Monday, September 17, 2012

Weight, Body Image & Body Portrayal in YA Books

This week, I'm reviewing a few books that tackle a subject that's near and dear to my heart. I thought before delving into those reviews, I'd talk about why these books are tough for me to read and even harder for me to review without bias. I think it's fair to say that when I review a book -- when anyone reviews a book -- there are certain biases that emerge within the review. Certain subjects tend to arouse more feelings or beliefs than others. It would be impossible to be entirely objective in a review. You can get close, but even if you evaluate a book solely on a list of literary standards, your own biases about what makes a standard come into play.

My touchy subjects are weight and body image. More specifically, the portrayal of characters who aren't thin or of average, non-noteworthy size. In other words, I'm endlessly curious about stories featuring fat or obese characters. If you've spent any time here you know this already, as I've talked about fat girls on book covers and I talked about how annoying it is that bodies are constantly compared to one another in such a way that even thin bodies are somehow improper or less-than worthy of being a body.

I'm inherently biased against books featuring fat characters because being fat has been a reality of my life since middle school and through high school, college, graduate school, now. Living with a fat body has been my reality. It's been my reality and my existence for as long as I can remember being body-aware.

Everyone's experience with their own physical body is different. Everyone's bodies are as they are for entirely different reasons, and everyone's level of acceptance of what they look like and how they feel is going to be different. It changes, too: I thought I was huge in high school, thanks in part to what other people would say to me. But when I got to college, I realized I wasn't that big. Until, of course, I gained a lot of weight in college. I'm talking close to 100 pounds over the course of four years -- and why doesn't really matter. The thing is, I didn't feel all that different than I did in high school. I was able to do everything I did in high school physically. I still got out of bed. I could still do the stairs. I could still participate in x, y, and z and not feel like my body was holding me back. Was I happy with how I looked? No. But I was still physically capable of doing everything I wanted to do.

What left a mark on me was less about my fat and more about what other people thought about fat and then attached to me.  There are a million assumptions about fat people, about how their bodies hold them back and how their bodies are somehow less-than because they are larger. About how because they carry more fat, then they're a part of the problem of the obesity epidemic, of health crises, and so on. About how they're somehow less human because their bodies take up more space. But in my experience, none of these things are true. I'm still as perfectly a valid human as someone who is half or quarter of my size and as perfectly valid as someone who might be three or four or eight times the size of me. Even after shedding a lot of weight and taking better care of myself physically in terms of following a fitness and eating routine, I still consider who I was at my highest weight as essential and important a human as I am now -- and if you're wondering, since likely you are because I think it's part of the human/societal condition at this point to be so, I'm at the smallest I have been since high school right now, even though I probably weigh more than anyone would believe.

Of course, this is to say that what the scale says means nothing except whatever you believe it says. Do I still find myself excited when I see the number go down? Absolutely. But what matters most to me is how I feel when I get up in the morning and how I'm able to best navigate my world within the body I have. The fat but still absolutely human body.

When I read a book tackling weight then, I bring my own life experience to the table. I bring all the baggage I've dealt with and all of my experiences living with my body and the experiences of others living with my body. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not. But often, books tackling overweight teens tend to fall into a number of problematic tropes and stereotypes:

  • Attachment to eating: In so many of the books tackling weight issues -- and I'll say this about both books about overweight teens and books about teens struggling with eating disorders on the other side of the spectrum -- is that food and consumption are inextricably linked to emotion and comfort. Does this happen in real life? Absolutely. We go out and eat to celebrate good news, and sometimes we dive into certain foods for comfort when we're sad or depressed or anxious. But what many of these books do is continuously attach meaning to eating. The fat character can't cope with loss or grief or any other big deal issue, their only solution is to eat. There's not an actual, genuine emotion to ground the reader to the character or to allow the reader to empathize with the character and their situation. Instead, readers are told that the character is just eating again to make themselves feel better about whatever the issue at hand is. The association is that the character is weak and that their bodies are fat because they're too weak to tackle the issue at hand. They turn to comfort, and then they wear that comfort through their fatness. This feels like cheating to me -- it's too simplistic and far too dehumanizing in terms of explaining why someone is fat. It's lazy character development and relies upon societal stereotypes of what does and doesn't make someone fat. Readers are given the explanation they're given everywhere else, furthering the stereotype and further suggesting the connection between a problem and a fat body. 
  • Choice vs. legitimate issue: Many times, the fat character is fat because, well, she or he chose to be that way. The food for comfort issue above plays into it a bit, but more than that, stories about the fat character tend to make the reader assume that said character could be different -- could be thin or of an average size -- if they were better/smarter/less lazy/any other quality that is within their own control. In other words, it's their own fault they're fat so suck it up and deal. That's far too simplistic and again, it's exactly what society says about fat people, isn't it? That change is entirely within their control and the only reason they aren't slim is because they're lazy? The truth is, though, fat people are fat for any number of reasons: genetics, health concerns, and their environment, among other things. Sometimes, very active, athletic people are fat. Sometimes, they're more fit than thin people, too. Fat isn't always about choice. Even if there is choice involved in how one's body appears, making a commitment to change, to start working out or eating "right" or any number of other choices meant to make a fat body less fat doesn't promise the end of fat. That we continue to suggest it's a choice is harmful and ignorant.
  • Changing for someone/something else: I don't think it's unreasonable or unbelievable that sometimes what spurs a person to change their life is someone or something else. Especially teens. Peer pressure and the desire to fit in are cornerstones of teen development. And here is where my adult sensibilities kick in -- it is problematic to me when weight loss, when getting rid of fatness, is the means for a character to suddenly become accepted. When fatness is portrayed as the stumbling block in making a character one worthy of being accepted, of being loved, of capturing the attention of the cute boy or the popular clique. Does it happen in real life? I'd be naive to say no; I also think I'd be naive in suggesting that a book tackling fat issues make itself a happy story where everyone learns to accept one another in whatever shape or size they are. Here's the thing though. At what point are these books simply playing upon social expectations? It's the Cinderella scenario. As soon as the fat character overcomes their fatness and becomes what society wants them to be -- thin and attractive -- they're suddenly going to be accepted and loved. Fat is bad. It's ugly. And often in these books, it is the only reason someone can't get the stud or fit in with a certain crowd. Here's the truth: the only way you can change and sustain change is through making the commitment to yourself. You have to first accept who you are at that very basic level before you can decide to change. Choosing to change to fit other people's molds isn't just unhealthy; it's unrealistic. In real life, when you lose a significant part of your fatness, it doesn't make people like you more. It doesn't get you the star football player. And if it DOES do those things, then that says more about those people than it does about you. So that many of these books showcase weight loss as a means to solve your social problems is in and of itself troubling. 
  • Lack of support: Going along with the changing for other people issue is that in so many of these books, fat characters lack support systems. Even their families lack empathy for their fat compatriots. Mom or dad or brother or sister constantly nag upon the fat character to get on a diet, to lose weight, to make themselves better. Often the characters are portrayed as loners or as people who don't have many friends to whom they can turn. Or if they do have friends, those friends are either struggling with fatness themselves or aren't true friends. They're of the hot and cold variety. It's never about who the person is on the inside. It's about what they look like on the outside. Even if it's explained as coming from a place of concern and love on the part of the family member of friend, it's still troubling that these fat characters aren't accepted wholly for who they are until they lose weight.  
  • Fat fear stereotyping: This one's mileage varies, so understand this is entirely my personal peeve, though I am probably not isolated in this feeling. Many times books tackling fat characters play into horrific stereotypes of what it means to exist in a fat body. What that experience must be like. For starters -- and this particular scenario emerges repeatedly in these books -- there's the character's fear of not fitting into a seat or of a chair breaking beneath them. Is this a legitimate concern? I think so. Except, it's also not a part of one's existence with a fat body at every waking moment. If it were, fat people wouldn't leave their homes. Wouldn't go to school. Wouldn't get on an airplane (where fat people are regularly discriminated against anyway). In other words, a lot of times these books look into the experience of fat with speculation and almost a perverse sense of power in terms of a character's capabilities or lack thereof. These characters live a daily life of fear, to the point it can paralyze them. Fatness is to be feared because by being fat, you might embarrass yourself if you try to sit on the locker room bench. Or in the classroom chair. Or hell, that a fat body can't participate in physical education class because there's no way someone who weighs 300 pounds could ever get through 30 minutes of activity. 
  • Non-acceptance of self: The most troubling issue for me in these books, though, is that a character who is fat rarely gets the opportunity to accept themselves as they are. Because of all the issues outlined above, they're already pinned down AS the fat character and AS the fat character, they're somehow less-than-human. They lack feelings, they lack drive and ambition for non-body related goals, they lack friends and family, and they lack self-care. If adolescence is about growing up and learning about yourself, who you are, and what you're capable of, that should translate into your physical experience, too. I mean, it already does with puberty. I don't quite understand then why these books insist that being fat isn't okay. That it's something needing to be changed. I think it goes back to what I've repeated over and over: social norms. Social beliefs about what it means to have and live inside a fat body. Because a fat body is somehow less able to do the things a normal or thin body is. Because a fat body represents what's wrong with everything in society. Because a fat body represents something to someone who isn't existing within the body that they are judging. 

I feel like we've come leaps and bounds in terms of accepting people in our world for their lifestyle choices. By no way are we perfect nor do I think we will ever be, but we are far more willing to look at people who are LGBTQ or who are choosing non-traditional means of careers or education or who have maybe become pregnant at a bad time and need to make life-altering choices impacting themselves and that child and accept the choices they make. These are, of course, a small number of examples. But when it comes to choosing to accept fatness, we continue to drown in these stereotypes. I can count on one hand the books that work against one or all of the problems above, and that makes me sad and frustrated. Aside from being that teen -- and now being that adult -- I know scads of kids who are exposed to these beliefs and it damages them early on. It tells them they'll never be good enough. It tells them that their bodies are wrong, are disgusting, are less than capable and that translates into them thinking they aren't worthy of love or acceptance, either.

We're much more than our bodies, but we exist within a physical shape for our entire lives. We can choose to accept them or we can choose to change them, but that choice is entirely personal. It's disheartening when stories of triumph and of change are instead muddied with simplistic renderings of what it means to be a person.

So over the next few days, I've scheduled reviews of a few books touching on what it is like to be a fat kid. Some are better than others and some DO absolutely force a character to change -- for themselves. What I've been trying to point out is that sometimes the story is just that, about a fat character who needs or wants to change themselves. But too often, it comes at the price of falling into easy-to-use stereotypes, easy-to-buy scenarios that devalue the character and their journey to that point. Because even if their fatness is the point of the story, they are so much more than what their bodies look like. 

If you've read a book where you think an overweight character has been particularly well rendered, I'd love to hear the title. I've got a small list, and I've read a handful, but I feel this is an area worth shining more light into. We offer books about the dangers and truths of eating disorders. Why is it we can't offer that sort of array of fiction to those who are fat without falling into a problematic trope? 

(I'm not the only person thinking about this lately. Funny enough, this is a post I've been working on for a month or so now, and in that space, this is a topic that popped up over at Teen Librarian's Toolbox, and it's well worth reading. Please also read the fantastic blog post by Rae Carson about weight and what it means to have extra weight as a woman. It's one of those pieces I return to again and again.) 

19 comments:

  1. Thank you, I have I felt the exact same way so many times and have not been able to put it into such eloquent (or nice) words. I have always been fat and always felt that any book featuring a fat character (male or female) portrays them as having something wrong with them, something that needs to be fixed. This is also the reason why I overlook most realistic fiction books about teenage girls. I feel as if they typically involve a girl who is a)fat or b)worried about being fat or c)dealing with some sort of eating disorder. We need to stop acting as though weight is the only measure of our worth as humans.

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    1. Yesss! I wouldn't say they're ALL bad -- they aren't -- but the bulk play into social norms and stereotypes that are so problematic and dehumanizing.

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  2. I'm looking forward to reading your upcoming posts. This is something that I have been thinking about too and how I draw from my personal experiences and impose them on the characters that I read. Most recently I read The Stone Girl and it was scary to realize how much I identified with the main character. I'm working on a review and similar post now. Thank you for bringing attention to this topic and encouraging the discussion.

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    1. What was interesting about The Stone Girl was how it wasn't really about her eating disorder. She had much more going on in terms of mental illness and it gave her a depth many other books miss out on.

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    2. I didn't pick up on the mental illness aspect of the story or maybe I did but didn't attribute the characteristics to mental illness. Maybe I need to go back and reread it.

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    3. To me, it felt like she was suffering pretty terrible depression. It was all the withdrawing that sort of showcased that in my mind.

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    4. Gotcha - now I know what you are referring to.

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  3. I love this. Thank you. It's been a few years, but The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things was really excellent when I read it. I keep meaning to read it again.

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    1. That's one I haven't read but know I should. I went back and read another older title (up for review this week) that delighted and surprised me in fat portrayal.

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  4. I'm interested in seeing if you review Skinny. It has some of these stereotypes, but not others. (And there's definitely a thin girl on the cover.)

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    1. That one is one of them -- I had a lot of issues with that one in particular. I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the cover on that one because it's hard to make a true judgment on weight by only half of the girl's face. And it could have been Ever AFTER the surgery (which then goes into why can't they show the fat girl, of course).

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  5. Have you read the recent "The Second Life of Abigail Walker?" It's a children's novel, not teen, but one of the few that I've read recently that actually talks about weight issues in preteens, though I think it falls into some of the traps you mentioned in your post. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it - it's not a long read.

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    1. I haven't -- I've avoided all of the middle grade and younger books tackling this issue because it's already handled so poorly at a more appropriate (YA) level. But of course, now I'm curious . . . and I read an interview earlier today about another middle grade novel about a fat boy who turns his life around by choosing to lose weight. I can't...

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  6. Thank you for your extremely insightful post. I also read Rae's post at your suggestion (having read The Girl of Fire and Thorns).

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    1. Once in a while when I'm feeling frustrated by what I'm reading, I go back and revisit that post. I have Rae's book -- which features a fat protag -- sitting on my shelf to read soon, too. I'm looking forward to how she writes this girl because I have a feeling it'll be the sort of portrayal I've been interested in seeing more of.

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    2. I think you'll really like The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Kelly. I love how Elisa is portrayed. She's real and many of my students have connected with her because of it.

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  7. Thank you for this post!!
    I want to recommend MEASURING UP by Nyrae Dawn. She did an amazing job with this issue and the aspects you raised.
    *Hugs*

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    1. I just finished Measuring Up by Nyrae Dawn as well and thought it was very well done. I completely agree with Wendy!

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  8. Great post. Our reccos: GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS (already mentioned) and also SWEETHEART by Sara Zarr.

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