Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Review: Navel Gazing

In the spring of 2010, around the time I started the visa process to move to the UK, I Googled "American expat London blog."  Anne Putnam's site was one of the first to pop up; at the time, she was an American living with her (slightly) younger English boyfriend in London and pursuing her MA there.  I felt I'd found a kindred spirit not only because our stories were similar on paper but also because she was very open about her struggles about weight and body image in ways I couldn't find the words to be.  When she posted an excerpt from the memoir she wrote for her course in 2011, I emailed it to Jon.  "Read this, please" I wrote to him, "because I want you to know what's going on in my head sometimes and I don't know how to tell you myself."

The full memoir, Navel Gazing, is more of the wonderful and heartbreaking same.

Almost every woman worries about her weight.  For Anne H. Putnam, it became unavoidable - by the age of seventeen she weighed over twenty stone (280 lbs) and had tried everything.. When she decided to have weight-loss surgery, she thought her life would change.  But now, nine years later and ten sizes smaller, she has discovered that changing your body doesn't automatically change how you feel about it.

In the first third of the book, as Anne explains how she grew up as the fat kid with two skinny and athletic siblings, I underlined madly and dashed notes in the margins.  "I have to give this to Mom," I muttered every few pages.  "This is exactly how I felt.  Maybe this will make her understand."  Of course, I didn't have gastric bypass surgery and my yo-yoing weight gains and losses have never been quite as severe as Anne's, but everything is relative and the grief and frustration her body caused her as a child and teenager were all too familiar.

The middle section struck just as deep a chord - but, as it explores Anne's emerging understanding of her own attractiveness and even eroticism after she's lost a significant amount of weight, it was the last thing I wanted to give to anyone in my family.  "God," I thought, "they'll know exactly how I felt!"

By "The Aftermath," which follows Anne through her years in London with her boyfriend, the fervor of my marginalia subsided as the urgency of my reading overwhelmed my pen.  She wasn't model-thin, six years after the first surgery, but Anne was at a normal enough weight by most standards; you wouldn't think she was unhealthy when you passed her in the street.  But normal isn't just about the number on the scale, and Anne faces the fact that, even though she's no longer fat, she's not happy with her body.  She inspects her desperation to approach her body as an ally - or, at the very least, not as an enemy - with courage and sensitivity, and I couldn't put the book down as I prayed for a détente.

I read Navel Gazing in two sittings over the space of one afternoon.  Anne's prose is well-crafted and precise, but I always felt as if I were reading the confidences of a friend.  I kept wanting to look up over the pages and say, "Hey, I just got to the part where you and Guy... I couldn't believe it either when that first happened to me!"  And, I imagined, she'd nod and laugh as I told my story and she'd tell me another, one that didn't make it into the book, and maybe neither of us would be totally convinced that we were normal but we'd feel comforted by the fact that we weren't the only girls out there who sensed that their minds and bodies were often completely at odds.

Navel Gazing was sent to me for review though I was not otherwise compensated for writing this post.


  1. I can't wait to get my hands on this book. Just reading that excerpt was far too familiar - those days happen for me more than I'd like for them to. Thanks for the recommendation! Also, you're a beautiful writer :)

  2. Ooh, this book sounds great, I will have to check it out!

  3. I think they happen for many of us more often than we'd like to admit - and Anne's given us a voice. (thanks, lovely!)

  4. do! it's not published in the US yet but you can find it on the Amazon.co.uk site :)

  5. Oh wow. That excerpt was amazing... I will deffs have to find a copy!

  6. it IS. and it gave me a whole new appreciation for what Jon sometimes deal with. our support systems need their own support systems!


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