On the surface, Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie tells the story of Minerva and Cal, who fall in love with each other. Really, though, Bet Me is a story about a fat woman falling in love with her own body and consequently living a fuller life of pleasure and happiness.
Throughout the book, Minerva, a fat woman who dislikes her appearance, struggles with the conflict between her desire to eat calorific food and the self-regulation taught to her by her own mother. Because of her large, non-normative body, Min never allows herself to eat bread or enjoy rich dishes such as chicken marsala on a date, and is always looking for ways to make her diet more healthy—and less delicious. She dresses to hide her figure, rather than daring to be feminine and colorful; the first outfit Cal sees her in makes her look like “a nun with an MBA.” She admires other women’s figures in stylish and form-fitting outfits, and she wears bright-colored and fun shoes. She understands that dressing can be a pleasure—but not for her.
Women’s bodies are pervasively regulated by social standards; women are supposed to deny themselves food in the name of becoming thinner and more physically attractive. If a woman’s body is already large, eating food that is perceived as fattening is even more frowned upon. As Talia L. Welsh argues in The Journal of Feminist Scholarship,
Permissible pleasures are thus healthy pleasures. Forbidden pleasures are fatty comfort food, the satisfaction of eating too much, the double pleasure experienced when consuming good things that are forbidden, and the abatement of anxiety that comes with a rush of blood to the stomach. These pleasures are increasingly associated with dangerous behavior that must be curtailed.
Throughout Bet Me, Min strives to control permissible and forbidden pleasures, even attempting (and failing) to make a “healthy” version of her newly discovered favorite dish, chicken marsala. At dinner in a restaurant, Min can’t even eat bread without feeling guilty; she tells Cal she is on a diet so that she will fit into a dress for her sister’s wedding.
Min’s denial of pleasure starts with food, but it doesn’t end there. She is reluctant to date Cal initially because she overhears her ex, David, trying to make a bet with him about whether he can sleep with her. But the “misunderstanding” about that isn’t the real problem. Rather, the bet becomes a convenient cloak for Min’s own fears. She acts offended, but pulls away from Cal because she doesn’t think she deserves him and can’t imagine he wants her.
The saddest and most genuine aspect of Min’s self-denial is that she learned it from her own mother, whom she describes as “pervasive.” Girls grow up watching their mothers try to contain their own bodies, seeing food indulgence as a sin, and thus passing on the inheritance of diet culture and food policing. Min’s mother treats her other daughter, Min’s thin sister Diana, very differently.
Diana herself isn’t very happy, though. She’s engaged to a handsome man her mother adores, but the relationship is troubled. The fiancé is so forgetful and absent-minded that he almost seems to be trying to ruin the wedding preparations. Whenever her husband-to-be makes a mistake—like forgetting to order the wedding cake—Diana tries to pretend everything is perfect. It’s as if she feels she has no right to complain because she has achieved every woman’s dream.
Min’s mother, in turn, is miserable: she is so obsessed with policing her daughters so that they will marry and settle down that she hardly connects with them on any level. Like Min, her mother and Diana are fixated on what they are supposed to do and don’t ever focus on what they want to do.
“Bet Me” challenges the idea that women must live with a scarcity of pleasure to be happy.
In Min’s case, Cal pushes her to question her own life practices. He does this in part by giving her permission to eat. From the beginning of their encounters, food is sensual. “Feeding this woman is like getting her drunk,” Cal muses lustfully as he feeds her bits of Krispy Kreme glazed, “the caviar of doughnuts.” Min’s relationship to calorific food as a forbidden pleasure and Cal’s insistence that she should indulge regardless create their foreplay. After she takes a bite of the doughnut, “Her face was beautifully blissful, her mouth soft and pouted, her full lower lip glazed with icing, and as she teased the last of the chocolate from her lip, Cal heard a rushing in his ears.” Krispy Kremes aren’t just the caviar of doughnuts; they’re the sex of sweets.
Cal finds Min pleasant to be with and to look at. But he also sees her as someone worthy of experiencing pleasure. And eventually, by the end of the book, Min comes to see herself as worthy too—of sex with Cal, of Krispy Kremes, and of happiness ever after.
Bet Me challenges the idea that women must live with a scarcity of pleasure to be happy. It encourages readers to ignore the limitations imposed upon them and indulge their desires, whatever their body size.
This article was commissioned by Noah Berlatsky.