Dietland: A Novel by Sarai Walker

dietlandI don’t even really know where to begin with this book review. I have so many emotions upon finishing this novel, and most of them are complex and not easy to articulate.

Good grief, am I writer or not? Like any good book review (or book report, because let’s face it, Mrs. Dietrich, my second grade teacher got me started down this road), I’ll tell you a little about the plot.

Plum Kettle is awkward, shy, and really just wants to be invisible. This is especially hard since she weighs over 300 pounds. She works for a glossy teen magazine, answering the Dear Kitty advice letters sent to the editor-in-chief. Plum works from her laptop at her neighborhood cafe and barely socializes with anyone. She has scheduled a gastric bypass operation and is living a half-life waiting for the thin woman inside to emerge.

A few months before the surgery takes place she notices she’s being followed. An odd girl with bright colored tights and black boots begins to turn up everywhere Plum goes. It’s unnerving for Plum, who only understands that attention=ridicule. The mysterious girl leads her down the proverbial rabbit hole and everything Plum assumes about herself and the world is challenged. At the same time a shadowy force named Jennifer begins a worldwide assault on men who objectify and degrade women.

This last bit had me feeling more than a little euphoric (and a bit guilty about it). I see every day the way the world still belongs to men and how women still fight for equality. I hate that feminist is seen as a dirty word. In my opinion it feminist means that I want to be seen as a human being and not a pair of tits. Obviously the author was not suggesting we wage a guerrilla war on men–she is making a point.

Sarai Walker really puts the inequalities in your face, from fashion magazines to pornography. She is unflinching and unapologetic of her descriptions of their graphic, brutal nature. But in being so blunt, she offers this about sexual objectification of women: “You need to face it… too many women look away… they close their eyes.”

This is a valid point. While women have made tremendous strides towards equality we still aren’t truly free. Sure we can vote, join the military, and pretty much work in any field we choose. (At least in this country.) But there is a billion dollar beauty industry that has women sold on what we need to wear, how we should look, and what is appropriate behavior. Men and women hold women to a higher standard–it is much less acceptable for a woman to be fat, hairy, or god forbid, bald. And if she expresses an opinion that isn’t popular? Good heavens, we need to crucify the bitch. True, these standards have been ubiquitous since the dawn of patriarchal society, but it’s the pink, bedazzled elephant in the corner wearing the stilettos and g-string that no one mentions.

And yet I am conflicted because humans also gravitate towards beauty. Is it wrong to take delight in something that pleases the eye? Am I a bad feminist because I love my Kate Spade sunglasses and getting pedicures? I think the point here is that we put too much value on the beautiful and the current ideal and not enough on people as human beings. According to the nearest fashion magazine I am not nearly thin enough, I don’t wear enough makeup or heels, and I am not hairless as a Barbie doll.

But how do we separate the two? Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living, but focusing on one specific kind of beauty sets us up to fail. It’s easy to end with platitudes like “be kind to others,” and “look beyond the surface.” I certainly don’t follow those every day. I make unfair judgments all too often. Perhaps being mindful as we move forward is the key.

I know I don’t address all the points Sarai Walker articulates so beautifully in her book. I apologize if my thoughts are scattered or disjointed. It’s too complex an issue and wrapped in so many conflicting thoughts and feelings.

But that is exactly what a good book is supposed to do–make you think.

You should read it.

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