Sep 8, 2015

Book Looks: 'Dietland' Throws A Grenade On Diets, Fatness & Feminism


Growing up my mother was sort of the empress of dieting. Every drink, pill, powder, supplement ---what have you --- she either knew about it, had tried it, or was tempted to pop it in, or stir it up. My mother wanted to revive the slimmer image of her younger days, rid herself of the Winnie The Pooh pooch she had, and she believed that if she found the right 'cure', her body was going to 'snap back'. Ultimately I got drawn into this weird world of miracle pills, mixed powdered drinks that resembled bubbling bayou bile and health literature that promised that if you squint and read between the lines you could shed the pounds in 7 days or less!!!!!!!, and while I still had my Funfetti cake and ate it too, my mother was the one who made me aware that even just a thin slice of it would cause my cute little waist to expand. Note this is before I even was influenced by glossy magazines and pop stars; my mother was on the pedestal then.

All of these dieting tricks and gaffes were really code words for starvation. I can attest to this, as one such diet experiment that my mother believed to be the ultimate belly shrinking cure had both of us hallucinating and shaking like addicts trying to kick the habit. We were back to cheeseburgers and chocolate milkshakes after enduring a concoction of blended carrot juice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and not much else) for four days. Looking back, we almost killed ourselves trying to obtain some unattainable size, and that to me was the wake up call out of my mother's dieting madness.

Diet culture makes everyone play the fool...sometime. Behind every line of "be yourself" and "you’re beautiful the way you are" there is a diet plan, cackling and whispering, "…that is if you do this one small neat weight-loss trick" and we fall for it every time, because 'thinness' is key, 'smallness' is desirable. Nowhere did I mention "healthy diet". Nowhere did I mention "whole foods" or "exercise". Dieting and its programs give the impression that your health and their 'good clean' eating is at the core of their agenda, but it usually opposite. Dieting has a glamorous and quick flavor to it, it doesn't regard sweating it out on a treadmill, or shelling out money for oh so pricey whole foods, thus we flock to it.

Still all the dieting my mother did throughout the Snackwells and Jenny Craig culture of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t stop her from contracting diabetes (she has Type 1 --- genetics are a bitch…) or having high blood pressure, but lessons are never learned because even though she keeps on a steady diabetic diet, she still gets hyped when a new "miracle cure" pops up, her finger itching to strike the key or press the button to purchase. It's a cycle, a vicious obsessive one, and one a lot of people, especially women like my mother, tend to never get out of.

In that regard, my mother and Dietland's Plum Kettle have a lot in common. Plum Kettle flocks towards the same thought, the thought that if you take part in diet programs that offer short-cuts and quick solutions that that thin person will leap right out of you in a snap!, in an instant.

In Sarai Walker's debut novel, Plum Kettle’s got 99 problems and a pre-made plate of low calorie puke is just one.

Plum is fat first, woman second who is (as she puts it) "an outline waiting to be filled in". She lives alone and has little contact with the outside world, mainly because the outside world wants little to do with her as once she steps out of her door she is ridiculed, judged, and treated as a grotesque 300 pound blob o' nothing. Plum believes that if she is skinny all of her problems will decrease right along with her waistline and that she’ll live a more fruitful and "normal" life where her stomach won't be screaming at her to feed it more food and where she'll finally feel accepted in a society that often disparages and stereotypes women of her current size. To get to her dream weight, Plum is saving up money for gastric bypass surgery, but in the interim she is counting calories, trying to stomach the food she receives through the weight watching program she is in, and buying cute and smaller sized clothes for when she’ll be 200 pounds lighter.

Plum is pretty much living life for the future 'thinner' her. She only emerges out of her apartment to sit in a coffee shop where she conducts her day job, typing away on her laptop and answering e-mails from the naïve and helpless girls who read the teen magazine she's employed at. How Plum can tell others about how to find happiness and clarity in their lives is the irony of the job, but Plum is so obedient to her boss, that she goes through the motions, copying, pasting, and well, lying to herself daily.

Hope comes to Plum in the form a mysterious woman in colorful tights and combat boots who after following her around, gifts her a book entitled, Adventures In Dietland. Within the pages of the book, Plum revisits her past dieting exploits, and learns that her journey towards self-acceptance is right around the sharp corner.

What Dietland does best when it wags a stern finger in the face of the diet industry as it offers up valid points about how society, from West to East, objectify and marginalize women: how the fashion industry skews our views about sizes; how the diet industry thrives on failure; how the pleasure of sex and sexuality is geared for male consumption only; how the media distorts women’s bodies; how the fashion industry discriminates by size; how thinness is often equated to happiness; how antidepressants and diet pills are placebos that don’t aid your unhappiness, but masks it, even exacerbates it --- Women Studies 101 is all up in these pages, and nothing, absolutely nothing is held back. Add to that with each illustrated point, Dietland hints at a message for societal change that we really need to STOP in the name of feminism and quit shaming women and plastering boobs on buses.

For this, I had my switchblade out, ready to set it off, as I raced down the street with "I'm Every Woman" (Chaka Khan's version...sorry Whitney) blaring in the background, but mid-way into Dietland things took a dark turn and feminist fatigue set in. Yes, feminist fatigue. The newfangled occurrence that proves that too much of a good thing can have reverse effects.

When Plum meets Verena Baptist and joins Calliope House and the "New Baptist Plan", I was reminded why I never felt a strong kinship towards the radical side of feminism. While Plum's make-over segment is an obvious jab at the What Not To Wear/make-over reality show culture, I’m tired of the feminist rhetoric that acts like make-up and dressing up nice is solely to be a garish puppet for men to ogle at. The "Fuckability Theory" that is voiced in this book is based on men seeing women as a piece of sexual meat, and while apt, became flimsy as healthy sexual relationships are never discussed. Sex talk in Dietland is only attributed and limited to violence, and well, I thought we were supposed to be uplifting Plum here? As much as I like a good tongue-in-cheek, the "porn room" Plum views reeked of slut-shaming (strippers and porn stars need love and paychecks too…) and made it out like men are the only people who consume graphic porn --- news flash: women also watch and enjoy porn.

Shoehorning in the "Jennifer" plotline was provocative and fun, and yes, as a Jennifer myself I got a kick out of a vigilante group utilizing my name, aka the most generic name in the English language to represent a band of femme fatales this side of Foxfire and The Switchblade Sisters, but I felt the whole “Jennifer Effect” could’ve been an entirely separate novel all together as their existence to fuck over the patriarchy took away from the strong character Walker built with Plum. Plus as you read along, "Jennifer" turns out to be a real dud of a "gang" which disappointed me --- I wanted The Warriors' Lizzies crossed with the vigilante bank robbing ladies from Set It Off and who also pump of femme anthems like The Runaways complete with them all wearing Cherie Currie’s glorious coif --- but I guess I gotta write that book, right?

While some of "Jennifer's" acts were interesting and creative (I especially got a laugh at how the genders were switched for the UK’s infamous Page Three models…sassy!) but shooting female porn stars in the head, blowing up women who choose to sleep with their boyfriends, and dropping alleged sexual predators naked from a plane, letting them plummet to their death is well, yeah...not cool as it was counterproductive and downright sick.

In Dietland, there is not one male who is redeemable --- all men beat up women, all men say nasty comments to women, all men are scum of the Earth, and all men must be wasted. While I'm all for revenge as sweet and as explosive as the cupcake grenade on the cover, but my 3rd wave feminist is combating with Walker's love ode for the 2nd wave because, to me, feminism isn't an 'us vs. them' ideal anymore. It’s supposed to thrive on intersectionality in order to fight for equality from across the board. Feminists fight for men too because the same institutions that are built to oppress women are also toxic to men. This idea that feminism is for man-hating lesbians is where we veer into stupid stereotypes, ones that the 2nd wave of feminism, the feminism of my mother's generation, clearly harbors. Like I said, 3rd waver here who is not here for putting bullet holes in porn stars foreheads and throwing thinly disguised versions of Roman Polanski's and Chris Brown's out of airplanes no matter how much they are sick woman-hating fucks.

Then again, maybe the radicalness was the intent? To show how screwy feminism can become when women take it to the extreme? That even a movement that is built to help the helpless, that is to reverse and undo damage of society as a whole has massive flaws that need to be addressed? That even when Plum is around “do-gooders” and “non-conformists” she is still being exploited, manipulated and pigeonholed? That mob mentality leads us to doing no better than our oppressors? That the price to pay for Plum accepting herself is that she loses her identity --- one that was never fully formed to begin with?

(Or am I giving Walker and her book too much credit here?)

Other muddled occurrences drag Plum's journey down where a stalking subplot is romanticized ("the happiest time of my life was following you around"...huh?) to zero medical concerns about Plum’s health (No pre-diabetic symptoms? No skipped periods? No bad back/worn knees? No high blood pressure? But we’re baking and binge eating on sweet after sweet…?) Most annoying is when one of the side characters, a Jennifer associate named Julia, is unveiled to be passing as a White woman --- when in fact she is shock!awe!zomg! really Black #eyeroll Walker gets too cute with this, possibly trying to show how the media loves to whitewash and de-brunette women of color, but Julia's existence to me didn't service the plot in anyway no matter the backhanded attempt at making a more "racially diverse" cast.

As I limped toward the finish line of this book, I just don’t really feel vindicated with Plum’s transformation because all she learned to do was cuss people out, have urges to throw bricks at people, and steal underwear to make bonfires with. That's not feminism. That's not accepting yourself. That's not even being kick ass awesome. That's just lame and blind mischief that's disguised as 'sticking it to the man'. Sure Plum accepts herself as is and is awaken to the power she has --- congratulations are in order --- but you don't have to become an asshole about it Something about how she reached this point, this transformation in her personality felt hollow and disappointing to me.

After all of this work, Plum is still a follower, not a leader. She moves into a womb colored home with women who are secretive, robotic, and force their opinions on her. She doesn't formulate any type of career goal, as by book's end she’s going to be writing a book from someone else's research. Occupying a spare room in Calliope House is no different than being a corporate slave to the teen magazine, Daisy Chain. Plum's identity is still associated with others, never herself.

While I appreciated the sinister reality Dietland metaphorically alludes to --- that no matter how much we feel empowered or fight for our rights, life still screws us over --- but something was off with the tone to where this message is never cleverly spun. This book taps on the shoulders of subversive alter-universe classics like A Handmaid's Tale and A Clockwork Orange, but it never delivers the true ominous reality those tales so twistedly evoked, it's too cartoonish and aware of itself for that. As much as I liked the initial idea and understand that Walker was trying to get her Chuck Palahniuk on, Dietland is a lean cuisine of what could've been a nourishing satirical feast for the weight-loss and patriarchal weary.

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