In the era of the “obesity epidemic,” fat has become a politically charged topic. It thus often provokes an overtly politicized response from writers of fiction. One such novelist is Sarai Walker, whose 2015 book Dietland links cultural attitudes toward women’s eating and body size to other feminist political concerns ranging from rape culture to domestic violence to gender gaps in employment. In Dietland, the restrictions on the amount of space that women take up become a metonymy for all of the restrictions placed on women’s lives in a patriarchal culture. When the main character, Alicia (nicknamed Plum), begins to understand the connection between diet culture and other forms of patriarchal oppression, she is able to let go of her belief that body size is a solely personal, rather than political, matter. She learns to see the ways in which capitalist patriarchy has shaped her understanding and experience of her body. With this realization begins her transformation into a politically aware fat feminist activist.
Plum begins the book as the ideal product of North American diet culture. She has internalized all of the messages that the weight-loss industry relentlessly aims at women. She lives on the periphery of the beauty industry, working as an agony aunt for a teen fashion magazine. She believes that fatness results from individual choices and failures divorced from social context, and thus she willingly restricts her choices regarding her movements (“[m]y daily activities kept me within a five-block radius”) (5), her career (she accepts low paying work for which she is over-qualified), her wardrobe (black and baggy), and her food (she constantly counts calories). “My life,” she states, “had narrow parameters, which is how I preferred it” (5).
Furthermore, Plum has adopted the moral discourse attached to fatness in the U.S. The last name of the novel’s fictional diet guru, Eulayla Baptist, highlights the aura of religiosity surrounding contemporary diet culture. As one of Eulayla’s employees states, “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of using moral terms when talking about dieting to our clients….When Baptists lose weight, they’re ‘good’; when they stray from the plan, they’re ‘bad’” (53).
At the beginning of the novel, Plum has so thoroughly bought into diet culture’s promise of personal transformation through self-discipline that she has put her life on hold until that fabled day when she is thin. She thinks of herself as a “before picture” (59), “suspended in time, like an animal floating in a jar of formaldehyde” (7). She is so distanced from her current life that she refers to her fat self as Plum while her dreamed-of future thin self is called by her real name, Alicia. By the end of the novel, however, Plum has reclaimed the name Alicia for her fat self.
This reclamation does not come easily for Plum. When she is first exposed to fat acceptance through Eulayla’s rebellious daughter Verena, she responds with hostility. The novel chronicles Plum’s gradual deprogramming from diet culture through her exposure to two groups, the feminist collective led by Verena at Calliope House, who practice communal living and radical self-acceptance, and the feminist “terrorist” group “Jennifer,” who favor violent revolutionary action. Plum’s awakening reveals fat oppression as structural and also as inextricably linked to other forms of oppression. For example, part of Plum’s deprogramming involves spending time in a room where violent pornography is shown on a continual loop. Through repeated viewing of these images, Plum begins to question her desire to make her body acceptable to the male gaze.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland provides a structuring metaphor for Dietland, with chapter titles like “Rabbit Hole” and “Eat Me.” Like Alice, Plum’s anxiety over her inability to control her body size gives way to experiences of empowerment. For instance, Plum comes to appreciate the fact that her fatness gives her an outsider’s perspective on the world. Two thirds of the way through the novel, Plum realizes, “If I looked like a normal woman, if I looked like you, then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are….It’s a special power. I see past the mask to the real person underneath” (196-7). Plum also realizes that there is power in difference if it is owned: “It felt good to say the word fat. I had always avoided it, but it had the same thrust as fuck and the same power—an illicit f-word” (196). In reclaiming the word fat from the culture that has defined it simply in stigmatizing terms, Plum does not simply assert her own identity. Rather, she learns that the word can be a weapon with which to challenge the dominant culture’s way of perceiving her.
This realization does not come at end of Plum’s journey. In this novel, self-acceptance is not meaningful until it translates into action. As the novel continues, Plum is faced with a choice between the two forms of rebellion embodied by Calliope House and Jennifer. Some readers may be shocked by Plum’s flirtation with Jennifer’s violent tactics. The group was formed by a female soldier whose twelve-year-old daughter was raped, shamed, and driven to suicide. The group’s name highlights the role of racial and ethnic prejudice in the construction of ideal womanhood. As a child, the Latina soldier had adopted the Anglicized name Jennifer in order to fit in; like the word fat, it now is ironically thrown back in the face of the culture that excluded her.
Though Plum ultimately rejects Jennifer’s vigilante stance, the novel gives Jennifer its due. Jennifer is effective. For example, when their threats cause British newspapers to replace topless “page-three” girls with full-frontal male nudes, men are forced to confront the reality of objectification in a way that denaturalizes it. What causes Plum to refuse Jennifer is not necessarily the tactics they use, but what those tactics cost the women involved in their assault on patriarchal authority. The novel focuses on the toll taken on one woman, Leeta, who is forced to spend her life in hiding, imprisoned in ever more narrow spaces, because of the overwhelmingly violent patriarchal response to Jennifer. Talk show host Nedra accurately describes Jennifer when she says,” “I don’t think this is terrorism…I think it’s a response to terrorism” (232). The problem for Jennifer is that the patriarchy has already mastered violence as a tactic.
But if Plum does not join Jennifer neither does she fully endorse Calliope House’s individualistic notion of body positivity. Instead, Dietland offers a binary-breaking alternative. The novel’s ending suggests that the path forward lies in subverting and undermining the patriarchal underpinnings of diet culture rather than in either direct challenge or self-nurturing retreat. Thus, the book does not end with Plum turning her back on the members of Jennifer. Instead, she uses her new-found self-acceptance as the grounds for political action by reaching out to the fugitives from Jennifer to assist them in their flight from persecution. Plum does not attempt to overturn or escape from patriarchy. Instead, she makes incremental changes in the way she lives and acts within it, while supporting her fellow women in their efforts to subvert patriarchal control over women’s bodies.