Sarai Walker’s “Dietland” fit perfectly with the Oklahoma Center for Humanities’ theme for the year: food. Walker’s book follows Plum Kettle, a fat woman aching to be thin who becomes embroiled in an underground community of women who reject the pressure to be thin. The book has been described as a cross between “Fight Club” and a feminist/fat positive manifesto. On March 9, Walker visited campus to discuss the ideas surrounding her book, namely the pressure to be thin. Dr. Jan Wilson, Associate Professor of History and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, invited Walker, who has given similar talks at various festivals and other events.
Walker described the process of writing “Dietland” as a “long tortured history of getting here.” One of the sparks for the novel was the movie “Fight Club.” “It’s got a lot of problems — I’m not endorsing the whole thing, but this idea of angry, punk defiant spirit appealed to me, and I was thinking about men as gendered beings and about their bodies,” Walker said. She wondered if a similar story could exist for women, but, at the time, had no idea the main character would be a fat woman.
Then, in graduate school, she wrote a short story about a fat woman working in a teen fashion magazine, a reflection of her life experiences. According to Walker, “it was very difficult to write and personal. I’d never written anything like that before. But it had this great energy, and I realized it could be the heart of the novel.”
Her novel merged the two ideas together. “On the one hand it’s this woman’s story about relationships, but it’s also the type of story more associated with men: violence and aggression,” she explained. With this aggression, she wanted to look at different forms of resistance. “There’s individual resistance, which Plum learns; the women at the Calliope house, the more traditional form of activism and collective resistance and then there’s Jennifer, this violent resistance.”
The Jennifer form of resistance was important to Walker, who “wanted to look at what violent resistance would look like in feminism, because we never have really seen that.”
“I wanted to see what would that be like, what would they do, who would they target,” Walker said, “I think Jennifer was more influenced by stories about men, like there’s Thelma and Louise, but that’s kind of a dated movie. There aren’t a lot of stories like that. Men get a lot more.” At one part of the novel, the vigilante group “Jennifer” tosses two rapists off an overpass on the highway, while in another, they scalp a hostage to demand his sister, a newspaper mogul, remove lewd images from the newsstands.
When writing the novel, Walker said she liked all the forms of resistance in their own way. Walker said “Jennifer’s story was disturbing to write, then I got numb to it … I always get so surprised when people are shocked. So in some ways it was fun, exhilarating to write, in other ways it was hard to write, to have these violent parts. Because it was even more violent but I toned it down … I loved the women of Calliope house.”
Readers connected to Plum’s character, but Walker said many stopped liking her as the book went on, as Plum became more bold and activist, sometimes even violent. Walker noted “they liked her more when she’s miserable. She becomes liberated and they don’t like her anymore because she’s too abrasive.”
According to Walker, “the idea of likability of female characters in literature is very loaded, and it does mirror the pressure women face to be agreeable in everyday life. So I think anytime any woman has any sort of complexity, she’s not likeable anymore.” In her own work and others, Walker said she likes characters who are unlikable.
Walker wrote “Dietland” while working on her PhD in English with a focus on feminism and the body, so both projects fed into each other. Her work was also influenced by her attendance at fat studies conferences. “It’s the kind of thing you have to stumble upon, because you don’t know it exists. It is more online nowadays. When I was younger, we didn’t even have the web; I think the internet and social media have enabled these ideas to spread, because the mainstream media is not really going to pay attention to it,” she said.
The fat positive movement emphasizes individual change over societal change, because “individual change is possible … we can’t force society to change, but we can change our own view of how we respond to society.” The movement hopes to “change our own personal way of thinking and then try to change society as much as we can.”
However, Walker acknowledged “society’s not going to change for a very very long time, and we have to live our lives now.” While she realized ““it’s not fair to put stress on individual people, saying ‘well I live in a fat hating culture, I’m just going to stand up to it,’ … you have to try to change your own personal response to it, for your own well-being.”
Since “Dietland,” Walker said there have been a few similar novels, including Lindy West’s “Shrill.” While “there have always been books about fat characters,” Walker said, “the way they deal with it isn’t really fat positive.” In many novels, the fat characters are either awful people or trying to lose weight and have a life. “There are novels with fat characters, the question is are they fat positive,” she noted. “There aren’t many of that kind of thing so I think that’s one of the things “Dietland” did that we don’t see very much.”
Trying to publish “Dietland” was difficult, as “it’s not a traditional women’s novel … The publishing industry generally resists things like that.” She acknowledged “there could be some great novels out there that aren’t getting through because of that. I was lucky because I got an agent. It’s hard when you want to write a story about women that’s not a traditional story — it’s not easy to get it published.”
After the publication, Walker received mixed responses. “There’s people who are eager for this message. It can be very life-changing,” she said. Walker received emails saying “‘I’ve worn dark colors all my life and now I wear bright colors; I threw out my scale,’ but then you get the real haters, most people who haven’t read the book, just seen interviews with me in the media, and just respond with their fat-shaming, ‘oh I hope you die’ and things like that.” Her policy is not to engage such people, believing it gives them the attention they want, although she keeps the emails in case something happens to her.
Currently, Walker is working on another book, which will be very different from “Dietland.” She has, however, started thinking about the novel again, as there’s a TV show being made about it. Walker will be a consultant to the production and plans to work on it in Los Angeles for a few months.
In general, Walker sees her novel as “something that we don’t see very often. Not only is it fat positive, it’s women acting in ways they aren’t supposed to behave. Those are the types of books men get.” Walker found it “interesting to subvert those traditional narratives, subvert reader’s expectations.”
“Particularly if you’re a women thinking about ideas about the body, it can give a voice that isn’t really given a voice, at least in literature,” she said. “I think that it fills a void in some way.”
Walker acknowledged the book might be particularly impactful for college students. As an RA during her PhD years, Walker noticed ”there are so many problems with body image and dieting and eating disorders among the college population. It’s a hotbed for that.” While she’s “sure it reflects society in general,” she realized college was a “stressful environment, as you’re living away from home for first time. High school can be that way as well, but I do feel that it could be a little bit worse.”
She remarked that she hated the term “Freshman 15” because it reflects our culture of “always trying to be obsessed with weight and turning it into a problem. It’s this lens we have to view everything through, which I don’t think is healthy or productive.”
Walker viewed diet companies’ recent attempts to be more accepting of different body sizes with cynicism. “Dieting is eating a restricted amount of calories, so it’s giving your body less than it needs. So to me, that’s not really a body positive thing.”
“I think it’s just a cynical ploy,” she said, noting that cosmetic companies promote body positivity for marketing as well. On the other hand, the movement “healthy at any size” is truly body positive according to Walker. “It’s about healthy eating and exercise but doesn’t focus on weight … There’s lot of unhealthy thin people and healthy fat people. Thinking about health, disconnected to weight, is much better for your mental health and wellbeing.”