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

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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.