Monday 14 May 2012

Why are they all so skinny?

The other night, me and my housemate had a girly movie night - we watched Never Been Kissed and She’s All That. In both of these films, the clever, geeky and severely unpopular heroine undergoes a transformation and becomes the beautiful queen of the school. This is a staple of 80s and 90s teen movies, but that particular time, it got me thinking. 

I’ve struggled with my body and the lack of confidence that comes along with that for as long as I remember. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had watched a film were the protagonist was slightly geeky, not very popular and didn’t have that perfect body hidden underneath her terrible outfit, ready to be unveiled in a dramatic staircase moment, I may not have spent my time as I have. Instead of standing off to the side with my arms crossed and hands gripping my sides, hiding my body from view, using my mind instead of my voice and constantly obsessing over how I look to others. Then I thought, well I read YA: possibly the most diverse genre you can read. Where nothing or no one is discriminated against and heroines come in all different shapes, sizes, colours and orientations.

But are they really? I began to mentally scroll through the books I’ve read recently, yearning to recall a protagonist whose physicality I related to. I came up with scores of author’s who had me nodding along with opinions, ideas, thoughts and feelings, but very few who had viewed themselves, physically, in the way I had. Or even heroines who embraced their slightly bigger bodies and worked them! The heroines who were larger than average went on fad diets and hated themselves, lost weight and became happy and popular or they weren’t actually big to begin with. I just wonder what all those girls like me who all they saw in the mirror was rounded cheeks, a soft stomach and touching thighs think when they read and watch impossibly beautiful skinny girls getting the guy while the bigger girls mill around in the background alone. 

There is one book of the few I could recall as having a bigger heroine that portrays the message of empowerment to girls wit curves: Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey. Jess is a US size 14, a UK 16 (I think), and I loved her for it because at that time in my life, I was exactly the same size as her. I immediately understood her self-consciousness and unwillingness to accept that she could look good in clothes and Lucius’s reaction to her body was even more reassuring. There’s a moment where Lucius takes Jess shopping for an elegant gown where he tells her about dressing women and how we’re meat to be that shape:

“Why do you all want to be nearly invisible? Why not have a physical presence in the world? Women should have curves, not angles. Not points. One should never confuse fashionable with beautiful. ...Eat. Be happy to have curves. A presence.”*

It gives me hope that a character with such strength and life who has concerns about her weight can overcome them and learn to love her body for exactly what it is and appreciate that those who don’t like it aren’t worth thinking about because there are books where the opposite to that happens to the heroine. 

Mary Hogan’s novel Pretty Face is largely centred around the body issues of her protagonist, Hayley, who is bigger than the skinny girls she goes to school with and is frequently told that she has a ‘pretty face’ as a compensation for her body. Living in LA with her fitness-obsessed mother who makes her miserable and attempts to put her on the latest fad diets, she is set to Italy for the summer as a last resort. While I Italy, Haley begis to exercise and lose weight as she gets happier ad stops turning to food for comfort. While she’s there (decidedly slimmer) she meets and falls in love with an Italian boy who loves her (slimmer than before) body. I remember being slightly appalled that Hayley didn’t feel comfortable with her body until it was more traditionally acceptable and a boy had given her his approval. 

This isn’t the kind of message that young teenage girls should be receiving. I don’t want my little sister to read a book like Pretty Face and think that her body isn’t good enough until it’s seen by society as acceptable or validated by a guy. I don’t want her to struggle through her teenage years feeling the way about her body that I did, and frequently still do, about mine. She’s always going to be bombarded by images of stick-thin beautiful girls by magazines, films and the media in general, but she shouldn’t in YA. Not the refuge of teenagers; where they come to feel acceptance and that it’s okay to be different.

One book that instantly springs to mind when I consider the ways that a larger heroine deals with the pressure to have a perfect body is Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls series, specifically book two, Girls Under Pressure. Ellie is thirteen and slightly chubby and when shopping with her gorgeous friends, Magda and Nadine, the girls end up in a queue to be photographed for a modelling competition. Ellie is told that she is “far too fat” and turns to obsessive dieting and a mild form of bulimia. It isn’t until a friend of Ellie’s is admitted to hospital for anorexia and Ellie is horrified at how frail and thin Zoe looks that Ellie realises that her body is completely fine as it is and that being healthy is the important factor. Not this is the kind of message that only the queen of early teen issue novels that can perfect so brilliantly. There’s a reason Wilson’s books are devoured thy way they are – because they empower children and young teens while 

I feel like I’ve ranted on a little bit, so now I’d like to know what you think. Are there enough bigger girls in YA? Do you think there should be more? Can you add any books where they are portrayed positively? 

*My copy of Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side is at home, where I am not, so I and to rely on the abbreviated version I the Goodreads quote section. If anyone has the exact wording, I would be very grateful! 



  1. I agree that everyone absolutely has a right to feel good about themselves, and that society should certainly perpetuate that sentiment. Every single person is beautiful and unique, and those differences should be celebrated. No one comes in the same shape, size, color, or really anything else, and we can't expect people to. Larger girls, and boys as well, should never be made fun of, or made to feel bad about themselves or their bodies. The body is a beautiful thing, in all its forms.

    However, I do think that this is a fine line to walk, because I think above all else, health is the most important thing. I'm not a skinny girl, by society's standards. I have curves, plenty of them. But I do exercise and watch what I eat, because I'm conscious of my health. I abide by what my doctor says is my healthy weight for my age and height, which isn't necessarily what society would think of as 'skinny'. I'm average, and healthy. And I think THAT'S the message that books should get across. The weight issue isn't as black and white as skinny girls on one side and large girls on the other side. To me, there's only one team that really matters in the grand scheme of things, and that's Team Healthy, which is right in the middle.

    This may sound a bit harsh, but I don't think that being fat is something that people should just say "It's okay" about. At the same time, neither is being skinny. If it's something that's going to affect your body negatively, then, no, I don't think it's okay. Health is number one for me, and to me, being healthy is the most beautiful thing a person can be.

    The beauty of using health as a measuring stick instead of weight, is that each person has their own individual meter of health. It all depends on size, age, even your ethnicity and background. Being too fat is unhealthy, and so it being too skinny. Both ends of the spectrum are just as bad, but people tend to focus negatively on being fat, which I don't agree with.

    I'm speaking as someone that struggled with my body image for a long time. I'm 17. In high school. There are tons of beautiful girls around me that are thinner than I am, as there have been for years. I have extra weight in some places, like my stomach and thighs, and I had always hated it. So I would crazy diet, and work out like a maniac. But it was never good enough. Until one day, I went to my doctor, and he took my weight and said "Wow, you're perfectly on target!" I just looked at him and said, "Are you sure?" And he replied, "Yes, you're in the perfect weight bracket for your age and height. Try to stay there, don't go too up or down." I kinda freaked out and said, "But I want to lose a bit more weight, I haven't hit my ideal weight yet." He just smiled and said, "You're ideal weight isn't where you're skinniest, it's where you're healthiest, and you're right there. If you lose too much more, you'll be underweight, and that can be a problem. Same thing goes if you gain more."

    It was one of those crazy moments where the everything just aligned. I swear, I walked out of there, and I haven't given a second thought to whether I'm 'skinny' or 'fat'. I'm just healthy, and I like it that way.

    So when I read books, I want to see a girl that isn't afraid to eat, and likes to exercise, but who knows when to stop on both accounts, and who knows that her body image isn't as important as her body health.

    (Okay, I used the word health like a million times in this comment.)

  2. What a great blog post! I can definitely relate. It's not YA, but in Sherrilyn Kenyon's Night Play, the heroine is a size 18. Of all the Dark Hunters novels, Night Play is my favorite because it shows a heroin who's like much of the female population and still gets the gorgeous guy in the end. :-)

  3. This blog post is amazing! I definitely agree with everything that you have said.

    @Ashely I definitely agree with you as well. Being heathly is what is most important, but most people tend to forget this, and just want to be societies ideal size. But as you said we shouldn't say it's okay to be fat, I agree, but there is a difference between being unheathly overweight and just having some curves or meat on your bones and people calling you over weight, when you very clearly aren't. So I think that is also another thing that we have to think about.

  4. Ironic that I'm watching 'Hairspray' at the same time as reading this! Love this Sophie, I look for relatable YA heroines, usually that they don't look for acceptance from boys. xXx

  5. Have you read Joan Bauer's SQUASHED? It's one of my favorite YA novels - it's hilariously funny and very sweet - and one of the subplots that happens in the novel is that the heroine STOPS worrying about her weight and finally gets her dad to stop pressuring her about it.

    I can't think of any other lighthearted YA novels with happily plus-sized heroines, unfortunately, but Carolyn Mackler's THE EARTH, MY BUTT, AND OTHER ROUND THINGS also has a heroine who gets over her issues without losing weight at the end. (But oh, is it painful along the way - she's under so much pressure about her weight, she's just filled with self-loathing about it in the beginning. It was a very believable book, but very painful to read at various points!)

    In adult fiction, have you read Jennifer Crusie's BET ME? I love Min, the heroine, who is plus-sized and does NOT lose weight at the end but does stop worrying about her weight - it's a fun romance that's also really empowering in a whole lot of ways.

    1. Oops, I didn't get the Carolyn Mackler title quite right - it's actually THE EARTH, MY BUTT, AND OTHER BIG ROUND THINGS. Sorry about that!

  6. Here via Stephanie Burgis. I definitely think the YA world needs far more fat-positive books. And *really* fat-positive ones, not ones in which the protagonist just "happens" to lose weight while not trying to and only then gets self-confidence (and inevitably, the cute guy). The only books I have to add here are ones discovered via a literary critic friend of mine who is fantastically knowledgeable about fatpol. She guest blogged on Shapely Prose with some , although several of these books aren't YA.

  7. Also here via Stephanie Burgis. The first book that comes to mind is Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire & Thorns - which might seem like an odd choice because the heroine does lose some weight, but it's made very clear that she is still overweight (and happy with herself) after the weight loss - it's more that she's healthier, as Ashley said. Another good one is Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, where the heroine is overweight and remains so -- although the author does realistically portray a teenage girl who is not super-confident about her appearance, and her weight definitely plays into that, it doesn't get in the way of her saving the world, winning the guy, etc.

  8. Oh, yeah, that girl on the cover looks like a size 14... sorry, pet peeve. I *ranted* about this recently. Try finding an actual picture of a bigger girl on the cover of a book. It's nearly impossible.

    Also, fat isn't necessarily unhealthy. There are a lot of people who are "fat" and are active and eat well, sometimes even better than people who are skinny and can eat anything and stay thin. Also? It's nobody's business but theirs and possibly their doctor's what they weigh.

    (I say possibly their doctor's because some people like me have incompetent doctors who want to focus on your weight and completely ignore the thing that can actually negatively effect your life and also is causing you pain because losing weight will obviously fix that even though most people agree that the thing you have is more likely to make it hard to lose weight than your weight is likely to CAUSE it and skinny girls get it too and I am totally rambling.)

    Anyways. Fat doesn't always equal unhealthy and even if it does, why does that mean it shouldn't be in YA books? I could name 50 other unhealthy things that happen in YA books that people are fine with. And there are fat people in the world, you know? We're not less because of our weight and we don't only become valid when we lose weight (which isn't always possible because sometimes people are just supposed to be the weight they are).

    I'm rambling again, sorry. Anyways, I'm going to go work on my book about a size 16 girl 'cause I want to see more girls like me in books. If you're wondering, I'm an 18/20 at the lowest (Lane Bryant for the win, they have SUCH nice stuff) but generally a 22/24. ;)


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