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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Why Prince Charles and Princess Anne are both wrong on GM foods

The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.

I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.

You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.

According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.

“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.

Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.

In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned -  leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.

Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.

In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.

Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.

In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.