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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It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

It feeds into the myth that when it comes to wiping bottoms and drying tears, fathers are amateurs while mothers are naturals.

It suggests that childcare remains the sole responsibility of mothers, who should therefore be grateful should any man bother to “help them out”.

It’s rare to see mothers described as “babysitting” their own children. On the contrary, one is either “being a mother” – doing what mothers do, without receiving any particular recognition for it – or one is guilty of neglect.

To that extent, I’m with the dads. I don’t want them to be seen as mere babysitters any more than you do. And yet there’s something about the testimonies of some of the “babysitting” dads of reddit that I can’t help but find annoying. Sure, their parenting efforts aren’t always appreciated – but do they have to be quite so self-pitying about it?

Take this complaint appearing in the “Dads don’t babysit” thread, for instance:

“Watch comedy shows about families. Dad is always the bumbling but loveable fool, mom is the strict, way too good looking, poor woman who has to put up with all of this.”

Poor men. Poor, poor men. And lucky, lucky women for being the beneficiaries of gender stereotypes that would appear not to bear any resemblance whatsoever to real life.

Except that’s not quite true. While the number of stay-at-home fathers in the UK has risen, it remains relatively low at 16 per cent of all stay-at-home parents. In heterosexual couples where both parents are in paid employment, women continue to take on the majority of household tasks and childcare responsibilities. While carework is seen as the key reason why mothers earn less than childfree women, men with children earn more than men without.

Moreover, there is evidence that men tend to cherrypick when it comes to the type of childcare they are willing to perform. Kicking a ball about in the park is one thing; taking time off work to look after a sick child is quite another.

Of course, when I say “men” I mean #notallmen. But enough men to make it somewhat galling when “fathers being seen as mere babysitters” is presented as an injustice not just to women, but to men.

The trouble is, when it comes to how children are cared for, many fathers do behave more like babysitters. They get to do the fun tasks; they don’t end up out-of-pocket; they’re not expected to stick around to clear up afterwards. Not all men are like this, but is it really fair to pretend that current divisions of labour are more equitable than they really are?

This is a common dilemma for feminists when dealing with gender. Do we let language run ahead of reality on the basis that this in itself will change expectations of what should be, creating a virtuous circle of cause and effect?

Or do we assume, as I tend to, that any linguistic manoeuvre suggesting that equality has already been achieved will be used to suggest that women have nothing left to fight for?

After all, we’ve already been told, for years on end, that “perhaps the pendulum has swung too far”. Alas, it’s utter nonsense. The “pendulum” remains one massive swinging dick, swooping between boorish laddism on one side and performative new man-ism on the other. Women don’t even get a look-in.

It’s easier to be frustrated at gender stereotypes than it is to remember why they exist in the first place. Inequality between men and women is so deeply ingrained – and so pathetically mundane – that we forget beliefs about men and women’s “essential” selves have anything to do with it.

We treat the imposition of gender roles as equally unfair on both men and women, failing to register that it is through these assumed roles that men have acquired the vast majority of the world’s wealth and resources. When men suffer due to gender, it is a side-effect; when women suffer, that’s because it’s the whole sodding point.

Thus a woman trying to gain acceptance while performing what is traditionally seen as a “man’s” role is not in the same position as a man performing a “woman’s” role. The woman will eventually crash into the glass ceiling, while the man may well find himself on board the glass escalator instead.

From a male perspective, this particular privilege is experienced as a mixed blessing. To their credit, some commenters on the reddit thread note how the criteria for being a wonderful dad can end up the same as those for being a terrible mother:

“When my kids were little I’d take them to the playground and chase them around a little bit then settle in on a bench and look at my phone while they played. I can’t count the number of times people walked up to me while I was essentially just airing out my kids, and told me that I was a wonderful father. Meanwhile when my wife took them to the playground, when she sat on a bench and talked with her friends, people would tsk tsk her for not attending to our kids 100% of the time.”

The belief that men are not natural carers heightens the value of the caring work they do, whereas the belief that women are not natural, say, artists or politicians leads to them having to work several times as hard to be taken seriously. In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

We all deserve to be recognised for the roles we perform. Nonetheless, there’s a difficult balance to be made between reflecting the ways things are and the way they should be. When it comes to shared parenting, I’d like to assume that we all want the same thing. But if that were the case, devoted dads, surely we’d already have it by now? And since we haven’t yet been there and done that, is it really time to be getting the t-shirt?

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