OMG this next post comes from the amazing Librarian/Blogger Kelly Jensen, who we didn't get the chance to talk to at kidlitcon but during her panel her words just really stuck out to us.
She was the only one to talk about a topic that many rarely include in the diversity conversation:
*Plus Sized Protagonists*
We're so pleased to have her express her feelings in a post and we totally promise you, it's so worth the read! So without further delay...
Fatness and Diversity in YA
Guest Post by Kelly Jensen
“The fat girl never gets to be the main character. She never gets to talk, really talk, about her life and her feelings and her dreams. Nobody wants to publish books about fat girls, by fat girls, or for fat girls, except maybe diet books. No way. We’re not even supposed to mention the word fat in print, because we might get accused of supporting “overweightness” and contributing to the ongoing public health crisis in this country [insert hysterical gasp here], or because we might cause an eating disorder.
To heck with all of that.” -- from My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
I’ve always been fat and chances are I will always be fat.
I come from a place of fat privilege though. I hover somewhere between a size 14 and 16, depending on the brand, the cut of the pants, the time of the month, the gravitational pull of the earth, whichever spells have been cast on that particular day. I fit within my allotted space in airline seats. I work out regularly, work out hard, and eat pretty well -- I enjoy vegetables because they taste good.
I’ll be damned if anyone tries to make me feel bad about my body. I’m the only one who gets to decide how I feel about it.
It wasn’t always this way.
Buying my wedding dress should have been fun. I was 21 and excited about picking it out. When I walked into a well-known wedding dress chain with a friend to have my day of try-on excitement, I had a picture of the exact dress I wanted. I gave it to the lady helping me and she said they had it, but only in a sample size.
Sample sizes in wedding stores are a 10 (roughly a 4 or a 6 in “street” sizes). This is standard in the wedding industry. Women who get to try on the dresses of their dreams in a store -- the women you see on “Say Yes to the Dress” who get to share a really special moment with their mothers and sisters and friends -- fit a very narrow range of sizes. While there are “extenders” that can make this moment happen for women who are a little bit larger, that wasn’t the case for a person like me, size 26.
The woman came back to the dressing room, having found the only dress in the store big enough to accommodate my body. It was unattractive, ill fitting, uncomfortable, and horribly unflattering, but it would at least let me know what size to order the dress I really wanted in. I tried the monstrous thing on, decided the size was fine (it wasn’t), had the dress from my picture ordered in another state, and left.
The wedding dress shopping experience wasn’t one I got to have because I didn’t fit the “standard” image. This was not a place I got to belong. I was too fat.
“Sometimes I don’t want to see myself naked. Sometimes the mirror is my enemy. I mean, I would never dare ask it who the fairest of them all is because I know the response would make me weep. But sometimes I feel okay about how I look and even think, I’d tap that, why not?” -- from Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
In high school, I was athletic.
I played on the badminton team, which requires an exceptional amount of running, bending, jumping, and throwing your body on the floor and bouncing right back up. Going to PE class was not a thing I dreaded, except when we began the swimming unit (you can only fake so many periods to get out of having to change into and wear a bathing suit in front of your peers). Senior year, I took a special PE course, designated as an honors class, since I’d shown exceptional leadership and abilities in my previous years.
But try owning or being proud of those things when you are fat. No one believes you. No one wants to believe you.
Coaches and peers say things beneath their breath that they think you don’t hear -- you should cut back on what you’re eating, that an extra run or two wouldn’t kill you, that the uniform doesn’t sit as nicely on your body as it does your teammates’, that you’re the one who holds up the team as the last one around the track, that your big boobs don’t count as big boobs because you’re fat (really). No one appreciates the extra effort it takes you to move your bigger body. You don’t want special privileges or a way out, you just sometimes need a little extra time to do it.
I changed in more toilet stalls than I care to count because I didn’t want anyone to see what I looked like. It was easier to pretend my amazing and powerful body wasn’t fat underneath clothes than when it was exposed, even for a minute or two.
What I’d give now to have my gorgeous, curvy high school body back.
“Do you think I'm fat?" I asked him.
He swallowed and wiped his mouth. "I think you're beautiful.” -- from Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell
A friend and I had a lot to drink one particular night in college. We were having a great time and decided that we wanted to socialize some more. It started in my dorm room, then we moved across the house to the room her boyfriend shared with a bunch of other guys. All of them -- my friend included -- were part of a sporting club. They were exceptionally fit, thin people, all outgoing and friendly. Welcoming.
Fresh stew greeted us when we got there. My friend dug in, but I held back. She offered me some. Her boyfriend offered me some. His roommates offered me some.
I was buzzed but I wasn’t going to eat. Not in front of them.
They ate and I got angry. I got really angry, to the point of tears. But not at them. I got angry at myself for the things I kept thinking about and couldn’t shut off -- that I felt like I “fit in” with these people despite the fact I was so fat. That even though I was fat, they wanted to take me out hiking. That even though I was fat, they thought having me out canoeing would be fun. That they kept offering me food to enjoy with them, even though I was fat.
They’d never once said something like that to me. They’d never once suggested I lose weight or that I wasn’t an enjoyable person to be around even though I was fat. I wasn’t the designated fat friend, the charity case.
But in that moment, I wasn’t controlling my thoughts. I didn’t have them clamped down and shut up.
“I have been heavy before, but I don’t think I’ve ever been this heavy. It’s as if sacks of meat have been tied to my limbs, to my torso. It takes so much effort to do anything. Because this is not muscular heaviness. I am not a linebacker. No, I’m fat. Flabby, unwieldy fat.
When I finally take a look around and take a look inside, I’m not very excited about what I see. Finn Taylor has retreated from most of the world; his size comes from negligence and laziness, a carelessness that would be pathological if it had any meticulousness to it.” -- from Every Day by David Levithan
In YA, there are few safe spaces for fat teens. They don’t see themselves, and when they do, they see themselves in a story where the end goal is weight loss. Where, when the main character “just drops a few pounds”, every problem in her life will miraculous change and she will be able to achieve all of her dreams.
Because it was her fat body -- and only her fat body -- that held her back the entire time.
There are books that try. But fat hate is so pernicious in our society, that even books attempting to shine a positive light on fat characters fail to do so. Books that seek to show that a fat girl can be good, whether or not her body is fat, don’t show the reader what it is really like to be fat nor are they frank in depicting how fat the character is, be it through numbers or sizes. Or worse, these books pepper feel-good messages with other red flags. A story about a girl who comes to figure out her fat body (size 10) is okay lives with an entire family that enjoys shaming other fat people with no consequences. A story about a girl who learns to love her body, despite it being fat, is depicted as fat only because she eats her feelings -- rather than, say, eating because it’s vital to life or because food tastes good.
Fat teens being fat teens aren’t given a place in YA unless the story is about their body. Fat teens being fat teens aren’t given a place in YA unless the story is about their body being subject to torment, ridicule, humiliation, degradation, and pain. Fat teens being fat teens aren’t given a place in YA unless the story offers them a lesson about their fat bodies -- either that they’re fine “just as they are” (the feel-good lie) or that they’re fine when they lose weight and truly discover the person who they are inside (as if that person didn’t exist when they were fat).
The problem is never the body. The problem is what we’re told about the body.
My body wasn’t why I couldn’t find a wedding dress in my size. My body wasn’t why people had preconceived notions of my physical talents. My body wasn’t why I got angry and wondered why I’d been invited to spend time with people who were my friends.
The problem was the messages I faced every day about what was right, what was normal, and what was allowed. These messages are pervasive and endemic in YA fiction, even in books written by those who are allies.
Fat hate and fat jokes are still acceptable. And too often, they’re missed or ignored in stories because they’re such a part of our culture that they don’t stand out as problematic.
But it’s the end reader who loses because regardless of whether that reader is or is not fat, the message still gets across. There aren’t many other contemporary realistic YA books featuring fat characters that do a good job. It’s not that I haven’t read them. I have. If I haven’t read them myself -- it’s a small number I haven’t -- I’ve read reviews by readers I trust. I haven’t spent as much time looking at this through speculative fiction, but I suspect if it’s difficult to achieve this in realistic fiction, it’s not going to be a whole lot better in the fantastic.
YA hasn’t figured out how to portray a fat character positively or how to subvert the problematic messages without imbuing the story with more problematic messages. The blame isn’t 100% on YA writers; if you live in a world where the message is that fat bodies are wrong, it takes bravery and exceptional empathy to write a story that says differently.
The first three books quoted in this post, My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, and Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell, are the only female-led YA books I can unabashedly recommend for how they portray fat characters. I also commend Jennifer Brown’s portrayal of a character who has fat on her body in Torn Away. It’s not a key part of the story, but it’s still there -- her stomach and her bigger body -- are mentioned on the page. That it stands out as noteworthy in a book about something else entirely says a lot about how rare a fat teen gets to have a story.
The final quote in this post, from Every Day by David Levithan, offers one of the most unsympathetic, brutal depictions of fatness in YA. In the book, “A” hops from body to body, to be with the girl s/he loves. Where “A” can empathize with every other body he enters, it’s the obese body he finds lazy, slovenly, a product of the character’s own wrong doing. It’s the body that isn’t worth a damn at all because how could someone who let himself become sad sacks of meat deserve empathy?
When I was almost 300 pounds -- as much as now, 200 pounds, and what it would be if I were 100 pounds -- I maintain that the answer stays exactly the same.
Because I’m a human being.
For anyone finding this to be a topic they’re interested in thinking more about, I direct you to the following:
- Today in Fat Hatred over on Shakesville, wherein Melissa talks about the Forbes article equating fat people with terrorists (!)
- Angie Manfredi’s post called I Hope My Fat Body Isn’t Grossing You Out, World.
- When the boy scouts banned obese kids from a physical outing.
- The new This Is How Fat I Am tumblr.
About the Blogger:
Kelly Jensen is a former teen/youth services librarian turned associate editor and community manager for Book Riot. She blogs about young adult fiction, reading, and serving teens at stackedbooks.org. She is also the author of It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader from VOYA Press. Her writing has been featured in Horn Book Magazine, School Library Journal, and VOYA, as well as on The Rumpus, Rookie, and The Huffington Post. She’s on Twitter @catagator.
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