Friday, July 31, 2015

Cupcake, Schmupcake

It looked innocent enough: a book with a cupcake on the cover.

I grabbed Sarai Walker's Dietland from the shelf almost as an afterthought with the rest of my library books. It's summertime; I could go for a nice, light and breezy cupcake book to distract me for a few hours.

Maybe I should have looked more closely at that cover art. The gritty, grainy imagery. And not to mention the grenade top on that cupcake and the cover blurb by novelist Alice Sebold ("A call to arms. Devious. Subervsive. Delightful.").

Books with cupcakes on them tend to have a few things in common: light romance, self-acceptance, a heroine who is not the ideal height, weight, beauty profile of society at large. A woman who turns to food for comfort. Who finds redemption and acceptance through dieting. Cupcake books are a little serving of sweet acceptance, encouragement that you too can find happiness and love.

But this was no light, fluffy cupcake of a romance novel. Nope, Dietland is a scathing, almost satirical read that spins pop culture to make its point.

I was expecting protagonist Alicia "Plum" Kettle to be the sterotypical overweight princess in search of perfection and love, who comes through a transformation from self-loathing to self-acceptance and self-actualization in the arms of a prince who sees beyond her visible "flaws" to her true, sweet and valuable soul, which in turn makes her want to better herself by not soothing her feels with all the cupcakes.

If you are looking for that book? This is not the book for you.

In Dietland, Plum is the ghostwriter of an online advice column for a teen beauty magazine. She has lived a life on the fringe, pushed there by events both out of and within her control. She's tried crash diets and learned at an early age that her weight and her worth are inextricably linked. She is planning her life—that thing that she'll have after she goes through surgery to attain perfection—and just survives in the present, counting down the days until her real life can begin.

Plum unexpectedly falls through the looking glass into another dimension where women stage a hostile takeover of life. It's a wholly satisfying, at times uncomfortable read that made me question how easily I accept misogyny as just a part of modern life. How easily I accept the thought that feminism—literally, believing that women and men are human equals and deserve to be treated thusly so—is a militant, counter-culture smack in the face of society.

The name of this counter-culture revolution is Jennifer. The most popular girls name of Generation X, the revolution takes the anger, the disenfranchisement of a generation of women and gives it power. Or shows it the power it already had. Yes, it's taken to a point possibly too far. There is a difference between terrorism and militant, but it's a fine line. At one point in the book, where characters are discussing the Jennifer movement as terrorism, a character states: "The fear of men is ingrained in us from girlhood. Isn't that a form of terrorism?"

This is a revenge fantasy for women everywhere who have felt the sting of being less than. 

In the course of the narrative, Plum does go through a transformation... but not in the way I anticipated. To say anymore would be tres spoilery, but it's a reminder that sometimes transformations aren't all rainbows and happiness... sometimes they're gritty and painful and embarrassing and make you think of scenes from other books (like A Clockwork Orange, for instance). Sometimes transformations are something you have to get through to get over.

I relate to Plum. As a woman outside of society's beauty ideal of thinness myself, I get how hard it can be. How a person can feel like a target in "normal size" clothing stores. It can be hard to feel like you're being over-scrutinized. It can be hard to feel like people look at you and only see "fat." How hard it is to stand by a friend who is thin and hear her bemoan how fat she is and then wonder what she must see when she looks at you if she sees herself as fat. Because fat=worthless, and that's what is ingrained in my brain, in the brains of women like Plum, who struggle and strive to be thin, and therefore, worthy.

The world that Plum discovers in her transformation is a world of hard-fought self-acceptance. Of love and support. Of living because life isn't what happens to you, it's how you respond to what happens. And though the transformation isn't easy, she owns it.

She's a hero for a new cupcake story.

I found Dietland at my local library. This is not a sponsored review.

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