Jessie Carty’s Fat Girl, a chapbook of poems about body, food, and desire, is by equal measures sweet* and devastating. Deceptively simple free verse poems, written mostly in small stanzas of four lines, create a frame in which the body’s perceived excesses are judged, autopsied, and in the book’s kindest moments, accepted. The resulting work is deeply touching*
Carty meshes bravery and awkwardness beautifully. She deftly handles the complex task of allowing the reader to both see how the speaker sees herself and how she is seen, by a shallow and fat-fearing culture. The poem “Fat Girl at the Drugstore,” one of my favorites, shows our heroine walking the aisles of a walgreens or rite-aid, perusing lean cuisines, selecting a diet soda and:
trying to find
a particular price point
which makes it okay
for a fat girl
to buy condoms
In other poems, too, she discusses the sexualization of the fat body: how the girl becomes an object. “Fat Girl at the OBGYN” draws on the perceived connection between fat bodies and a lack of willpower or restraint: the day after the speaker starts her period,
Mom told the doctor I needed the pill.
She was sure my love
of Twinkies would translate
to my fat thighs opening at any touch.
The girl-body, in these poems, is struggling to be a subject when the culture, the family, the doctor want to make her into an object. Without theorizing or drawing attention to it, Carty uses anecdotes to illustrate and critiques the split between being sexual (subjective feelings and desires) and being sexualized (perceived as being sexual by/for someone else). She gives us both the joy of the body and the fear of being seen.
I think here of Nancy Upton, the Dallas woman who entered American Apparel’s “Next Big Thing” plus size model contest, and won the popular vote. Upton’s photos use classic pinup poses and sexy faces along with food to critique the Othering of fat bodies and the condescending tone of American Apparel’s trying to get the fat girls to join the party (in this case, being ranked and judged by online viewers). Upton was not offered a position of being a ‘brand ambassador’ and received a curt letter from the clothing manufacturer accusing her of not being beautiful ‘inside and out.’ Later, after an uproar on the internet, she was invited to AA Headquarters. (photos and the story of her trip to Los Angeles on her blog)
“1990s Fat Girl” writes pop culture, too, on the body, Carty’s speaker in black stirrup pants and a Bon Jovi t-shirt:
she was dressed
like everyone else,
but then again she wasn’t.
Upton’s photos, like Carty’s poems, critiques the notion that fat women shouldn’t be seen eating, that enjoying food is only for the skinny, the perceived-to-be-“healthy weight,” those whose bodies supposedly indicate that they can practice restraint. The poems in Fat Girl are the very picture of restraint, Carty’s voice measured and thoughtful, as she builds quietly to an always-perfect last line.
The pleasure of reading Carty’s poems is not the wordy joy of analysis. Rather, I return to these poems again and again because they are smart in a way that does not draw attention to themselves. Carty asks all my favorite questions about the body: where am I, inside the body, (as in “Cracked”)? What does it mean to desire, but also, to want to be wanted? To be a feminist scholar, to critique the discourse. To be a pretty girl. Craving subjectivity but knowing you are also an object: a female object, a fat object.
Both Upton’s photos and Carty’s poems take on the notion that the fat body is somehow public, that by its transgression of beauty (sometimes masquerading as “health”) norms the fat woman or girl invites or at least must tolerate commentary, judgment, diet advice, honey-don’t-you-realize and you’re-going-to-eat-that? Fat Girl is full of delicate refusal to be the fat Other (“don’t act like i’m different…don’t look at me with that face”). The poems in Fat Girl make a space for the body to be private, to think itself over.
*Using these words here, I acknowledge a history of mocking and devaluing the sentimental or that which touches feeling or the body too closely, or of adjectives like this being used until they are empty or meaningless. This book is sweet AND touching. I loved it, and maybe you will too.