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

India Bourke
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Pegida UK: the new face of Britain’s far-right movement, and how to challenge it

“Let them drink tea,” Birmingham tells Islamophobes.

“Spooky,” is how Pegida UK – the latest branch of a global, anti-Islam, protest group  chooses to describe its silent march on the outskirts of Birmingham. 

“Islam is Nazism incarnate,” announces its new leader, Paul Weston, to a few hundred soggy, sober, brolly-clad protesters waving “Trump is Right” placards. 


Pegida UK protestors march through the rain. Photos: India Bourke

Such numbers are a far cry from the tens of thousands who attended the movement’s inaugural rallies in Germany in 2014, in response to the perceived “Islamisation” of Europe. And they would be derisory if the cheers Weston receives from his supporters weren’t quite so chilling, nor echoed so far.

For Pegida UK is not alone. From Calais to Canberra, thousands marched in the name of the movement’s toxic platform of anti-immigration and anti-Islam last weekend. I went to see the Birmingham rally to find out why such a protest is taking place in Britain.

***

"Today is the first of many European wide demonstrations that will bring people together like never before,” Tommy Robinson, UK founder and ex-EDL leader, tells the assembled crowd. “It's planting the seed of something huge.”

Robinson hopes to exploit a gap within Britain’s far-right. Traditional groups are fractured: the British National Party was decimated at the last election, standing just eight of a previous 338 candidates. In its place, a swell of smaller, extremist bodies – from the Sigurd Legion to National Action – are pressing an ever more militant agenda. Pegida hopes to scale back the hooliganism in order to garner a wider appeal, but it shares these groups’ confrontation with Islam, and each may spur the other on.

“With Pegida we’re seeing the rise of a seminal new threat,” says Birmingham MP Liam Byrne. “In the rise of Isis and politicians like Donald Trump, you have forces determined to promote a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. Pegida is trying to surf that wave and make sure it crashes on our shores.

Opponents hope the movement will suffer the same implosion that felled the BNP and EDL, with both leaning  too much on their leaders’ personal brands. Robinson certainly seems as adolescent as ever: laughing as he swipes away a photo of a scantily-clad blonde on his iPhone screen to show me the international Pegida leadership’s “hidden” Facebook group.

Their new apparently "suited and booted" middle-class following is also less than wholehearted. One pin-striped IT executive I speak to seems embarrassed by the whole affair: “I’m just a cowardly family man who can’t see a solution being offered by mainstream politicians. I’d be sacked if they knew I was here,” he says, declining to give his name. 


A Pegida protestor poses in front of the main stage.

As long as such hesitation prevails, Pegida UK will struggle. Still, there’s a sense more needs to be done to ensure its demise.

Matching protest with counter-protest is the traditional leftwing response, and this weekend saw thousands of Pegida opponents take to the streets across Europe. Yet, in some cases, direct confrontation can risk drowning out – even alienating – the very voices it seeks to win over.

“Smash the facists into the sea,” instructed the Twitter account of the North London Antifa group ahead of last weekend’s far-right, anti-immigration protest in Dover, where injuries were sustained by demonstrators on both sides.

***

Instead, many now believe a better answer begins with that most British of pastimes: tea and a chat.

On the day before the Birmingam march, hundreds of the city’s cross-party leaders, religious figures and citizens gathered together at Birmingham Central Mosque to share their concerns over shortcake and jalebi.

“Groups like Pegida are parasites on the real concerns people have,” says John Page from the anti-extremism group Hope not Hate. “So we have to listen to these issues to close the cracks.

Initiatives around the city will attempt to take this approach, which sets a welcome lead not just for the UK, but Europe too.

The blanket smearing by groups like Pegida of Islam as a religion of sexist, homophobic Jihadi Johns places the burden of action disproportionately on the city’s Muslims. “It is our turn now to suffer these attacks,” says Mr Ali, Birmingham Central Mosque’s 42-year-old administrator. “It was the Irish, then the Jews, and now it is the time for us. But we are proud to be British Muslims and we will do what we can to defend this country.” 

A permanent visitors gallery, Visit-my-Mosque events, and publications that condemn Isis, are just some of the ways the community is challenging demonisation. It is even hosting a documentary crew from Channel 4 – a bold move in a city still reeling from Benefits Street.


Birmingham resident, Luke Holland, at a peaceful counter-protest in the city centre.

Mr Ali says: “The extreme right know nothing about Islam, but neither do many Muslim extremists.” The mosque is therefore in the process of formulating a “code of conduct”, making clear that hate speech of any kind is unacceptable.

"We have to help young people become the next Chamberlains and Cadburys and Lucases of this city," regardless of background, says Labour councillor Habib Rehman. Instead of letting them slip into despair and extremism of any kind, "we have to tell them: 'Yes You Khan!’”

Tea and talk is not the most dramatic response to Pegida’s claim it will have “100,000 decent people on the street” by the end of the year. But, in Birmingham at least – the city of Typhoo, where bhangra is as familiar as Bournville, and “No dogs, no Irish!” still sits heavy on the collective mind – tea, for now, means hope.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.