Kind of sexy, kind of disappointing – is ‘Milk Fed’ a well-disguised trainwreck?

Trigger warning: discussion of eating disorders and weight stigma.

Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed was like a literary emotional rollercoaster for me, and while I hate actual rollercoasters, I think I enjoyed this one more than I would’ve expected. The book follows Rachel, a lapsed Jewish woman with a restrictive eating disorder who meets Miriam, a plus-size (or in Broder’s words, zaftig) practicing Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her family’s Yo!Good yogurt store that Rachel frequents on her lunch breaks. Together, Miriam and Rachel explore sexuality, both actual sexual intercourse and sexual identity, Judaism in its many forms, and most importantly: the pleasure of eating. Simultaneously, Rachel embarks on a ninety-day communication detox with her controlling mother at the suggestion of her elephant-obsessed therapist.

Rachel doesn’t eat. Well, she does, but not nearly enough to be considered healthy for a twenty-four year old woman. She eats so little, and loves it, so much so that she feels ‘high on her sacrifice.’ She counts each calorie consumed with meticulous accuracy, steering clear of anything she can’t count. Her deep-rooted issues with food stem from her problematic relationship with her mother, who openly equates thinness with goodness and once asked her young daughter if she wanted to be ‘a chubby’ or if she wanted the boys to like her. Clearly, she couldn’t have both. And Rachel hates this version of herself, this young, vulnerable, hungry little girl. As well as the communication detox, her therapist encourages her to mother herself in an attempt to heal that inner child, and I think this necessary mothering arrives (at least partially) in the form of Miriam.

The title, Milk Fed, is clearly a play on Rachel’s intertwined food and mommy issues, which culminate in her underlying desire to be fed. But not only does she need to be fed, she needs to be milk fed in particular, like a small, young, and vulnerable child, but this is a desire she has wholly sexualised in her adulthood. Similarly, the cover is a representation of Rachel’s breasts: ‘about the size of large tangerines, with small red areolae and big gumdrop nipples.’ These are smart creative decisions, as is the structure of the book itself. Made up of a several short, two to three page chapters, this structure makes it far, far too easy to tell yourself ‘just one more chapter.’ It feels about a hundred pages shorter than it actually is.

Comfortingly so, Miriam makes Rachel feel childlike: when Miriam makes her a special ice cream sundae, Rachel sees it as a treat that a child would want, she makes her feel like ‘an innocent little girl.’ This gives her the opportunity to heal her inner self, somewhat, through Miriam’s motherly desire to give her good food. But at what cost? And to whom?

I think, in part, their story is somewhat beautiful, namely those moments of intimacy. Or perhaps the sex scenes are just really, really good and really erotic and vulnerable and intimate, because when I begin to think about it for too long, this feeling begins to dissipate. It feels painfully obvious that Miriam’s body is being fetishised by Rachel. She’s turned on by her weight, that she ‘wears the fruits of her hunger on her body at all times’; that she is ‘soft, sloppy, and melting.’ And given her own disdain for (and fear of) fatness, her feelings about Miriam’s fat body are even more complicated and uncomfortable to navigate as the reader. While waiting for Miriam to come over one evening, Rachel puts on a skimpy outfit and not for the reasons you might be thinking – to seduce and attract Miriam – but to ignite that ‘old competition between women’ because, if she was going to be vulnerable, then she ‘needed to already be some kind of victor.’ Clearly, to be thin is to win and to be fat is to lose.

Rachel is more than aware of how the world must think about Miriam for her size, and admits (to herself) that if the world accepted Miriam, it would be healing something within Rachel, the part of her afraid to gain weight I would assume. But because she does not fully trust the world to ‘grasp Miriam’s beauty’, she ‘sweetens the pot [Miriam] with little aesthetic upgrades.’ In particular, this upgrade was a sexy red lipstick. This is a clear example of the way in which Rachel uses Miriam for her own gain, whether she truly knows it or not, though I think she does. She uses Miriam, bedazzling her with red lipstick, to tell herself that it’s okay to visibly gain weight, but only if she’s exceptionally pretty when she does. She can’t be fat and plain.

Broder, the author, is clearly more of a Rachel than a Miriam, and that’s another aspect of this book that bugs me. In an interview with Hazlitt, she stated that she ‘loves a zaftig female body’ and that the women she is most sexually attracted to are ‘considered obese by today’s (and yesterday’s) standards.’ A simple search for ‘fat lesbians’ really does it for her, and she sees it as ‘the ultimate letting go.’ And therein lies the actual problem: Rachel sees Miriam’s body as the result of her ‘uninhibited food consumption’, and maybe it is but her overwhelming attraction to Miriam is solely characterised by this assumption, Miriam’s zaftig-ness, and Rachel’s own unhealthy relationships with food and fatness. Miriam is a character in her own right as much as she can be, given these circumstances, but at the core of her characterisation is her purpose to ‘heal’, arouse, and mother Rachel, and I absolutely hate that. The ending is also deeply unsatisfying and disappointing, and in my opinion Rachel fairs far better than Miriam does, as if Miriam has served her hidden purpose as much as possible, leaving all the success to be had to Rachel. I’d also say that Rachel is selfish and that her behaviour is truly harmful in some instances. I don’t think it can be said that she, and honestly by extension Broder, see Miriam and fat women like her as real people.

Milk Fed is a cocktail of a number of social issues, but it isn’t done in the most appropriate or sensitive way. The fetishisation and fatphobia is rampant. Still, the sex scenes are great, as is the insight it provides into the mind of a woman who suffers with disordered eating and chronic ‘mommy issues.’ But beyond this I can’t sing much more praise, for Milk Fed ultimately falls short for such a fantastic premise, and it’s left me far from keen to explore Broder’s other work.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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