Just a note here: this book is about a woman struggling with body image issues, and includes references to eating disorders. So if you’re turned off or otherwise bothered by that, consider this your trigger warning.
Noko Hanazawa’s life has its ups and downs, but she’s happy as long as she can eat. Troubles at work? She eats. Troubles with her boyfriend? She eats. Body image issues? She eats. Every problem Noko solves by eating. She isn’t happy with her weight, but eating makes her feel better when she’s upset, and she’s bullied at work quite often. Noko does have a long standing boyfriend named Saito, but he’s not exactly ideal. Right off the bat Noko catches him in an affair with her coworker Mayumi, a very pretty secretary who is constantly bullying Noko (and everyone else). Her distress over Saito drives her to eat even more. At work, Mayumi tries to sabotage her, and Noko snaps, striking the other woman in front of everyone. The situation gets even worse from there, and as a result, she’s shuffled off to the basement where the company hides undesirable workers, hoping they’ll quit on their own. Drowning in depression and loneliness, Noko contacts a phone dating club and meets up with an old man named Fujimoto. Fujimoto enjoys touching larger women, but Noko believes she would be happier if she were thin. Fujimoto leaves Noko with 890,000 yen to do with as she pleases, and Noko decides to contact a slimming spa center in hopes of losing 65 pounds. Although the spa has a solid treatment, it’s no good if Noko won’t do her part, but personal issues persist, and Noko turns to food again and again, undoing any progress. When she realizes she just isn’t getting anywhere, she turns to the only thing she knows will work – self-induced vomiting. She can satisfy her psychological cravings for food, which makes her feel strong and comforted, but by throwing up afterward she won’t gain the negative effects any longer. The pounds start melting off to Noko’s joy, but things don’t get better. Saito is angry she’s losing weight. Her coworkers don’t recognize her and literally don’t believe she’s the same person. Mayumi hates her even more now that she’s thin, and tries to frame Noko for embezzlement. But worst of all, being thin hasn’t made her happy, and even as a “pretty” person she’s still treated like a pariah.
This one is definitely hard to read at times. There’s also plenty of nudity, so you might not want to read it on the train ride to work. There may be a humorous note or two in here, but Anno writes the story seriously, and takes it seriously. She’s writing about something nearly everyone experiences in their life – body image. I say everyone, because women aren’t the only ones who suffer from society’s image of beauty and perfection, though it tends to go in slightly opposite directions (ie: the ideal man is muscular, the ideal female is thin…with big boobs; Noko vaguely mentions this once). Of course, this book centers on the female perspective, specifically a woman of a certain weight who desires to be thin and “pretty.” People ignore her and bully her because, she believes, she is fat. If only she were pretty like the skinny women around her, her life would be better. She nearly kills herself trying to achieve that ideal, but in the end it makes no difference. She’s still ignored, still bullied, and even loses the one part of her life she actually liked (Saito). The book clearly discourages the drastic methods Noko uses to lose weight. The woman who runs the slimming spa makes it clear that it’s a healthy diet and exercise (along with her spa treatments) that will eventually work, and becomes understandably concerned when she realizes Noko must be throwing up after she eats. The book’s title refers to Noko’s belief that she is wearing a suit of flesh, and even when she’s thin she still feels fat. But that suit of flesh is a comfort to her, it protects her and makes her stronger, even though it also causes her misery. Her real problem is that she has trouble just being herself for herself, and attempts to become others’ ideal. The one time she goes against this is when Saito wants her to be fat, and she feels she’s only good enough for him if she’s fat, despite her personal desire to be thin. Saito (who I’m not defending because he’s a disgusting mess) is upset partly because he believes Noko is going to become like every other woman around him; he liked her because she wasn’t threatening, and because he feels better about himself for dating a woman like her. Despite being a completely warped perception, there is something to being a woman who is not obsessed with weight and looks, and is real (according to Saito). There are a lot of warped perceptions in this book, and Mayumi is equally offensive in how she perceives Noko as a weak creature she can trod all over. Mayumi feels superior because she is thin and pretty and can get any man she wants, but she’s not exactly happy either, so she bullies Noko to feel better about herself. Noko seems to represent everything she hates and doesn’t want to become.
Anno’s artwork is expressive with it’s sharp, clean lines. It’s even a bit horrifying in appropriate places, like in looks of disgust or fear on a character’s face. As Noko gets thinner, she becomes more haggard looking, a clear sign that her methods are making her unhealthy. The skin under her eyes sags, and the bones in her face and legs protrude. Personally I think she has a more sensual look to her when she’s heavier, especially when she’s with Saito and Fujimoto. Between the chapters, Anno illustrates her title pages with model-thin women posing in fashionable clothes (or nude), often in front of a wall of products like shoes, lingerie, and perfume (like a magazine add). It’s the ideal Noko is trying to achieve, though by the last two chapters the models look dangerously thin, with too-tight skin and protruding bones. This book is a great insight into the struggle over female body image, and also highlights the dangers of trying to achieve an ideal.