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!