Today, four college roommates who’ve stayed close for over 30 years stop in to discuss a book they read together this summer, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad. Carolyn Hall, Gay Shackelford, Libby Russler, and Lynn Greer weigh in on issues of friendship – and body image – in thoughtful and provocative ways. Read on…
Graduation, 1985: Lynn, Libby, Carolyn, Gay
From Carolyn Griffin Hall: When over coffee this spring Jennifer suggested the idea of a joint, long-distance book review, Gay and I jumped at the chance but also suggested that we include our other two roommates – particularly since Libby and Lynn were the actual English majors at Chapel Hill. Next up was choosing a book, and everyone in a book club knows how that goes. Gay first suggested re-reading something from one of our college English classes but met with resistance from a couple of us. Next she presented a list of well-reviewed contemporary fiction to which I suggesting striking from the list all books over 500 pages. We then read blurbs about the remaining books on the list and unanimously chose Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, a collection of 13 interrelated short stories which had been lauded as “hilarious and heartbreaking” and “a grittier Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Well… the book features Lizzie (the Fat Girl) who when we meet her is in high school and resembles (in my mind) a younger, less motivated, more anti-establishment, R-rated, Goth version of Kate in “This is Us.” Over the course of the next 13 chapters we watch as an assortment of odd characters – classmates, co-workers, romantic interests and family members – fade in and out of Lizzie’s life as she moves into young adulthood while gaining, losing and obsessing over her weight. Although Fat Girl isn’t very uplifting, it’s well-written, thought-provoking and ultimately worth reading.
I’ve asked each of the guest writers a couple of questions before their conversation begins, to introduce you to the cast.
Carolyn Griffin Hall: Where did you grow up, and where do you live now? Why have you stayed in touch with your roommates all these years?
I grew up in Atlanta and for the past 25 years have lived in Nashville. No one knows me as well as my college roommates! We lived together our junior and senior years in Chapel Hill, and they for sure saw me at my best – and worst. Through the years they’ve continued to challenge me, introduce me to new books and new music and generally bring out the best in me. Plus, they adore my husband and my daughter, and I love them for that!
Gay Todd Shackelford: Where did you grow up, and where do you live now? What were your first impressions of your roommates?
I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, but have lived in Baltimore for more than 20 years. I met Lynn the summer before college on a NOLS course in Wyoming, and we quickly became lifelines for each other on that trip. Although I met both Carolyn and Libby during our freshman year, I really didn’t know either well until we were sophomores. My first exposure to Carolyn was in our PE elective, an introductory soccer class I loved that may not have been Carolyn’s strongest subject – but I was impressed with her cheerfulness and team spirit! Libby and I actually lived in the same dorm as freshmen, and we both know that my first impressions of her did not recognize her amazing depth or her potential to become my deeply valued and trusted friend.
Libby Current Russler: Where did you grow up, and where do you live now? How have your college roommates changed, then to now?
I grew up in Gastonia, NC, and moved to Charleston, SC, in 1987, where I still live with my husband and three children – a crew of past, present, and aspiring Tarheels. Carolyn, Gay, Lynn, and I get along so well because we have never been competitive with each other. Gay has probably changed the most. She used to be much more reserved about expressing emotion or showing affection. She would even stiffen up a bit when you gave her a hug! After grad school, careers, and kids had pulled us in different directions, Gay ended up being the one to keep us all in touch – the glue. One of the best things about middle age is having the wisdom – and time – to appreciate one’s oldest friendships. And there is something extra magical about friendships formed in college, I guess because we all bear witness to such important transformations in each other.
Lynn Crowder Greer:
Where did you grow up, and where do you live now? How has your friendship with your college roommates changed over the years?
My father was a Methodist minister, which meant that we moved every 4 to 6 years, all within Western North Carolina. I currently live in Richmond, Virginia.
Oh, wow. I get teary just thinking about the other question. I think we knew in college that our bond was special. We laughed a lot, shared the pressures and fun of college, lived through the angst of dramatic relationships, provided a sounding board for future plans, and surrounded each other with love and support when life handed us challenges. But we were young, trying to find our way, and perhaps trying to prove to each other as we proved to ourselves that we were taking the right path. As the years have unfolded, we’ve often gone for long periods of time without seeing each other or talking, but somehow, the bond has deepened. There is no pressure, no judgment, nothing to prove, just an extreme pride in each other and gratitude for having each other. When I think of these three, I exhale deeply.
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Gay’s rehearsal dinner, 1985: Carolyn, Gay, Libby, Lynn
Let’s now turn to the conversation they had about 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad.
1. Mona Awad tells a story in which a person’s body seems to dictate the way she perceives the world. How do physical attributes affect the way that people interact with the world around them?
GAY: True confession: I googled “Mona Awad images” to see if the author was heavy. Our individualized perceptions of our physical attributes are powerful. I suspect that most of us feel we have a certain defect in appearance that causes some level of insecurity in the way we feel about ourselves and project ourselves.
CAROLYN: I went to the book jacket photo looking for the exact same thing. And felt bad about it.
LIBBY: Remember that old saying about the importance of loving yourself before you can love anyone else? I think this holds true for Lizzie. Her obsession with weight and physical appearance prevents her from developing a healthy appreciation of her own gifts. She is so judgmental and unforgiving towards everyone – herself included – that she cannot sustain lasting relationships. Ultimately, I found her self-obsession to be quite boring. And let’s face it: no matter how great we look, there will always be someone prettier, skinnier, or more fashionable. Because she constantly compares herself to others, Lizzie is always vacillating between unhealthy levels of inferiority and superiority. She never finds that happy in-between. Attaching one’s sense of self-worth to one’s appearance is a tenuous business at best, and, if we are lucky enough not to die young, we will all end up wrinkled, blue, and whiskered.
2. How much of Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth/Liz’s self image is the result of her weight? What other factors contribute to the way she regards herself?
CAROLYN: Great question. Lizzie’s thoughts about herself – or at least the thoughts she shares with the reader – are consumed by her weight, whether she is covering it up or losing it or fighting it. However, this question also touches on something I wondered about throughout the book: her name changes. She seems to change her name almost at the drop of a hat and expects others to be aware of and respectful of those changes and is offended if they are not. What does that signify? Attempts to re-make herself? Are the changes ever more than superficial?
GAY: Lizzie doesn’t have much self love. I think she understands that her weight is a symptom rather than a cause of her negative self-perception. In the first story, when she in Mel are sitting in McDonald’s, she predicts an eerily accurate picture of her future: “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.”
Her parents’ divorce surely contributes to her struggle to find acceptance and trust other people. As I read, I was struck by her inhospitable views of other people. Early in the book, she describes The Human Race Game, in which she and Mel “eliminate the whole human race and only put back in the people we can stand and only if we both agree.” I have to wonder who would be left?
LIBBY: The name changes were extremely revealing and realistic. My best friend throughout high school developed anorexia our junior year. Unlike Lizzie, she was never overweight, but by the end of our senior year she had dropped from a healthy 120 pounds to 80 pounds. Like Lizzie, she decided to change her name; in fact, she completed the process of having her name changed legally. At the time, I didn’t understand how the desire for a new name was really masking a desire to be someone new – a repudiation of who she actually was. Lizzie’s frequent name changes, like her changes of dress size, do nothing to fill her existential void. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Juliet, a sad girl by another name is still a sad girl.
Statue of Juliet in Verona
3. The title suggests that we focus on Lizzie’s weight. What do we learn about Lizzie other than her weight?
GAY: When I look at Lizzie, I see much more than a fat girl. I see a profoundly unhappy person who dislikes herself and surrounds herself with people whom she doesn’t like any better. I see a woman with tragically low self-esteem, who is attracted to others with similar esteem challenges. I see a young person with considerable intellect who uses words masterfully in snarky wit and pursues somewhat obscure cultural and academic interests to create a false sense of superiority. I see someone who underachieves her potential, choosing to drop out of high school, not quite earn her college degree, and settle for underemployment. I see a creative person with an unrequited interest in fashion. I see a woman with natural physical beauty. And I see a woman with the determination and discipline to accomplish goals.
Even though Lizzie doesn’t like other people, she cares a lot about what they think about her, which drives her insecurities and self-loathing. She and Mel are not shy about eating massive amounts of food in public, but they have a rule: “Never the doughnuts because we agree that a fat girl with a doughnut is too sad a thing.” Coincidentally, after I finished this book, I picked up The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, which is all about learning not to worry about what people think, and my overriding thought was that Lizzie could really use this book. I mean, if you really want a doughnut, you should feel okay about eating it.
LIBBY: Well said, Gay. I agree with you that she has determination and discipline; however, these qualities too often become pathological in people with eating disorders. One of the author’s most realistic touches is the part about Eve, Lizzie’s “sadistic coworker,” who “always comes to work bearing a tin of some thickly iced treat” to “leave in the back room for all the fat and middling women we work with to cut thick slices out of.” Lizzie recognizes the treats for what they are: Eve’s attempt to “win” some sort of perverse victory over her weaker co-workers: “I can surround myself with tempting sweets without allowing even a crumb to touch my lips. HA!” At first Lizzie resists Eve’s power-play by stealing her almonds instead of eating the treats, but she finally succumbs to a half-eaten banana bundt cake, only to be caught with a mouth full when the rail-thin Eve enters the back room. This part of the story brought back another memory of my high school friend, who hosted our high school best-friend group during the first Christmas break from college our freshman year. While she was still way too thin, the rest of us had clearly put on the “freshman fifteen.” She had been baking all day and clearly enjoyed watching her hefty friends scarf down the plates of cookies and truffles she kept placing before us. I remember feeling judged and self-conscious at the time, but now I realize how the baking allowed her to be close to the food she so desperately wanted to eat but wouldn’t. The ritual also allowed her to feel in control – not only over her own eating habits but also over ours.
CAROLYN: I’m so grateful that our daughters’ generation seems to be less obsessed with body image than we were at that age. While there is certainly more stress and pressure and anxiety around high school achievement and getting into college, when it comes to their bodies, they seem to be more focused on strength and athleticism than thinness or wearing a certain size.
4. The relationship between mothers and daughters is powerful. How does the Lizzie’s relationship with her mother affect the way she regards herself?
CAROLYN: The relationship between Lizzie and her mother is indeed powerful and explains so much about Lizzie, both physically and emotionally. When we meet the mother in person, it’s painful to see how badly she wants more for her daughter and yet how counterproductive some of her efforts are.
GAY: I was not prepared for Lizzie’s grief after her mother’s death to be such a controlling force. For much of the book, I sensed that she resented and pitied her mother – first in the way that adolescent girls can chafe against their mothers, and then later for her mother’s inability to control her own weight and maintain stable relationships with men, and finally for the way she expressed her pride in Lizzie’s weight loss accomplishments. Lizzie seems to suggest that her mother’s struggles made her own issues with weight and relationships inevitable, either as a genetic hand-me-down or as sins of the parents revisited on their offspring. I think she does see much of herself in her mother and is not proud of that likeness. However, when her mother is no longer there, she almost cocoons herself in any evidence she can find of her mother’s existence. It is as if she steps into her mother’s life, but with the determination to create a different trajectory.
CAROLYN: Exactly. I would also argue that Lizzie’s relationships to men often seem to dictate how she regards herself, beginning and ending with her relationship with her estranged father. The image of Lizzie and her dad in the old photo before he left and before she got fat is poignant. Their reconciliation of sorts at the end of the book, while still (to me) depressing and unfulfilling, provides a glimmer of hope for their acceptance of each other and maybe even Lizzie’s own self-acceptance. Maybe that’s what the mysterious final line of the book points to.
5. Lizzie’s friend Mel remains a character throughout the stories. What does Mel represent to Lizzie? What does their relationship tell us about Lizzie?
GAY: Mel is Lizzie’s worst vision of herself. I’m not even sure she is real.
CAROLYN: That never even occurred to me but is a distinct possibility.
LIBBY: Interesting idea, Gay. Certainly, Mel serves as a mirror by which Lizzie can evaluate herself. I can’t decide if moving away from Mel is a positive, liberating step for Lizzie or just another example of her inability to maintain deep, authentic relationships. Maybe Mel is too painful a reminder of Lizzie’s fat past.
6. Two of the stories are narrated by men. Why did the author choose these voices? What should we learn from these voices?
GAY: What I learned is that there are some scummy men out there! I think that Lizzie’s relationships with both of these men reflect more about her self-esteem than her weight. Maybe the author is trying to drive home some message about a misogynist culture that doesn’t value women, but my big take-away was less about gender: there are simply some people in the world who will gladly prey on your weaknesses if you let them. Or in Aretha Franklin context, if you don’t respect yourself, you can’t expect others to always respect you. The one male voice that I would have liked to have heard from was Lizzie’s father; I wish the author had given him a chapter.
7. The cover art features pencil eraser shavings. Does Lizzie erase herself as she loses weight?
CAROLYN: Wow! I’d never even noticed that. Yes. She seems even less normal when she’s obsessed with losing weight and then it’s all upended when she catches Tom watching “fat girl porn.”
GAY: Lizzie’s snarkiness seems to disappear as she loses weight. By the end, she is almost an automaton; the last scene is serenely surreal. Some of that could be attributed to her grief for her mother, but it did seem like she lost essential parts of herself as she shed pounds.
LIBBY: I am combining my answers for questions 6 and 7 here. When we were chatting informally about 13 Ways in Richmond last month, you both were pretty hard on Tom. I get why – the “fat girl porn” scene is pretty shocking. But I feel a great deal of sympathy for him. After all, he has accommodated her every whim, even moving into an apartment he hates just because it has a gym for “Elizabeth.” Additionally, he has to put up with her perpetually volatile and accusatory moods, and he never gets to enjoy a normal conversation over a normal meal. Her personality is as sharp and unforgiving as her protruding shoulder blades. One of my favorite passages is Tom’s description of the “thin white Doric pillar” between the living room and the dining room: “‘It’s the most pointless pillar in the whole world,’ he thinks. ‘It holds nothing up.’”. Clearly, Awad wants us to see the Doric column as a metaphor for Elizabeth’s latest achievement: thinness. Am I being too generous by interpreting Tom’s retreat to porn as a desperate remedy for loneliness and grief over the loss of the woman he married? I think he could have loved her fat or thin if she had just been less self-centered and mercurial.
8. Many reviewers suggest that Lizzie is everywoman. Does Lizzie represent everywoman to you or does she represent a specific type of person or woman? How common or unique is Lizzie’s perspective?
GAY: Yes, we most of us are guilty of some weaker body image moments than we would care to admit. But, I like to believe that the majority of us are able to balance those insecurities with acknowledgement of our strengths and the support of nurturing relationships. Lizzie doesn’t have those tools.
LIBBY: I don’t necessarily think Lizzie is Everywoman, but I do think she is Everywoman with an Eating Disorder. That said, I agree with Gay that most of us occasionally succumb to body image demons. We have all internalized the runway model ideal of female beauty, but 13 Ways reminds us that being thin will not make us happy if we aren’t happy already.
9. Is there any character in the book who you would view as “normal?” Do you think that Lizzie’s perspectives about other people are fair? Why do you think she surrounds herself with people that she does not like?
CAROLYN: It’s hard to find healthy characters in this book. That’s part of what made it a bleak read.
GAY: I dislike reading books if I don’t like any of the characters. That sort of summed this one up for me. It was truly a collection of characters with whom you would not want to be marooned on a desert island.
LIBBY: We’ve all probably had friends that were way too obsessed with their looks. My problem with these people is that they can’t relax and enjoy life. In fact, they usually can’t carry on a decent conversation. (Who cares how many M & M’s you binged and immediately regretted yesterday?) I’m not sure how to define “normal,” but I agree with Gay and Carolyn that none of the characters were appealing.
10. At the end of the book, Lizzie shares that she is “dangerously close to a knowledge that is probably ours for the taking, a knowledge that that I know could change everything.” What is it?
GAY: I’m going to be hopeful here. Lizzie is beginning to understand that it just doesn’t matter how much she weighs or what she looks like. She sees that she and other women can chase an elusive vision of self endlessly without ever realizing happiness.
LIBBY: I also interpret this last line optimistically. In the last chapter Lizzie compares herself and all the compulsive exercisers at her apartment gym to “a bunch of sad, fat Rodentia upon whom a terrible, sick joke is being played.” Later, she asks Ruth if she ever feels like a gerbil when she is running on the treadmill. These comments reveal Lizzie’s growing self-awareness and clarity.
And a final few questions for LYNN:
Based on your friends’ comments, do you think you’ll read this book? Why or why not?
No, I do not. As a read their comments, there were moments when I thought maybe I would, until I got to the part where they agreed that there were no appealing characters. It also seems like none of the relationships in the book were healthy. I felt my chest constricting as I read their observations, which I took as a cue not to read the book.
Have you read anything great lately?
I recently finished Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Each member of my bookclub loved it, and it is rare to have unanimous agreement among us about a book!
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Thank you so much for sharing your conversation at Bacon today, friends! I loved every moment of it.
Good times with old friends: Carolyn, Gay, Lynn, Libby
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Image at top of post copyright here.
Image of Juliet statue copyright here.