Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dietland by Sarai Walker (2015)

Plum Kettle lives a constrained life. In the morning, she gets up and eats a Waist Watchers breakfast, before heading to the cafe where she works at her job where she responds to emails from young girls in her role as pretending to be Kitty, the magazine editor of teen mag Daisy Chain. Once a week, she goes to a Waist Watchers meeting, where she is weighed and picks up the latest Waist Watchers recipes. Always dressed in dark-coloured long shirts and ankle-length elastic-waisted skirts, Plum lives her life within a five-block radius, living a half-life while waiting for her real life to begin. You see, Plum is fat and waiting for lapland surgery, after which her inner thin person (called Alicia) will emerge and her life will really begin.

That all changes when Plum notices that she is being followed. She hates being looked at, being seen,  so is incredibly aware of the strange girl with dark eyeliner and bright tights who watches her, always taking notes. One day the girl slips her a book called Adventures in Dietland. Adventures in Dietland is a expose of the diet industry written by Verena Baptist, whose parents found the Baptist Diet, an unhealthy restrictive diet Plum was on as a teenager. Rich from the money her parents made but cognisant of the damage that the Baptist Diet caused, Verena has formed a feminist collective in the heart of New York City. Upon finding out that Plum is planning on doing lapland surgery, Verena offers Plum $20,000 if she agrees to go on the New Baptist Diet, a special plan designed for Plum by Verena which forces Plum to look at her life, how she treats her body and how she feels about herself. Plum agrees, starts the plan and her life begins to change.

While these changes are happening in Plum's life, a terrorist group called Jennifer are enacting violence on misogyny and misogynists - kidnapping and murdering men who have got away with enacting violence on women and using violence to change how women are represented.

I haven't described the plot of this book very well. It's a fascinating exploration of the impact of diet culture on an individual. Like Plum, I have had days where I thought "If only I were x kgs thinner/my boobs were bigger/I was taller/my hair was more blonde then my life would be better." I've tried Weight Watchers, the Liver Cleansing Diet, the 5:2 Diet (actually, I just borrowed the book for that one from the library - the fasting seemed really unhealthily). Every time I turn on the TV or the radio there are ads for meal replacement shakes or Michelle Bridge's 12 week transformation or I Quit Sugar programs. Women are bombarded with images of female perfection all the time while at the same time being told that they aren't pretty/smart/sexy/fuckable enough. Plum's sense of self is so closely tied up with her weight and her idea of what her weight should be that it is emotionally paralysing for her. It is literally stopping her from doing what she wants; not because she physically cannot, but because emotionally she can't. Breaking the years of Dietland training and damage is incredibly hard but so fascinating to read about. The New Baptist Diet challenges Plum breaks out of her shell like a dieting caterpillar into a gorgeous butterfly with a healthy sense of self and relationship with food; Dietland chronicles her journey and whether or not it is even possible to break out of a lifestyle so deeply ingrained.

One of the beset things about this book is that makes explicit the connection between the way women's bodies are portrayed in the media, advertising and television and both the violence women experience and diet culture. Sometimes it does feel like the only way to fix the problem is to tear everything down and start again. I don't think it will happen, but this book raises very interesting questions about misogyny, patriarchy and the everyday treatment of women. Every girl should read this book as a teenager. Five stars.

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