General Medical

‘Dietland’: A Call to Arms Against Body Shaming


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A debut novel from Sarai Walker, Dietland, did something that I am sorry to say happens less than it should: it changed my mind. Not only did it really get a message across about an important subject, it managed to do this in the context of a highly entertaining mystery plot. Remarkably, as the author does this, she also involves you in the emotional life of her unlikely heroine, and you start to understand what it means to deal with the issues of dieting and weight control from a point of view of great suffering.

When we first meet the protagonist, Plum Kettle, she has a grim life. Weighing about 300 pounds, she dresses in all black to camouflage herself as she shuttles between her Brooklyn apartment and a nearby cafe where she ghostwrites answers to questions sent to a teen magazine help columnist named Kitty. After a lifetime of useless dieting, she is eagerly awaiting surgery to have her stomach stapled to the size of a walnut. In anticipation of the procedure and her new life as a “thin person,” whom she refers to as “Alicia,” which is her real name that she has never used, Plum has been buying colorful clothes in smaller sizes.

Meanwhile, she begins to notice that she is being followed by a strange woman in brightly colored tights. Since her main goal each day is not to be noticed—it almost always invites ridicule—this is very unwelcome to Plum. This leads to an encounter with a radical feminist group led by the daughter of a woman who made a fortune through a diet scam, one of the many that Plum has tried over the years. The group seeks to promote feminist causes, and its leader wants specifically to give restitution to some of the victims of her mother’s scam, using the vast sum of money she inherited from her mother.

Meanwhile, a terrorist who calls herself “Jennifer” is killing unpunished rapists and causing a huge sensation in the media and prompting a cultural dialogue. While this is happening on the national level, the feminist/philanthropist (whose real surname is “Baptist”) wants to change Plum’s mind about the surgery. But wait! How can there be a happy ending if she doesn’t get thin? The author has just spent the first part of the book demonstrating how desperate Plum’s life is, describing in excruciating detail what it’s like to live as a fat person in a society obsessed with looking perfect. But Ms. Baptist’s approach, which consists partly of making Plum live her life as if she is already thin is ingenuous, and you as the reader experience it along with her. Like Plum, you are resistant and ambivalent all along the way, wanting the “Baptist treatment” to fail, so that Plum can get on with the business of getting thin so she can lead a “normal life.” But what if leading a “normal life,” which includes subjecting yourself to the average amount of beautification required and objectification a thin woman attracts, is not normal?

Walker creates a through-the-looking-glass world where all the usual standards, which are taken for granted, are questioned and in some instances, made to look insane. (The parts about body hair removal and makeup are mordantly funny.) By demonstrating these ideas through this fictional lens of Plum’s dilemma, she is able to deliver them with all the more impact. She throws all the pieces up in the air, and while they don’t land in a perfect new arrangement, for sure, you see them in a new way—and that’s quite an achievement.

Women today are realizing they need to fight back against the media, but more important, against deeply ingrained prejudices, if we are going to fight this idea that only one type of body is acceptable and worse, only an ideal decided on by someone else’s standards can be attractive.

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