Review of Anne H Putnam’s “Navel Gazing”

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This is a memoir of a woman who has had a life-long battle with ‘fat’, and explores her struggles with her body and her self.  At 16, Putnam undergoes gastric surgery in a desperate attempt to kick the fat and be normal.  “Navel Gazing” is a very generous examination of what Putnam was experiencing and feeling.  It is well-written, in a style which is easy-going and open… a contradiction at times, since the subject matter isn’t easy to confront.

I don’t know any female who doesn’t worry about their body shape or their weight, and yet, I have never really had the privilege of understanding the mind/motivation of someone with such chronic levels of obesity.  I found Putnam’s openness very moving.  At times I empathised with her, but at others, I wanted to give her a metaphorical ‘slap’.  Putnam’s desperation for the gastric surgery to answer all of her issues is very well explored, and you have a sense of the shame and the isolation that she wanted to escape from.  The real blow is that the surgery doesn’t provide Putnam with the results she hopes for.  There are golden moments, like when she finds a bargain skirt that she can fit into, in a changing room, but there is mostly a sense of ongoing pain. Her self-loathing is paramount throughout her memoir, which is never quite reconciled.  There are patterns of behaviour that excite the psychotherapist in me, but these are flags left waving in the breeze, as she launches into another experience, or bout of hatred towards herself.  To this extent, it feels largely unresolved, which must be a reflection of where she is.  Putnam wrote this at the age of 26, and one wonders what more might unfold in another 10 years.  Hopefully a greater sense of peace.

That said, it is a fascinating read, and for anyone who has experienced feelings of inadequacies of their own body, parts of her account will resonate.  It is a very motivating story too – not in a way you might imagine.  It doesn’t make me want to embark on a regime of dieting, but more on a regime of learning to accept the body I have.  Putnam has wasted many hours with her demons, and this is the great tragedy of her story, which remain long after the fat and the excess skin have been surgically removed.