This is a Review: Dietland, by Sarai Walker

January 12, 2016

All right, y'all. I'm gonna flex my reviewing muscles for the first time in, er, two and a half months to talk about the first book I finished in 2016. A TL;DR version of this review could be: I just really want to sit down with Sarai Walker and talk about feminist porn.

To start things off easy, here's the blurb from Goodreads:

"Plum Kettle does her best not to be noticed, because when you’re fat, to be noticed is to be judged. Or mocked. Or worse. With her job answering fan mail for a popular teen girls’ magazine, she is biding her time until her weight-loss surgery. Only then can her true life as a thin person finally begin.
Then, when a mysterious woman starts following her, Plum finds herself falling down a rabbit hole and into an underground community of women who live life on their own terms. ... At the same time, a dangerous guerrilla group called 'Jennifer.' begins to terrorize a world that mistreats women, and as Plum grapples with her personal struggles, she becomes entangled in a sinister plot. The consequences are explosive."

Plum's struggle with her body image and taking control of her life ("In my real life I would have more friends, and dinner parties and overnight guests, but my life wasn't real yet.") made me ache.  I won't say much more about this. As a woman who has never struggled significantly with managing her weight, I don't think it's my place. However, I think that all women can relate to that insidious social pressure that makes us want to eat less, work out more, and compare ourselves endlessly to other women who are doing "better" or "worse" than us. We're constantly under surveillance, not only by society but also by each other.

This tab-keeping goes for both our physical appearance and our sexuality, or "fuckability," as actress-turned-sociologist Marlowe Buchanan would say.

"'A fuckable woman doesn't take up space. Fuckable women are controlled.'"

At one point after moving in with the women's collective, Plum stumbles upon an underground room that literally broadcasts PornHub's greatest hits on the walls and ceilings 24/7. "Jennifer" murders a female porn star and calls for men to be objectified in the media just as much or else suffer the extremely violent consequences.

And here's where my brow quirked. Yes, the mainstream pornography industry can be unbelievably degrading to women. No, a woman's worth should not be determined by how desirable she is as a potential sex partner. How to use this information to create change, however, is less clear-cut. As freaking always, right?

I think it's important to acknowledge that women do enjoy sex and many also enjoy sexual imagery (i.e., porn), and I really didn't get that sense from Walker. How can women both embrace their sexuality and feel good about enjoying porn while also avoiding the disrespect that is so often inherent in sexual objectification? I think that some feminist porn sites are making strides at bridging the gap, but it's still an extremely open (and difficult) question, one that Dietland seemed to ignore entirely.

Walker also gives antidepressants extremely short shrift (essentially, Plum's life becomes a whole lot better after she kicks her habit). It's true that medication isn't for everyone and that many people stay on their regimens longer than they need to, but I will always roll my eyes at stories that peg antidepressants as an unnecessary evil.

On the whole, the writing left something to be desired, and I noticed this more as the plot became less engaging about two-thirds of the way through. Despite significant flaws, this was a bold first showing from Walker. She tackled subjects that many of us would like to continue sweeping under the rug, and I'll be curious to see what she decides to take on next.

I know oodles of you have already read Dietland. Let's hash some things out!

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