Mona Awad

13 Ways Of Looking At A Fat Girl

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13 Ways Of Looking At A Fat Girl Summary

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13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is Mona Awad’s 2016 debut novel. The title, a reference to the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” is an apt description of the book’s contents. Awad tells the story of overweight protagonist Elizabeth’s struggle with weight and body image through 13 telling vignettes of her life from adolescence to adulthood. Awad, who admits to struggling with her own body image in the past, used those experiences to inform her depiction of the fictional Elizabeth.

Each of the novel’s 13 chapters reads like a short story in its own right, a story that captures a slice of Elizabeth’s life at that point in time. The passage of time is marked by her changing name: first she goes by Lizzie, then Beth, then Elizabeth, then Liz.

The novel begins when the adolescent Elizabeth, or Lizzie, goes to McDonald’s with her friend Mel. Both girls are overweight. The two girls try to use grade-school methods of telling their futures, but they both come up short every time: the answers to their questions are always “no.” They notice a group of adult men staring at them. Mel becomes convinced they are staring at her body, at her breasts, and she is proud of the attention. She says they are also admiring Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is less enthused.

Mel declares they should offer the men sexual favors. Their fortune-telling game tells them, for the first time, “yes,” but the men are already leaving. Elizabeth recounts, from an older perspective, how someday Mel will continue to do anything for male attention, while Elizabeth will experience a series of disappointing sexual encounters with men.

The second chapter switches from first-person perspective to the second-person account of a boy named Rob. Rob, while drunk, decides to visit “the fat girl,” AKA Elizabeth, whom he is sure will be pleased to see him. He knows he can count on her to be at home. She lets him in, reminding him not to wake her mother. He describes her as “transformed” by the late hour into “something you could almost love for an hour.”

In Chapter 3, Elizabeth expresses envy over her thin friend, China, a Goth girl who moves through high school with all the confidence Elizabeth lacks. China agrees to do Elizabeth’s makeup for her in the bathroom, talking breezily about her successful dating life all the while. Elizabeth opens up about her own dating life, limited to online profiles. She is afraid to disclose her weight or send full-body pictures that would tell the story for her. She tries to emulate China’s fearlessness, but her weight always feels like a barrier.

A young Elizabeth dreams of shedding the weight, imagining a future in which she is thin and “beautiful” at last. She thinks, “I’ll be hungry and angry all my life, but I’ll also have a hell of a time.” But it isn’t easy to make this dubious goal a reality. Her story, jumping between her first-person narration and the perspectives of other characters, reveals personal moments of humiliation, as when a co-worker talks her into an act of oral sex in a cab. He is certain that his going down on her is something she will be grateful for: after all, she is fat. He is doing her a favor. She does not enjoy the sex, but fakes an orgasm so he will stop.
An adult Elizabeth feels overpowering envy for girls who seem to be “able” to eat the foods she denies herself. She eats salad while quietly hating a girl enjoying a scone laden with high-fat clotted cream. Her attempt to lose weight in earnest has begun because of her boyfriend, Tom, and the irrational fear that she might smother him if she turns over in bed. She reduces her weight by half and is proud to suddenly wear outfits she never would have attempted to put on as a larger woman. She takes Tom to meet her mother, showing off her weight loss at the same time. Her mother, who is obese, expresses deep pride that Elizabeth has lost weight, parading her newly-thin daughter in front of coworkers. In time, she marries Tom.

Her mother’s health, however, deteriorates. She begins to have trouble breathing and loses sensation in her legs, but refuses to engage in conversation about it with her daughter. She dies and Elizabeth is overcome by grief and guilt. Her weight loss regimen derails, and she enters a cycle of giving in to food temptations and then going back on a rigorous, punitive diet. When she diets, she tells herself it is for Tom.

But Tom becomes distant, saying he misses the woman he married. Elizabeth’s extreme weight loss has also taken a toll on her body, leaving behind rolls of loose skin and myriad stretch marks. She is ashamed of the way her body looks, still unable to see herself as beautiful or attractive, and she takes pains to hide her body and her pain from her husband. Then, when she learns that Tom has been watching porn featuring obese women alone in his office, their marriage finally falls apart.

Divorced and alone, Elizabeth temporarily moves into her mother’s apartment, preserving it the way her mother left it. She meets up with her old friend Mel and eventually moves into a new apartment complex overlooking a health club. She exercises rigorously, trying to rid herself of more weight, but finds she has plateaued. Losing motivation, she stops going.

One day, her apartment complex catches on fire. As she waits outside for the fire department, she sees another resident inside the gym, continuing to work out on an exercise bike despite the fire, smoke, and danger. As Elizabeth watches, she has an epiphany: weight loss is not the be-all and end-all of everything. Life itself is more important than exercise. She feels that she can change everything in her life, all the things that have gone wrong, by shifting her priorities and embracing moderation.

NPR, the Atlantic, Time Out New York, and The Globe and Mail all called 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl one of the best books of the year. Critics praised Awad’s “devastatingly thorough” portrait of the body image issues and disordered behaviors around diet and exercise that affect “almost all American women.”