Book Review: Thinner Than Thou, by Kit Reed
A novel about a dystopic semi-future where youth and thinness has displaced religion as the moral guide in the U.S. The primary "church of thin" is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate of products and clinics claiming to cure both fat and age. It has all the trappings of the modern church including a charismatic prophet of thin who preaches via infomercial and recruit converts willing to give up most of their worldly assets in the pursuit of the new norm of physical perfection. A cadre of mysterious nun-like "sisters" carry out secret operations to save those who refuse to conform, and chains of "scarf and barf" eateries offer a distinctly Roman outlet for suppressed urges. Of course any rigid society creates a fringe, and in this world there are two. The first is the complete fetishization of food and fat. There's the furious and serious national sport of eating competitions, and the pornographic "Jumbo Jigglers" clubs, where clients pay to watch fat people consume huge amounts of food. The second is the secret society of former religious leaders who have banded together, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist, to create underground railroads and cadres of believers.
The plot centers around an anorexic teenage girl who is put in the hands of the mysterious "Sisters" for rehabilitation. Her outraged brother and sister (twins) and boyfriend set out on a cross-country search to find her and rescue her from their hands. A secondary plot centers around a writer who commits himself to a weight-loss internment camp run by the prophet of the new church.
Let me start out with the caveat that I read a lot of classical literature. That tends to make me interpret modern novels harshly when it comes to voice and characters. That said, I was irritated at the campy-teen dialogue in the book, along the lines of "Like, totally! Way! No way! Dude! Awesome!" Then again, I don't know many teenagers, so they may actually only talk that way. It was just jarring. The dialogue, with the exception of a few speeches, was stilted and often awkward.
The setting is the real strength of the book. The author describes a world where religion is sacrificed to youth and beauty, because the worship of youth and the contemplation of death are seen as mutually exclusive. The elderly are a problem not in terms of support, but in terms of concealment so as to not remind the world of time's inevitable result. Details like these are brilliant.
My biggest struggle with the book is deciding whether it really glorifies eating disorders. The main character is anorexic, and while those with anorexia may be able to relate to the character's motives and history, the book sets her up as a heroine for maintaining her disorder against the efforts of her rehabilitators. Granted the rehabilitators' methods are medieval, but nothing in the novel really dispels the impression that the girl is anything but daring and independent for challenging the status quo and overcoming every power of the institution by refusing to eat. Any question of her recovery is forgotten amongst the rest of the (otherwise Spielberg-like) ending. Yes, it's a dystopic fantasy and there is an argument for realism, but I wouldn't want my (completely theoretical) teenage daughter to read the detailed instructions for hiding anorexic symptoms from friends and family.
On the other end of the ED spectrum in this book lies the strongest objection I have against the book; Every single fat person in the book is portrayed as a compulsive eater. There are detailed scenes of one-dimensional immobile straw fatties who weep at their inability to stop as they eat an entire roast pig and several entire cakes provided by fetishists. More detail is devoted to the description of pork fat dripping down a fat person's chin or the fat folds of a pink organza-wrapped immobile dehumanized fat person than is given to the development or description of any of the main characters. Fat characters in the novel frequently have to buy love, friendship and/or physical affection with food. The fantasy around the fetishization of fat and food is explained as the desire to let one's self "go" in an overcontrolled society, rather than a natural feature one can't really permanently change. They are also, to highlight one of my own pet peeves, described at least twice as having "such a pretty face."
Now that could be tongue-in-cheek, but the problem with tongue-in-cheek is that only those in on the joke will recognize it as such. The average person reading the book may gain some sympathy, but I doubt they will walk away with any fewer fat stereotypes. While the book does drive home awareness of the current unhealthy obsession with thin and possibly promote some awareness of eating disorders, I don't think it really does much to advance FA.