Mona Awad talks body image and latest novel in Ecunemical Center

(Photo by Brad Leuchte)

The English department welcomed author Mona Awad to read excerpts from her newest book, “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl,” as part of the Miriam Levine Reading Series on April 22 in the Ecumenical center.

Approximately 50 people gathered to hear Awad read two chapters from her new novel, “Your Biggest Fan” and “The Von Furstenberg and I,” which touched upon topics like body image, self-confidence.

The novel, which was published this year, is a collection of 13 different short stories told from varying perspectives focused around the central character, Elizabeth.  Most stories are told in first person, although some are told by other characters’ points of view.

Awad described her series as “all stories of small moments of tension.” She went on to explain the intention of this work was to “explore how that feeling of discomfort in your own skin can affect the way you exist in the world.”

The author said she became inspired to write this novel by a mental image of a woman in a dressing room struggling to find flattering clothing in such a publically private place.   

She said, “She’s been in my head for a long time. The first time I thought of her seriously, I imagined this woman in a changing room with a piece of clothing that wasn’t going to fit her, but she was in there anyway and there were people knocking on the door asking, ‘How are you doing?’ I knew that this woman saw herself as fat and I knew that was problematic. I wondered, where did she get this idea? Did it come from outside? Did it come from the people knocking on the door or did it come from inside?”

These dressing room scenes make several appearances in the text and readers become a part of that internal defeat.

Awad never defines who she deems “the fat girl” with a particular size or weight, which she claims was “a very intentional choice.” In doing this, she allows readers to create their own image of her character while also playing with the definition and perception of the word itself.

The word “fat” is a major focus in this novel. The author explained to the audience, “I chose [the word fat] because it’s got such a stigma attached to it and it’s so provocative. It’s a kind of branding and I wanted to trouble that, add layers to it, and explore where that comes from.”

The second chapter Awad read aloud, “The Von Furstenberg and I,” detailed the infamous dressing room scene that she said inspired the novel in the first place. Readers are with Elizabeth while she struggles to fit into an impossibly small – and expensive – dress. Awad described her character as being physically “trapped in the dress the same ways that I think body image can trap us and culture can trap us.”

Freshman Lauren Papandrea said, “I thought it was remarkable. I loved how she calmly read each passage. It just sucked you into the story and made you want to read more. Her imagery of the body was very intense and accurate. I could definitely relate, especially to the dressing room scene.”

Senior Tarell Morris considered Awad’s text “insightful into the mind of somebody dealing with body issues. It felt really personal and you could sense a deep layer of emotion in her writing.”