APRIL 18, 2016
LIZZIE SMITH is not the funny fat girl we’ve grown used to in literature and popular culture. She isn’t a body empty of nuance, but one loaded instead with fluffy musings about what it means, in fact, to be a fat girl.
While many women writers are leaning toward a brand of feminism that links all women by making sweeping (and often suffocating) generalizations, Mona Awad insists on difference. She grants Lizzie, her female main character, intense specificity, making her a crucial addition to the fat girl story. She is dark and snarky, sometimes full of self-loathing, completely judgmental of even her closest friends, and always based on their size. During a time when novels about fat girls focus so greatly on what it means to be hated and marginalized, character can become secondary, with a recognizable identity as a stand-in for any authentic personality.
Lizzie is strongest in the moments that she is the most difficult to sympathize with — when she terrifies you with her awful decisions and when she (continually) slips into unhealthy patterns of behavior — but Awad’s tight control of the narrative and the effective work that the 13 chapters accomplish makes it impossible not to understand why Lizzie is doing what she’s doing. You may never have had an intense fantasy about a man at a fish market fucking you so hard you get fish guts in your hair and lose one of your mother’s clip-on earrings (while said mother and your fiancé await your return), but you’ll understand why Lizzie has.
My father has always felt that being fat was a choice. When I was in college I would sometimes meet him for lunch or coffee, and he would stare at my extra flesh like it was some weird piece of clothing I was wearing just to annoy him. Like my fat was an elaborate turban or zombie tiara or some anarchy flag that, in my impetuous youth, I was choosing to hold up and wave in his face. Not really part of me, just something I was doing to rebel, prove him wrong.
We learn about Lizzie through narratives featuring her mother, a much older man she chats with on the internet, a dressing room clerk named Trixie, and others at varying ages ranging from youth to adulthood. Each narrative functions as a new frame through which we learn about a different version of the main character: Lizzie, fat girl; soon to be Beth, less fat young woman; and eventually Elizabeth, her final incarnation, a thin adult woman.
With each additional character, or deeper dive into an already existing character, we gain a new layer of Lizzie. The book is not a monologue or two decades of exposition, and, just as importantly, it doesn’t shove its character onto a soapbox to shout, “This is what it is to be a fat girl in the United States.”
Lizzie is a disaster; Lizzie is more than a little mean; and Lizzie is growing less fat. What Lizzie is not is a naive pushover being bullied because of her weight — another great subversion of the fat girl norm. In the second chapter, the point of view switches to that of a boy Lizzie goes to school with. He doesn’t know her name; he just calls her “the fat girl.” Here, and only here, does the novel nod to the reader and acknowledging that it knows how fat girls are supposed to function. The section is laden with exclamation, as the fat girl is oh so excited that this boy has called because, we’re meant to assume, no boys ever call her; no boys ever want her, the fat girl. She is used by this boy, or so it seems, until he realizes he maybe likes her, goes to see her, and realizes she’s running the same lines on another boy in her bedroom, stroking his ego (damaged, no doubt, by his actual girlfriend), and playing the role of the fat girl with talent and grace. She has not been used by this boy. She has been using him.
On the cover, the novel’s title appears to be sketched out quickly in pencil, with “fat” partially erased horizontally down its middle. Flecks of eraser bits surround the word and spill upon “girl” — suggesting yet another look at fat girlhood through a fluffy, stereotypical lens. But it instead looks into the space between the two — fat and girl — and asks whether or not the two can ever truly come together. If girls are meant to be dainty and take up minimal physical space, how is “fat girl” not an oxymoron?
The text recognizes and complicates this idea. When Lizzie returns to her hometown post-fat as Elizabeth, she notes that the songs played in the plus-sized clothing store where she and her mother once shopped “always seem to revolve around the word woman. You make me feel like a natural woman. When a man loves a woman. As if the idea of being a woman in here requires convincing.” Stereotypical, girlish womanhood does not come easily to a group given little option for style beyond animal print and shapeless frocks.
This is an experience that Lizzie knows well. Her understanding of girlhood breaks norms not just in its representation of fatness. Her girlhood is one of thick black eyeliner and red eyeliner; edgy, black clothes; and a parade of interested boys (a.k.a. stalkers). Still, much like the general public, Lizzie too thinks of girls as skinny, small, physically unimposing creatures.
Lizzie obsesses greatly about the sociocultural requirement that girls and women be skinny and yet sidesteps other gender norms in massive ways. By the second chapter, she is not a virgin or virginal. Lizzie does not cook or clean. Lizzie is not sweet and soft in her language or mannerisms. If anything, Lizzie is quite caustic and inappropriate, preferring conversations about sucking off strange men in fast food restaurants to those about ribbons and rainbows. If Lizzie has a precursor in literature it is Wally Lamb’s Delores (She’s Come Undone), but Lizzie is less wimpy and sad and more bitter and biting.
Lizzie’s sexuality is one of the strongest hooks of the novel. Awad doesn’t represent girlhood as centered around purity, and uses her weight as an inherent challenge to femininity:
I’m smiling pleasantly at Jesus’s eye in the rearview mirror, trying to act like Archibald’s head is not under my maxi skirt, between my legs, where it has been for some time now. I’m moaning quietly. Moaning so as not to be rude to Archibald, but trying to do it quietly so that I’m not being rude to the driver. The moans come out of me like hiccups.
In the deep background, behind Lizzie’s strange sexual adventures with men on the internet, some of whom exit the digital realm and become lovers, is her mother. A fat woman who was once small, she is desperate to see her old clothing on her daughter’s new slim figure. She loves to force her daughter to twirl in the vintage designer dresses she wore post-pregnancy, when she had her jaw wired shut to lose the baby weight, becoming a “smiling husk of herself.” Lizzie thinks of this as she stands in her mother’s bathroom looking at her mother’s nightgowns, once her outfit of choice during the sexual excursions of her youth.
Lizzie carries her mother with her: first through her weight, and then, because she has judged her mother for her fat, largely celibate loneliness, through her desire to experience sexuality despite her weight. Finally, she carries her mother through the nearly universal weight of a daughter’s desire to please her mother, even if it means wearing a Pepto-Bismol pink bandage dress; even if it means handing off one of your last cigarettes to your mother with a heart condition.
Lizzie hates skinny women (Itsy Bitsy, in particular, who, despite her love of scones, remains small “while others are forced to grow fat on salad”), but she hates fat ones too. She continually casts other women as models of either what she never wants to be or of what she wants to become. There are girls in her youth who teach fat Lizzie how to wear makeup, and Lizzie feels a desperate urge to be them, to adopt their embodied ability to fall within the norms of female beauty.
Later still, skinny Lizzie develops a nearly sexual obsession with her fat manicurist, Cassie, and the way her body folds and bulges:
“You’re back soon,” Cassie says, taking my hands. The heat of them makes me feel slightly drunk on contact.
As she covers my arms in cold yogurt, I picture her and her non-freak husband napping. On a quilted bedspread. Cassie making a deep dent in the mattress. Maybe he’s got his arm around her.
They’re in the half-dark of their bedroom, on their nap-rumpled bed. Would she want the lights off? Probably lowered. He’d have to be on top. Maybe not.
She straddles him under her white skirt, blouse sliding off her shoulders. For a brief moment I inhabit his shuddery skin. Lying on my back on the Cassie-dented mattress, between her broad thighs. Feeling her opening my shirt button by button, my tie being tugged by her primped hands. When she leans in to kiss me, a coil of red hair grazes my cheek and her sleeves slide farther down her shoulders and I feel the full weight of Cassie.
Here the novel tiptoes to the brink of cliché, or what is simply a truth: Lizzie wants to be someone else. Skinny or fat, she is not happy with herself.
Awad validates the stumbling messiness of her character — a girl whose relation to her own physicality compromises her coming of age and ability to have any true self-revelation — by elevating her experience to something of clear literary value. This is not a diary. These are not the stories of girlhood, or fat girlhood, or small town escapism we’ve heard over and over again. The voice is locked in, but it isn’t afraid to switch points of view entirely. It waves to memoir and never preaches. It takes what could be uplifting and turns instead toward Lizzie’s reality: one of burning misery and the all-too-plausible pain of a girl-turned-woman whose life cannot brighten because her biggest conflict is with her own body.