eyes, she leaves the makeup on for a week and asks China to take a photo of her so she can send it to a man she corresponds with online. In Lizzie’s eyes, China’s naturally thin, long-legged body, which she compares to those of models in music videos, has a kind of totemic power, as if simply being around China can make Lizzie thin by association. Another story, “The Girl I Hate,” finds Elizabeth (now known as Beth) working at a temp job with another young woman, whom Beth calls “Itsy Bitsy,” who constantly tempts her into going out for lunch and snacks, eating scones and sweet rolls with exaggerated ecstasy while Beth orders salads, dressing on the side. “You’re very salady,” the skinny coworker says, and it is hard to tell if she is clueless or cruel. At the same time, Elizabeth’s growing obsession with dieting and what people eat is alienating her former best friend, Mel, who now has gained weight and feels uncomfortable ordering food around Elizabeth when they meet for dinner.
In addition to affecting her female friendships, Elizabeth’s weight also controls her relationships with men. As a teenager, Lizzie flirts with older men online, safe in the knowledge that they cannot see her, but falls into anxiety when asked to produce a full-body picture of herself. She becomes a backup support system for a self-pitying musician in “Your Biggest Fan,” the late-night booty (and banana bread) call he turns to when his girlfriend rejects him. In “If That’s All There Is,” a college-age Lizzie, working at a bookstore, falls into a sexual affair with an older coworker; her rationale for being with him, even though he is not someone she particularly likes, is that she does not mind him seeing her naked. Later, when she meets a man she actually likes through an online music forum, she begins a cycle of extreme dieting, setting her weight-loss goals in time with their next real-life meeting. Ironically, he first meets Elizabeth when she is heavier and is attracted to her at that weight. In “She’ll Do Anything,” one of only two stories (the other being “Your Biggest Fan”) told from a male point of view, Tom, Elizabeth’s husband, reminisces about the early days of their relationship, when they would talk for hours about music, movies, and books that they loved. Now Elizabeth seems uninterested in anything but dieting and clothes and is too “hungry and angry” for sex, and Tom finds himself fantasizing about a “fat girl” his coworker is dating and watching Internet porn featuring plus-size women.
Elizabeth’s complicated relationship with her mother is the focus of several stories. Her mother still keeps the designer dresses that no longer fit her; she was thin once, readers are told, but gained weight after having a baby and has been heavy since then, despite attempts at dieting that even included having her jaw wired shut. During Elizabeth’s adolescence, her mother is mostly a background presence, occasionally nagging her about grades or staying on the computer too long. When Elizabeth begins losing weight, though, her mother becomes her biggest cheerleader, taking an almost unhealthy interest in her clothes and body. In “My Mother’s Idea of Sexy,” a twentysomething Elizabeth visits her mother, who insists on dressing her in high heels and revealing dresses and showing her off to coworkers, including male bosses whose attention makes Elizabeth uncomfortable. She even insists that Elizabeth wear a minidress she wore in the 1960s, trying to recapture her own youthful beauty through her daughter. Meanwhile, Elizabeth notices disturbing symptoms that suggest her mother has heart disease and diabetes, but she finds herself unable to talk honestly about these issues, which her mother dismisses.
In a review for Booklist, Annie Bostrom admired Awad’s “brazen-voiced Lizzie” and the way she “longs for, tests, and prods the deep center of the cultural promise that thinness, no matter how one achieves it, is the prerequisite for happiness.” It is only in the later stories that Elizabeth herself begins to come to the realization that losing weight does not guarantee joy or love. In one poignant story, she seeks validation from an overweight manicurist, trying to understand why the woman who does her nails seems so much happier with her life and her marriage than Elizabeth is with hers. As the manicurist rubs brown sugar and yogurt into her hands, Elizabeth makes a remark about how it must make her hungry, but it is clear that Elizabeth is the one who is consumed by hunger. Her inability to understand how a “fat girl” can be comfortable in her own skin traps her in an endless cycle of self-denial, trying to achieve an ideal she always seems to fall just short of, to force her body to fit the dress rather than looking for a dress that will fit her body. Only in the very last story, “Beyond the Sea,” does Elizabeth begin to question her lifelong pursuit of the perfect body. Watching dozens of women, all struggling along on treadmills or exercise bikes yet seemingly getting nowhere, she wonders if “the joke’s on us,” if all the time and energy spent trying to lose weight could have been put toward some more worthy goal—although Elizabeth cannot yet imagine what that goal would be.
Most reviews praised Awad for taking on a subject so emotionally fraught and for “unapologetically facing our toxic, body-image obsessed culture head-on,” as Stacey May Fowles wrote in a review for the Globe and Mail. Some reviewers noted that the book’s dark tone and uncomfortable subject matter make it a difficult read, but a worthwhile one.
- Begley, Sarah. “Body Language.” Review of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad. Time, 22–29 Feb. 2016, p. 124.
- Bostrom, Annie. Review of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad. Booklist, 1–15 Jan. 2016, p. 32.
- Fowles, Stacey May. “Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl Is Beautifully Told and Profoundly Sensitive.” Review of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad. The Globe and Mail, 19 Feb. 2016, www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/review-mona-awads-13-ways-of-looking-at-a-fat-girl-is-beautifully-told-and-profoundly-sensitive/article28813554/. Accessed 3 Nov. 2016.
- Hill, Sarah. Review of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad. School Library Journal, June 2016, p. 119.
- Review of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad. Kirkus Reviews, 1 Dec. 2015, p. 228.