Dietland, by Sarai Walker

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Three and a half stars, read in March 2017.

This book was a strange mix of things. I loved the premise and the protagonist’s character development, but was a little confused and unsatisfied by the progression and conclusion of the Jennifer storyline.

In the first place, it seemed weird to me that the protagonist was so far removed from the action—Plum “becomes involved in a sinister plot,” but only as marginally as possible. In the second place, I don’t understand at all why the women of Calliope House weren’t more affected by Jennifer. As an “underground community” of radical feminists, as women who’ve rejected damaging societal conventions and are dedicating their lives to various feminist endeavors, why didn’t any of them support Jennifer? Why didn’t they have even one conversation about Jennifer’s tactics? As a feminist reader, I was intrigued by, conflicted about, and finally supportive of Jennifer—so it seemed bizarre to me that the characters in the book never expressed any similar thoughts. The one person who does is a TV host, and she sums it up in the way that ultimately swayed me:

“I don’t think this is terrorism or lady terrorism . . . I think it’s a response to terrorism. From the time we’re little girls, we’re taught to fear the bad man who might get us. We’re terrified of being raped, abused, even killed by the bad man, but the problem is, you can’t tell the good ones from the bad ones, so you have to be wary of them all. We’re told not to go out by ourselves late at night, not to dress a certain way, not to talk to male strangers, not to lead men on. We take self-defense classes, keep our doors locked, carry pepper spray and rape whistles. The fear of men is ingrained in us from girlhood. Isn’t that a form of terrorism?”

As a plot, it was fantastic potential only partially fulfilled; but as a book examining the toxicity of beauty culture, it was outstanding. Plum’s transition is described perfectly as she goes from fully internalized misogyny to unrepentant, badass non-compliance.

In the beginning, Plum is a dedicated Waist Watcher, starving herself on tiny pink trays of “food,” wearing only black clothes to blend in, taking alternate routes to avoid the boys who insult her on the street, and counting down the days to the surgery that will staple her stomach shut and release, finally, the thin woman she knows she’s supposed to be (who she calls Alicia). In a relatively unrealistic turn of events, she’s offered $20,000 if she’ll go through a set of challenges before having the surgery, and one of those challenges is a complete makeover—the kind she’ll need to get anyway, once she becomes Alicia.

I felt exhausted, resting my head against the window, letting it bang on the glass every time we hit a bump. I was used to life in Brooklyn, hidden away in my apartment on Swann Street, trekking to the café and letting myself go like an overgrown garden. The makeover had been days of mowing and pulling weeds, a whole landscaping experience that was painful and disheartening.

I love this image of landscaping, because it conveys exactly the absurdity that I see when I look at cosmetics aisles in the store. This is the kind of thing I just don’t do anymore, because I don’t have the mental energy for it. When I think about how long it used to take me to get ready, to shave half my body, use two different kinds of lotion, apply an entire face made of makeup on top of my real one, use gel or mousse or, even worse, a straightening iron on my hair, on top of the basic shower and choosing clothes—I just can’t believe the colossal waste of time, money, and energy—and I never did nearly as much as many women do. Plum wasn’t used to doing any of those things, and her blunt introduction to them makes them a lot harder to accept than if she’d started doing them gradually throughout her adolescence.

Because I’m fat, I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman, if I looked like you, then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. Those guys I went on the blind dates with treated me like I was subhuman. If I were thin and pretty, they would have showed me a different side, a fake one, but since I look like this, I know what they’re truly like.

Looking at him, looking at them, the behavior of my whole life was suddenly inexplicable. The years of Waist Watchers, Baptist Weight Loss and plans for surgery, the hours and hours that added up to years of my life spent sitting at home afraid to go outside, afraid to be left out and shunned and rejected and stared at by faces like the one looking up at me now, one of the generic, mass-produced, ordinary, follow-the-crowd, hateful faces.

This was the part of the book, as Plum finally started to question the things she’d always wanted, that earned the extra star. Like I said, it’s a really intriguing premise, and I wish the action parts of the plot had been as well done as Plum’s internal progression. But this is definitely a book worth reading, and I’ll certainly be open to reading another of Walker’s books if she writes one.

Read-alikes: Dumplin’, by Julie Murphy
Shrill, by Lindy West

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