Harsh, beautiful 'In Clothes Called Fat' tackles body image, bullying

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Moyoco Anno writes unsparingly about the lives of Japanese women, and In Clothes Called Fat, recently published in English by Vertical, is no exception. Complete in one volume, this manga wraps together the themes of bullying, body image and eating disorders in a story that veers sharply from the usual narrative.

Noko is an office lady with a longtime boyfriend and a lot of extra pounds. People are openly rude to her because of her weight, but in the beginning she doesn't seem to be too unhappy about it; she has always had friends, and her boyfriend, Saito, is supportive and doesn't want her to lose weight.

That all unravels in the first few pages, though, when Noko's co-worker Mayumi, who is slim, beautiful and self-confident, deliberately seduces Saito and then tells Noko about it. Saito (who turns out to have a lot of issues of his own) starts to treat Noko badly, but she puts up with it, afraid that if she doesn't, she will lose him.

Feeling lonely and desperate, Noko meets up with a man through a dating service. Even with a stranger, Noko's weight is front and center, although in a different way: As they have sex, he lectures her about the joys of plump women. Afterwards, he leaves her a big wad of cash, which she takes to a weight-loss spa. Even the woman at the spa speaks to her in a peremptory, condescending way, lecturing Noko about not eating without providing any useful information. Seeing no other alternative, Noko starts to vomit after every meal, and she begins to lose weight.

Meanwhile, at work, Mayumi brings her bullying to a new level when she arranges for Noko to take the fall for a co-worker's mistake. Noko is exiled to the basement of her building, where she sits all day with nothing to do but write an essay titled "My Future," which no one will read. And even the other losers in the basement mock Noko's weight.

Anno's story makes explicit the pseudo-morality that underlies society's attitudes toward women's bodies: "Just because she's cute, pretty, and skinny, Mayumi is considered a superior human being," Noko muses. Noko, by contrast, is treated with contempt by her co-workers, especially the men. After Mayumi and her co-workers taunt her about her dowdy underwear, Mayumi tells her "We're not bullying you… If you just had a little more of an awareness of beauty, you could never wear that bra. You also wouldn't eat until you grew fat." Anno perfectly depicts the bullying (for that's exactly what it is) disguised as concern that so many overweight people must endure. And it's ironic that Noko feels she is gaining strength by controlling her weight, even as she grows weaker from lack of food, to the point where she collapses on the street and has to be hospitalized.

Anno herself seems to be implicitly judging Noko when she depicts her shoving the food into her mouth, crumbs falling down her face; after a binge her apartment is littered with leftovers and wrappers. Eating is ugly in this book, and although Mayumi is clearly the villain of the piece, Anno's disapproval of Noko's gluttony is implicit in these scenes.

Noko does lose quite a bit of weight in the course of the story, and she gets to enjoy the pleasures of getting a nice haircut, trying on clothes in a store and being hit on by sleazy strangers. It doesn't solve her problems, though, and in the end, she seems no happier in her own skin than she ever was; in fact, after gaining the weight back, she internalizes Mayumi's contempt for weakness and resolves to be strong and lose the weight once more.

The plot of In Clothes Called Fat subverts the standard narrative so often pushed upon women, that one can gain control of the world by controlling one's weight. The fact that Noko is mocked and bullied about her weight reinforces that, but in the end, her fatal flaw is not her weight but her weakness, her eagerness to please and her unwillingness to stand up for herself. That's what attracts Mayumi, who takes a sadistic pleasure in ruining Noko's life, and it's also what attracts Saito, who is bullied by his own mother (his internal dialogue about Noko is quite revealing).

Anno's art is deft and expressive; she conveys an immense amount of emotion with just a few lines. That economy carries over to the book as a whole; she creates an unforgettable cast of characters, some with considerable depth, in under 300 pages. This is a harsh yet beautiful graphic novel that is a worthwhile read for anyone who likes a good story, whether it's manga or not.

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