Revelation without contemplation: the problem with Navel Gazing

Anne H Putnam's memoir about obesity reviewed.

Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal
Anne H Putnam
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £12.99

The naturally svelte among you – for example, people of the New Statesman culture desk, with whom I would at some point like to have a quiet word about why I was given this book to review – will not know the fundamental truth about dieting. It is very, very boring. You wake up hungry, and instead of grabbing whatever’s to hand, you begin to have a long, bitter, endless internal argument about the difference between what you want to eat and what you should eat. This continues all day, as you alternately applaud yourself for eating only an apple at lunch and berate yourself for giving in to a mid-afternoon chocolate bar.

What you never have, as a dieter, is a casual relationship to food. Hey, it’s there. I might eat it. I might not. Every mouthful is conflicted: a source of immense pleasure and immense shame all at once.

If you have never experienced the boredom of dieting, Anne Putnam’s Navel Gazing can help, by re-creating that boredom in a handy portable “book” format. I understand that the title is supposed to be a cute reference to the author’s struggle with body image, but it’s also taken extremely literally. There are barely any characters other than the author and her stomach: Putnam’s dad and boyfriend occasionally poke their heads around the door, but otherwise it’s a one-woman-and-her-body show.

And what a body it is. At the start of the story, our heroine is a pudgy child struggling in a family of thin people. Only her father understands her, and together they go to cheap restaurants for FaDaBoTi – father-daughter bonding time – over enormous plates of Philly cheesesteaks and Häagen-Dazs ice cream. (Incidentally, the American slang is enough to make British readers feel nauseous all on its own. I just can’t respect someone who refers to farts as “boops” or writes: “I’m more than a little obsessed with asparagus, despite the fact I have the smelly pee gene like whoa.”)

Eventually, by the age of 17, Putnam is pushing 20 stone and her father has the perfect solution: they should both have gastric bypass surgery. This is dropped into the narrative like it’s no big deal, but – to me, at least – it was jaw-dropping. Dangerous major surgery that means you can never eat more than a few tablespoons of solids at a time, on pain of immediate expulsion of that food from whichever orifice is nearest? At 17?

To the surprise of precisely no one, Putnam’s surgery doesn’t immediately solve all of her personal esteem problems, as she becomes fixated instead on the loose folds of flesh left by losing seven stone in a year. So she decides to have a series of “tucks”, taking four inches of skin from her arms and ten from her abdomen. “I had also wanted the full body lift – a belt incision around the entire midsection, which pulls up the ass as well as tightening the tummy – but [the doctor] didn’t think I needed it.” The doctor did, however, chuck in a bit of liposuction.

After all this, Putnam at last begins to feel like a “normal” person, and even manages a relationship with some guy called Guy. Guy is introduced to the story as a sexually inept schmuck – a terrible kisser who gives her oral sex in a park in Rome on their first date. She describes the encounter to her friend Courtney thus: “It was . . . terrible. Courtney, seriously, it was so painful. I don’t know what he was doing but I’m, like, crippled. Maybe he used his teeth? I don’t know, but I was faking it so hard just to get him to stop.” I must pause here to note that Guy then becomes her long-term boyfriend. I find this incredible.

The bad-park-sex incident is indicative of this book’s dominant mode – revelation without contemplation. The experiences Putnam undergoes will be recognisable enough to any reader who has felt the judgemental eyes of the McDonald’s staff as she ostentatiously opts for the Diet Coke with that McNugget meal, like it makes a difference. But there is never any attempt to put them in a wider context.

Being fat is now a mundane experience – and in the west, within a few decades, it could be the default one. There are myriad political, feminist, social, cultural and biological implications of the obesity epidemic, all of which are entirely absent from Navel Gazing. Putnam’s conclusion is that she shouldn’t have assumed the surgery would solve all her problems. She is now “thinking about working on something else: changing my mind”. Bleurgh.

If you’re going to ignore everything outside your own story, then the story has to be exceptional, or exceptionally told. Sadly, Navel Gazing is neither.

An ice-cream van. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

Show Hide image

France to bulldoze Calais Jungle days after child refugees arrive in the UK

The camp houses thousands. 

Refugees and migrants in Calais began queuing up for buses this morning as the French authorities plan to demolish the "Jungle" camp.

But activists fear that, unless France significantly speeds up its asylum process, the displaced people will simply move to other camps along the northern French coast.

Meanwhile, the first children of Calais brought to the UK under the Dubs Amendment arrived at the weekend.

The camp known as the Jungle, in a wasteland by the port of Calais, is actually the latest manifestation in a series of camps established since 1999, when a French reception centre became too crowded.

However, it has swelled as a result of the refugee crisis, and attempts by residents to sneak onto lorries entering the Channel Tunnel have become daily occurences. The French authorities bulldozed part of it earlier this year.

Ahead of the latest demolishment, which is expected to happen on Tuesday, Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “In February this year over 50 per cent of the camp was demolished and yet six months later the camp is bigger than it has ever been before. 

"This is clear evidence that demolitions do not act as a deterrent.  The refugees come because they have no choice."

Future refugees will go to other camps with even less facilities, she warned.

The camp houses thousands of residents, but because of the authorities' unwillingness to legitimise it, there is no official presence. Instead, the residents must rely on volunteer aid services and have little means to stop intruders entering. 

Although conditions in the camp can be dire, residents have created a high street with basic tent shops and restaurants catering to the needs of its displaced population. Many of those in the camp say they are there because they hope to be reunited with family in Britain, or they have given up on ever being processed by the French authorities. 

After the UK government was pressurised into passing the Dubs Amendment, which provides sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees, some children from the camp have arrived in the UK. The first group is reportedly mostly girls from Eritrea, who will be processed at a UK immigration centre.

One of the MPs crucial to ensuring the Dubs Amendment delivered, Stella Creasy, said many more still needed help. 

Children reunited with their families under the Dublin Convention arrived in the UK last week, although their arrival was overshadowed by a debate over age checks.  

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.