Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Weight of Temptation

The back cover of the University of Nebraska Press edition of Ana María Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (trans. Andrea G. Labinger, 2012), quotes reviews of the original Spanish that cite it as a critique of the cult of thinness, an Argentinian fat feminism. The summary of the book tries to equivocate on that, and it may be right to do so. For while Shua’s novel certainly expresses some agreement with certain principals of fat feminism—that some people have biological dispositions toward heaviness, that thinness is an abusive ideal—the agreement is somewhat to the side of what seems like the broader point. Because in the end Shua’s novel doesn’t seem that sympathetic with the fat either (except, perhaps, the children), seeming to make a much broader critique of an array of the ways the question of fatness and thinness is always a marker of class privilege, even when taking up the defense of the fat from the ideal of thinness.

The novel focuses on Marina Rubin, whose despair over her inability to stick to a diet and lose weight leads her to join The Reeds, a nightmarish camp that heaps abuse upon the campers as part of the weight-loss program. How abusive? Campers sign a form that allow the staff to take whatever measures necessary as long as a camper doesn’t decide to leave (which carries a stiff financial penalty keeping most from doing so), including having mouths wired shut, electroshock therapy, and, if the head doctor just happens to decide it would be a worthwhile lesson for everyone there, death. The adults are the lucky ones, though: they are there by choice, unlike the children at the camp next door sent there by parents.

Shua certainly has no love for the ideal of thinness that these people are trying to pursue, but the novel is less a dystopia than a satire. Dystopias, by nature, tend more toward an allegorical representation of present problems in order to evoke our horror, but Shua’s novel emphasizes that the events are an extension of present realities, and she evokes not so much horror as disdain. Before Marina enters the camp, she tries one last day of fasting. But quickly she allows herself to make minor concessions—first she decides water and other liquids are ok, then small bits of food, and by the end of the day she is gorging herself—and the experience of the camp is not a whole lot different: the camp is full of repeat visitors who put on the weight again as soon as they leave. The camp, like the fasting diet, involves a promise that drastic action will create immediate effects that will then be maintained by magically developing a moderate regular diet. Both end in a rebellion of gluttony.

Yet, while the book satirizes the ideal of thinness and the culture of weight loss as both unrealistic and unnecessary, it reminds us, persistently, that the whole question is mostly relevant to those well off enough to worry about fat vs. thin and the people from the lower classes they “sponsor” to help—but mostly to feel better about themselves. The sadistic doctor likes berating the campers with the fact that their presence there is itself a distraction from the reality that many around the globe are going hungry, and in the end the novel seems to give that idea more credence than anything else except, again, the way that children become another underclass victimized by their parents’ obsession. Thus Shua’s novel takes a familiar political critique and pushes it into a more unfamiliar territory, and this is what makes the novel so engaging. There are moments where it falters—out of the blue here and there a stale paragraph of dry factoids threatens the momentum—but its strengths make The Weight of Temptation well worth reading.

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