115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Going Against the Universe: Negotiating Sight and Selfhood in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Heidi Stoffer, Baldwin Wallace University

In this paper, I examine the theme of seeing in the 2016 novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad and  how it is connected to identity on a collective and personal level and the consequences of an identity shaped exclusively by the superficial assumptions of others. I argue that the novel reveals how it becomes necessary to resist societal expectations that focus on the surface imagesin order to acknowledge that sense of self that is invisible  to the outside world and is crucial in sustaining self-worth. 


Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl explores the harsh reality of negative body image in our society and the all too common tendency to focus so much on appearances that we become blind to our inherent vision of ourselves. I suggest that in the 21st century, more than ever, seeing is ultimately the knowledge (or hyperawareness) of being seen/exposed and prevailing societal attitudes about what it means to look a certain way and how that translates to assumptions about identity. Awad represents this type of seeing in 13 vignettes that illustrate how Lizzie, the main character is viewed by others and how it is Lizzie's perceptions of how others see her, whether accurate or imaginary, which leave a permanent impression on how she sees herself. I will ultimately contend that rather than using this awareness of cultural judgments about physical appearance as a tool of conformity in order to adhere to these imposed standards, such knowledge can be used to challenge such stereotypes and negotiate identities that sustain a balance between the external and internal, sight and insight. 

In this paper, I will explore Lizzie's transition from a fat girl to a thin one and show how this dramatic outward progression, motivated by external forces, has no effect on her long-held beliefs about her self worth and that these various perspectives implied by the title of the book ultimately only support one single vision that Lizzie has of herself as unlovable, flawed and pathetic. I will also study how Awad utilizes the image of mirrors in her work and how Lizzie often is only able to capture a glimpse of her otherwise hidden inner self by seeing herself reflected through someone else. Finally, I will consider how the structure of the novel as thirteen linked stories that act as an allusion to Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" supports the idea of vision as a process of breaking down images to reveal what is not immediately apparent and ultimately creating meaning. 

The aim of this project is to reveal the nature of seeing in its full complexity and contemplate how this can aid or detract in the process of identity formation. Through analyis of Awad's fictional scenario, perhaps we can identify the causes of image distortion and more successfully confront real-life issues rampant in our culture such as shaming, body dysmorphia, and self-hatred.