So, in this post I’m going to discuss Dietland, by Sarai Walker, and as part of this discussion I will be branching into discussion of feminism. . . Yes, you’re not hallucinating, I did say Feminism. But please bear with me . . . Prior to reading this book, I would never have termed myself a feminist. However, one of the major successes of Walker’s work lies in within her ability to question the prescribed societal norms we are all subject to.
The body, weight and society
Dietland explores the relationship between the female body and society, providing somewhat of a dismal picture. Plum, our protagonist, is a woman trapped; trapped not only by her body, but by the way society treats her as a result of it. Torn between her inner slim self, Alicia, and the reality of her ‘fat’ figure, Plum falls into the trap that many women, myself included, have and will fall into. In a society that continually enforces how you look, as being more important than who you are, it is far to easy to become so consumed with what you look like, that you forget who you are or how to live. As an individual, her character speaks to me, I’ve been slim and felt that I was fat, fat and felt thin and eventually gotten to a point whereby I don’t care what size I am. If I am happy then whose business is it? This concept of self-acceptance is key to the way in which the narrative progresses.
Plum lives a seemingly endless cycle of sleep, eat, work, repeat, which, for a lot of people, is indicative of their own experience of modern life. The modern world, for all its technological advancement, can leave an individual in a state of flux; neither connected or disconnected from the people, and therefore the world, surrounding them. This alone provides a difficult paradigm within which to exist, however, when an individual is already marginalized, how is said individual expected to function? As a person Plum is commoditized. Her occupation has her shadow writing for a teen magazine’s editor and working from home as her image doesn’t fit the ‘fashion’ magazine mold. This is enforced by the parallels drawn between Plum and Julia, a women’s rights activist, who resorts to bulimia maintain her cover within the fashion industry, under the guise of exposing them. Physically speaking, Plum’s image is not her own, it is the property of anyone around her. By which I mean that, due to her size, Plum is an accepted target for discrimination, ridicule and, in one instance, physical assault.
Within this narrative there is a definitive hierarchy between physical amount the ‘space’ you occupy and your ability to succeed, emotionally and professionally. As Plum occupies more ‘space’ than the ideal woman, this is utilised by others as a means of taking greater liberties regarding the ways in which she is treated. Although Dietland is firmly a work of fiction, it situates itself within a close resemblance of a capitalist society. The concept of capitalism is typified though the depictions of the diet, fashion and media industries, and establishes a direct correlation between capitalism, the diet and fashion industries and control. On a basic level, this is seen through the perpetuation of the drive for the unachievable, for physical perfection. It is also demonstrated, more subtly, through the continual under-current of exclusion. Plum cannot shop at just any store, eat or be seen in public, even look for love without feeling marginalised. Everything in her life that is systemically situated beyond her reach, Plum firmly believes she could access if she lost weight. Enter Verena . . . the New Baptist Plan and a makeover.
If this is Feminism, then I am a feminist . . .maybe?
Before I contemplate anything under the heading of feminism, I find myself questioning what the term means. As with anything within our media-centric, capitalist society, we are fed daily with innumerable contrived images. Forgive me, but I have to admit my preconceptions of feminism did seem to lean towards the chauvinistic, and highly stereotypical, depiction of a group of anarchistic, butch lesbians, with hairy legs and pits, in Birkenstocks. It is for this reason that I titled this piece very deliberately. The F*** Word is supposedly taboo, but in contemporary culture, feminism is depicted as less socially acceptable that using that particular swear word. This takes me back to studying the Fin de Siècle and depictions of the New Woman or Suffragette; women who were often ridiculed and depicted to be deficient or masculine for wanting independence or the right to vote.
Both feminists and lesbians alike are still subject to much abuse and de-feminization, just for being themselves. I cannot comment upon what it is like to live under said scrutiny, but personally, I believe that every individual has the right to treated with respect. Sadly, women’s rights and gender inequality are sadly still major issues in this world. It has to be said that, under a patriarchal societal structure, these issues do not and will not take prominence, and, therefore, will remain unaddressed. Just as there are laws in place against racial and gender discrimination, within the workplace, there are also examples, for the lack of a better phrase, of ‘token’ employment. By which, I refer to employers having individuals on the payroll to provide an example of diversity, whether it be gender, race or age. Plum is a ‘token’ employee; too fat to be seen working within the fashion media, but more intelligent than her boss and necessary to maintaining the editor’s status and image.
Walker addresses the preconceptions of feminism and capitalism through the juxtaposition of the depictions of Calliope House, and its residents, and the ‘terrorist’ group Jennifer. There is an air of distrust within the novel surrounding the motivations or intentions of the physically present feminist group, a tension which is only heightened when the unknown Jennifer comes into play. The character of Verena instantly provides a direct contradiction to the negative associations of feminism. As heiress to her late mother’s, amoral, diet industry fortune, Verena uses her time and money to help women empower other women, rather than perpetuating the weight/diet/control paradigm that accompanies social inclusion. It is this desire to help that permits Verena to aid Plum in the reclamation of her identity and self-worth.
Arguably, the most poignant questioning of feminism comes from the actions of the ‘terrorist’ group Jennifer. I use the term ‘terrorist’ loosely here, as the term forms part of Walker’s interrogation the concept of prefixed meaning. Jennifer’s actions, on some levels are benign and comedic; as demonstrated by the reversing of nudity/exposure of women in the media and the uncomfortable response of populace to images of scantily clad men left, right and centre. In this instance ‘terrorist’ seems somewhat of an exaggeration yet Jennifer is also responsible for the abduction and murder of numerous, alleged, rapists. With every crime perpetrated by Jennifer we are given a double dose of horror, firstly the actual incidents themselves, secondly, and more importantly, the motivations behind the acts.
Jennifer is revealed to be a group of women, three of which are highly regarded military personnel, who initially take action in response to, what they perceive as, the failures of the American justice system. In response to being raped by a group of men, Soledad’s daughter, Luz, commits suicide. In the wake of this tragic loss, two of the group of men responsible, for what happened to Luz, disappear. It later comes to light, that said individuals have been abducted, murdered, their video confessions released onto the internet. It is this heinous crime which provides the catalyst for the formation of Jennifer and the name becomes synonymous with a somewhat anarchistic depiction of feminism.
The real source of fear, however, comes not from the violent actions of the group but, from the way in which wider society embraces the concept of violent revolt. Is society really any worse for the removal of the rapists, abusers and, in some cases, criminals? To a limited extent, a degree of sympathy can be felt towards the causes pursued by Jennifer. Who can honestly say that, at some point in their lives, they haven’t felt that the judicial system in their country doesn’t provide adequate punishment for the perpetrators of crimes? Ladies, do you really feel that society holds men and women to equal standards? Taken abstractly, these questions are innocuous and can make for an interesting theoretical or philosophical debate. However, when questions of justice and perception are infused with moral ambiguity they are, most definitely, problematic.
Countering this depiction of an increasingly violent feminist revolt are the residents of Calliope House. They do not mask their identities, or seek mass media coverage, their focus of is upon the concept of the empowerment of all women. Verena’s inherited fortune is something which perturbs her and places her firmly within the realms of ‘other’ to the norm. Unlike the normative capitalist framework, Verena doesn’t subscribe to the capitalist moral amnesia, which usually accompanies the corporate sensibility that money is more important than anything else, in order to achieve personal advancement. For her, inheriting a fortune gleaned off the back of the misery of others is something to fight against not perpetuate. This is evidenced in the novel through the way in which, upon obtaining the relevant power, she instantly dissolves the ‘Baptist Plan’; which was essentially a starvation diet served with a convincing, yet unsustainable life-style rhetoric.
It is the narrative of acceptance and inclusion which separates Calliope House from the rest of the general populace. Walker impresses the importance of accepting oneself as well as others around you. It also re-addresses what the preconceptions of beauty are and how preconception is used as a method of control. Sana, for example, has extensive scaring on her face as the result of sustaining severe burns, where, as she longer conforms to societal ideals she becomes subject of the darker side of the human persona. By which I mean, that, as she will never fit within the confines of whatever it means to be normal, her scar marks her as an acceptable target, as weak, when in fact it makes her precisely the opposite. Sana, as qualified social worker, finds her strength in fighting to establish a clinic for teenage girls, to support them through their own personal difficulties, in the wake of the support she needed as a girl. This story of abjection and reconnection, to the self and to purpose, is reflected within each of the women from Calliope.
It is this concept of empowerment that provides my own questioning of feminism. If wanting to succeed in life, whilst trying to support others, or even just being kind to other women, is feminist, then I am feminist. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t subscribe to the burn your bra, body hair, all men are monsters, feminist associations, I am quite happy to allow my husband to open door or heaven forbid, carry things for me, but there is more to feminism that the prescribed images the media churns out, particularly when it aids them to do so. In my opinion, the key feminist attitude to take away from Dietland, is that if you can learn to live with yourself and accept yourself for who you are, then you have the power to break free from feeling the need to be or act a certain way. All women, and men for that matter, big or small, skinny or ‘fat’, deserve to be treated as equals. Yes, this doesn’t automatically happen for a lot of people but if you automatically accept preconceptions as fact you will perpetuate the cycle. Don’t be like Plum, don’t float through life wishing too be someone else and wait for this idealized persona to emerge. Life is now. Live it.
Phewww . . . sorry this is so long. Thank you if you have taken the time to read this! I hope you like what you have read. Apologies in advance if there are any typos. I love to know what you think, so please comment away or email me at:
Thanks 🙂 Claire
Dietland, by Sarai Walker was first published in 2015 by Atlantic Books Ltd.
Paperback ISBN: 9781782399292
E-Book ISBN: 9781782399308
This book and its contented belong to © Sarai Walker, 2015.