In Dietland, Sarai Walker’s debut novel, Plum Kettle is a three-hundred-pound woman with a Dickensian name who believes having gastric bypass surgery is going to change her life. Once she loses the weight, her real life will start. She will be Alicia, her given name. She will go out more. She will date. And, most important of all, she will no longer be the subject of stares or snickers, or the butt of someone’s joke. She will be free.
Only what if there were another way for her to be free? What if the cultish weight-loss programs, like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, were exposed for what they really are: companies that contribute to and profit off of the global objectification of women, who in our culture are continually baited into measuring their self-worth with bathroom scales. What if women just stopped dieting? What if the tables were turned and every bus that passed by or magazine cover or television show displayed sexualized male images? What if it were the men having the faux orgasms in the shampoo commercials?
These are the questions Plum is exploring in this coming-of-age story. She meets Verena, the daughter of the most successful weight-loss program, who, after her parents’ death, shuts down the organization because of the harm it was doing to millions of American women and exposes her mother, its founder, as a charlatan. Verena challenges Plum to identify where the real problems lie, to accept herself for who she is and start living her life today, and to stand up for herself. And Verena’s friend Marlowe, who’s written a book called Fuckability Theory, exposes the true motivation behind all female dieting: we do it because we want men to want to fuck us and women to want to be us. As Plum meets these new people, the reader also learns of a radical women’s group, calling itself “Jennifer,” that is terrorizing the country by taking revenge on the media and violent men.
Denialists will find this theory hard to stomach, but for me, it rings true. Every woman I know (myself included) is dieting. All of them are either suffering from a full-blown eating disorder or are at least suffering from some of the same misguided motivations. Some forego meals to take in their nutrition exclusively from shakes or smoothies. Some overexercise. Some indulge one night only to punish themselves with severe calorie restriction for the next day or even the rest of the week. Some load up their plates when around others and then only eat a third of it. Some commit to a very restrictive diet—like raw veganism—not because they can’t bear to participate in the slaughter of animals or because they believe that it’s truly a healthier way to eat, but because what they truly want is to be thin. As Plum points out, women would rather be dead than be fat. To be fat is to be completely isolated and horribly judged every day of your life, and yet it’s just the other side of the same ugly two-headed coin: disordered eating. And to me, the fuckability theory explains the motivation behind all that self-abuse.
I know that some people will say, “Well, I am just trying to be healthy,” or, “Being thin and fit makes me feel good about myself.” What would really be healthy is to love yourself no matter what size you are, ditch the scale, set legitimate (not veiled) fitness goals, listen to your body, and eat real food when you are hungry, including bread. Then you would just land where you land, which I doubt, for most of us, would be a size zero.
Following Plum’s journey toward self-acceptance coalesced some of my thoughts about my own struggles, and I see now that I have no choice but to reconcile with them. Once you admit that you have a problem, there is nowhere to hide. Even if we can’t be courageous enough to decide that we will not be held hostage by the fuckability theory, maybe we can at least be a little more compassionate toward one another, seeing that, whether obese or skinny, we all live in Dietland.