Sarai Walker, author of Dietland, is a true disruptor. Her devastatingly funny debut – a brutal, artful satire about feminism, food and ultraviolence – is set to change the way we live, from the moment we wake up in the morning and look in the bathroom mirror. The novel has just been optioned for a TV adaptation by Marti Noxon (her credits include everything from Mad Men to Buffy), but it’s definitely worth putting it at the top of your reading list before it becomes appointment viewing.
Dietland starts with a familiar premise. Its heroine, 29-year-old Plum, lives in Brooklyn, works as a ghost-writing agony aunt for a teen publication, and is desperate to lose weight – so desperate that she’s planning gastric band surgery. In a different writer’s hands, she might achieve the figure of her dreams, and find love. In Walker’s, she becomes involved with Jennifer, a feminist terrorist organisation who commit terrifyingly violent acts in order to destroy the male gaze. And I have to admit that I love the violence in a way that disturbs me. When I tell her that I find myself cheering for Jennifer and baying for blood, she exclaims, “I get so many emails from women about those Jennifer parts! Generally, I’m not afraid of violence in art, but [when writing] I did think ‘Gee, did that come from my mind?!’ As I did more research into violence against women and the objectification of women, I found those chapters became a release, and I got to a point where [writing] was a cathartic experience.”
Plum is no Amy Dunne, but as the novel develops she becomes more thrillingly complex, and perhaps sometimes less easy to like, as bravery, anger, intelligence and thoughtfulness are not qualities that we often willingly allow fictional women to possess. Walker had already spoken about how she wants to see “a fat actress” playing Plum on screen, because “fat characters who don't hate themselves” are not represented by fiction. But what about the visibility of less than likeable women? Walker explains: “TV is interesting because there are so many male anti heroes. We’re comfortable with men like that, but it pushes boundaries to have women who are not just unlikeable, but completely evil - to have more women who are just awful people.”
Walker calls for nuance too. “I think that we need to have a range of characters, there’s so much pressure on women to be pleasing and agreeable. Art reflects that discomfort and tension we have. But in terms of fiction, women do like likeable female characters, and women read more! We’re pressured to act in a certain way as women, so maybe women are uncomfortable about a woman who doesn’t feel like she has to please people.”
Walker describes herself as fat. She’s lived in London, Paris, and around the US (she’s currently based in New Mexico), so she’s experienced a range of different cultural attitudes to weight. The UK gets nul points. “When I was studying in London, I was the most conscious, the whole time, of my fat body. People would point it out to me in the street as if I didn’t know! I had more harassment there. I felt under attack as a fat person, in a way I hadn’t before. But fat women face abuse and marginalisation wherever they go.” However, it was in the UK that Walker discovered the fat acceptance movement. “When I was doing my PhD, I started going to Fat Studies conferences, and to go into a community where it was OK to be fat - I’ve never experienced anything like that in my entire life! It was transformative, it was amazing, and people came from all over the world! I was like ‘Why can’t I live at a conference?’"
As someone who has experienced fat phobia, Walker knows that healthy eating communities can be difficult to enter and be involved with for anyone who is not already slim
As someone who has experienced fat phobia, Walker knows that healthy eating communities can be difficult to enter and be involved with for anyone who is not already slim. “If you’re a fat person, you can go into a health food store and people will look at you as if to say ‘What are you doing here?’ The same thing can happen to people at gyms. Fat people will do exercise and people will laugh at them – the same people who are telling fat people to do exercise to lose weight.”
Dietland acknowledges that diets are sold to women as a fantasy package, but Walker sees a dark side to this. “I think the fantasy is destructive. Some people do lose weight, but it doesn’t happen for most people. I’ve read about women who were treated differently after their weight loss surgery, and felt deeply sad about the fact that people preferred them thin. In the book, Plum says that an advantage of being fat is that it helps her to see a person’s true character – she witnesses the most horrible side of humanity.”
In the book Plum, like many of us, starts to struggle with her body image as a child and embarks upon her first diet as a teenager. What would Walker tell her teen self about how to exist happily within her body? She answers, “There are two issues: how you feel about your body and how people treat you. Body acceptance is hard because you don’t just live in a vacuum. It takes a certain amount of inner strength to say ‘I don’t care, I’m fine with myself, those people have a problem and I’m not going to absorb their hate.’”
We talk about how much harder it is to be a teen now, when there are so many more spaces for your peers to hurt and judge you. But Walker thinks that we’ve seen progress too. “When I was a teenager, there was no internet, there was no fat acceptance movement, so if I’d told my teenage self about those things, I would have sounded like an alien. But I would have told her this is my body, it’s the only body that I’ll ever have, I’m in it until I die, don’t try to live in the future, live as I am now. I don’t know if I would have listened, but that’s the advice I would have given myself!”
After talking to Walker and reading her book, I don’t think I can feel the same way about my body ever again. I can’t keep apologising for taking up space. I’ve wasted so much energy and effort by listening to the people who tell women that they need to shrink themselves to fit in. Dietland has a digestible message – it’s time to stop feeling hungry, and start getting angry.