Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Cherie Bennett - Life in the Fat Lane

Lara Ardeche, a voice in my head said to me, you are not a quitter. You can change this. And you don't need anyone's help. All you have to do is stop eating. Totally. No matter how hungry you get, or how bad that is, it can't be as bad as this is.

Yes. That was what I would do. I'd just stop eating.

One of two things would happen.

I would get thin again. Or I would die.

Either way I would win. - Life in the Fat Lane description from back of book, 1998 edition.

I love a good eating disorder (ED from here on out) story. Let's get that fact out of the way first. I find the psychology of them endlessly fascinating and one day, I hope to work with and help those that suffer from EDs.

Perhaps my more-than-casual interest in EDs colored my perception of this novel too strongly. Maybe author, Cherie Bennett, did not intend to address EDs at all, though much of the story centers around typical disordered thoughts and some characters are governed by what is usually looked at as disordered behavior, though Bennett refrains from using any specific terms (purging, binging, etc.) to refer to Lara's behavior. This story is not strictly about an ED, but it is firmly entrenched in that world. What Bennett did intend to do is a mystery to me.

Beauty queen and conveniently-named (for a completely unimaginative fat joke in the novel's latter half), Lara Ardeche (pronounced Ard-ash, can you see it coming?!?), is the straight-A, perfectionist, popular girl with parents who have no problems obsessing about her weight and eating habits over the dinner table. That's about 3 precursors for an ED right there. I'm willing to give Bennett one point for correct information, but I'm about to take away a million points for negligence.

Chapter numbers are, instead of chronological, beginning from one, Lara's weight measurements as they change through the book. Convenient for the reader, sure, so you don't have to do math or flip back chapters to add up Lara's weight and the plot points are all centered around weight, so the subject matter changes with each weight change. On the other hand, how gross and patronizing, to completely reduce this character to her weight and size, offering minimal plot with plateaus.

Also, when Lara is deemed to be at her perfect weight in the beginning of the novel, it gives someone who might tend toward disorder a goal weight to attain. Numbers are known to be triggering for those who are suffering with an ED. Although anyone with an ED picking up a book with this title is probably looking for trouble, a good bit of fear-based "thinspiration" and Bennett provides plenty of it.

Lara is under an insane amount of pressure from almost every source. Her parents have a rocky, seemingly loveless marriage, her friends are superficial and make derogatory comments about Lara's less popular plus-sized best friend to her face, her boyfriend is deemed unsatisfactory though she does love him, she has beauty pageant demands and she has self-imposed high academic standards. When she gains a little bit of weight, the pressure mounts and her barely-existent self-confidence falters until everything threatens to give way. Then does, when she continues gaining weight. Her grades take a dive, her parents relationship fractures, her friends turn on her, she can't even diet "right" (she abstains from eating during the day and sneaks food at night), and continues to gain weight to the point of hospitalization.

Being the person I am, I analyzed the clues given: Lara diets and "cheats" when failing to succeed at adhering to impossible restrictions, she works out to extremes. This has ED written all over it. Even when her weight gain was minimal, her mother provided immediate scrutiny. God. Her mother. What a piece of work. She set a terrible example, smoking and restricting her own eating for fear of weight gain and in the interest of keeping her man. All this set up to tell a pretty good story of what can happen when a perfect storm of pressure breaks down the spirit and body of a seemingly perfect girl.

But no.

I was debating revealing the next detail, but the following fact can be found on the back of another 1998 edition, so it's technically not a spoiler: it turns out that Lara develops a FICTIONAL metabolic disorder that causes her to gain weight, regardless of calorie intake.

I read the acknowledgments, where Bennett thanked someone for medical references, so I assume the disorder is based on something real. That's fine. The fact is that the doctors tell her that she's retaining insane amounts of water, her body is highly efficient, the less you feed it, the more "efficient" her body could get, leading to more weight gain.

Seriously? I mean, wouldn't she at least have some kidney problems or something?

Whatever. She gets "fat" (I won't reveal her weight at either end of the scale but she and everyone else calls her this), word spreads in her hometown that it is out of her control and she gets some pity, even though her old superficial asshole friends turn against her.

I understand the appeal of using an outside force as the controlling factor - completely governing the weight she will be. Most bodies have a set-point at which they will return with normal eating habits, which is out of anyone's control.

Why, then, was that not enough to be a compelling story? Looking at how a "perfect" girl dealt with weight gain -- flying in the face of what everyone around her seemed to judge about her -- would have made for an empowering story, had Lara ever for one second stopped hating her new body.

No. Life in the Fat Lane supplied the perfect bogeyman, an unstoppable force onto which Lara could place the blame for her weight and could safely hate her body without hating herself...though she kind of did that too.

After Lara's family moves, she loses all her social capital as well as the pity she'd gained at her old school. Lara's new school was a horror show of fat-hating stigma (which, to be fair, a lot of high schools probably are for most people that fail to fall into a narrow ideal) and everyone else's disdain for her was only compounded by her own self-loathing.

Even as she allowed herself to start a new life in a new town, deigned to make friends with the other outcasts (she was horrified that they gravitated toward her, as if she was one of them) and found a way to enjoy a talent that didn't rely on her beauty -- she never seemed to stop hating herself. What she went through didn't make her change her opinion of anyone of size who were surely to blame for their own weight problems, except, OMG, some of them can apparently dress themselves and still have style! And sometimes they can find guys that like them, if they're blind or probably still want them to lose weight.

For fucking real?

The unnecessary disease, on top of the incessant weight bashing made for an unbelievable, yet still entirely depressing read. I cannot recommend this book for anyone and can only view it as a strong example of what not to do. Don't pull explanations out of thin air. Don't supply hate directed at a character (and a large segment of the population) that never gets resolved unless you want your characters irredeemable. And definitely, do not feed on the fears of those with actual diseases and/or endorse those behaviors, giving them perfect justification for disordered reasoning without attempting to frame any of that as such.

Sensationalistic, irresponsible bullshit.

1 comment:

Lady Diazepam said...

Cannot believe the stupidity of this review. Sounds like it was written by a fat person with a grudge against the world.
BTW, I'm a professional writer.