Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal, by Anne Putnam, Faber, RRP£12.99, 320 pages
My soul and my body are at odds, and want nothing more than to split from each other,” writes Anne Putnam, bringing a hard-won clarity to one of the most prevalent types of suffering in western society. Whether the desire to “split” soul and body gives rise to overeating, as in Putnam’s case, or to anorexia, exercise obsession or an addiction to plastic surgery, the essential drive may be the same in each case: to escape the obligations, limitations and inevitable death of the body.
Putnam, an American who now lives in London, begins Navel Gazing by evoking her childhood fondness for “candy”. She moves on to the humiliations of gastric bypass surgery at 17, her first sexual experiences and her subsequent plastic surgery (to remove stretched skin), ending with the struggles of maintaining her current relationship.
Her account is slangy, sticky-fingerprinted with the American teenage vocabulary – “hot guys”, “jump his bones” – of her youth. But the unliterary tone of this meticulous and humble memoir is appropriate; it conveys the lived experience, the everyday feelings to which more elegant prose might deny authenticity.
Putnam doesn’t regret her surgery but her anxieties survived it. Even 10 years on, for her “every day is a struggle not to focus on how little control I truly have over this body”. Nimbly evoking the key psychological function of any obsession, she writes, “When I was fat that was all I needed to know: I’m fat … It was the go-to answer for everything that bothered me.”
A person’s relationship with food can serve as a catch-all for broader anxieties but also as a symbolic evocation of childhood development, his capacity to receive love among them. He may – as Putnam did – have willowy siblings; but we all have a unique sensibility, and the ways in which similar parental treatment affects unique children makes for an endless variety of responses.
The family dynamics that contributed to Putnam’s relationship with food are mentioned but not analysed. Her mother was “a health nut”, her father went on “never-ending business trips”. “Father-daughter bonding time” involved transgressions of maternal law: “like two cons escaped from a prison of healthy balanced meals”, Anne and her father would eat “illicit … burgers and root beer floats”. And when they got home from their “adventures”, her father would betray his young accomplice, to become part of “the parental unit” again. The set-up is poignant, fraught with infantile anxieties, and its impact on Putnam is not surprising.
Families exert distinct pressures but they are groups within a bigger group: society. Taken out of her society, on a trip to Africa in 2004, Putnam felt strangely “un-judged”. She gazed out “over that vast landscape, dotted with nothing more than acacia trees and four-legged herbivores” and “clung to the feeling … that we were all just humans, like any others”. This perspective offered an escape from crippling self-absorption. Back home, during the agonies of a clothes shopping trip, she had once imagined sobbing into a tub of ice cream. The image gave rise to anger: “as if I’d give the world the satisfaction … like their exact wet dream of a fat stereotype”. In Africa, it was apparent that “the world” was not watching at all.
As in the case of any irrational behaviour, there will have been non-rational – but powerful – reasons for Putnam’s overeating, and there is a book to be written about what her hunger might represent, what her body embodies in the context of the late-nineties/early-noughties consumerism in which she grew up. Perhaps she will go on to write it.
When a person suffers as much as Putnam, the bell tolls for us all. In the valley between size-zero and portion-jumbo lies our muddled thinking on the subject of food, and the deep-rooted causes of it, personal and political. It’s a savage territory, and by leaving it uncharted we may all have a part to play in why Anne H. Putnam gets so hungry.
Talitha Stevenson is a writer and psychotherapist