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Holy shit, Dietland is so good

BOOKS | Dietland is so good. So good. Amazingly good. Riveting. And Sarai Walker is a warrior genius.
Book jacket: Dietland 2015. Cupcake grenade against a blue background. Dietland is so good.

Book jacket: Dietland, 2015.

Damn, y’all. Where has this book been all my life?

I’ve been reading a lot lately. A lot. The baby has been in a clingy-home-loving stage, which is difficult, but also means I have been stuck in the house a lot, and able to read more. Reading seems like a luxury at times, but it’s a bit of a survival tactic right now. It takes my mind off the fact that there are a million things I need to be doing that my child is keeping me from. I tell myself, ‘at least I get to read!’ which makes me feel a bit better about what would otherwise feel like wasted time.

Anyway, my latest book pick is Dietland and … like I said, holy shit. HOLY SHIT. It’s just. My heart.

Dietland is so good. I LOVED IT.

This is already so over-the-top and yet, I wish there was an even more emphatic way to say it than Dietland is so good.

This is rare for me. I usually feel fairly measured about what I’ve read. Even when I really love something, there are always always ALWAYS problems. Little compromises. Bad politics. (With rampant fatphobia and veiled bigotry being the most common issues.)

To read a book that is not only not like that, but the literal opposite of that? It’s kind of breaking my heart with goodness. I don’t think most people realize how rare this is.

Dietland is the first book of fiction I’ve read in years, maybe in my entire life, that wasn’t fatphobic. And better still, it’s politically, some would say aggressively, anti-fatphobic. It’s basically a feminist fat-activism screed in novel form.

I discovered the book after the show adaptation premiered on AMC in June.
AMC promotional poster for Dietland features a brick wall painted with representation of series lead, Joy Nash, throwing a cupcake bomb. Dietland is so good!

Dietland premiered on TV on AMC, June 2018.

For me, the show got off to a slightly rocky start. It was a little surreal, which isn’t something I love, and just in general, as I watched, I felt tense. I didn’t know what was coming, or what to expect. Joy Nash is wonderful, but representations of fat people on television (and in general) are always fraught for me. I’m always waiting for them to go wrong (since they so often, maybe always? do).

In a sea of television offerings that are lauded for being wonderfully feminist, despite being rife with fatphobia that is entirely ignored (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), or critically acclaimed despite political and historical erasure, not just of fat people, but of POCs and a huge variety of other folks as well (The Handmaid’s Tale) and in a media landscape that confuses “body positivity” with fat activism, there’s just … always something. A fly in the ointment, as it were.

I mean, in the Hollywood/pop-culture universe of bigger bodies, Amy Schumer (who is a nightmare, by the way) is someone/something to aspire to, and Mindy Kaling is huge. Those problematic bitches are straight-sized, thin, size 8s, thankyouverymuch. Like, fuck off with that nonsense, Hollywood.

And books about fat people are often no better.

Even the best, most politically-advanced writers can produce fat representations that leave something to be desired.

Like, Roxane Gay, who is a wonderful writer and a generally awesome person, put out her memoir Hunger last summer. And it’s an important book and a good book, and I can’t fault Gay for her personal choices or story (although I worry about her weight loss surgery, mostly because even though I don’t know her, I find myself deeply afraid that she will suffer some horrific side effect, or possibly even die as a result, which is what I think about when I hear about anyone undergoing one of those mutilating procedures).

But separate from that, Gay’s personal narrative props up the idea that fat women exist in response to trauma. Like, we’ve made ourselves fat to protect ourselves. Now, that is a very legitimate narrative for some fat people. That’s fine. But there is a whole contingent (a huge contingent) out there that thinks it’s the only narrative. I know people have asked me, personally, about my traumatic history. Like, what was the precipitating event/what is the reason for my fatness? They don’t believe that there isn’t one. That’s a problem for me. Fat bodies exist because they exist. They have always existed. Throughout human history. Nothing is ever going to change that, but this question of “why?” won’t go away.

Venus figurine. Dietland is so good!

Fat bodies have been around forever, FYI.

Because. Okay? BE-FUCKING-CAUSE. We’re here. The why doesn’t matter.

Now, I’m not saying that Gay is deliberately doing anything wrong here. She doesn’t have to be a role model or a fat activist. Her book and her personal story can have value separate from those things. But I use Hunger here as an illustration of a book about the body that should have touched all the bases for me, but that I couldn’t quite love.

Representation is wonderful, sure, so if there’s a fat lead (or even a “fat” lead) on a show, or if there’s a new book, or a new movie, I always try to check it out, but I don’t know that there’s been a single representation that has lived up to my expectations.

Dietland may be the first. I will withhold final judgement on the TV series until I see more. (Though I’ll say that I think the show is doing some great things, expanding on and altering the original text and characters in smart ways, and also addressing some important third-wave questions that are missing from the novel.)

But just taking the book on its own for a moment … wow. WOW.

Dietland is incendiary. Revolutionary. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way about a novel. Ever.

It’s odd. Even though I began the book after watching a good six episodes of the TV series, and at least the first 200 pages contained nothing that I hadn’t already seen in the show, I feel like Dietland was riveting from page one.

At the same time, the mysterious build that permeates most of the text sort of comes to nothing. You’d think that would be disappointing, but the gentle ending worked for me. No spoilers, but the book contains a gripping subplot about a rash of revenge killings (of men) at the hands of a nebulous group or figure known as Jennifer, but when that is resolved (in a very undramatic way) one doesn’t feel as though anything has fizzed because Dietland is ultimately the story of an individual, not a movement. It’s about Plum, not Jennifer. And so even though by the end of the book, all the brightest figures, the looming drama, all the speculation about what might happen just sort of … doesn’t, the story is still satisfying.

It’s more real than it seemed likely to be on the surface, and more relatable.

Ever since I finished reading, I’ve been trying to decide if I love Dietland so much because it’s objectively perfect, or if it’s just that it’s perfect for me, in this particular moment of my life. This is a hard question to answer.

Certainly, there are lines that resonated with me because of where I am, right now. For example, at one point, protagonist Plum, while considering her pregnant (but straight-sized) friend, thinks, “I was aware of the line that existed between us, the line that existed between me and most people.”

Yeah. I’ve been there.

Later in the text, there’s a bit about Plum reframing her fatness (not just in terms of reclaiming the word “fat”, which is essential and important) but reframing the experience of being fat, seeing the positives, as it were. She says, “Because I’m fat, I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like  a normal woman … I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. Those guys … treated me like I was subhuman. If I were thin and pretty, they would have shown me a different side, a fake one, but since I look like this, I know what they’re truly like.”

This has been true for me as well. I think to a “normal” or average-looking person, or to someone striving for that (all women?) this may sound like cold comfort, but I see it as revelatory and valuable. Plum goes on to explain that it’s a good thing because, “It’s a special power. I see past the mask to the real person underneath. I’m not living a lie like so many other women. I’m not a fool.”

I mean, oof, but yeah. Having the scales (these puns are inevitable, sorry) fall from your eyes for the first time? That’s powerful.

I think what I love most about Dietland is that, in its quiet moments, and the real spaces set apart from the whole Jennifer thing, it’s a representation of a different way to live.

In one moment, late in the book, a group of women is eating together and Plum recognizes something simple, but unusual: “There was never any mention of calories, there was no I shouldn’t eat this, I shouldn’t eat that. Plates were scraped clean, ooohs and ahhhs were abundant, women asked for more. No prayers were offered up to the diet gods: I’ll go to the gym later, I didn’t eat dinner last night. There was pleasure that didn’t have to be bargained for.”

I’m sure this seems like a bit of true fantasy, but there are people and spaces like this. They do exist!

You can find them and make them part of your community, be one of them. It’s not impossible. It’s not even particularly difficult. I know because I’ve done it, for myself, but also for my child. (I literally keep her from visiting or spending too much with friends and relatives who are fatphobic! Mostly because I’m going to do everything I can not to poison her the way I was poisoned and she’s my kid, so I have that power. It’s great.)

Author, Sarai Walker (pronounced sa-RAY).

Near the bit when Plum says she isn’t a fool, another character tells her,  “We’re different in a way that everyone can see. We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look or behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating, if you choose to see it that way.”

It is, isn’t it? Liberate yourself. Be like Plum. Escape from Dietland. It is possible. This book will help.

Dietland was published May 26, 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

P.S. Read this book, because like I said, Dietland is so good, but while you’re at it, please also read this first-person piece about the dreaded F-word (FAT), by author, Dr. Sarai Walker (PHD, y’all), which is so important. Thank you, Sarai, for this book, and for existing, and for being on the front lines. It’s not easy. You are a true warrior and I, just for one, am so grateful.

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